Movie review: “300: Rise of an Empire”


300: Rise of an Empire

dir. Noam Murro

Release Date: Feb 07, 14

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300: Rise of an Empire was saved from the doldrums of last summer by Warner Bros., who made the questionable move of teleporting the film to another date over six months later. (Getaway was the unfortunate recipient of that late-August slot, but then something always has to get the short end of every sacrifice.) This was on top of the fact that Empire was already a dicey proposition, a sequel to an surprise smash hit that didn’t seem to offer much in the way of sequel prospects, being that 300 was almost exclusively about the murder of the titular band of Spartans by the Persian king Xerxes at Thermoplaye.

But then, 300 was in every way Frank Miller’s version of ancient military history, and Empire doubles down on everything that was generally appealing about Zach Snyder’s first film. There’s more nudity, more rousing rally speeches about the nobility of a violent death staged for the benefit of an ideological cause, more homoerotic overtones, and of course, more blood. Like, a lot more blood. Like, more blood than you can even imagine. Those who found the 2007 film too akin to violence porn need not even apply for Empire; by the 30-minute mark, the film will offer dismemberments, beheadings (and, at that, a makeout sequence involving a severed head), and a great many more lacerations, cut throats, and all manner of viscera sprayed about in lovingly rendered 3D.

And that’s about 80% of Rise of an Empire, the other 20 spent on the shouty conflicts that propel the film between sacrifical offerings of uniformly handsome men. Those are primarily centered around Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), his top military commander Artemesia (Eva Green), and Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), a Greek commander who knows of the futility of any peacekeeping gestures with the Persians. (This review won’t even go down the road of historical inaccuracies, or the film’s unpleasant apologias for the modern war instinct in the name of democracy, because there just isn’t enough room and CGI-heavy violence porn is hardly the venue.) Because the film is situated as a prequel, parallel to and sequel to 300, Empire gets to go through many of the same tropes about beings destined for greatness in war as its predecessor.

And once the Spartans die, the film takes to the seas for a series of immaculately photographed battles that spill a lot of blood without leaving much of a lasting impression. Another aspect of 300 on which Empire doubles down is its undying love for trick photography. Speed ramping is the name of the game for the whole of Empire, to such a ridiculous extent that the film’s obligatory sex scene is rendered in the same style as so many eviscerations throughout. And then there are the truly ridiculous images, particularly in the film’s flashback that flesh out the lingering question of why Miller’s (and then, Snyder’s) Xerxes was rendered as an abnormally tall, completely hairless golden god. Spoiler: it’s because he gave up his soul in a golden bath after wandering the desert naked on a vision quest. The film even goes so far as to note aloud through narration that Xerxes was “stripped, cleansed, glamorous, and smooth,” in a delicious bit of dialogue that really makes you wonder if those involved with the production weren’t in on the campy subtexts as well.

A reading of Rise of an Empire as knowing over-the-top camp, a Harryhausen chestplate actioner with violently modern sensibilities, is one of the only ways to make sense of a movie that offers a second helping of a thing people saw seven years ago and aspires to nothing more. It also explains the film’s one truly pitch-perfect performance. Green runs away with the whole damn movie as the bloodthirsty Artemesia, a lunatic genius of military tactics whose sexuality is a weapon both for destruction and for her own pleasures. Whether sitting on a black throne eating apples from a footlong knife and issuing kill orders, or employing violent sex as a recruitment tool, or running a blade through anybody that so much looks at her the wrong way, she offers periodic shots of energy that the film desperately needs. Where most of Empire is as dull and one-note as the legions of chisled hunks hollering bloodthirsty edicts, Green is the one part that seems like it’s on purpose, to wonderful effect.