Back in 2007, when Zack Snyder dazzled the entire world with his ground-breaking ultra-stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300”, I think it was already set in stone there would come a time a sequel of sorts would see the light of day. After all, film-making in Hollywood is a business and any successful original idea has to be milked until dryness before being ultimately discarded… for a while, and then rebooted with hopes that the audiences, like hamsters, would have already forgotten. But then, how does one recreate a lightning in a bottle?
“300” was not a regular blockbuster. Despite (or maybe thanks to) the well-earned hard R-rating and the unique, outlandish visual style, it managed to rake in enough money to secure its place among the top 10 highest grossing R-rated films of all time, and some of its imagery has now become part of the popular culture. I’d say that there is something to be said about the quality of a film, if there are countless thousands of people out there who have never seen it, but know all too well phrases like ‘This is Sparta!’, or ‘Tonight we dine in hell’ together with the associated visual memes. So, going solely by the sheer scale of success Zack Snyder’s “300” had, only a fool wouldn’t assume that a sequel of sorts wouldn’t see the light of day at some point down the line.
Well, isn’t that only a tad unfortunate that the way events unfold in “300” pretty much extinguishes any sequel potential? It’s not rocket science to understand the simple fact that in this case the ‘bigger-louder-more’ approach is not going to work, because most of the main characters are dead. Will it stop the studio from trying? Never… So, how do you work around that? Simple – make it a prequel.
In this case, I find it quite serendipitous that Frank Miller – the author of the “300” graphic novel – had something in store sequel-wise, so the studio didn’t have to make stuff up on their own, because I can’t possibly fathom, how many different kinds of mess this film would eventually become otherwise. It turns out that Miller was (and still is) working on a follow-up graphic novel under the working title of “Xerxes”, so at least what later became “300: Rise of an Empire” had a chance to be grounded in some sort of source material. Still, the fact Miller’s novel hadn’t been finished at the time was rather disadvantageous, because the film wouldn’t have the opportunity to woo the audiences with visual cues and scenes directly lifted from the comic book, which made “300” a very unique (at least at the time) cinematic experience.
Despite my best efforts, I still fail to understand the logic behind how “Xerxes” ended up being “300: Rise of an Empire”. Beyond the blatant need for the people to recognize the brand and go see the sequel based on only that, there is nothing in the title that makes even a tiny bit of sense. The film isn’t even a sequel to “300” per se, but takes place before, during and after the events from the original, where Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), Athenian fleet general (and a hero of the battle of Marathon) seems to be the only person in the entire Greece, who believes it is imperative for the nation’s survival to organize the army and face the growing threat of the Persian Empire led by the god-like Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) before it is too late. Themistocles is convinced that once the Persian fleet is defeated, Xerxes will find it impossible to advance his forces on land. While the brave Spartans take a stand against the unrelenting onslaught of Immortals at Thermopylae, Themistocles finds himself tasked with defeating a rather formidable opponent – a ruthless Greek-born Persian fleet commander Artemisia (Eva Green), whose unyielding resolve seems to only be matched by her brutality.
It doesn’t require a lot to notice, how thinly “300: Rise of an Empire” is connected to its predecessor, and rightfully so. However, I could do without the incessant reminding that the Spartans are doing their thing, whether by verbal mention, or direct visual call-backs (which I find particularly brutal). Like it or not, this film is actually about Xerxes, Artemisia and their clash against Themistocles, and with the exclusion of the character of the Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who seems to be serving as a framing device for the entire film, “300: Rise of an Empire” would have been better off trying to stand on its two feet.
In fact, I would risk a theory that the director Noam Murro (who – by the way – looks to me as more of a jobber and not the actual man at the helm) almost tried too hard to recreate the spirit of Zack Snyder’s “300”. As a result, his film is a complete and utter mess. And it’s not as though I didn’t enjoy it, because the film has some interesting and very entertaining parts, but on the whole all the good stuff you know and love from “300” is too few and far between. By the ‘good stuff’ I mean the very graphic battle scenes, epic stylized imagery with a comic book slant and of course – the slow-mo and the speed-ramping. Honestly, every single fight sequence and naval battle looks stunning, maybe slightly self-indulgent, but nevertheless effective and in the spirit of the original. The sad part is – most of “300: Rise of an Empire” is filled with exposition dialogue and one too many pep talk.
I remain convinced that had it not been for the director’s (and probably the studio’s) ambition to tie this film into “300”, as though to ride on the wave of its reputation among the fan base, “300: Rise of an Empire” would have been much better off. As it stands, it’s nothing more than a clumsy mess of cool visual ideas and really powerful action sequences mixed with far too much talking. It’s as if it was imperative for the viewer to be aware of the interplay between the various Greek city-states, or how there are so many things happening off-screen (i.e. the battle of Thermopylae). As a result, we are being thrown back and forth between various throne rooms only to be delegated back to the battlefields just in time for the motivational speech – because we all know and love the good old ‘Tonight we dine in hell’ talk, right? I guess, the film-makers didn’t get the memo that the cult following cannot be engineered and any attempt to change that will always ring false – as it does in here.
Even within the realm of pure visuals, which is by far the strongest weapon in this film’s arsenal, there’s something to be complaining about. For instance, it took me a little while to get used to a very weird and alien look of the digital blood. Now, I saw this film in 2D, so I might have missed out on something, because most of the blood was probably designed to benefit from the third dimension. Without that, it just looks removed from the film and makes the action sequences look as though they were lifted from a video game (to be exact, from “Prince of Persia – The Warrior Within”). Also, the entire look of “300: Rise of an Empire” came across as much tamer in comparison with “300”. Long gone are the nightmarish creatures, armless prostitutes, and the like. I don’t mind that particularly, but I have to admit that the original was all the more powerful because of the hellish looks of the Persians; though I presume it is logical to remove those fantastic elements since Xerxes and his army are the focus of the film and they need to be humanized a bit to play well on the screen.
In essence, “300: Rise of an Empire” requires a lot of work to become enjoyable. Once you get past the digital blood, the pep talks, the exposition and the mildly annoying specks of dust that continually fly around on the screen to remind you of the 3D you failed to pay for, it’s a real hoot… for a few minutes… because before you know it, you’re back in a chamber with toga-clad old men discussing trade issues and politics and all you can do is shout ‘Get on with it already, will you?!’
I think somebody needs to be reminded that nobody watches porn for the dialogue. Consequently, nobody in their right mind goes to see “300: Rise of an Empire” for the chamber scenes. When all you want to see is the dongs go in, everything else really stands in your way… And there’s a lot of it. This film is supposed to get you off with the onslaught of stylized violence, grand scale epic battles and Eva Green walking away from explosions. Everything else is filler and needs to be used cautiously, so as not to spoil the entire film. I don’t really need this universe to feel vast and lively; “300” worked very well despite its stark resemblance of a stage play with very confined sets. I understand the desire to make the sequel feel bigger and more expensive, but this is just too much. Maybe I didn’t really wish to see “The Empire Strikes Back” here, but I don’t like the fact that all I got was “Phantom Menace”.