300: Rise of an empire (Murro, 2014) can be seen as a companion film to 2007’s 300 (Snyder), as the events take place before, during and after the battle of Thermopylae between 300 Spartans and the Persian army. Threatened by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) attempts to unite the Greek city states as one nation whilst battling the fleet of Artemisia (Eva Green), the Persian naval commander.
300, at first glance, seemed overtly reliant on special effects and cursed with predictable and uninspired characters. However, I could not stop smiling during my first and subsequent screenings of the film, as the sheer brutality of the action and the grandeur of the monologues were impeccably timed and preformed. Blessed with a charismatic cast, led by Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender, the film grew to be a somewhat guilty pleasure I fully enjoyed. Despite my enjoyment, the film had a clear story arc that ended satisfactory, leaving little anticipation of a possible sequel.
That this step eventually was taken, is disappointing more than surprising. With a majority of the principal actors of 300 not returning for Rise of an empire, secondary characters are explored in further depth and new character are introduced. In the former category, the origins of Xerxes are a fitting example. As the son of the murdered king of Persia, the young boy swore vengeance against the Greek and descended into the madness and power of his familiar godlike state. This evolution succeeds in exploring the humanity of Xerxes, yet it was his utter lack of compassion that made him a formidable and ruthless opponent. In showing the manipulation and politics that were instrumental in his rise to power, the ‘God King’ is reduced to insignificance.
Taking his place as the main villain is Artemisia, his late father’s second in command. As a young girl, her parents were killed by a band of Greeks, which held her captive and sexually abused her for years. Taken in by a Persian missionary, she was trained as a fighter and soon rose to prominence in the Persian army. Albeit her origin story is unoriginal, her insanity and bloodlust are believable.
Her foe is Themistocles, the protagonist. Successfully portrayed by Sullivan Stapleton as an intelligent and compassionate leader of his men, a sense of drama and importance is brought to the battle scenes. This, however, cannot be said about the political subplot. Themistocles’s endeavors of uniting Greece as a nation are both too reminiscent of the political subplot in 300 and less coherently executed. Meant to showcase the birth of Western democracy, the film never is able to rise above squabbling old men and contrived dialogue. The finale, when the Spartan fleet comes to the aid of the faltering Athenians, is even brought about by little more than a Spartan thirst for vengeance, showing implicitly the downfalls of the very democracy the film promotes.
More than a film about politics, Rise of an empire of course is first and foremost an action film. Whilst the creative team could’ve been praised for transporting the war from the desert in 300 to the ocean, this shift does not result in significantly different warfare. The differences in commanding a fleet of ships as opposed to an army of men could’ve resulted in an interesting spin, yet the ships quickly are demoted to mere plateaus for the warriors to fight on. The action is still highly stylized and impressively filmed, it does not innovate. On the contrary, 300 saw more variations on the theme than ever are shown in Rise of an empire.
This leads to an important issue. In 300, the waves of enemies increased exponentially, as the might of the Spartans was fully revealed. This premise was believable. In Rise of an empire, the strength of the Athenians is never quite explained. Shown initially as fighters capable of Spartan feats of skill, the warriors comment on several occasions on their daily professions as poets and painters. This is not explained, and made even more opaque in the scenes where the Persians with ease murder countless Greeks. This confusion can be attributed to the exposition of the plot. Whereas in 300 the first half hour of screen time was reserved for explaining the characters, the first half hour of Rise of an empire is used to bring those unfamiliar with its predecessor up to speed. As a result, the characters are severely underdeveloped.
Whilst the violence is equally explicit and gruesome as its predecessor’s, Rise of an empire curiously has copious amounts of profanity and nudity. Anyone familiar with the first instalment would agree that this film could not and needn’t be made any more ‘mature’ or ‘edgy’, which made the fucks (double entendre intended) seem out of place and immature. This can be seen as a metaphor for the entire film, as it expands upon the original source where there is little left to be gained.