By Simon Miraudo
March 7, 2014
The long-dormant 300 franchise, devoted to providing unquestioning bros with wildly inaccurate history lessons, shuffles back to life with Rise of an Empire, a sort-of sideways-stepping sequel taking place before, during, and after the events of Zack Snyder‘s 2006 original. Noam Murro takes the helm this time around, having proven his slow-motion 3-D action chops on… indie drama Smart People? What, were the Duplass brothers busy?
Still set during the Persian invasion of Greece, 300: Rise of an Empire follows the battle between Athenian soldier Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and warmongering Artemisia (Eva Green), working to help the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) bring an end to Grecian democracy. Though a united Greece would be better equipped to face off against the massive Persian army, those pesky Spartans, represented by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), refuse to join forces, instead putting all their eggs into the whole ‘let’s just send our best 300 into battle’ basket. Themistocles instead – despite being tempted by Artemisia to swap sides in an egregious sex/fight scene – devises a new strategy to give his overwhelmed army of farmers the upper hand. To the seas!
Scripted by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, and based on an unpublished Frank Miller comic, 300: Rise of an Empire fetishises war, nationalism, and the unique blood-spraying power of sliced arteries just as the first flick did. What made that movie a largely entertaining – if ethically repugnant – hit, however, is mostly absent here. Its unique visual style has been plundered by the off-brand knock-offs that have followed in its wake. Gerard Butler‘s stirring speeches, all welcoming the prospect of a proud death, are unable to be replicated by the softly-spoken Stapleton. Even the impressive, easy-to-follow military stratagem of the Spartans was more entertaining than the Athenians’, who, stuck in water, simply figure their best bet is to ram their boats into the enemy’s, making for a hugely confused and often boring series of similar-looking set pieces.
The villains have been handily depicted as dark-skinned, sometimes deformed, and, in the case of Xerxes, flamboyant and effeminate. A bunch of them, weirdly, even wear turbans, to further distinguish them from the good, white guys. No mention is made of the Athenian military’s reliance on a slave infantry, instead proudly celebrating their ‘freedom’ in the face of the Persians (who, historically, were far, far less slave reliant). Now, none of this is to say that 300: Rise of an Empire wrongly champions the bad guys, or that the Persian/Iranian people weren’t dark-skinned. What’s troubling is how uncomplicated the film’s depiction of war is (a complaint I also had of the also-unthinking Lone Survivor), and how uncomfortable-making the cues to help us recognise the baddies are in this context.
Even more stylised than the feature’s look is its retelling of historical events; the heroes stripped of any moral imperfections, in the same way their glistening, computer-generated chests have been helpfully augmented. At the very least, the original 300 made no bones about admitting what a**holes the Spartans were. Besides a feisty performance from the striking Eva Green, and at least a couple of eye-catching visual tableaus likely torn from Miller’s unpublished comic panels, 300: Rise of an Empire is just too ugly on the inside to inspire any feelings other than dismay.
300: Rise of an Empire is now in Australian cinemas.