Besides a little age on the returning actors, not much has changed in the 300 universe since 2006. And even the ravages of time are negligible, thanks to either make-up or digital effects. 300: Rise of an Empire (which I consistently mis-type as “Rose of an Empire” – smells so good) depicts events before, during, and after what we saw in 300. It is The Pacific to 300‘s Band of Brothers, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to 300‘s Hamlet, The Lion King 1 1/2 to 300‘s The Lion King. Yeah, those are perfect analogies.
Lena Headey, David Wenham, and Rodrigo Santoro all return as their characters from the previous film, but their collective screentime is pretty insignificant. The majority of the movie revolves around Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistokles and Eva Green’s Artemisia. They confront each other on the watery battlefield (most of the combat this time around is ship-to-ship) in an overwrought metaphor for sex that eventually becomes not-a-metaphor.
The original 300 caught a lot of flack for its poor treatment of Persians. This continues pretty unabated in the sequel, but the questions becomes whether that matters. I certainly agree that the portrayal of the race is not appropriate or flattering, but I also don’t think anyone is watching these movies and assuming that Xerxes and his weirdo band of outsiders are really indicative of the Iranian people – and if viewers do think that, well no amount of honest film depictions will change those perceptions.
If you’re going to take such a critical stance on disposable entertainment such as 300 and its successor, outlandish racism is really only the tip of the iceberg. There’s also the full-fledged ignorance of female contributions to society, the glossing over of treatment of the physically handicapped, and the rampant slavery throughout the region – including by the Greeks. As a white male of relatively good physical condition I cannot really speak to the offense that might be felt by a Persian or a woman or a disabled person in response to the film. I will say that the complete ignorance of slavery among the Spartans especially is odd. At one point we see the Persian slaves (and in fact the Greeks seems to be actively fighting against slavery), but then the Greeks kill all those slave as collateral damage. Even there, my problem is not with the insensitive portrayal of slavery, but rather with how writer Zack Snyder and director Noam Murro utilize it ineffectively (the director of Smart People‘s main contribution? More gore – who’da thunk?)
The movie is actually pretty enjoyable. Eva Green’s turn as the villain is a real highlight, despite having weak material to work with. The character is strong, sexy, dangerous, tragic, appealing, psychotic; all layers that are coming from Green, rather than the script. Stapleton does not fare as well. The script attempts to give him more dimension than Leonidas (Gerard Butler) had in the original, but that’s not why anyone came to this thing. We came to see action.
And there is quite a bit of it. There is so much CGI blood in this movie that at times it looked like these dudes are fighting in a pool full of cranberry juice. CGI blood always looks bad, and this was no exception. The over-reliance on CGI in general was pretty disappointing. There’s plenty of computer work in the original film, but most of the action is ripped up dudes actually doing stuff. In particular I’m thinking of the scene where Leonidas just tears through like fifteen guys. There are similar moments in 300: Rise of an Empire, but this time it is a computer generated Themistokles stabbing computer generated monster-people. In other words, it is not nearly as satisfying.
The movie was about as good as I expected. I was never bored, but I was never fully engaged either (contrast this with Liam Neeson’s Non-Stop, which is pretty enthralling until the last ten minutes). At the very least the movie is worth watching for Eva Green’s performance, who looks to be making a name for herself as the star of long-delayed Frank Miller comic-based sequels. Let’s make a pact to meet back here in six months and talk about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Gosh we’ll all be so different then. Or will we be the same? Hopefully the CGI can cover up all our new wrinkles.