300: Rise of an Empire (United States, 2014)

March 05, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
300: Rise of an Empire Poster

300: Rise of an Empire is one of those unnecessary sequels that exists primarily because the previous installment made a lot of money. The lack of a creative driver behind the film leads to a level of fundamental dissatisfaction. The movie delivers all the necessary elements but their impact is dull. The virulent mix of adrenaline and testosterone that fueled 2006’s 300, accomplishing the increasingly difficult task of getting young adult males into theaters, is diluted in 300: Rise of an Empire.

There’s a sense that screenwriters Zack Snyder (who directed the original) & Kurt Johnstad and director Noam Murro sat down and came up with a list of things that made 300 popular. Over-the-top violence - check. Spurting blood - check. Frequent beheadings - check. Six-pack abs - check. Topless women - check. Big, special effects-fueled battles - check. Rousing speeches - check. Those elements, which formed the cornerstones of 300, are all present in 300: Rise of an Empire. But there’s something missing: the energy and sense of envelope-pushing. More than anything, this new movie feels calculated. In 300, the stylistic aspects worked in the service of presenting the narrative. In 300: Rise of an Empire, it’s the other way around. The storyline is constructed to highlight the visual and visceral components, and that’s why it doesn’t work nearly as well.

Part of 300: Rise of an Empire is a prequel, part takes place during the same time frame as its predecessor (but in a different location), and the final act advances the story beyond the end of 300. With King Leonidas dead, a new hero is needed. This comes in the person of Themistocles of Athens (Sullivan Stapleton), who is credited with killing King Darius of Persia during the first attempted invasion of Greece. This allows Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) to ascend to the throne and, with the able assistance of his chief naval warrior, Artemisia (Eva Green), he claims the title of “god king.”

While Xerxes is beginning his attack on Thermopylae, he sends Artemisia and her fleet against the small navy commanded by Themistocles. Before engaging the enemy, he seeks support from Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) but his efforts are rebuffed. As a result, of necessity, his attack on the much larger Persian force requires more guile than brute force. After winning two battles, Themistocles finds himself in an untenable position where victory no longer appears to be an option.

In 300, the largest character by far was Leonidas and his absence in the sequel is keenly felt. (Initially, it was planned for Leonidas to make appearances but Gerald Butler wasn’t interested in reprising the role.) Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistocles is a poor substitute. The character is mundane and his speeches lack the fire-and-brimstone of Leonidas’ pep talks. The most colorful member of 300: Rise of an Empire’s roster is Artemisia. Unfortunately, she’s a villain and is therefore not permitted to capture our sympathies despite having a tragic backstory. Eva Green plays her like a Frank Frazetta warrior woman come to life. Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes might have been an imposing “big bad” if permitted more screen time. As it is, he’s only around for a few minutes at the beginning and a few more at the end. For the most part, he’s too busy wiping out Leonidas’ 300 to make an appearance.

The film’s visual aesthetic replicates that of 300 despite the change in director. Noam Murro obviously subscribes to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy of filmmaking. 300: Rise of an Empire looks and feels like its predecessor. There are a lot of impressive visual moments, although a few of them are obfuscated by bad 3-D. The movie makes poor use of the extra dimension, using it primarily as a means of hurling globs of blood at the audience.

300: Rise of an Empire is too loud and over-the-top ever to be boring. It moves briskly from battle to battle without worrying about character development or historical accuracy. Sadly, nothing in 300: Rise of an Empire comes close to generating the kind of cinematic rush that accompanied Leonidas’ shout of “We are Spartans!” as he kicked the Persian messenger into a well. This film’s constant attempts to mine the first film’s touchstones result in a pale echo of a onetime success rather than a new installment of a franchise.

300: Rise of an Empire (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2014-03-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Bloody Mayhem, Nudity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1