Prepare for glory! Prepare for gory! Prepare for… sequel? Well, not quite. 300: Rise Of An Empire director Noam Murro isn’t calling his film a sequel, or a prequel, for that matter, but an “equal,” since the story precedes, follows, and coincides with events depicted in 300, Zack Snyder’s 2007 sword-and-sandal fantasy based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name. One would think that such historical breadth might fragment Rise of an Empire, which weaves in, out, and around scenes and situations familiar to viewers of the original, and yet the film still feels quite whole, if not a little underwhelming, at least, compared to its predecessor.
Murro’s contribution to the vocabulary of cinema notwithstanding, this “equal” is a functioning companion piece to 300. Rise of an Empire, which is based on Xerxes, Miller’s yet-to-be-released follow-up to his original graphic novel, begins at the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenian general and real-life politician, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), kills Persian King Darius in front of his son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), initiating a chain of events that will eventually return to haunt Greece years later. True to the style of Miller’s writing, Rise of An Empire exaggerates the significance of certain minor fictional events. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, right? Well, that’s history for you, but if you want a true account of the Persian invasions of Greece, this isn’t it.
Darius’ Greek-born, Persian-loyal, naval commander, Artemesia (Eva Green), fills the prince with sentiments of vengeance and divine superiority – a bad combination for the free people of Greece. After Artemesia sends him on a bizarre vision quest through the desert, Xerxes dips into a mystical cave pool and emerges the bald, bedazzled, and bioluminescent God-King we know and love. He is a formidable villain and a fascinating character with unexplored feelings of inferiority; it’s a shame he doesn’t get more screen time or any rigorous action scenes.
Declaring war on Greece, Xerxes launches a two-pronged assault from the North and the South. To answer the Southern threat, Themistokles secures a fleet of Athenian ships and attempts to unite his fellow city-states. He travels abroad seeking allies, but the isolationist Spartans, represented by Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), mock the war-mongering Athenian. King Leonidas is busy consulting the Oracle, and the Spartans will soon have business of their own at the Hot Gates in the North.
Leading a small unit of his own across the Aegean Sea to Artemisium, Themistokles confronts Artemesia, who leads the Persian fleet. Both sides are plagued by rough waters and even rougher sex. The naval battles are explosive, literally, and offer a welcome change of scenery from the usual stadiums and battlefields. The characters throw around swords, shields, and f-bombs like there’s no tomorrow, and for many characters in this film, there isn’t.
Despite the film’s blue color palette, a change from the rich golden fields and red capes of the original, there is still plenty of red, blood, and gore. However, the film tones down many of the supernatural and fantastical elements that made the Battle of Thermopylae seem so far-fetched in Snyder’s adaptation, a common source of complaint and distraction for many viewers.The rest, as they say, is history.
Often times, subsequent franchise entries repeat the winning formula launched by the original installment, attempting to tell the same story with the same cast and characters. I was pleasantly surprised that the film, a Hollywood action spectacle, dares to be different from most classical epics, which usually end in a stadium or battlefield somewhere. Instead, Rise of an Empire takes its viewers out to sea, during the same three days in which the Battle of Thermopylae occurred. This period may have been decisive for Greece, but it’s not for an audience. The thrill of the original film is right there in the title, a succinct description of the impossible odds the Spartans faced. I suppose what I’m telling Hollywood is this: know how to pick your battles.
In the lead character, Themistokles, the film misses a charismatic leader like Leonidas (as played by Gerard Butler in the original 300). But then again, Themistokles is another person, another character, faced with the unique challenge of having to rally others to his seemingly futile and suicidal cause, and I have to respect that difference, although I only wish it was as entertaining.
Not unlike the Persian army, the bonus features on this film are great and numerous. Instead of the usual talking heads exaggerating how fun it was to work with everyone on the cast and crew, the features are actually quite educational and entertaining, perhaps more so than the film itself. Real Leaders and Legends offers insightful histories of the film’s inspirations from engaging academics. Each feature is specific and focuses on a particular aspect of the film. Savage Warships examined the technological history of the Athenian navy; Women Warriors studies the film’s empowered females (Gorgo and Artemesia), and Becoming A Warrior, is, well, a showcase of Athenian abs. Home releases this week include: Escape From Tomorrow, Like Father, Like Son, The Unknown Known, The Returned and Afflicted. ~Daniel Horowitz