300: Rise Of An Empire
300 was one of those films that just instantly inserted itself into the cultural zeitgeist upon its release in 2007. One of the most stylish efforts at depicting warfare ever created, it made the career of Zach Snyder, influenced the beginnings of stuff like the Spartacus TV show and created more memes than Spartans who were actually at Thermopylae. It is no exaggeration to call it one of the most culturally dominant films of the 21st century.
But did it really need a sequel? What more was there to do with the concept? Well, regardless of the answers, director Noum Murro decided to take on such a project and bring us another slice of the Greco-Persian wars, in the form of a film that is one parts prequel and one parts sequel.
After his victory over Leonidas and his 300, Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) prepares to move against the rest of Greece. Democratic Athens is one of the only powers standing in his way, with their fleets led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the man who inadvertently set Xerxes’ rampage in motion a decade previously. Themistocles faces Artemisia (Eva Green), Xerxes’ greatest commander, in an epic naval battle for the future of Greece.
If 300: Rise Of An Empire has a problem, it’s that it’s trying so hard to be 300 but it just isn’t. There is a worthwhile story embedded in this flick, revolving around the historically critical naval battle at Salamis, the kind of thing that can stand with the likes of Thermopylae in terms of potential for epic plot. In fact, the whole thing is framed as an epic poem of sorts, almost in the style of the ancient masters, with Gorgo being our author and the action being the stage. It’s hardly Homeric, but it’s the right kind of style to use for a film of this nature, and it encapsulates the kind of tone that Rise Of An Empire should be trying to present. 300 did much the same, very successfully. Hearing Gorgo’s opening narration put me in the right mood very quickly.
But then every character from 300, even the guy Leonidas kicked into the well in its most famous moment, starts cropping back up. The basic structure of the plot apes 300 very liberally, with the action beats, the early victories, the crisis and the resolution all happening at nearly the same moments as they did in 2007, as if Leonidas’ adventure was referred to over and over again as the template. Rise Of An Empire just isn’t comfortable in its own skin, and must try and copy its predecessor at every opportunity. Sure the characters are a bit different and the action scenes revolve around water instead of land. Yes, the Artemsia character is suitably removed from anyone similar in 300. But the truth is that the entire fabric of Rise Of An Empire is cut from the same cloth as 300, with most of the differences being superficial at best. This is a problem, since it makes Rise Of An Empire automatically a bit flat in the eyes of the audience, just more of the same, only without any of the uniqueness and surprise factor that 300 had when it was released. It’s all been done, and Rise Of An Empire is peddling something that we enjoyed seven years ago to the full, but struggle to force down yet again.
Then there is the blood. Blood, blood blood. Spatters upon spatters. Murro appears to have taken a look at 300 – a film that at least had the patience to wait for around half of its running length to go by before the slaughter commenced in earnest – and though “That, but more.” Right from the off, Rise Of An Empire’s plot is drowned in crimson, the “tidal wave of heroes blood” from the opening narration. This is a visual thing of course, but I feel the need to mention it in the same breath as the story and the similarities with 300. This is 300 on steroids, when it comes to bloodshed and gratuitous sex at any rate, and the whole thing gets old very, very fast. Only a few chops into the Battle of Marathon and you’ll be deadened to the sight, and any attempt that the plot further makes to advance with action scenes loses something in the sheer monotony of yet another blood spatter or cut off limb.
The plots better moments revolve around the Persian side of things, some of it in very lengthy flashback sequences. These dominate the opening half, perhaps to too much of an extent, but I easily found them the most gripping parts of the whole production. The story of Xerxes’ mystical rise to the title of “God King” along with Artemisia’s vengeance trip, provide some of Rise Of An Empire’s best visual and storytelling sequences (it helps that the acting is great for those moments too). We come to understand, and almost root for Artemisia to get some kind of revenge for the multitude of wrongs that have been done to her, and her earlier life is as close as a criticism to the Greek way of doing things as Rise Of An Empire gets. Xerxes’ stuff is very different – far more trippy and symbolic in many ways – but it’s still perversely entertaining, to see this relatively normal son of a King transform into this golden behemoth, and to understand the deeper reasons at the heart of his obsession with subduing Greece. Rise Of An Empire can’t claim to have the best story to really tell, at least they way it told it, but these sections are at least something to be proud of, the only parts that really captured the same uniqueness, of story and style, that 300 offered in 2007.
