When 300 came out in 2007, I really didn’t expect to like it because it was a guy’s film through and through. Blood, guts, and basically a bunch of guys showing off their toned bodies in skimpy outfits screaming for violence and mayhem. But director Zack Snyder truly stepped up and made sure that the characters came to life. This was after all, the movie that launched Gerard Butler to superstardom in his role as King Leonidas.When it was announced that there was going to be a sequel, I was a bit skeptical because 300 was so well done that hoping to equal or even top the first movie seemed like an impossibility.
Rise of an Empire is basically set during the Battle of Salamis, opening with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) telling the Spartan troops that the war between the Greeks and the Persians started as long as ten years ago when a soldier by the name of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) kills King Darius, the father of the God king Xerxes during the Battle of Marathon, the first Persian attack on Greek soil to rid the Athenians of the notion of freedom. The victory set off a chain of events borne of vengeance — the king’s ruthless naval commander Artemisia, against the Greeks who violated and killed her family then left her for dead, and Xerxes, whose hatred for Themistocles fueled his quest to make slaves of all Greeks. The film tackles the events before, during and after the Battle of Thermopylae where King Leonidas and the brave 300 held the Persians at bay, only to be betrayed by the hunchback Ephiliates.
The film held a lot of promise, and but it was also burdened by the the bar set by its predecessor. It had a template which to follow and follow it did, with the results not being quite as successful as it would have hoped. It had the unique visual styling and effects utilized by the original. It had the sleek sophistication of the cinematography of the film. It had the kick ass scoring that turned 300 into an instant cult classic. But somehow, it was not enough to save this film, which spent too much time trying to emulate its predecessor and less on developing its own story.
In terms of action, no doubt that the film was full of different battle scenes. The setting was a war after all. Not just one war but three, as compared to the first movie’s focus on one. However, the style that was so effective in 300 failed to take in the sequel mainly because of the colors. Yes, the colors. While the crimson red capes of the Spartans complemented the semi noir style of the original, depicting each movement and each blood infested scene gloriously, the Athenians unfortunately were garbed in blue capes that looked quite flat and didn’t quite have the same impassioned effect of the Spartan uniform.
Another issue is the casting. I don’t know how the filmmakers decided on casting Sullivan Stapleton in the lead role but it was a mistake, in my opinion. The role of Themistocles was supposed to be the new Leonidas, true, with a different personality but this new hero looked too much of a nice guy to be a real threat to the legions of Persians attacking Greece. Come on. He held his own in the fight scenes and there was no shortage of moments given to him in this film but really, Queen Gorgo had more grit in her little finger than Themistocles had in his whole body. His men weren’t much better. They seemed like watered down versions of their Spartan counterparts. True, it was explained that none of them were actual soldiers unlike Leonidas’s band of 300 but personality doesn’t really require wielding a sword well. And none of this crew were memorable enough to be attached to.
Number three in my list of complaints was the amount of battle scenes at sea. While it was understandable that Artemisia was naval general, the sea somehow limits movement and therefore potential in the film’s battle scenes. And because of the noir style of filmmaking, the sea simply appears as dark waters that serve as a dark background for dark colored sea vessels, bearing darkly clad soldiers. The original at least had sharp golds and reds to balance the darkness but this one had nothing.
One bright ray of sunshine in this film is Eva Green as Artemisia. She was the only villain menacing enough to command a degree of caution if you ask me. Writers were correct in providing her a profound backstory because it just makes her portrayal of a cruel, scheming no nonsense general effective with so much more intensity. I wish they would have pitted her against Queen Gorgo because they were the only two characters really worth anything in this entire film. Because of Queen Gorgo, at least the last two minutes of the film were memorable. Thank you Lena Headey for signing up for this film.
All in all, what’s sad about this film was the wasted potential. Had the filmmakers only bothered to make the story more substantial rather than focus on the style, it would have been a better film. If they weren’t sure how to make it work, they should have hired consultants from the hit series Spartacus because that show had more substance in one episode than this entire hour and a half long sequel/prequel, or whatever it wants to be called. Overall, a substandard disappointment. Instead of Rise of an Empire, it should have been entitled The Fall of a Franchise.