The original 300, which I saw seven years ago almost to the day (this past Sunday, to be exact), was a very important part of my life as a filmgoer. Before I saw it, I went to the movies maybe half a dozen times a year, and almost invariably with my parents and sometimes a friend. But when I saw 300, I saw it with an audience full of my classmates, though my father drove me and sat in the midst of us, lecturing my friends on the real battle of Thermopylae. And the film itself was amazing: kinetic energy, nudity, blood and heroism, bad-ass dialogue, and a triumphant ending on top of a heroic tragedy. It was a glorious night.
Save for a partial rewatch my sophomore year of college, I’ve never rewatched 300, maybe because I don’t want to spoil the memory of that night–or maybe because, at 24, I know I wouldn’t love it like I did at 17. And the film itself is less important than what followed it: a devotion to Zack Snyder as a director (I think Watchmen is one of the most underrated films of the 2000s) and an increasingly prolific life as a filmgoer (in 2008 I saw about 16 films in the theatre; in 2013 I saw about 100). 300 was also very important to me because, as a film my friends and I embraced, and, as I later learned, a film that was not expected to make much impact at the box-office (and proved to be a massive hit), it felt like a success for us.
The circumstances under which I saw Rise of an Empire were a deal less memorable. I went on a Tuesday evening, by myself, and was a little on the tired side, having not fully adjusted to Daylight Savings Time. But I went in expecting some undemanding violent fun and a good Eva Green performance. I left far wearier than when I came in.
The problem with Rise of an Empire is basically this: it’s never bad enough to be ironically fun, and never good enough to be legitimately fun. It’s just drab and boring, essentially competent in every department, but never proficient in any of them. It’s a numbing experience.
It’s not a sequel to 300, but sort of a side-quel; it encompasses the events of that film in its time-frame, providing some prequel and a shred of sequel material, but mostly it shows what the rest of Greece was up to while Leonidas and Friends were having fun at Thermopylae.
Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his army ambush the Persian forces at Marathon, where Themistocles kills the Persian king Darius (Yigal Naor) but lets his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) live, a mistake which haunts him in the form of this shitty movie. Xerxes, goaded on by Darius’ naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), becomes the melodramatic being that he was in 300 (before which he just looked like some dude with a beard), and Artemisia, a Greek herself who lost her family to and was sexually abused by Greek soldiers, decides to get her revenge on Greece once and for all and sets out with her ships to destroy it. But Themistocles is a formidable opponent, and numerous battles ensue; meanwhile, the 300 Spartans, who decline to join the rest of Greece in fighting the Persians, make their own stand, are destroyed, and only at the end does the Spartan Navy show up and join Themistocles and what remains of his troops in taking on, seemingly, the whole of the Persian Army. Just as this battle begins, though, the film ends–presumably yet another film will finish it.
I don’t care much either way, though. The film begins as Gorgo (Lena Headey) rallies the Spartans with the story of the conflict, and Headey’s delivery of the speech is grimly lacking in flair or enthusiasm. There’s a fine line between stoic and dull, and Headey lands on the wrong side of it. From this point on, the film piles on the battles and sprays of blood, and attempts a bit of political subtext with a subplot about Themistocles’ belief in freedom and democracy. But where the original film was rousing and enthralling, this feels heavy and dreary.
Some of the blame must certainly fall on director Noam Murro. He fails to serve the film at some basic, hard-to-define level. I’m not sure exactly how to put his failure into words, but there’s just no juice to the film; the shots are framed well enough and the scenes progress in a passably coherent fashion, but I just never cared. I even started dozing off at points, so unengaged was I with the goings on.
The acting doesn’t really help, either, though none of the performances are truly bad. Themistocles’ speeches are pretty dully written, and Stapleton can’t really do much with them. He never has the conviction that Gerard Butler brought to Leonidas, and though he conveys Themistocles’ determination and sincerity, he never gives a genuinely memorable performance. Eva Green has received a fair amount of praise for her work as Artemisia, and indeed she is the film’s MVP, but that’s not really saying much; she falls back too much on her standard facial expression (a sort of grim anti-smirk), and though she enjoys some of the character’s more over-the-top moments (she kisses a severed head at one point), she never approaches the camp heights of her work in Dark Shadows. It’s worth noting that the most effective scene in the film involves a (probably ahistorical) meeting between Themistocles and Artemisia. Trying to win him over to the Persian side, telling him they could conquer the world if they worked together, Artemisia and Themistocles have a kind of rough sex, each trying to dominate the other, which ends with Themistocles’ refusal of Artemisia’s offer, and no satisfaction for either of them. Maybe I’m just a pervert, but it was the only scene in the film that really came to life for me, the only scene where the characters really came to life and expressed their military ambitions in, shall we say, somewhat more human terms.
The rest of the cast is barely worth mention. Santoro has little of the presence he had in the original, since this film presents Xerxes as essentially Artemisia’s puppet. Headey is, as I mentioned, pretty lifeless, and the supporting cast (Hans Matheson as Themistocles’ companion Aeskylos, Callan Mulvey as his friend Scyllas, Jack O’Connell as Scyllas’ son Calisto, who defies his father and becomes a solider) fades into a common gray; again, none of them are notably poor, but none of them make any impact.
Technically, it’s mostly proficient, but it’s also cut from the same cloth as the original, and just as everything else on display is a duller copy of that film, so it does not match that film for visual splendor. Simon Duggan’s cinematography has all the stylized colors and slow-motion you’d expect, but it’s hardly worth getting excited about. Patrick Tatopoulos’s production design is good, but we’ve seen this stuff before, and it’s not really used to its best advantage. The special effects are mostly decent, but some of the CGI is fairly dodgy. Junkie XL’s score is there.
Oh, and I might as well mention the script by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. There. I mentioned it.
I can’t really give this film a lower rating because it’s never really bad, but it’s never good, either. It’s the epitome of a ** film.