On the other side of things is the lesser part, as Xerxes attempts to drill up some Greek skulduggery, as Themistocles and Gorgo verbally spar on a few occasions, a small running battle on the rivalry between Sparta and Athens. All of this was piecemeal and a little forced. It also played merry havoc with the historical record in a way that the rest of the film doesn’t, as the representations of two of the great slave-owning states of the ancient world debate the finer points of freedom and national sovereignty. It’s all just set-up for Sparta turning up at Salamis at the conclusion, Gorgo and all, but compared to the Persian camp it was very ineffective.
The rest of the film is the fight between the Athenian and the Persian fleets. They allow for some visually interesting action sequences in between Artemisia being generally awesome and Themistocles spouting on about patriotism, but they are as basic in their structure – and mirroring 300 – as they can be. The early fights demonstrate Greek skill against Persian overconfidence and incompetence. The two leaders meet and come to no agreement. There’s a setback for the Greeks at the end of the second act. They rally together for one final battle. Victory. There’s the older friend who doesn’t make it, his younger son who’s eager for war. The only difference is that the Greeks win outright at the end of Rise Of An Empire, compared to the symbolic, but potent, victory of Leonidas at the end of 300. It’s very simple stuff, too simple really, and is simply the vessel for the CGI to do its thing. It doesn’t require too much analysis.
The production team aren’t sure whether they want to focus on Themistocles in Athens, Artemisia with her fleet, or the origin story for Xerxes, to the extent that the whole thing starts to get weighed down just a little with too many plot threads. Weirdly, I think I would have been happy to see Themistocles cut out of that picture: his presence and plot are the weak third in the aforementioned trinity. But he is the hero I guess.
Taking place, for much of its running time anyway, at the same time as Thermopylae, there is also a sense that you’re watching the B-Team operate, with the real drama happening in another movie. We keep seeing cutbacks to Leonidas and his battle, as if Murro is worried we’ll suddenly forget that Rise Of An Empire is a sequel. It speaks to a lack of confidence in the productions own identity, that it feels the need to keep re-establishing its place in a wider franchise.
But all of that aside, I still found Rise Of An Empire to be fairly entertaining. In that it has a lot to thank Eva Green’s character (and her performance) for, her Artemisia driving things forward with a great deal of presence and gravitas when it is sorely needed, head and shoulders above the rather dourly characterised Themistocles with whom she enjoys a rather warped romantic plot (in a good way). The scene where they meet and then stumble into a sordid sexual liaison was extremely odd, one I thought laughable when I first saw it. Thinking about it a bit more, I can appreciate what Murro was trying to get across: Artemisia’s desire to find her equal, which certainly doesn’t exists among the Persians, and a symbolic enactment of the battle between the two commanders in the form of almost violently making love. There is no affection in the act, just a game of one-upmanship and psychological warfare. It was a non-traditional way to approach a romantic subplot anyway, so that should be acknowledged with positivity.
Speaking of all that brings me to female characters. I really enjoyed watching the fall, rise and fall again of Artemisia, in the last place I would have expected to find a strong female character. She’s smart, capable, threatening and undeniably lethal. She doesn’t kowtow to the men around her, least of all Xerxes, whom she treats like a spoiled child. There is some over-sexuality to her appearance, though the one nude scene is anything but erotic, and must be placed alongside an earlier depiction of her younger self facing a life as a sexual plaything. Certainly, I never saw Artemisia as a sexual being, or some kind of femme fatal, as she easily could have been. No, she’s an equal to the hero of the piece, the other main character of Rise Of An Empire, and that’s something to be applauded. The other is Queen Gorgo, who takes on a leadership role in Sparta thanks to the absence of Leonidas. Her scenes are brief and bogged down by the aforementioned “Sparta vs Athens” stuff, but she was still as effective and filled with agency as she was in 300, taken to, perhaps, too much of an extreme by the violent conclusion. Women have their place in Rise Of An Empire, which is very surprising to me.
The historical inaccuracy of the film is widespread and evidenced throughout, far more than was the state of affairs in 300. This will bother some more than others of course, and even I, usually so willing to tolerate “artistic license”, began to roll my eyes at moments. It’s the more encompassing elements that grate – an insane over glorification of Greece as a democratic utopia against a tyrannical and superstitious Persia – compared to the smaller aspects of Salamis’ reinterpretation. Giving Artemisia an expanded role is great, and as much was done with that idea as possible. Turning Athens into a beacon of freedom that it never was is not so great.
