*Beware! Lots of spoilers of both the first and second 300 ahead!
The first 300 film is one of those that I like but I have a more difficult time justifying why. The film lacks storyline and is filled with machismo cliches. Badass, buff, male characters fight dehumanized enemies and the only females present spend good portions of screen time in sex scenes. On top of that, I am not a fan of most blood-and-sandals epics. Mostly, the film only exists to recount a famous historical battle.
What saves that film from just becoming misogynistic fodder is its sense of style. Zack Snyder, following an almost note-for-note retelling of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, directs a film that, although filled with violent action, has a certain amount of artistic flair. Although the lead characters were rebuilt into overly built comic book stars, they still manage to become humanized and given just enough depth to be relatable.
On top of that, there is a certain amount of myth-making that went into this version of the story. Our heroes pay heed to oracles hidden in mountains, our lead villain is a self created god who controls an endless onslaught of monsters, and Spartans understand their role as players in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The characters become archetypes in a grand tragedy that shows how a seemingly senseless act, in this case a loss that results in martyrdom, can serve a much greater purpose as a fable that can inspire people.
300: Rise of an Empire seems to grasp most of the pieces of its predecessors skeleton but fails to really put them together correctly. Its attempts to mimic the style of the first film often hinder the story it is trying to tell and some of the changes it makes show how much weaker it is as a sequel.
To start, its storytelling structure is incredibly convoluted. The first film’s story opens with our narrator recounting the tale to a group of soldiers. This narration is present throughout to create a myth-like atmosphere and create a sense that there is some grand purpose of the story. The sequel has Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) as a leader who is obviously charging into battle already and using a tale as a pep-up speech. I feel like this alone caused some confusion in the story because it seemed like the battle the Spartans were going into would be the central feature of the film and what was being narrated was just a short flashback to set the stage. I that the first film’s tale was being used as a pep-up speech but that was not given its grand reveal until the finale of the film (which was far more effective if you ask me).
Awhile into the film it became obvious that the supposed flashback was the centerpiece of the film, but one thing that further complicates its structure is that our narrator’s voice disappears. The opening staging of the film is discarded and further complicated by the fact that there are flashbacks within this story being told by other characters. The first film brought all storytelling back to the initial narrator but this sequel ignores its opening segment and just starts telling its story through the characters alone around twenty minutes into the film. This left me scratching my head when characters started narrating back stories because all I could envision was Gorgo saying, “and then Scyllas started telling the tale of Artemisia and it went as follows”.
I don’t know if I’m just nit-picking, but flashbacks within flashbacks kind of muddle the narrative for me. It seems like if they kept with bringing all aspects in the story back to the central narrator, like in the first film, the narrative structure would not as come off as badly contrived.
Well, film structure aside, constantly fails at recreating the mood of the first film. This movie acts as a semi-prequel and it is portraying a battle that happened around the same time as the one in the first film. Plot-wise, the films are very similar. Both recount heroes who are underdogs going into a great battle. Unfortunately, the great weight that the battle in 300 had is lost in Rise of an Empire. The movie constantly reminds us that the battle in this movie is just one little piece of a great war. Whereas what the Spartans are doing at the same time is far more important because it is supposed to unite Greece.
Furthermore, the subtle setup that the first 300 used is instead replaced by about 10 quick minutes of rapid fire exposition before the main plot kicks in. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a history buff and felt very confused as to what the purpose of the battle actually was. If you know Greek history and were able to follow along, that’s fine, but a well written movie should be able to clearly provide details to any newcomers. I’m sure all the details are given in that opening setup but introduction to the battle is so short and a large amount of exposition is spit-out so fast that it was very hard to follow.
This was never an issue in the first film because it used little to no plot exposition speeches to set the stage. The methods it used of turning historical details into mini-tales that build up to the main story are present in the opening of this movie but only go so far as to tell us why the villains in the movie are so pissed off in the first place. The battle that fills around two-thirds of the movie is given very little staging and I constantly found myself asking “what is the point?”
Even with all these issues, the film could have been saved with good characters. Arguably, that may be one of the main reasons that the first film succeeds with a lack of plot. Unfortunately, this sequel not only creates terrible characters, but goes out of its way to shit on ones from the first film.
There were arguments about the first film that Leonidas (Gerard Butler) had little depth and was just an infallible hero. I’d have to disagree with that because Leonidas had certain codes and principals that made him an overly prideful man; at some times he could even be overly cruel. Arguably, it is his mistreatment of the hunchback in the first film that causes his group’s downfall.
In this film, our hero is General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and he has about as much depth as a kiddie pool. Themistocles, as a leader, is pictured as perfect in battle and in the eyes of the audience. Aside from being portrayed as a soldier who needs no support from his troops to win in battle, the only other thing Themistocles does is deliver speeches that are empty of meaning. At one point he even has a speech that concludes with the point, “they fear our FREEDOM!” Hmmm…falsely equating a battle for democracy with freedom and then claiming that a middle eastern entity fears it; where does that sound familiar? But seriously, I hated this character so much. To me, he came off like a white washed version of superman with less personality.
