300: Rise of an Empire (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
10Sep/144

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

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King Leonidas is dead, but that's not the end of the story.  His battle was but one of many that shaped the future of Greece.  In 300: Rise of an Empire, we follow the naval exploits of Themistocles as he fights a fleet commanded by Artemisia.  Rise of an Empire is directed by Noam Murro and stars Eva Green and Sullivan Stapleton.

Easy to screengrab at leastPlease take a moment to appreciate what Eva Green has done this year.  She has not once, but twice, improved direct-to-DVD quality sequels to stylish original based on unpublished work from Frank Miller.  Neither the original Sin City nor 300 can be considered especially progressive when it comes to gender and sex but the sequels are even less kind to women than their predecessors.  Why, we barely get two minutes into 300: Rise of an Empire before director Noam Murro shows a slow-motion rape.

That's typically a sure sign what I'm about to watch will be wretched at best, but Rise of an Empire is better than its opening scenes without ever rising to the withering glare that Green brings to the film.  She plays Artemisia, adopted sister of Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who was left at the end of 300 with a bleeding reminder of his mortality from a glancing blow by Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler reprises his role only in flashback here).  Spartans raped her mother to death then kept her chained and subject to sexual violence for years before a Persian citizen took her in.

Green's blood-lust is an awe-inspiring experience.  She attacks the Spartan's with relish and uses the years of sexual abuse she suffered by slaughtering them with a pair of phallic blades that drive her into libidinal frenzy.  Her zest for the slaughter is almost joyous, and elevates her parts of the film to a psychosexual dream of being bathed in the blood of her enemies.  I loved the way she acted with her eyes, maintaining rigid posture to launch into immediate violence if needed, but narrowing and widening her glance just enough to show she's imagining the different ways she can slice her opponent into tiny pieces.

Green is stellar as a warrior whose bloodlust and libido is uninhibited by shame

Green is stellar as a warrior whose blood-lust and libido uninhibited by shame.

Her performance is also the only thing that gives our cookie-cutter hero, Themistocles, any personality.  Sullivan Stapleton, who steps into the leadership void now that Butler has moved on to different ventures, just doesn't have the personality or charisma to carry the film.  Now there's a bit of a point to this as he describes himself as just another soldier of the state, but when called on to match Green's violent sexual advances, he is a drag on the scene Green is single-handedly salvaging around him.  Butler is not a very good actor but he had the energy to carry the craziness of 300, where Stapleton just dutifully gets his character from one scene to the next.

Credit where it's earned, Rise of an Empire takes a novel approach to making a sequel to a film where most of the main characters are dead and the day is saved.  There were many components to the war that repelled the Persian empire, so looking at the battles surrounding the events of 300 is not a bad idea.  The problem is that while focusing on the naval battles that Themistocles and Artemisia gives Rise of an Empire a unique setting to contrast 300, it requires direction to set the film apart more than just with the setting and a loincloth change from red to blue.  Rise of an Empire settles for a watered down "greatest hits" version of Zack Snyder's style and what little new it brings to the table is flatly presented.

The slow-motion that inspired rage, incredulity, and delight from 300 makes its return but follows an inconsistent logic.  300 was a tale told in telling, a perpetual flashback of something recounting cool things to get people riled up for war.  Rise of an Empire makes the flashback clear up-front with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) telling the story of Themistocles, but the film clearly switches between the viewpoints of the Queen, Themistocles, and Artemisia.  The question arises early, just who is this story being told to, and what are they trying to accomplish?  Exciting near-death encounters and massive naval battles are glanced over at normal speed while the more routine sword and sandals moments are given the slow-mo.

Rise of an Empire drifts on with little personality from one nondescript wide-screen CGI shot to the next.

Rise of an Empire drifts on with little personality from one nondescript wide-screen CGI shot to the next.

Why these moments?  It's difficult to say, especially since the script by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad doesn't have the satirical edge fueled by the post-9/11 Bush years to work from.  When the story focuses on the battle-as-foreplay relationship between Themistocles and Artemisia it is a lot of fun, and raises some interesting questions about how military buildup is a form of self-pleasure for some.  But the surrounding events and battles are lost in a haze of exposition detail with a lot of information about tactics with little visual payoff.  Despite the crisp images the naval battles are lost in darkness or dull in daylight while the hand-to-hand combat settles for a disappointingly straight approach with little creativity.

These issues are worsened by a casual disregard for some of the nastier elements of the film.  The rape at the beginning is one example, and Xerxes' journey to bond himself to evil which ends in the white boy entering a pool to emerge a brown-skinned effeminate tyrant is troubling, to put it mildly.  300 subverted the ooh-rah Bush allies by taking the might makes right philosophy to its natural American conclusion and showed a collection of overcompensating white warriors running rampant over anything that did not have a similar look.  Here we don't have the blanket of propaganda, we don't end on it being a xenophobic story used to incite the masses to do what the leaders want them to do.  Instead it's just plain troubling that sex and race are used as such demeaning plot turns.

All this isn't to let 300 off the hook entirely, or elevate it as something beyond criticism of its presentation, but to show that Rise of an Empire doesn't have the same care for a well-told story.  There isn't anything immediately bad about it, but at the same time nothing elevates it beyond the slick cash-grab that its nondescript personality is capable of.  I just hope this is the last of Miller's unpublished work - Green needs to get better roles than this.

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Tail - 300 Rise of an Empire300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Directed by Noam Murro.
Screenplay written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad.
Starring Eva Green and Sullivan Stapleton.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Good review Andrew. It’s a very dumb movie, but if you can take it for what it’s worth, it’s kind of fun. Just not nearly as good as the first.

  2. Eva Green is a natural at playing a bad girl. She reminds me of Charlotte Rampling with her cold, soulless eyes.

    I haven’t written on this film, but there is an important theme in it: “I offer freedom without consequence or responsibility.” Artemisia

    • Thank you for the comment. Eva Green is a pitch-perfect pulp actress, I just wish the pulp she appeared in was up to the standards of her performance. The only thing I don’t agree with is her and Rampling’s eyes as soulless, they burn in the sense that ice burns with prolonged exposure and may suddenly burst into gas under the right conditions. Their best roles involve movies where they create those conditions and let the gas explode.

      On Artemesia’s dialogue, that line is of some interest considering the violent opposition she provides to those who don’t submit to her specific idea of freedom and responsibility.


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