By: Heather Seebach
Glistening muscles and slow-motion are back in this sequel to Zack Snyder's 2007 action-fantasy, 300. Both films are based on graphic novels by Frank Miller, although "Xerxes", the inspiration for this latest film, is not as of yet published. As the book's name implies, there is a bit of the villain's origin story involved but mostly Rise of an Empire portrays the events concurrent to 300 as the Athenians battle Xerxes' second-in-command on the high seas.
It is part prequel, part sequel, and mostly simultaneous to the first film. As the Spartans debate whether or not to get involved in the Persian Wars, Athens mounts an offensive-at-sea against Persia, led by General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton). He and his men face off with the vengeful Greek-born woman who leads the Persian Navy, Artemisia (Eva Green).
Empire may seem like an after-thought sequel but it is actually strongly tied to its predecessor. Zack Snyder is no longer in the director's seat but he co-wrote and co-produced this one. Many of the characters - both alive and dead- from 300 are back, including Xerxes, Queen Gorgo, Dilios, the hunchback Ephialtes, and even that Persian emissary who got kicked down a well! Some of the original Spartans also make cameo appearances (albeit pre-filmed or digitally-created ones) since the events of this movie happen largely at the same time as those of 300.
This sequel carries on the visual style of the original film, having been shot entirely against green screens, but it does not look nearly as beautiful this time around. Snyder's go-to director of photography Larry Fong is out, and the cinematography is noticeably lacking. Granted, there are a few lovely shots that stood out but virtually every shot in 300 was breath-taking. So too does the slow-motion get even more overused this time around. There also seems to be too much emphasis on the 3-D here, which gets pretty annoying.
Finally, and most disappointing of all, the gore FX are terrible. Obviously, practical gore is not, well, practical for an all-digital film like this, but why does the CG blood look so bad now?! It has partly to do with coloring, lighting, and motion - they are all off - and also how overused the gore is here. 300 was bloody, yes, but it was relatively restrained to sprays of blood, not ridiculous geysers. Usually I am all for more blood on screen, but in Empire, the over-abundance just exposes how weak it looks. Case in point, compare these two screenshots - the first from 300, the second from Rise of an Empire:
This is one of those cases where I am not bothered by the existence of CG blood so much as the quality of that CG blood. There are numerous scenes in ROAE where the gore is groan-worthy. I don't need puddles of it flying at the screen, just give me realistic brutality!
The concept of the sequel is good, at least. Setting it on the high seas was an inspired choice, even if the ocean battles are a bit of a digital cluster-fuck. I also like the decision to set this one during the events of 300 but it sets itself up for failure since there is no way the Athenian battles are going to be as interesting as the Spartans! Everything about these guys is less interesting - their weapons, their helmets, their monologues, even their bodies are less impressive. As for the lead, Themistokles cannot compare to Gerard Butler's Leonidas. I looked forward to Stapleton in the lead, as he was a stand-out in Animal Kingdom, but his character is just boring here. Every time the sequel shows a glimpse of the Spartans, I wished I was watching them instead!
Fortunately, Rise of an Empire has Eva Green. Her ruthless Artemisia, based loosely on Xerxes I's real-life female naval commander, is an entertaining villain. Green's scenery-chewing almost makes up for how boring the film's heroes are. So too does Lena Headey out-shine her male co-stars as Leonidas' queen seeking to avenge her fallen husband. Rise is not exact a feminist-friendly tale but it does boast some powerful, screen-commanding women.
For hardcore fans of the first film, 300: Rise of an Empire is worth watching once since it is a direct continuation of that story and has cameos from original players. If you were not a fan of the first film at all, there is nothing for you here. This boring sequel does nothing that 300 did not already do far better, so unless you're a big Eva Green fan or a movie completist, go "dine in Hell" again with Snyder's original.
If you are interested in picking up a copy of 300: Rise of an Empire, it is now available on DVD/Blu-ray Combo Pack. Bonus features include short behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film (including visual FX and set design); a 10-minute one on the history and making of the film's Greek ships; and a 5-minute featurette about the actors' and stuntmen's physical training (here is your eye candy, girls). By far, the best bonus feature is the 25-minute featurette on the real-life history behind this film, including interviews with historians about the Battle of Marathon, the real Xerxes and Artemisia, Greek maritime warfare, and more. For a history junkie like me, this was way more interesting than the movie!