Portraying history on film accurately is often harder to do than portraying pure fiction. In many ways, it is almost impossible to make a 100% accurate historical representation work, because cinema is all about making the artificial feel real. Some movies feel more true to history than others, and yet the best loved historical films are the ones that, for the most part, play very loose with historical facts. Case in point, Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995). The movie is a slap to the face of anyone who takes the history of William Wallace and the Scottish Rebellion seriously, and yet it’s still an enormously entertaining movie, and also a personal favorite of mine. Gladiator (2000) likewise is pretty loose with history, only it gets away with it more because of the fact that it has a fictional character at it’s center. When a movie takes real history and changes it to the point where it no longer resembles the truth, it could be argued that the story has crossed into the realm of fable story-telling, which is itself an honored narrative tradition. People always have embellished real events in order to make them sound more interesting. George Washington never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, but we like to think he did. A Roman general never turned into a Gladiator who then defied the Caesar, and yet we still welcome the idea of it.
Basically, we all enjoy telling tall tales to make our heroes greater than they were, and one of the most obvious examples of taking history and turning it into a larger than life fable in recent years is the 2007 Zack Snyder film, 300. Based off of the real historical account of Spartan King Leonidas’ last stand against the invading Persian empire, as well as the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 was somewhat of a surprise hit when it was first released. The years after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator hit the Oscar jackpot were not kind to sword and sandals epics. Both Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) failed as historical retelling and as entertaining action flicks. Not to mention Ridley Scott’s own epic follow-up, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) fell flat. So, when Zack Snyder’s 300 was being developed, I’m sure many people had their doubts as well. It’s not hard to see why, since the movie (like the graphic novel) doesn’t even remotely try to take the history of the event seriously. And yet, after grossing $200 million domestic, those doubts went away. 300 was a unique film that actually fictionalized history in a way that everyone could accept. By making the legend of Leonidas so outlandishly over the top to the point of pure fairy-tale level accuracy, it actually made the meaning behind the event much easier to digest. Naturally, with a film this successful, it’s inevitable that a follow-up would come in it’s wake, though it’s surprising that it took so long for this sequel, Rise of an Empire, to make it’s debut.
As far as movie sequels go, 300: Rise of an Empire has a lot that works in it’s favor and a lot that that works against it. One of the things that unfortunately hinders the film is the familiarity everyone has with the original movie. Zack Snyder did not direct the sequel, instead giving the reigns over to newcomer Noam Murro. Snyder did co-write the screenplay and there’s no mistaking the fact that this movie strictly adheres to the first film’s formula. This movie is actually more like a side-quel rather than a true sequel. The events of the first film happen concurrently with the events in this movie. So, pretty much if you haven’t seen the first 300, you won’t be lost because this movie will constantly remind you of what happened with Leonidas and his 300 spartan soldiers, since it’s happening at the same time. Only, Leonidas (played in the first film memorably by Gerard Butler) is barely even seen here, shown only in brief snippets pulled from the first film. Rise of an Empire instead follows a whole different group of characters not even attached to ancient Sparta. And this is one of the more jarring problems with the movie. What made 300 work so well was our interest in the Spartan characters; their culture, their devotion to their king and countrymen, and their fearlessness in the face of danger. That focus on the characters is a bit more scatter-shot in Rise of an Empire, though not to the point of sinking the whole narrative.
At the center of Rise of an Empire is the Athenian navy, led by their commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). Themistokles is tasked with holding the Persian navy back while Leonidas’ army delays the invading Persians on land, all in the hope that their brave sacrifice unites all of Greece together to fight as one. The Persians are led by the power hungry Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, reprising his role from the first 300) and his own naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) who has helped the Persian king rise his way to the throne to become the “God King.” Most of the movie follows the same trajectory as 300, as the majority of the run-time is devoted to a string of bloody, stylized battles. To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t merely try to copy 300 exactly in these fight scenes, and having all the action scenes take place on warships in the middle of the Aegean Sea is a nice change of scenery. The standoff between the two navies is the main centerpiece of the movie, and the film rarely departs from this set-up. This is both to the film’s benefit and it’s detriment. The good thing is that the movie is actually very well focused, and like the first movie, isn’t overstuffed with a lot of convoluted plotting. The downside of this however, is that most of it feels like a retread of things we’ve already seen, with no new ground gained in the process. For people who wanted a sequel in the truest sense, this might be a disappointment since the story-line only expands the narrative rather than continues it.
But, as a standalone piece of mindless entertainment, the movie surprisingly still works, though not as successfully as the first film. Everything in this movie is a mixed bag, from the story to the characters. When the movie does something wrong, it’s distracting and drags the film down; but when it gets something right, it does it exceptionally well. There were some action scenes that I did enjoy well enough, and then there were others that were so uninspired that I just tuned out; an opening battle scene in particular felt very bland. For those who enjoyed the stylized blood splatters and slow mo swordplay in the first movie, you’ll be happy to know that there is plenty more of it in this film; perhaps a tad too much. The characters and performances are also a mixed bag. Australian newcomer Sullivan Stapleton has the physique and the fighting skills down for the role of Themistokles, but he’s a charisma black hole every time he speaks, and remarkably enough, only makes you long for the star magnetism of Gerard Butler. The other Athenians are also equally bland. I couldn’t care about a single one of them, which was probably the biggest fault of the movie. The only interesting characters on the heroic side are the ones returning from the first film which includes Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo and David Wenham as the lone surviving “300” spartan Dilios. Unfortunately, their screen-time is limited to only a few scenes.
