Of course, maybe that also would have negated the need for the studio to do a sequel. “300: Rise of an Empire,” which is based on a second Frank Miller graphic novel about the Persian war, is a movie that exists primarily because the warriors of the first film abandoned their reason in order to stand next to their egotistical king in a stylized suicide mission, opening up the potential for further plot progression. It tells the story primarily from the point of view of Athens, a city whose own stake in the conflict perhaps was the initial source of the rebellion that would follow. In the movie’s opening scenes, we see an early attempt by Persia to infiltrate the shores of Greece while their armies are still led by King Darius, but before there is an opportunity for them to regroup from the abrupt arrival, Athens attacks with remarkable offense. Led by the intelligent Themistokles, the army succeeds in pushing their invaders back to sea, and the admiral himself manages to assassinate the king in the process – a move, alas, that also allows his son, the foreboding Xerxes, to assume the throne under vengeful conditions. And the rest, one can say, is history.
What struck me most while watching Themistokles, both in these scenes as well as later ones, is that his paced and stalwart assurance is exactly the kind that moviegoers need of heroes in Hollywood blockbusters. It is a refreshing quality. But he deserves so much better a movie than what he is given with “300: Rise of an Empire,” which is the kind of sequel that doesn’t so much follow the footsteps of its predecessor as it lingers in its shadows. There is little doubt that the director, Noam Murro, studied the style and symmetry of the original film to great detail as preparation for telling this ambitious story. But his eye is caught in a muddle of flash and spectacle, and there is seldom a moment when he is able to modulate the story into something cohesive. The original film certainly had its weaknesses, to be sure, but Zack Snyder – who wrote as well as directed the original – found a confidence in his material that propelled the elements of story, character and action towards the same climactic goal. This time, he has left the final vision in the hands of someone who lacks a central foresight, and by the end you are left feeling weary rather than entertained or stimulated.
The majority of the film occurs simultaneous to the events of the first, in the weeks leading up to the battles to be fought between the Greeks and their bloodthirsty invaders. From the angle of a more high profile city-state of Athens, little is different on the surface; the men all have that same macho scowl on their faces, and their scantily clad physiques accentuate chiseled torsos that seem to be pleading for some kind of protection against arrows and spears. But never mind. The fundamental difference in the Athenians as opposed to their more hot-blooded Spartan counterparts is that these men possess the desire to be farsighted in their engagement, and their leader – Themistokles – reaches out for unity in the war as opposed to cutting out on his own. This prospect is underscored in a scene that occurs early in the movie, when the admiral arrives in Sparta shortly after Leonidas has left, and hopes to persuade Queen Gorgo in lending their naval fleet to his aide while they do battle with the Persians on the open sea. Alas, Gorgo shares her husband’s stubborn vision in remaining independent from the influence of a united Greece, and Themistokles returns to his army with a grim reality: he and his men do in fact have to face down these enemies on their own, and the foe they face clearly outnumbers them.
Other facets emerge. King Xerxes, driven to grief and hatred by the murder of his father, is assisted by an enigmatic but brooding character named Artemisia, who spends much of the film leading the naval portion of the Persian army towards sea-bound attacks with the Greeks while furrowing her brow like a pouting school girl. Her origins suggest she would be more at home in a Quentin Tarantino vehicle, where victims of violence who seek revenge have better odds at persevering. Nonetheless, her leadership makes her cunning but observant in the sea-bound battles, and when she has a meeting with the calm and collected Themistokles in hopes of luring him to her aide, there is a priceless moment between them that leads to his refusal, and then ultimately to a personal grudge that seems to propel the battles that follow.
Somewhere in the fog of all these ideas and characterizations there is a central purpose, but the movie never finds it. The screenplay by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad is fairly faithful to the tone of Miller’s stories, but the dialogue they supply to their characters – especially in narration – is overzealous, almost pompous; it’s as if everyone is speaking from a place of arrogant awareness in their monumental effect on history (“we are turning young men into memories!”). Murro’s direction, meanwhile, is a complete mess; there is no consistency or rhythm to the order of scenes, and his visual effects artists are so enamored by gore that the movie makes countless pauses during battle sequences, mostly so that the camera can witness splotches of blood flying towards the lens in slow motion (obviously for the 3D version, I suspect). Many of these touches made “300” unique in 2007; seven years later, they play like excessive reminders that modern filmmakers are intoxicated by style, and often at the sacrifice of more rewarding qualities.
And for that matter, who in the world approved this so-called ending? We spend 102 minutes heading towards a critical juncture in the conflict between Persia and Greece on the raging open seas, and… the movie doesn’t even have the guts to follow it to a conclusive resolution? The scene has the effect of a theater patron unplugging the projector in the middle of a visual buildup: revelations occur, an upper hand is gained, and then credits begin to roll as if to suggest the battle’s final outcome is obvious. That undercuts the point, I think. If we live by the rules of our movies for two hours, we expect them to have the courtesy to reward our time with a payoff that puts a satisfactory bookend on the narrative, even if the narrative itself is somewhat dodgy. An ending like the one “300: Rise of an Empire” volunteers us is at war with that sentiment. It is a cop-out. But I suppose, by that point, there isn’t much reason for anyone to care anyway.
Written by DAVID KEYES
War/Action (US); 2014; Rated R for strong sustained sequences of stylized bloody violence throughout, a sex scene, nudity and some language; Running Time: 102 Minutes
Sullivan Stapleton: Themistokles
Eva Green: Artemisia
Lena Headey: Queen Gorgo
Hans Matheson: Aesyklos
Callan Mulvey: Scyllias
David Wenham: Dilios
Rodrigo Santoro: Xerxes
Produced by Mark Canton, Marty P. Ewing, Craig J. Flores, Alex Garcia, Bernie Goldmann, Jon Jashni, Stephen Jones, Gianni Nunnari, Roee Sharon, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder and Thomas Tull; Directed by Noam Murro; Written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad; based on the graphic novel “Xerxes” by Frank Miller