When a not-sequel/prequel to 300, a film that hit theaters over eight theaters ago, was first announced, I was the first to complain about how boring the whole thing looked. And as time went on, and trailers were slowly released, I did not warm up to the idea any further.
I should be completely honest here. I wanted 300: Rise of an Empire to be terrible just so I could use “Rise of a Meh-pire” as a subtitle. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out the way I planned as 300: Rise of an Empire is surprisingly entertaining.
300: Rise of an Empire
Director: Noam Murro
Release Date: March 7, 2014
300: Rise of an Empire runs concurrently with the events of the original 300. As King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fight to defend a strategic point miles away, Empire follows Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and his Athenian naval battles against Xerxes’s right hand commander, Artemisia (Eva Green).
That’s pretty much the entire story. Like the original 300, Empire isn’t a complicated tale. Written by Zack Snyder (producer and director of the first film), it’s a point A to be Point B story with very little in the way of intelligent conflict. Fortunately, Empire does not really need something like a serviceable plot to hold it together. Empire’s intelligence comes from the intuitive way it exploits its violent imagery. Unfortunately, your entire enjoyment of Empire rests on how much you enjoy that violence. That’s where the film gets a little sketchy. The attacks are filmed in the same fashion which made 300 famous, quick paced movements followed by harsh slow motion leading to a volcanic bloody finish. As entertaining as it is to see, the film does repeat itself quite a bit in this manner. It’s not completely overblown, the film at least waits a few minutes before repeating the same sequence, but it’s indeed noticeable after the first couple of times.
I usually prefer to avoid making comparisons to the original as it’s not fair to the sequel, but it is impossible to distinguish these two from one another. While Rise of an Empire is a step above its predecessor (and is directed by Noam Murro rather than Zack Snyder), a lot of the film is essentially a film we saw already. When you strip the film to its bones, they’re exactly the same. Both films feature a small group of men defending a single point, both climaxes involve the enemy leader trying to tempt the main character, both have awkward sex scenes at times where they don’t make sense, and both endings involve a big rousing speech before the final battle. You can argue that most films will look similar to one another when stripped down to the bare essentials, but these two a bit too close for comfort. It’s hard to get invested in this new film when so much of it feels like a retread.
I will give credit where it’s due, however. One of the biggest problems I had with the original 300 was its skewed, male dominant perspective. Empire finally lets the women take center stage. In fact, Eva Green as Artemisia is one of the best women in film I’ve seen this year. She knows exactly how to play it. Green heartily makes up for Stapleton’s lack of charisma as a lead and completely chews the hell out of the scenery. Her performance is somehow hammy, yet genuine. She commands attention in the best way possible when she’s on screen in not only her performances, but her look (she gets the entire costuming budget), and in her combat scenes. Credit to Snyder’s writing (honestly never though I’d get to type that in a review) which spins the one problematic sex scene into the best one liner this year.
300: Rise of an Empire is a refreshingly good time. Although it’s a retread of a film we saw eight years ago and won’t bring any new fans to the now existent franchise, Empire is exactly what it desires to be. Bloody, visually distinct (instead of the oranges of the first film, Empire is draped in a blue hue), simplistic, and steeped in uncomfortable amounts of male fantasy (the men notably lack the six packs and speedos of the Spartans though). But that’s okay because not every film needs to reach for the stars every time.
It’s odd to praise a film for aiming low and precisely hitting that mark, but meeting one’s goals definitely deserves recognition. 300: Rise of an Empire isn’t going to conquer and start a new empire any time soon, but the battle’s worth a watch.