A week ago, I got my first glimpse of 300: Rise of an Empire, the companion piece (it’s not a sequel) to Zach Snyder’s 2006 visual tour de force, 300. Though fun, I was all set to point out its shortcomings in relation to the original. But a funny thing happened on the way to posting my opinion: 1) I decided to see it again and 2) last night, popped in my 300 Blu-ray.
What a difference a week makes.
Make no mistake; my opinions haven’t changed on 300. It’s still a centerpiece in my Dirty Two-Dozen, a list of 24 movies (maybe 30) that I can throw in the PS3 any day of the week and watch all the way through with no thoughts of tuning out. After comparing the two movies so close together, despite its faults, 300: Rise of an Empire has bullied its way onto that prestigious list.
As mentioned, Rise of an Empire is the other half of the 300 Saga’s whole. Taking place over the same 3-day stretch as Leonidas and the Spartans defense of Thermopylae, Rise tells the story of Themistocles (played brilliantly by Sullivan Stapleton), the charismatic Athenian general who battles the massive Persian navy on the high seas. Like the massive army that opposed the Spartans at the Hot Gates, the Persian naval force dwarfs the contingent scrounged up by the Greek city-states. More to the point, they are led by the vicious and cunning Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek-born woman who, after suffering at the hands of her fellow countrymen, has honed herself into the perfect weapon and tactician, one who’s driven by the sole purpose of burning Athens to the ground.
With 300, Snyder created one of the most unique cinematic experiences in the last ten years. Taking one of the most celebrated examples of heroism in the history of the world and pumps it up with spectacular visuals and a metric ton of testosterone. Where Rise differentiates itself from the first 300 is in the humanization of its primary cast. Stapleton’s Themistocles is much more vulnerable than Butler’s Leonidas, and as it should be considering the Spartans culture of war, a prospect the Athenian general has not experienced. The addition of a volatile foil in Artemisia provides a focus for the protagonist, something the first movie did not. As a viewer, the chess game played by Themistocles and Artemisia, identifying one another as each other’s perfect adversaries, reaches its crescendo in a surprising and most intimate moment, a sex scene that plays out the brutality of the battle in the most intense fashion.
Speaking of battle, like its predecessor Rise excels when the blood starts flowing. Whereas 300 showcased violence that was both spectacular and controlled, the battle scenes in Rise are schizophrenic and unsettling, a chaotic back and forth one would expect of those lacking the Spartans’ militaristic precision. But man oh man, the plasma does flow and, despite the over the top nature of lopped off heads, arms and legs, I never felt the violence crossed over into the pornographic nature of flicks such as the Hostel and Saw franchises. And then there’s the fact that much of Rise takes place on the high seas, adding an element of combat rarely seen in movies today.
Yet, as good as Rise of an Empire is, it does have a few flaws. Though both Stapleton and Green delivered performances that allowed the audiences to connect to their characters on an emotional level, there was never any real connection with the secondary characters. Hans Matheson and Callan Mulvey are Aesyklos and Scyllias, respectively, Themistocles’s trusted lieutenants. On the surface, they play their roles well but none truly stand out and, towards the climax of the movie, when tragedy strikes one of them, I hadn’t the slightest twinge of emotion.Two other minute complaints were the overuse of slow motion for the fights and Lena Headey’s narrative, the latter lacking the gravitas of David Wenham’s Dillios from the original. Again, these are the most minor quibbles but, when putting the two movies side by side, do take Rise down a notch.
As mentioned, I saw the movie twice before writing this article and it was the right move. Though I enjoyed it the first time round, the second viewing helped me catch some of the nuances of how the story was interwoven with the first and the subtleties of Stapleton’s performance. It also raised my original thoughts of it being GOOD to EXCELLENT, and very much on par with the original 300.
A most enjoyable film in its own right, 300: Rise of an Empire somehow ups the ante, showcasing a brutally that would make even Leonidas cringe. Sure, some of the violence is gratuitous in nature and there may be an overabundance of slow motion woven into the battles, but one cannot argue with the pulse-pumping action and uplifting story of men whose decision to face the longest of odds for what they believed and how it shaped the world we live in today.
Bottom line, 300: Rise of an Empire is a must-see for fans of 300, sword and sandal epics, or those who just love to have fun and be entertained.