It's become clear that popular movie franchises have a morbid immortality -- you simply can't kill them off, even when every character in the movie dies. This is why "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" -- which concluded with the entire planet being nuked -- was followed by "Escape from the Planet of the Apes." So perhaps it's no surprise that "300," a movie based on a comic book based on the real life Battle of Thermopylae, spawned a sequel. SPOILER ALERT: 299 of the 300 didn't make it. But a little fact like that wasn't going to stop director Noam Murro from making "300: Rise of an Empire" based off Frank Miller's unpublished graphic novel Xerxes, which was inspired by the real life Battle of Salamis.
The first problem is that there is no Gerard Butler. The sight of digitally-added abs is no longer quite as thrilling when it first debuted in "300," but leading man Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) does his best surrounded by his fellow Athenians. The primary difference between the Athenians and their bloodthirsty Spartan brethren from the first film is that they talk a lot more. Themistocles is single-handedly responsible for killing King Darius I of Persia (Igal Naor) with a well-placed arrow at the Battle of Marathon. Puppet master Artemisia (Eva Green, a whirlwind of blades and bosom) encourages Darius' son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to seek godhood and wage war on the Athenians, due in no small part to her own thirst for vengeance at having her family slaughtered by them. So in short, the slaughter of the first film is pretty much all Themistocles fault.
The first few minutes of "Rise of an Empire" provides a satisfying explanation as to the freaky weirdness of the Persian army from the first film. Yes, Xerxes really is a supernatural giant; yes, he really does have cat-like monsters and giants in his employ; and yes, this is all pretty biased against Persians but when you loosely base a movie off of historical events, someone ends up being demonized. Unfortunately, some of this narrative is robbed of its urgency because we're to believe second-in-command Artemisia is behind it all. So yeah, "300" is also all Artemisia's fault.
What ensues are a series of naval battles that are essentially land battles with boats. Instead of firing arrows at each other, the Greeks close to melee combat by ramming. Instead of just waiting until the Persians close and stay safely on the shore, the Greeks engage them in the water with a much smaller force. And instead of using brilliant tactics to engage the enemy, the Athenians use a CliffsNotes version of history: fog, land-locked territory, and a bunch of other feints come from seemingly nowhere. This is all supposed to be Themistocles' doing, but it's hard to believe him; his abs speak louder than his words.
All throughout, Themistocles keeps trying to get the Spartans back into the fight by having long, stilted conversations with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey). This has the added unwelcome effect of Gorgo narrating different parts of the film with grave dialogue that seems like an Ancient Greek word association exercise.
There's a subplot with Athenian fathers and sons that lacks any gravity due to the actors involved; a girl power sex scene in which Artemisia attempts to forcibly seduce a bewildered Themistocles; and not enough Xerxes. Seriously, when you have a gold-skinned giant leading your army, a hellcat warrior in designer outfits pales in comparison.
The "300" franchise's primary claim to fame is its blood and gore, but the special effects are subpar here too. Characters don't so much explode with blood as they eject it from random places on their armor -- it looks like painted-on special effects. Because the film lacks much in the way of 3D-ness to justify the price tag, there is always stuff floating in the air -- ashes, blood, dust -- anything to enhance the 3D experience that isn't there.
If "Rise of an Empire" was its own film, it would be merely be a platform to let a bare-chested Eva Green gloriously tear up the scenery. But as a sequel to a superior first installment, it's a soggy mess.
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