300: Rise of an Empire….and blood….lots of blood….
So it’s finally happened. For years now we’ve been hearing about how there was going to be a sequel to the surprise hit 300. Which, of course, begged the question of what was left to tell. We already got the Battle of Thermopylae in all its gory glory and the very last shot is that of the Battle of Plataea which finished off the Persian invasion once and for all. For this installment we get what was more or less going on at the same time, but on the water elsewhere. And it is GLORIOUS. This movie easily falls into the category of “historical fiction,” and fiction it is – because while they do hit the major points of what was going on, they take some generous liberties for the sake of streamlining the story and making an entertaining film. Not that I’m complaining. I actually really enjoyed the movie, and while it’s not as game-changing as the first one was, it was a worthy successor.
First of all, if you enjoyed 300, you’ll enjoy this film. If you hated it, you’ll probably hate this film for much the same reason. It’s clear that the filmmakers looked at what was most loved about the original and said, “more, more, more!” Innovative camera shots, color schemes and lighting…More! Slow-mo action sequences so as to not miss a single frame of swords slashing through flesh and blood…More! A man buffet of six-pack abs…More! Gushing blood splatters flinging across the screen….A fuck-ton More! That’s right, this film takes all these elements, kicks them up a notch, and then puts them on the ocean for sheer awesomeness.
There are some great shots and effects used in this film. From the very first naval battle, we see this in the form of the Persian navy coming in to engage the Greek fleet like a tidal wave about to engulf their comparatively tiny numbers. We also get a wonderfully put together shot beneath the surface of the water of broken ships, bodies, and wisps of blood floating on the currents that is stunning. While the visual style is not as great as that of Zack Snyder, and is obviously done to try to look like what he did in the first film, it’s still right up there and is close enough that the common viewer probably won’t notice the difference. We also get some nice call-back shots to the original, such as Queen Gorgo silhouetted against the rolling golden fields mourning Leonidas, more or less as she was in the first film when she said her goodbyes to him and when she learned of his death. Again, more of the same, but in a good way, not a lazy way. Which leads me to give kudos to director Noam Murro. Many have tried to match the style of the original and failed miserably. Murro brings enough to the table on his own that it works extremely well, and I think it will be interesting to see where he’ll go from here when not in the confines of another director’s visual world.
The battle scenes themselves are well-choreographed, and we get plenty of those iconic slow-mo shots of fighters tearing into one another as blood goes spattering. I know it’s used in every generic action film now: The Matrix is where we first saw these types of shots, thanks to the pioneering work of the Wachowskis; however, 300 was the first to use it to such effect for the purpose of slowing the gory carnage for our amusement. And since the privilege of the tech is not abused in this film, as it is in so many others, I’ll give this one a pass. We also get shots that were clearly framed with 3D in mind, which I found only a bit distracting, but I don’t begrudge the filmmakers for this because everyone’s trying to figure out the best way to use 3D to justify not only its use, but the extra cost to the film-goers. And just as with the slow-mo shots, I’ve seen far more egregious use in other, much shittier movies.
However, while the visuals and the action scenes are indeed the stuff dreams are made of (and let’s be honest here, the whole reason you’re probably going to see this movie in the first place), the film is horribly light on character development. In the original we cared about Leonidas and his 300 men because it took the time to give us reasons why. We also cared about Queen Gorgo because she too was given development and story that wasn’t even present in the source material. We know how things are going to end, but we still root for them hoping somehow they’ll pull it off. In this film we get Themistocles, or as I like to call him, Leonidas Lite. They attempt to give us a reason to care, but never do. We’re told he’s given his life to the dream of a united Greece, but never told why he would give a fuck about such an outlandish dream in the first place. They even have him give a couple rousing speeches to inspire the men that fall horribly flat, especially considering how well Leonidas did the same exact thing in the last one. They try to make us give a shit about a father wanting to protect his son, who of course disobeys dear old dad and joins the navy anyway because he’s got his big-boy loincloth now. They fight together and daddy predictably dies, though thankfully not to save his son because that would be far too cliché even for this weak ass set-up. They try in vain to give us a reason to give two shits about Xerxes by showing us how he came to be the bedazzled ruler of an empire with a daddy complex, and it just doesn’t work. Even Queen Gorgo, who was so well developed in the first movie, gets the shaft here. Maybe they thought that, because they went through all the trouble of giving her depth in an earlier installment, there’s no reason to build on that in this one. Which is a shame, because Lena Headey is capable of great things, as she’s shown us time and again in Game of Thrones. There’s only one character of substance in the whole damn film, and it’s got to be one of the greatest fucking things I’ve seen on film in years….Artemisia.
