It comes as a surprise to all, but 300: Rise of an Empire offers a more complete experience than its predecessor.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
In a year filled with cautionary tales of how not to use CGI to sculpt a historical environment (see The Legend of Hercules, I, Frankenstein, etc.), maybe we were due for a gleeful return to everyone’s favorite bloodbath in Ancient Greece.
Boasting much better graphics than its predecessor and all the other sword-and-sandals movies of 2014, 300: Rise of an Empire delivers everything fans of the franchise expected and more. If you hated the first 300 movie, this simply isn’t for you, and I’m guessing you knew that already. But if you’re like me, who was relatively indifferent about 300 back in 2007, then allow this review to show you that this sequel is cooler, sleeker, more historically engaging, and a great deal more fun than it had any right to be.
Acting as a prequel, simultaneous telling, and a sequel to the first 300, the narrative this time around focuses on the rest of Greece while Sparta was off doing its thing with Xerxes’ forces. That sounds confusing at first, and it takes a while to adjust to the narration style of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), but once everything clicks in, it’s relatively smooth sailing. Our hero is the Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who we learn was responsible for killing Persian king (and Xerxes’ father) Darius ten years before the events of 300. As the Persians vow revenge and the utter destruction and subjugation of Greece, Themistokles must try to join all of the Greek city-states into a united navy and defeat the cunning naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) on the high seas before their massive military makes landfall.
As the history books depict, most of these crucial battles are fought at sea, and the movie doesn’t disappoint. The naval fight sequences are many in number, but each one is told with unique versions of strategy, weapons, and outcomes. Taking the reins from Zack Snyder, new director Noam Murro combines some very appealing uses of underwater shots with some impressive long shots of the vastness of the Persian navy. Although Murro uses similar amounts of gratuitous slow motion and CGI blood as Snyder, something about it seems less video game-esque.
The original 300‘s color palate was a mixture of yellow, brown, and red, leaving me to wonder oftentimes whether or not we were supposed to be looking at Greece. But this time around, Murro works with deep blues, reconciling the early morning skies with the endless expanse of the Aegean Sea. This tone is much easier on the eyes, and establishing a firmer sense of historical realism, something which the first film scarcely attempted. To the same point, the seven years elapsing between the two films has allowed for much improvement in the CGI department. Instead of focusing on creating hideous versions of semi-human creatures on the Persian side, the visual effects department went all out to create some truly awesome-looking ships and worthy replicas of Athens and the great Persian cities. This greater attention to detail allows the audience to breathe in the surroundings with ease, and lend their focus more toward the increasingly human characters.
Though he doesn’t possess the sheer rage and bestial ruggedness of Gerard Butler, Stapleton does an adequate job of portraying a leader (and a much more eloquent one at that) capable of uniting a nation against incredible odds. His loyal Greek fighters lack both the star power and unique characterization to make them as quotable as their Spartan brethren, but they look good without shirts on and perform the fight choreography with sufficient care. Lena Headey and David Wenham reprise their roles from the first 300, as Spartan survivors reluctant to expand their already-brutal sacrifice for the preservation of Greece.
But it is the wild and fearless performance from Eva Green which carries Rise of an Empire above its predecessor. With the exception of the prologue where we learn about Xerxes apotheosis, the god-king is relatively invisible for the final hour of the film, leaving Green alone to fill the role of the villain. And she bares it all with animalistic fury, literally. From her dozens of murderous squints through heavily-shadowed eyes, to the pedagogic insults she slanders her crew with, to a rage-filled sex scene which plays out more like hand-to-hand combat than an act of lovemaking, Green goes over the top in a way that could make Nicolas Cage sweat. And every single second of it works to perfection.
While it’s unlikely to attract any new fans to trot out and see it, 300: Rise of an Empire takes everything that made 300 a senselessly violent, overtly masculine cult hit and improves upon it greatly. With much better CGI, across-the-board decent performances, a magnificent turn by Eva Green as a strong and memorable villain, and a more comprehensive element of historical storytelling, the film directly rebuts any naysayers (including myself) who thought that a sequel was superfluous at best.
RYAN’s RATING: 3 Stars out of 4