If one word has been thrown at this film, and its predecessor, as an insult, it’s “propaganda”. Many people have interpreted, whether the creators intended it or not, this franchise as setting up an idyllic western group of protagonists, positively Aryan in their appearance, against a dark-skinned tyrannical eastern menace in order to propagate an unsubtle political message that resonates into modern times and a so called “clash of civilisations”. It would be pointless of me to try and refute such thinking, beyond merely pointing out that such things are in the eye of the beholder. If the 300 franchise is propaganda, it isn‘t very good propaganda, and anybody with half a brain will be able to analyse and immediately discard any message it is trying to send within its blood-soaked entertainment value. Those that can’t have other problems to worry about.
Personally, I see a glorified and skewed version of real-life events, with a clear good guy/bad guy divide that existed in the writings of Herodotus long before Frank Miller came along and decided to put his own visual spin on it. Perhaps there is some political commentary, but it so basic and moronic if intentional, that it can be easily discarded. Beyond that, there is an attempt at entertainment. I simply want to mention such a thing, since it is almost impossible not to mention.
The other thing that this franchise is often labelled as, racist, is another kettle of fish entirely. The protagonists are nearly all white. The antagonists, save Artemisia of course, are various darker shades. You can’t get beyond this, save to point out some basic geographical/racial realities in the source material. It wasn’t something that really bothered me, as I can separate the modern east from this fictionalised and warped version of its ancient past, and recognise the entire thing for the fantasy that it really is. I’m a white middle class man from Western Europe, so I cannot say that I am qualified to comment on how Rise Of An Empire should make minorities feel. If some feel offended, I can understand that. For me, the presented historical inaccuracy of Greek and Persian politics and society is a greater sin than the colour of protagonists and antagonists, and regardless I believe that the decision taken in that regard are made more for entertainment purposes (attempted anyway) than any kind of racial point making.
The last point I want to make is about the ending, and the title. We see the decisive Greek victory at Salamis, a major portent for the overall defeat of Xerxes’ invasion, though there were still many battles to be fought (like Plataea, at the end of 300). It’s a potent moment of Greek unification against a larger threat.
So, what is the “Empire” of the title? Does it refer to the prequel moments of the story, detailing the creation of the new Xerxes? Hardly, since the Persian Empire did not spring into being with his rebirth. Or are the production team actually calling attention to the rise of Athens and its empire, which saw a surge in its territorial grabbing and power in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian wars? If so, it’s odd that they spent the entire film bigging up Athenian democracy and ideals of freedom. This is probably just a bit of nitpicking really, but it’s something that stuck in my mind. Unless there are plans for 300: The Peloponnesian War, or something similar, where the Athenians are suddenly the bad guys.
I suppose if you’re heading in to watch something like this you should have pretty defined expectations. There are lots of speeches about honour, glory, democracy and love of country, gratuitous sex and violence and lots and lots of loincloth clad men running around with swords and spears. Most of the plot of Rise Of An Empire seems designed to simply facilitate this kind of thing, with the only really interesting moments of narrative surrounding Artemisia and Xerxes’ origin.
On the acting front, Stapleton might be trying to channel Gerard Butler, but he winds up more like Liam McIntyre from Spartacus: flat and stoic, with nary a hint of emotion that couldn’t be prefixed by the word “gruff”. This is the kind of guy who seems to have been hired more for his pectorals than his acting ability. He can swing a sword and shout battle cries, but I remained fairly unmoved by any of his more elongated calls to arms or appeals to the innate heroism of his fellow soldiers. It often seemed like he was playing second fiddle in the really important scenes with the likes of Eva Green and Lena Headey, and Stapleton had nowhere near the kind of presence that Gerard Butler provided, a significant flaw for a large portion of Rise Of An Empire’s running time, and the recurring sub-plot of his guilt for sort of starting Xerxes road to the person he became is fairly lame and poorly executed, little more than the odd scowl and grimace.
Eva Green is far, far better, and takes the films quality up a notch with her portrayal as the vengeance obsessed Artemisia really resonating with every subtle machination and spiteful verbal shot. Her narrations are vivid and memorable, her command scenes with subordinates echo Darth Vader in Empire and her relationship with Xerxes is explored well, like that of a mother who at first coddles then lashes out the progeny she has helped to create. Green is very accomplished, easily the best acting talent that Rise Of An Empire has to offer, whether she’s simulating the most aggressive sex you’ve seen on film or acting as the main instigator behind so much of the overall plot. Even when the material is ridiculous or overly fantastical, she does her vey best at selling it, right up to her characters demise. Wilful, powerful, affronted and vengeance seeking, Green’s Artemisia is Rise Of An Empire’s great talking point.
