I reviewed this on the radio, as usual, but between then and now I have been trying my hardest to see if I shouldn’t change my final dice roll for this film. I have to stand by my convictions, however. Sure, maybe the movie will age well and I can see it again in two-three years and not feel the same. Until then, here is my rather mean rant about 300: Rise of an Empire. Not the actual review, but the scribbles I wrote down immediately after I left the theatre. I decided to do it this way to see if it helped people understand why I simply did not like the film, even though I had every reason to considering the premise, my personal tastes, and those involved.
Plot: While Leonidas is off with his 300 men, we get the events in the rest of Greece, and the backstory of the entire war, told by his wife to some soldiers about to fight (presumably) Xerxes’ army. We meet Themistokles, champion of Maraton, who has to fight a navy-battle against Artemisia, Xerxes’ top naval commander.
Empires are not exactly associated with democracy or progress or freedom, at least not in their conquered states. The idea that city-states coming together could be an “empire” is very flimsy, especially when the members of these states consistently refer to themselves as a “nation” or potential “country.” So, the only empire in the film is the Persian one. In fact it is “the greatest empire the world has ever seen” (quote Artemisia). The Persian empire is pretty much risen all the way already.
Naming aside, the plot is about rising to the occasion, at least. Told as both prequel and sequel, the idea of seeing the bigger picture behind the previous film is interesting. If only it actually was interesting. Although the use of names like Athens, Maraton and Persia makes it seem historical, the film is clearly fantasy like the first one, with mythical beasts, no laws of physics and ridiculous heroics. For 300 that worked. It was cartoonish (almost exactly like the source material), but it was fun.
Rise of an Empire also knows what it wants to be, but what it wants to be doesn’t fit into any universe I can accept, cartoon or otherwise. Again and again, characters give speeches about fighting for freedom and the “nation” of Greece. The men can even just leave the army whenever they want (because they are “free men”). There were no deserters in Ancient Greece. This is just one of a dozen little annoyances that slowly started to wear me down, along with the much bigger problem of personality.
Gerald Butler’s Leonidas had presence, but we also knew him five minutes into the film. He was sarcastic and a little crazy, with major flaws (arrogance being the biggest). Themistokles is… stoic, heroic and a “farmer” with buns of steel? He has no family, and no personality. There was one glimpse of one during his scenes with Artemisia, and I think this is where I finally gave up on the film. Eva Green knows how to look sexy and creepy, but she doesn’t get to really let loose.
Her performance got me thinking. What if the story of Themistokles was one of doubt? What if, this time, Xerxes’ offer actually tempted someone? What if Artemisia could seduce him to the “dark side”? The film would be the flipside of the first one, a film about loyalty as well as heroism. The idea of fighting for a “united Greece” might have appealed more to me had the film shown some depth to those fighting for her.
It felt like going to the ballet to see your favourite show, only to be met with an understudy. Rise of an Empire could probably never live up to 300, but it didn’t even bother with the standard sequel rule: go bigger or go home. Men fighting on CGI boats does not automatically translate to more epic, especially when the men fighting hardly ever move as if they’re fighting on boats. I could forgive that, if only I cared a tiny bit about those fighting.
The answer to all this is of course: It’s a fantasy blood-ballet. You’re not suppose to need “personality” or “backstory.” But 300 had a lot of personality – the whole film was a personality. This is just 300-at sea, with slightly cheaper-looking CGI and no fun.
The problem with not having any personality, is that it gives me no one to root for. No one to go “fuck, yeah, you cut that guy’s head off!” I don’t want to see people speaking solely in inspirational speeches. If I hear one more I might start screaming “Where is Sparta!?” at the screen.
Rise of an Empire doesn’t want to go bigger or better, it wants to be Braveheart of the Aegean, and it bored me to tears.
Dice roll: 2