It was against my better judgement way back in 2006 that I thoroughly, and unexpectedly, enjoyed Zack Snyder’s 300, a gloriously ludicrous visual feast show casing both sides of the skin spectrum, with oiled, muscular bodies aplenty juxtaposing an ever increasing pile of ruined bodies and severed limbs. The film as a whole was unremarkable in every aspect except its powerful aesthetic, but the bottom line was that I simply didn’t mind, choosing instead to spend two hours in the company of god like figures of men and slow motion shots of decapitations. Sometimes indulgence in that sort of nonsense is incredibly satisfying. Skip forward seven years, then, and Snyder presents to us 300: Rise Of An Empire, not a sequel, not a prequel, rather an alternative narrative set around the same events of the original picture. I was prepared for this second offering to be just as critically poor as its predecessor, but the question was, would it be able to win me over against the odds just as 300 had done?
Rise Of An Empire serves as a companion piece to the story of the Spartans and their martyr-like defeat against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. The focus this time turns from Gerard Butler’s King Leonidas to a number of new players in the war game, namely Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and naval commander for the Persian army Artemisia (Eva Green). This dual focus, though ambitious, is ultimately the film’s greatest detriment as the audience are not given enough time with either side of the battle’s participants to become invested. The engaging characters from 300 played by actors such as Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Regan and Tom Wisdom have been replaced by utterly forgettable ones played by the likes of Stapleton, Hans Matheson and Callan Mulvey. Though the actors boast the required muscles and sword waving skills, what the filmmakers seem to have forgotten is that the possession of charisma is absolutely integral to a picture such as this with very little beneath its shiny surface, and charisma is something that the core group of actors fail to display throughout. Combined with this is a story that feels incredibly rushed in some parts and painfully drawn out in others. The opening sequence accompanied by a voice over from Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) covers many details fans of the previous film will already know, and the scene seems to last an age. This is in contrast to some of the more important battle scenes that seem to fly by without much fanfare, and these continual pacing problems result in the film feeling rather messy and without direction. I do not know how long Zack Snyder and his team had been working on Rise Of An Empire since the success of 300 sparked the potential for a sequel, but the finished product feels like a rushed, hastily put together adventure rather than a project that had the benefit of seven years preparation since its far superior predecessor.
As mentioned above, the fundamental problem with film is the lack of charisma and exciting screen presence from the majority of its cast. Sullivan Stapleton as Themistocles is so forgettable in the role that I honestly am struggling to remember what he looks like, and his band of Greek warrior brothers are equally as unremarkable, with a particular father/son story line feeling like an incredibly contrived attempt to repeat the much more engaging subplot of Captain Artemis (Vincent Regan) and Astinos (Tom Wisdom) in the original picture. There is one exception to the rule, however, and it comes in the form of Eva Green as Artemisia. Perhaps she has the benefit of being arguably the most recognisable face in picture, but Green’s performance at least gives the audience something to remember after all of the limbs have been severed and spears have been thrown. Artemisia is a stone cold, murderous and calculated woman, and Green’s steely eyed, at times manic expression is the perfect characterisation for the part. Green does as well as she can with a character whose actions at times can be seen to be contradictory, a problem I place in the laps of the writers. For example, would a woman who was enslaved and repeatedly sexually abused as a young girl so easily give herself over to the lust of a certain male character? I would like to think there were deeper reasons behind the narrative decision, but given Snyder’s body of work I am inclined to assume that he saw no other conclusion for a powerful man and a powerful woman than to battle sexually. Guess who the winner is, of course, it is the male. Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo is reduced to nothing more than a cameo, an unfortunate decision as it would no doubt been a highlight to see her go toe to toe with Green’s Artemisia, arguably the only two characters in the entire picture worth watching.
Overall, 300: Rise Of An Empire is almost a carbon copy of 300, but it is unfortunately lacking in everything that made the original film an enjoyable, flashy romp. The choice to base the film around the same timeline as its predecessor is one that I do not believe paid off. With 300 ending in the way that it did, so primed for a sequel displaying the events directly after the Battle of Thermopylae, Rise Of An Empire serves only to slow and swamp down the story that was building to such a crescendo back in 2006. Yes, the film does add some semi interesting back story to the characters and events of the original picture, but Zack Snyder’s ambition to add texture and layers to a series that, if one is being honest, does not need it, falls flat and is ultimately a waste of time. My advice? Re-watch the original for your fix of aesthetically pleasing, oily, muscular violence, and watch 2009’s Cracks for a sinister and impressive performance by Eva Green.