Rodrigo Santaro, who briefly gets to step away from the plethora of “bling” and CGI height that goes into Xerxes early on, remains as wonderfully childish and grotesquely appealing as ever, this inhuman monster in a man’s form. Given the opportunity to actually act a bit more than he previously did, Santano does good work as the trembling heir turned God King, even if his role is made largely subordinate to that of Artemisia late on.
Lena Headey, David Wenham and Andrew Tiernan all make extended cameo appearances to tie into 300, doing OK work, most notably Heady, who’s a quality of actress that deserves some better material to work with really. The minor cast does similar levels of work, but their roles are just various shades of stock character.
But this is 300, and so it is all about the visual. It’s much on the same level as 2007, only taken to even more of an extreme. The thick blood spatters and gushes happen so often you’ll be deadened to their impact long before the credits roll, and ditto for nudity and dismemberments. But the general green screen and CGI work is as spectacular as it was for Gerard Butler, creating this stylistic world of ancient Greece in which to play around in. It’s dark, it’s brooding and it’s very fantastical, from Xerxes’ gigantic palace to the speaking chambers of the Athenian democracy. The few moments of light, like the scenes set in Sparta, seem positively dazzling in comparison with the general sombreness of the rest of the lighting. But I felt that such a choice was called for given the dark nature of the plot and the story.
The camerawork is impressive and action-orientated, tight upper body shots for the majority of the production, going out a bit wider when swords are drawn. The really impressive shots are almost entirely CGI, or at least have CGI play a very large part in them. They include the likes of Xerxes’ rebirth from a pool of mystifying golden liquid, a backwards panning shot perhaps meant to evoke some sort of womb-type feeling. There’s Themistocles at Leonidas’ funeral, which involves this very symmetrically placed wide shot of Gorgo at her husband’s grave, one of the few moments when simplicity was favoured over excess. And there’s the way that Artemisia’s tragic childhood is explored, full of Dutch angles and uncomfortably close shots, really giving that sense of a warped upbringing.
The CGI work is good, and even the all-out CGI moments don’t falter. The fiery destruction of Athens and the ship battles all look good and remain fairly seamless, though the 3D is, as ever, a bit of a letdown. The fight chorography isn’t very varied though, with the hack and slash getting fairly dour and uninspired quickly enough, even if the locales – the dark, windswept plain of Marathon as an opening battle scene or the numerous ocean battles – make up for it by their sheer grimness. Very few movies in the modern era have really made a go at large ship battles. When they have, they tend to cop out and just go for one ship on one, just like On Stranger Tides.
But Rise Of An Empire manages to do it, with some really gorgeous looking action sequences at sea, that thrill simply because something of their level has never really been seen before in this fashion. The boats, the waves, the crashing, the fire, the marine hoplites, they all come together in a series of brilliant moments, from the opening battle, where the Greeks rally the wagons, through an oil-based fire blaze on the surface, to the final clash at Salamis, where even the ridiculousness of riding a horse from boat to boat doesn’t seem too jarring. It’s dark, bloody and very anachronistic, but it is entertaining.
The last thing to note on the visual side is the continuing good work regards make-up, costumes and prosthetics, which are as anachronistic as they come – especially for the Persians – but still look cool and fantastical at the right levels. 300 has a very unique visual style in both its CGI and its physical production stuff, and they make the most of that here.
The script work does occasionally manage to rise to the challenge, with Lena Headey’s recurring narration having a rather haunting effect to it, spoken twice throughout the course of the film, adding that “epic poem” feel to the action that unfolds. But most of it is fairly cut and dry, and I was struggling to keep my attention levels up when Themistocles’ third or fourth appeal to his soldier’s patriotism began. Artemisia’s gets better lines, especially in any scene with Stapleton or Santano, and even when her lines are stereotypical or eye-rolling, Green has the chops to sell them anyway. I remember the script of 300 being a lot better. It had this snarky quality to it in every defiant utterance of the Spartans, mixing with actual historical dialogue recorded by Herodotus. Rise Of An Empire lacks that, for the most part.
