When 300 opened in March of 2007, it was hailed in some circles as a landmark action movie. I don’t share that opinion. Yes, it was an immensely popular film that broke box office records, made Gerald Butler and his eight-pack into stars, and introduced the world to director Zack Snyder’s irritating slo-motion-infused filmmaking style but lest you forget, it was also incredibly inane, redundant and a soulless exercise in style over substance. One thing I’ve learned about Snyder over the years is that while he’s gifted at conjuring arresting visuals, he’s hilariously inept at handling anything resembling actual emotional.
Snyder is only billed as a co-writer and producer on the long-delayed 300: Rise of an Empire but with its painterly visual flourishes, overuse of slo-motion, unintentionally campy acting and shockingly vapid storytelling, it may as well have been directed by him. Operating both, as a prequel and a sequel to the original, Rise of an Empire occupies itself with a story that takes place concurrently with the events of Snyder’s original. While King Leonidas (Butler) and his personal army of 300 are preparing for battle against the Persians, an Athenian general named Themistocles (charisma vacuum Sullivan Stapleton) is trying to put together a united Greek army to fend off the Persians on the Aegean Sea front.
When he’s rejected by Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, reprising her role), Themistocles decides to put together a small army anyway and go up against the Persians’ top naval commander Artemisia (a scenery-chewing Eva Green), hoping the deaths of Leonidas and company will galvanize the rest of Greece to join him in his cause. That more-or-less sums up the driving plot of the film since the rest of it is largely devoted to an endless slow-motion orgy of battle scenes, replete with cartoonish gore and machismo grunts.
Punctuating these blood storms is a series of scenes that establish the back-stories of both Artemisia and Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), whose transformation from moping prince to androgynous war-obsessed “God-king” is one of the film’s only interesting tangents. As to why Snyder and co-writer Kurt Johnstad didn’t bother with crafting something of equal heft for the vacant Themistocles is a mystery.
Like its predecessor, Rise of an Empire is a gorgeously-designed movie. Seven years of advanced visual effects and the added 3D effect certainly help. Also, for having only one prior credit to his name, director Noam Murro does a commendable job of aping Snyder’s style. With the amount of blood, gore and gratuitous nudity on display, one thing’s certain: cheap thrill-hungry audiences won’t be disappointed. But pretty pictures are hardly enough to compensate for its lack of wit, humor and soul. With the market flooded with 300 wannabes ranging from television’s Spartacus and Rome to the recent bombs Hercules and Pompeii, there’s enough reason to question whether audiences are truly salivating for a movie that is anything but fresh.
Just about the only thing Rise of an Empire has in its corner is Eva Green. As the devious, sadistic warrior commander/princess Artemisia, Green simply dominates the movie. Whether she’s gleefully kissing disembodied heads, emasculating her subordinates for their ineptness or using her body to pump some emotion out of Stapleton’s emotionally flaccid Themistocles, it’s evident that Green is having a ball. Born to Greek parents, sold into slavery and eventually rescued by the Persians, Artemisia’s tragic back-story is one that would normally be saved for heroic characters yet here she is, as the villain of the piece. It is credit to Green’s ferocious performance that Artemisia is the only character worth rooting for in the film. I can only hope she received a hefty pay-day to be in this colossally witless piece of trite.