People’s tastes are known to change, and I think that may have happened to me. Seven years ago, I saw Zack Snyder’s “300” and thought it was a great deal of fun, the unremitting violence and posturing machismo redeemed by a superb sense of style. I awarded it my highest rating. Now I’ve seen the sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” and while virtually identical to its predecessor in every respect (exempting its presentation in 3D), this time around, I didn’t think it was all that much fun. The story didn’t engage me. I wasn’t given an incentive to invest in the characters. And above all, I was turned off by the violence, heightened though it may be to the level of comic-book escapism. Given all this, I can only conclude that I’m not the same person I was in 2007, that I’ve either matured or become more prudish. Maybe it’s a little bit of both.
The film, like its predecessor, is adapted from works by Frank Miller. Unlike its predecessor, the source material has never been published. In retrospect, I should have taken this as a bad sign; if it wasn’t good enough to stack on racks in bookstores and comic shops, how could it be good enough to be adapted into a movie? Regardless, the film is also like its predecessor in that it fictionalizes, almost from the ground up, a real event from Ancient Greek history, in this case the 480 B.C. Persian invasion of Greece and the Battle of Salamis. Most audiences are unlikely to care or even know about its historical origins, but given the very obvious liberties that have been taken, can you honestly tell me that it matters in the slightest? What does matter is whether or not the final product is entertaining. Many will think it is. This time, I’m not inclined to agree.
I said earlier that the film was a sequel, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Only the final act takes place after the events of “300”; a prologue sequence, which is overburdened by expository voiceover narrations, is set before the first film, detailing how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) transitioned from an ordinary man to the gilded, scantily-clad god-king of Persia. This coincides with the introduction of the ironclad Artemisia (Eva Green), an Athenian who shifted her loyalties to Persia after witnessing the slaughter of her family as a child and being held captive as a sex slave as a teenager. The entire middle of the section of the film actually takes place at the same time as “300.” This means that we’re periodically shown clips from that film, in which we’re repeatedly reminded that its star was Gerard Butler.
The hero of “Rise of an Empire” is Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general who engages Artemisia in fierce naval combat. I really do mean fierce. Every battle sequence – and my God, there are a lot of them – is an exercise in sheer theatricality, every maneuver filmed at odd angles in agonizing slow motion, every stab resulting in the spurting of impossibly copious amounts of blood. On the soundtrack, primitive war cries fight to be heard over the repetitive beats of Junkie XL’s musical score. Strange, that I would find this kind of filmmaking so entertaining back in 2007 and so unappealing now. There was only one moment of brutality that I found amusing; in what was obviously an homage to the biblical figure of Salome, Artemisia decapitates a warrior, lifts his severed head to her mouth, and plants a kiss on his lifeless lips.
I think part of the problem is that, this time around, the violent scenes outnumber the quieter moments in which characters actually talk to one another. My recollection of “300” was that both types of scenes were given equal screen time, in turn allowing a story to be told. Now, every conversation, of which there are few, come off as interludes, a way for the film to take a breath before engaging in more bloody battle. It might not seem possible for an action movie to be boring, given its frenetic nature, but the truth is that, when bombarded with scene after scene utilizing the exact same stunt work, special effects, and camera tricks, they eventually become stale and repetitive. In the case of “Rise of an Empire,” there’s only so much stylized goring I can watch before I can no longer tell them apart.
I was also surprised by a sex scene between Stapleton and Green, which doesn’t feature explicit nudity but is nevertheless gratuitous. As their characters ravage each other in lustful abandon, one is always trying to choke the other, and not in a way that’s erotic or even sensuous; they actually are trying to hurt each other. The fact that they’re sworn enemies begs the question of why they engage in sex at all. The only answer I can come up with is that the movie is a masculine fantasy, and therefore is obligated to include at least one sex scene. And not just any sex scene, but a visceral sex scene that’s utterly devoid of emotion. Yes, I know that “300” was itself a masculine fantasy, but in that case, it worked. “300: Rise of an Empire,” though visually and narratively the same as its predecessor, doesn’t work. Is it possible to outgrow movies like this?