Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Noam Murro
Producer: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Bernie Goldmann
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad
“300: Rise of an Empire” is an upsetting film. Don’t get me wrong; the visuals can be epic, beautiful, and director Noam Murro clearly respects 2007′s “300.” The problem is that the film feels more like a tribute to the last film than anything else. Its been described as a “companion film” rather than a sequel or prequel, but after seven years, were audiences clamoring for a companion piece to “300″? Not really.
The film’s story revolves around the Battle of Artemisium, which took place concurrently with the Battle of Thermopylae (aka the events of “300″). Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is a Greek general from Athens who must defend his lands from the invading Persian forces led by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and the ultra-badass navy commander Artemisia (Eva Green). Themistocles must also try to convince Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to send in the rest of Sparta’s army to aid in the naval battle to defeat the Persians once and for all. The film sometimes serves as an origin story of sorts for Xerxes, which is interesting but not given nearly enough attention.
My first issue with the film is that it’s been way too damn long since the original. I love Zack Snyder’s “300” – racist undertones and all – but why make us wait seven years for a “companion piece”? It’s also really difficult to root for anyone in the film, mainly because the most interesting character is an antagonist who you know is going to lose. What made “300″ so great was Gerard Butler’s assertive and memorable performance as King Leonidas; you absolutely believed he was a badass and you bought into his mission, no questions asked. Sullivan Stapleton is painfully dull as Themistocles and doesn’t hold a candle to Butler’s Leonidas. I get that they’re entirely different characters, but a touch of charisma really wouldn’t have killed the guy.
The story just isn’t as compelling as the tale of 300 Spartans fighting hundreds of thousands of enemies. The cool factor is entirely gone, which is why director Noam Murro tries to overcompensate with extraneous and repetitive action sequences. I admire the film’s visual palette and emphasis on naval battles, but he goes a bit overboard (pun intended). There’s a ridiculous amount of computer generated blood in the film, and while the last one had its fair share of flake blood being splattered around, it wasn’t that “in-focus” and exaggerated.
The naval battles do look really cool and help differentiate the film from the original, but they get repetitive and don’t do enough to distract from the film’s lack of an engaging plot. Artemisia, played by the excellent and beautiful Eva Green, is the only interesting main character. She’s incredibly tough and unforgiving, and ends up having the film’s only memorable line, which is a shame given how quotable “300″ is .The Xerxes backstory feels like an afterthought, even though the film was originally going to revolve around that character entirely. The only times I ever felt compelled was when Eva Green or a Spartan character were on screen. Athenians, on the other hand, just aren’t interesting, and knowing that they’re not even half the soldiers that Spartans were does nothing to make you care about them.
The film does manage to get some things right. Like I said, the naval battles can look really cool, and the 3D conversion was fairly impressive, so if you’re going to see this I’d advise you to go for IMAX 3D. I personally love the way the “300″ movies look, and that visual style lends itself well to 3D. The effects are cool, but some sequences (one including a horse) look like they’ve been ripped straight out of a video game. The action would have been more resonant if we cared more about the people involved, but since we don’t, it’s just action for the sake of action. Cool, for sure, but empty. Eva Green really is the film’s shining star as Artemisia, and I would have probably preferred a movie centered around her character instead of what we ended up with.
Without a charismatic and likable lead to get behind and the novelty factor gone , making a successful sequel to “300″ was always going to be a challenge. Maybe I’ll appreciate it a bit more a few years from now watching it back-to-back with the original, but as of right now, this just feels like a movie made by a “300″ super-fan who’s more interested in glorifying the previous film than making a memorable one himself. Was it worth the seven-year wait? Absolutely not. Should you still check it out this weekend? Probably, but mainly for the visual experience.