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Review by Kanaan Trotter
Some days call for dumb movies. Every now and then, on a late night or a quiet Saturday afternoon, there's reason enough to watch something that will advance your psyche in no way. I admit it. I’d even go so far as to allow Zack Snyder’s 300 (the 2006 one) to be such. Maybe. It plays like a video game with it’s slow-motion everything and perfectly sculpted everyone. Excuse Gerard Butler’s Irish accent while being the king of Sparta, and forget the greater part of Greek history and it could be fun. It’s like bedazzling your phone. Looks flashy. But don’t ask questions about details or functionality. That’d be silly.
300: Rise of An Empire is no such film. It’s not even appetizing. If 300 were cake, this would be the burnt follow-up dessert that got covered with too much whipped cream. And then sprinkled with a snowdrift of powdered sugar. Even as Snyder only wrote this sequel with Noam Murro directing it, the film falls laughably shot. I’ve chosen to go classical on this review, breaking the whole into the 3 transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. Perhaps this is too high a standard for a movie whose poster has a wave of blood on it. I accept that possibility.
Rise of An Empire picks up the story of its predecessor after scattering out some new details. The Persian King Xerxes (Santoro) was once an innocent prince whose father, Darius, was murdered by the warrior Themistocles (Stapleton) at the battle of Salamis. Quickly and unabashedly the audience is exposed to the intense gore that runs the length of the film: limbs come off every minute and blood sprays as slow and dense as is cinematically possible. We even manage to see a horse utterly smash the face of one Persian soldier.
Xerxes returns to Persia as his father dies and is manipulated by the twisted female-admiral of the Persian fleet, Artemisia (Green). Wandering in the desert to find himself, he stumbles into a demonic cave where he is submersed in a mysterious pool of evil and comes out a god, complete with 40 piercings and more than enough gold chains. It is this demon-god-man Xerxes that attacks the Greeks to avenge his father’s death. The idea of Artemisia’s manipulation, though, seems to burn out quickly as the film progresses. Xerxes deals out a few slaps to cheek her in defiance.
It merits pointing out that in terms of historical accuracy, the film is an impressive failure. Artemisia is mentioned in the History of Herodotus only once. In a naval battle with the Greek forces, the queen accidentally rammed another Persian ship and was seen by Xerxes. The Persian King also thought the boat to be Greek and rewarded Artemisia, mistakenly impressed by the deed. That is all. Xerxes himself is no demon-man. Nor does he return to Greece after his father because of his death. Darius pulled away from the Greeks for much more complicated reasons, and Xerxes returned to finish his father’s work. All this and we've not progressed beyond the introduction.
The truth aspect becomes skewed fast, then. Of course, there ought not necessarily be an expectation for perfect historicity but if all the insides have been gutted to make room for an entirely different story, the backbone of the story is iffy at best. Historical movies owe something to their history. It can be one of their best strengths, even. Factuality is quite moving. An honest recounting of events makes for a powerful narrative. Rise of An Empire has not merely given itself liberty in disregarding the past. Rather, the film has instead boxed itself into a corner of story telling that undoes its potential power.
Themistocles gathers a Greek fleet and sails out to meet the massive Persian navy led by Artemisia. The Greeks win the first battle by forming a tight circle of ships and forcing the Persians to come in smaller numbers (history makes a cool story. Who would have thought?). Soon after, Themistocles hears that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans have fallen at Thermopylae. He uses that info to stir Sparta into action, albeit not instantaneous.
The remainder of the film, I find it quite safe to say, is an unnecessarily violent, sexually tense series of battles. Themistocles loses all possible respect as a hero after having sex with Artemisia who can only gain our attention by different and more startling ways of hacking apart bodies. Beauty has no place in the movie. It seems like a very distant and foreign concept altogether, although it seems as though such a hope was charged into long, dramatic shots of heroes throughout the film.
A consideration of beauty is, I think, a good point to discuss against the overwhelming gore of Rise of An Empire. As the film keeps topping itself with longer and longer shots of hacked limbs and spewed blood, the issue is not one of violence. It is a problem of imagination. A world that consists entirely of this graphic horror and benumbing camera splatterings is not a creative place. Without this violence Rise of An Empire is very common, quite mundane. And such a problem is not attributable to history. Herodotus the historian does a marvelous job enchanting his readers without hosing down the pages with blood. Beauty, then, is a creative and time-consuming thing. It takes real work to make the Sistine Chapel. Murro’s film lacks any kind of engaging beauty, and real imagination. Instead of offering something admirable, it can only drown out petitions for intellection with unwarranted and exaggerated corporeal destruction.
Goodness, too, is quite foreign to this film. After Themistocles (for all intents) rapes Artemisia, it becomes impossible to admire the general or even take his words seriously. Morality means nothing to such a man. It is a bygone standard that was always meant for the weak and foolish. It is only fitting, then, that a film which upholds such a disregard for structured morality would be so immature and foolish itself. Even stranger, the evil commander Artemisia is only presented as evil because we intuit kissing a decapitated head is perverted (we can agree with the filmmakers on that?) Raping a woman, though, is excusable because of Themistocles’ position as hero and Artemisia’s own filthiness.
Rise of An Empire is a poor film at best. It speaks to a modern audience fascinated with destructive art, and to that purpose, it serves well. But that is not the reality of our world. True heroes are not destructive. They give themselves, but that is the exact paradox of the real cosmos. A man giving his life is not damaging. It builds the world. Blood baths ought to be repulsive because they are everything we are set on working against. Beating swords into plowshares is realer than spilled blood. It is as real as the man himself.