Eva Green rocks my world in this movie, and best of all her character is (very loosely) based on a historical figure who really was one of Xerxes commanders, and who mainly pissed off the Greeks simply because they couldn’t abide the audacity of a chick leading men into battle at all, let alone against them. Imagine my surprise when she turned out not to be a total figment of someone’s imagination created for the sake of a demographic. And then try to imagine my joy as I watched Eva Green steal the whole fucking film. And I do mean fucking: we get a token gratuitous sex scene about midway through, and it is the most unintentionally hilarious thing I’ve seen in years. And given the reaction shots of her guards outside while this was going on, it’s pretty clear the filmmakers weren’t taking it very seriously either. Despite this, I don’t think they expected everyone in the theater to be laughing hysterically as that scene petered itself out…or not, as the case was.
But I digress. She is a badass with a purpose. After a horrible childhood full of lots of constant trauma thanks to some scumbag Greeks that are lower than low and deserve to reside for all of eternity in Satan’s asshole, they make the mistake of leaving her alive. Persia takes her in and trains her to be an unstoppable warrior that puts all others to shame. Her mind is focused on sweet, terrifying vengeance, and there is no doubt she’s going to fucking get it or die trying. We’re given a reason to care about her, to root for her despite her being the murderous, remorseless bad guy. And while she is a major part of the film, I can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been had she been the focus instead of Testi-cles, or whatever his name was.
And for good measure, let’s stop any calls of misogyny or sexism regarding her character right the fuck now. Sure, we see her tits hang out for a good ten seconds or so, but it was a sex scene, and not even a very titillating one given that the whole theater was laughing the entire time. Otherwise, her costume choices are very classy and well-designed. For a film that has EVERY man wearing a loincloth and a cape, I was expecting her to be put in one of those gold battle bikinis the fantasy artists are so fond of. Granted, Persia seems to have created fishnets centuries too early just for her, but it’s not like her cooter is ever hanging out. With the exception of when she’s trying to seduce Testiclese to the dark side, she’s covered – and when we see those fishnet-covered legs out it’s because her costumes give her a great range of motion to fight while still wearing something non-revealing.
And as to anyone complaining that she’s a victim, I would argue she’s exactly the opposite. Her backstory is horribly tragic, but I would argue she is the only one in control in the entire fucking movie. She manipulates Xerxes into war so she can see Greece burn. She commands legions of ships and has no problem letting some be destroyed for the sake of trying to find herself someone she likely believes doesn’t exist: an equal. When she finds that equal in Testi-cles I totally get why she would want to bone him; it makes sense for a power-driven character that wants an equal to try and dominate. He seems to only be up for it because “Hey, I’m a dude and I’m incapable of passing up any offer of sex,” which again just goes to show how horribly underdeveloped his character is. She responds to his rebuke of her generous offer to join her side by reducing the near entirety of his fleet to rubble with minimal effort. Then, when she discovers he’s still alive, she disobeys Xerxes and takes her fleet out to destroy the last of the Greeks (I would like to point out here that in reality Artemisia was the only one of Xerxes’ commanders who was smart enough to see the trap for what it was and counsel him against it). And finally, when we get that in-person battle between her and Testiclese, courtesy of a I-shit-you-not horse brought out onto the open sea, she is bested, and when asked to surrender she chooses to die rather than be taken prisoner and makes sure he knows it. No other character is even remotely in as much control as she is throughout the whole fucking movie. If that isn’t female empowerment, I don’t know what is.
As for the over-arching theme of the movie, it’s more of the same from the first movie, only a bit more on the nose. In the original, you actually had to think about the film to see that, while it was essentially about a real life historic David vs. Goliath situation, at its core it was about the idea of protecting freedom from the promise of enslavement, and a willingness to die to do so. While the subtext was always there in the first one, in this movie we actually have one of the characters talking about how amused he is by the idea of the Spartans fighting for and protecting a free Greece. And it’s true. While Athens had its great experiment in democracy, the other city-states – not so much. Sparta in particular had an oligarchy, a system of dual kings from separate-though-related houses that were equal in power. They also kept WAY more slaves than any other city-state, but gave women near equality, something everyone else thought was nuts. While these themes were present in the original, I guess they felt the need to smack you over the head with it this time around courtesy of Captain Exposition.
So there you have it. If you liked the original, I can’t see any possible reason you wouldn’t enjoy this one. If you hated the original, I’d say don’t bother unless you want to give Eva Green a watch – which to me is reason enough, but that’s me. It’s stylized, gory, and fun, everything you can ask for from a popcorn flick.