One of the most famous battles in ancient history is the Battle of Thermopylae, in which a force of Greeks lead by 300 Spartans held a pass against the vast Persian army. Although most of the Greeks were killed during the battle, Thermopylae would not have been possible without the actions of the Greek fleet in the Straits of Artemisium. That naval engagement is the central plot of 300: Rise of an Empire.
When the Greeks are once again threatened by the Persians, led by the god king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), it falls to Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) to lead the defense of the free Greek states. Themistocles goes to Sparta in an attempt to recruit the Spartan king Leonidas to join him in the fight. The Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) meets Themistocles and informs him that the Spartans have no intent to join the rest of the Greek states but intend to go to war against the Persians none the less. Themistocles is forced to take his meager fleet and engage the vastly superior Persian navy, led by Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek with a burning hatred of her countrymen. For days the Greeks best the Persians, but they are ultimately forced to retreat to the Bay of Salamis for a final standoff.
There was a surprising amount to like about 300: Rise of an Empire. I was consistently pleased with most of the visuals for the movie. Much like the original movie, Rise of an Empire presents a very stylized take on this classic, heroic tale. While not directly based on any comics, the film maintains the visual style of 300—both the comic and film. The fights scenes are, of course, the highlight of the movie. There are dozens of scenes filled with barely dressed Greeks hacking and stabbing Persians with a choreography that the ancients could only dream of. One scene in particular featured father and son team Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) and Calisto (Jack O’Connell) taking turns hacking down opponents while they advanced down the length of a Persian ship. In addition to the hand to hand combat, there is also a considerable amount of ship to ship fighting as well. This is to be expected given that the plot revolves around a naval battle, but I was pleased with the quality of these scenes. Although they were not overly historically accurate (and after 300, I wasn’t holding my breath on this point) the battles weren’t completely unrealistic either. Sure, the settings were exaggerated, but when wooden ships crashed into one another they actually got really smashed up.
Rise of an Empire is definitely a movie that pushes the boundaries of what the audience is willing to accept in the name of suspension of disbelief. Since the film exists in a comic universe, there are plenty of things that make for great storytelling, but that the viewer has a hard time believing could happen. Toward the end of the film (No major spoiler here, this was in the trailer), Themistocles rides a horse across several damaged ships, including ones partially underwater and engulfed in flames. Now don’t get me wrong, this made Themistocles look like a total badass, but there was this nagging voice in my head that kept telling me that a horse–even a well-trained war horse–would not willingly dive underwater and then into a fire. Little things like this would at times pull me out of the film universe and send me back to reality.
Sullivan Stapleton did a respectable job as Themistocles. While there are some similarities between Stapleton’s character and Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, I enjoyed Stapleton much more. I’ve always felt that the Leonidas character in 300 was a bit crazy and over the top. While Themistocles could be quite intense, he was also able to take it down a few notches from time to time. Stapleton also had the physical presence for the part. Though not the most muscular man on screen, Stapleton was in amazing shape and stood over all the other major characters by several inches. At the beginning of the film, when Themistocles is attempting to rally all the Greeks to his cause, even dressed in his normal Greek attire he stands out in the sea of old men and other politicians.
Eva Green’s Artemisia is as deadly as she is beautiful—and she is exceptionally beautiful. Green plays the cold-hearted, Persian admiral perfectly. She lives only to destroy the Greeks who have wronged her in the past and she takes a sadistic pleasure in inflicting as much damage upon them as possible. My one real complaint comes from the fact that we end up with a nude scene from Green that really serves no purpose other than to get Green topless. I am certainly not against nudity in film, but this scene is patently gratuitous and doesn’t really help to move the story line along.
300: Rise of an Empire is quite possibly the loudest movie I have ever seen, at least during certain portions. During the opening sequence I was legitimately concerned that I was going to have some kind of permanent hearing loss if it stayed at the same volume. Thankfully it soon came back down to a more reasonable (though still loud) level.
For all its visual wonder, Rise of an Empire fell into the same trap that many other films have fallen into lately: 3D. In an attempt to include 3D effects, some shots become rather awkward. As far as I can tell, since I saw the movie in regular 2D, the majority of the 3D effects were projectiles (arrows and spears) and blood splatter, of which there was plenty. There were several times where those particular effects would look vastly different even within the same scene, leading to an overall sloppy look.
Like its predecessor, this movie made considerable use of slow motion; unfortunately, not very good use. Shots would slow down in the middle of the action, seemingly at random, and then go back to normal speed just as haphazardly. There seemed to be no underlying rule of thumb as to when slow motion would be used, and after a while it became a distraction. This slow down/speed up pattern coupled with occasional handcam use made a mess of otherwise impressive fight scenes.
In the end, 300: Rise of an Empire was a pretty entertaining movie and a solid sequel. It will certainly not be breaking any records, nor winning any major awards, but it will make for enjoyable viewing on a rainy spring afternoon. I give it three out of five Death Stars.