Musically, its’ loud and thumping, heavy on the drums, which I suppose fits, though the symphonic assault on your ears might just grate after a while, not unlike Pacific Rim. Beyond that, I haven’t really a bad word to say about Junkie XL’s music, beyond the most intensely scored sex scene I’ve ever seen, which became laughable very quickly.
Onto themes then. As with 300, the main one is very obviously a continuing discourse and battle between democracy and tyranny. The Greek states, most notably Athens, represent the very pure force of democracy, with speaking rights, general levels of freedom for all and even respect for women to a degree that was sorely lacking in the actual Athens of antiquity. They fight for their country, for their freedom. Their oarsmen are volunteers.
On the other side are the Persians. Ruled by a megalomaniac tyrant whose advisors slaughter each other for position, his is an empire of slaves, debauchery and bloodlust. His oarsmen are chained to their boats, his commanders useful only as far as their first mistake. The Persians quest is dominated by vengeance and a lust for destruction, of conquering foreign lands for the sake of conquering. They fight because they are being forced to fight.
The message on display is even less subtle than it was in 300 then. Democracy, freedom and a rejection of superstition – or religion as some might call it – is the highest good, resulting in the best warriors and the better standard of living. Tyranny, subjugation and an embrace of the mystical leads to nothing but gross death and loss of life on a grand scale. Even the “benefits” of the Persian side, offers of peace and stability, are empty vessels, leading only to a life of slavery, something that the Greeks reject, even if it means being tied to a woman like Artemisia.
This recurring theme of democracy versus tyranny results in the expanding of another, that of patriotism and a love of country. Themistocles never stops going on about how important a mans attachment to his own land is, whether it is Athens, Sparta, or the higher nationalistic ambition of a unified Greece, a concept mocked initially but taken as Gospel late on. Embracing democratic ideals is inherently connected with the idea of loving your country, because without such affection to give, you will never summon the will to fight your enemies enough to defend the ideal of democracy. The Persian Empire is a disparate alliance of various peoples, nations and motivations, united only by the unrelenting cruelty of their masters. They fight in a foreign land, for a cause that most of the rank and file do not even know about, beyond the whips of their commanders. Love of their country does not come into it. It does for the Greeks and, in the end, it is they who win.
Vengeance is another key theme, seen entirely through the eyes of the Persian leaders. Themistocles foolishly goes too far in winning the Battle of Marathon, cutting down Darius when victory was already achieved. Xerxes is bereft without his father, and seems more catatonic than willing to engage on a grand quest for revenge.
Enter Artemisia. Abused physically and emotionally, trained into a weapon of vengeance and propelled into the highest corridors of Persian power, she moulds Xerxes into her own instrument, utilising that most pure and hateful desire, the desire to punish the upstart Greeks for having the temerity to kill Darius. Xerxes becomes a bizarre and grotesque reflection of Artemisia’ wants and desires, a man obsessed with gaining vengeance for a sin that he and his people were mostly responsible for anyway. That’s all part of Artemisia’s game anyway, fulfilling her own long standing vengeance trip. Her motivations are far more understandable than Xerxes though, to the extent that we may actually sympathise with her just a little. But that is largely undone by the viciousness and callousness with which she tries to undertake her quest. As with the larger Persian cause as a whole, she’s tyrannical, single-minded to a fault and unapproachable with logic, reason or pleas for mercy. It’s what makes her, and Xerxes, weak in comparison with the more benign, defensive Greek states.
So, was Rise Of An Empire worth making? Does the story and the message contained within justify its very existence as a venture, or is all just another meaningless cash grab? Though the attempt stumbles and falls a few times, I think there is enough here that Rise Of An Empire can avoid such criticisms. There was a story on a par with 300 somewhere in here, it just wasn’t really brought to the fore enough, with too much falling back on more blood, more sex, more CGI vistas.
The film isn’t just a brainless sequel looking to kick-start a franchise though. There is a lot of effort being put into parts of this film, not least visually, and I can applaud a failure that tries because it’s better than the likes of Grown Ups 2. But you feel like Murro should not have tried to simply make the same movie as Zach Snyder made in so many ways, albeit on sea instead of land, but instead should have tried to impose his own vision. Fans of 300 will find plenty to enjoy here. Others won’t. If there is to be a third instalment, with the Persian Wars pretty much used up, the creators will have to try for something a bit more out of the box if they are going to reengage my interest.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).