The film’s best element, and the one thing that makes this movie work as well as it does, is Eva Green’s performance as Artemisia. Eva Green steals this movie in a big way and you can tell she’s having the time of her life doing it. Artemisia is one hell of a villainess and she manages to outshine even the big, bad Xerxes himself. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a character like this who not only worked as a great villain, but actually improved the movie every time she was on screen. She’s the most three-dimensional character in a film that is severely lacking in them, and her back-story is worthy of a film all it’s own. She’s the kind of character that actually demands more screen-time and thankfully the film delivers on that. Every scene she’s in is a gem, and remarkably, her interactions with Themistokles actually help to improve his characterization as well. It’s actually really surprising to see a character this good in a movie like this, and that’s a testament to how good an actress Eva Green is. She’s most well known as the Bond girl opposite Daniel Craig’s 007 in Casino Royale (2006), but this performance couldn’t be more different. Here, she has the right balance between sexy and ruthless, as well as displaying unmatched charisma. Her fight/sex scene in the movie with Themistokles is a particular highlight, and it displays perfectly Ms. Green’s fearlessness as a performer. Her performance as Artemesia is much better than the movie is really asking for, and in the end, it is what makes the movie worth watching.
Fortunately, the movie is not without some other positive elements. For one thing, it does carry over the visual look of the first movie very well, without feeling like a direct carbon copy. Taking the action to the sea helps to make this film feel distinct, and there are some very spectacular visuals at play here. Think of the naval battle scenes from Ben-Hur (1959), but in the 300 style, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is like. To director Murro’s credit, he does keep things from feeling repetitive, and actually makes the action moments feel fluid and easy to follow. He may not have the same command over the style that Zack Snyder has, but he still manages to keep everything grounded and believable, which is saying something in a film like this. At the same time, there’s no mistaking this as anything other than a follow-up to 300. The visual style is what makes these films distinct from every other sword and sandals epic out there. There’s no dramatic departure from formula or style; you want another 300 movie, you’ve got one. 300 was groundbreaking at the time for having completely CGI’ed environments and set-pieces for it’s live action actors to interact with. Today, that kind of technique has become more commonplace, so you would think that by doing the same thing in Rise of an Empire it would feel stale, but remarkably enough it still manages to work in it’s favor.
The movie also works well as a pseudo-parody of the first movie. Though not intentional, I did pick up on some subtle jabs at the first movie’s more notable excesses. Most of these come out of Artemesia’s sarcastic asides, which play well into her character. She even manages to mock Xerxes over-the-top extravagance at one point in some biting put downs, and who could blame her; Xerxes is one of the most ridiculous looking villains in movie history, with his golden thong and chain link piercings all over his body. Also, audiences noticed an underlining homo-eroticism in the first movie that couldn’t be ignored, with all the scantily clad Spartan men forming close, but never sexual bonds between battles. In this movie, that homoerotic subtext is actually touched upon slightly; sometimes in a joking way, though not always. In fact, there’s a slight hint that the main character Themistokles could be bisexual, given that he devotes just as much passion towards the men that serve under him as he does to the women that he lays down with, and sometimes he even has a stronger kinship to those same men. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the movie, but I was happy to see that the film actually touched upon this subtext rather than just cast it aside like the first movie did. The film also smartly avoids going too over the top with some of the series’ more notorious excesses. There are fewer grotesque creatures in this film, which actually makes it slightly more historically accurate than the first movie; but of course that’s all in perspective.
So, is 300: Rise of an Empire a worthy sequel, or more importantly, is it worth watching at all. I would have to say that it is a lesser movie than the first 300, but still an enormously entertaining flick in it’s own right. The film does work as an action movie, and anyone who wants to see stylish swordplay in action will not be disappointed. I’d say it’s worth checking out just for Eva Green’s Artemisia alone, because she is that good a character. As a sequel to 300, it probably could’ve been better. I certainly wanted to see this movie build more onto the last film’s narrative, especially with the way that 300 ended. Also, the blandness of Themistokles and the other Greek soldiers in the movie really makes the absence of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans feel all the glaring. Showing the other side of the story is fine, but not when the more compelling story has already been told. Other than that, I was genuinely pleased by what I saw. I actually came to this movie with low expectations, since I saw the 300 as a perfectly fine standalone piece. This side-quel that we got didn’t blow me away, but it didn’t disappoint either, and in some ways actually exceeded my expectations; especially when it came to the villain. Overall, I see it as a worthy companion piece to the first movie. It may be wrong to show little concern for the truth in real history when making a movie, but sometimes it’s the legends that make the history come alive for us today.