Warning: If you haven’t seen the original 300, this review includes a spoiler regarding its end.
We’re used to sequels and prequels of successful films. 300: Rise of an Empire is the less common at-the-same-time-as-quel. This is because of the obvious issues with making a direct sequel to 2007’s hit 300…If you haven’t yet seen that film then skip the next sentence….As Zack Synder, director of the original film puts it, ‘you saw the end of that movie – almost all the main characters were dead.’
Instead Noam Murro’s abs and pecs action movie continues the style and panoramic sweep of the first film, but focuses on the 480BC sea battle at Artemisium. Based on Frank Miller’s historical graphic novel Xerxes rather than the strict historical record, the action takes place on the Aegean sea concurrently with the Spartan stand at Thermopylae already depicted in 300.
The hero of Rise of an Empire is Themistocles played with six pack and blue cloak by Sullivan Stapleton. Themistocles is a brooding, introspective Athenian general who – in the film, if not in real life – is credited with having killed the Persian king Darius at the battle of Marathon. Ten years later battle with the East continues with Darius’ son Xerxes, and the real power behind the throne, Artemesia. Played by a snarling, bloodthirsty Eva Green, she leads the Persian navy into battle. One of the production companies behind the film is called Cruel and Unusual, an epithet that could easily apply to Artemesia herself.
This is not a film that you can watch without concentrating. Look at your popcorn for too long and you’ll miss a voice over explaining what is happening or who it is happening to. But the attraction here is not the history lesson, polished and stylishly presented as it is.
300:Rise of an Empire is all about the 3D spectacle. A computer-generated ancient world drained of colour is brought to life in a way that was not possible before CGI. Huge sea battles are choreographed and interesting snippets of life are shown away from the swaggering heroes. We see what all the posturing is built on – the galley slaves chained to their heavy oars with no hope of survival if the vessel sinks.
Greece has long been seen as the source of all that is great and good about Western civilisation. Framed as a battle between the good democracy of Athens and the bad tyranny of Persia the plot fits with the mindset of its intended audience.’Democracy hurrah!’ we shout,’Tyranny boo!’ The Greeks are farmhands, poets and sculptors forced to defend their homeland from aggressors, which include a suicidal swimming force that attack with flammable backpacks of oil. 2500 years later some things still haven’t changed. And our reactions are often frighteningly similar. Stand together, I’d rather die a freeman than a slave, better dead than red, or whatever the current equivalent is.
Though I was ready for blood and violence, I wasn’t ready for quite so much blood and violence. Death comes to many people, usually unpleasantly, with 3D spurts of blood heading out towards the camera. Severed heads are held up all over the ancient world. Long set piece battle scenes are interesting as a look at ancient fighting techniques, but the film shows an unnecessary delight in all the violent death, with the action slipping into slow motion as yet another blade slides into a muscular chest or hacks off a leg, or, well, you get the idea. The CGI works well, everything generally happening at such a pace that it is only on a couple of occasions, both shots of Xerxes high over his city that don’t ring completely true.
I counted over sixty stuntmen in the credits for 300:Rise of a Nation, which emphasises just how much action there is. There was also a crew nutritionalist, which goes someway to explaining the huge number of ripped torsos. But does technology allow filmmakers to CGI abs onto actors? If so, when will this technology be available to the public?