Eva Green as Artemesia is one of the few saving graces in this film. Her character is decently interesting and is used to replace the new, underwhelming Xerxes (I’ll get to that in a second). The reasons for her villainy are kind of forced and non-sensical (especially since they are non-historical) but I kind of let it slide since she fit the role so well. Admittedly, she is just playing a femme fatale cliché but that trope allows her to fill the dull void that exists in the picture.
Aside from these two, the only other notable main characters that exist are a father and son, Calisto and Scylias (Jack O’Connell and Callan Mulvey). Like the few others that are featured fighting aside Themistocles, they are given next to no defining characteristics. Arguably, the only reason that these two exist is so that one of them can die in battle; a petty attempt to recreate the surprisingly heart wrenching familial death from the first movie. This movie really wants us to care when the father dies, it truly does. But given that the audience neither knows nor cares about either of these characters, the lack of shits given was unsurprising.
Following up with characters that carry over from the first film, most of Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) character and screen time is thrown away in this feature. For reasons that are not clear to me, the film has an in-depth mythical back-story for him early in the feature. That part was actually pretty interesting and I would not be surprised if it is one of the few moments in the film that is based off Miller’s upcoming graphic novel, Xerxes. But after that, he disappears for most of the rest of the film and merely pops in randomly to whine and generally ruin everything we knew about his character from the first film.
Also, his voice is no longer as deep and he just sounds like a guy with a deep voice instead of a man with a monstrous god voice. I heard this, and the toning down of monsters in the Persian army, was due to the perception of racism towards Iranians from the first film. I would actually say that by humanizing the film’s villains instead of mythicizing them and then making them look like shitty, slaving, war mongers (coupled with a few of Themistocles’ speeches) makes this come off as a lot more racist.
One of the most aggravating points in the film also coincides with a complete shitting upon of Queen Gorgo. Her character’s integrity is completely sacrificed to the will of the plot in several moments that she is featured in the film but this part is most glaring. For the sake of creating a plot conflict, and having a surprise appearance at the end of the film, Gorgo initially refuses Themistocles’ invitation to go to war.
This refutation has so many issues within it that I barely know where to start. First off, she states that she doesn’t want to go to war because she doesn’t want to lose a son or more men. This goes against the one true dream of all Spartans that is pounded into the audience’s heads in both films; Spartans are aspire to die a heroic death.
Also, this reaction shits on Leonidas’ sacrifice and the continuity from the first film. Gorgo, Leonidas and the entire 300 knew the men were almost certainly marching towards certain death. The only reason they marched a small group instead of their entire army was because the festival of the Carne and the corrupt oracles told them they couldn’t. Leonidas only sacrificed this group for the sake of getting approval to send the entire army in the first place. So, at this moment, the film decides to take all the awesomeness we know about Gorgo from the first movie and throws it away.
Instead, in a kind of sexist way, the film makes her overly caring and irrational at this moment, thereby making her decision make the 300s martyrdom completely pointless. The film finds it necessary to have her coaxed into going to war by Themistocles which degrades her character from a tough leader to a submissive follower. It also sort of makes Themistocles the hero of both this film and the outcome of the last film which just pisses me off more.
One could argue that, against everything that seemed pretty fucking clear in the last film, Gorgo was unaware of the purpose of Leonidas’ sacrifice. One could argue that except Gorgo fucking references and explains the entire purpose of the martyrdom in regards to the Carne earlier in this sequel (Aaaaaarrrrrgggh!).
Not only that, but the whole goddamn point of this plot contrivance is to make the Spartan’s arrival at the end of the film a surprise. Only we see the Spartans sailing into battle at the beginning of the film which makes their appearance at the end no surprise at all (another issue arising from that awkward narrative structure). So this scene succeeds in doing one thing, and one thing only. Taking a cool female character from the first film and making her look really stupid and selfish; thanks movie.
I know this has gone on way too long, but one last thing. The biggest thing mocked from the last movie was the use of speed-up and slo-mo moments combined. After that movie, which I never really thought overused this new effect, Snyder continued to use this technique (eg. fights in Watchmen) but drastically toned it down. This movie brings back the effect to almost parody levels of overuse. Each hack, slash, jump, fist fight, and rope dropped on the ground (ooh the intensity) is worthy of a speed-up/slo-mo in this film’s eyes. The gratuitous use of this effect in South Park’s parody of the first film seem almost subtle compared to this film.
Well, in case you hadn’t noticed by now, I really didn’t like this film. Aside from a few cool stylish moments and Eva Green’s saving graces as a sleek femme fatale, there is little good within this picture. I suppose if you’re a huge history buff you may get a little giddy thrill seeing this particular battle in film form, but considering all the historical inaccuracies I have to sort of doubt that too. What 300: Rise of an Empire all boils down to is a lot of blood, violence and special effects in unremarkable CG. The first film may be an example of style over substance, with just enough substance to make the audience care. But this film tells its tale without any substance at all and isn’t even very stylish at it either.