by Kathie Smith
You’ll be forgiven if you have forgotten the particulars of Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300. Although rooted in the ancient Greek Battle of Thermopylae, the story was no more than a platform for chest-thumping jingoism on the eve of the deadliest year for US troops in Iraq. But even this pummeling motif has faded to the more lasting visual impressions of this post-production powerhouse filled with saturated graphics and scantily clad men with chiseled chests and abs. (Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender’s physiques in 300 will likely live on in cinematic history as the ne plus ultra of masculinity.) The heavily stylized blend of fantasy, action, and revisionist history brings to life a seductive Age of Empires atmosphere that has long been relegated to the gamer’s imagination. Even though Snyder has stepped aside as director (working here as producer and scribe), 300: Rise of an Empire continues a legacy of visual extravagance that is hard to resist.
Director: Noam Murro
Producers: Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, Gianni Nunnari, Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder, Thomas Tull
Writers: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Frank Miller (graphic novel)
Cinematographer: Simon Duggan
Editors: David Brenner, Wyatt Smith
Music: Junkie XL
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Igal Naor
Genre: Action, Drama, War
US Theatrical Release: March 7, 2014
US Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rise of an Empire chronicles the Athenian’s seafaring battle parallel to the Spartan ground assault depicted in 300, but first provides a dramatic backstory to the bubbling conflict between the Greek and the Persians as a preface. During the first invasion of Greece, Persia was handed an unexpected defeat led by the cunning heroics of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). More importantly, Themistocles shot the arrow that felled Persian King Darius, sending his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) into a downward spiral of burning vengeance. The architect and surprising lynchpin to Xerxes’ rebirth as the god-King and his subsequent bloodthirsty quest to subjugate the Greeks is Artemisia (Eva Green), a woman of Greek descent who seethes for revenge against a country that enslaved her and then tossed her out to die. Rescued by a Persian, Artemisia became a callous fighter loyal to King Darius and, after his death, a ruthless puppetmaster to Xerxes.
As tedious as this prelude sounds, it’s supplemented by such visual excess that you might need some smelling salts for swooning. What Gravity offers in outer space, Rise of an Empire offers in the dirt of the battlefield and the legend of Greek myth. Blood sprays like viscous oil from severed arteries; the armies of men are beautifully accentuated by high definition after-effects; and as Xerxes emerges from a bath of gold as the god-King filled with the desire for war, he stands on a precipice above a city realized with inspiring computer-generated invention. And for the first half hour, you are made to believe that this Macedonian war drama might just be a five star ride right into summer—until it gets bogged down with juggling battle expositions, heroic speeches, and villainess maneuverings.
The remaining hour turns into a conflict of wits and posturing between Themistocles and Artemisia. Themistocles leads by manly example; Artemisia intimidates with brutality (in one case, planting a kiss on the lips of a beheaded general who lost a battle). After losing two sea battles to the cleverer Themistocles, Artemisia summons him for negotiations which hilariously turn into rough sex between the rivals. Needless to say, an agreement was not reached. It also goes without saying that a fatal blow to the Greeks, at least in the ethos of Zack Snyder and company, is only a rally cry for greater martyrdom in the name of freedom. Themistocles dreams of a broader alliance between the Greek city-states, a force that would surely put an end to the Persians’ marauding. With the mighty 300 Spartans slaughtered, and the Athenians pummeled into retreat, we nonetheless know that the glory of free men will prevail in unified sweat and blood.
It’s hard to ignore the insidious politics veiled under the popular allure of both 300 and Rise of an Empire. The Iraq War may have subsided in our consciousness, but the notion that there are only two options in a conflict—death or humiliation—is still at best offensive and at worst dangerous. Themistocles’ assertion that it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees has a different pallor now than it would have in the George W. Bush era (when Leonidas bellowed from his diaphragm for a fight for freedom), but the warmongering message is just the same. The contemporary allusions are perhaps most pronounced in the Persians who tactically send swimmers loaded with flammable oil on a suicide mission to blow up Greek ships. If fifth century BC suicide bombers aren’t enough, the cheeky use of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” over the end credits adds another layer of distaste.
And this is where 300: Rise of an Empire loses its glow: in clunky narrative mechanics that never allow the film to return to the virtuosity of the prolonged introduction and the underhanded context of diplomacy by aggression. But maybe Snyder and his gun-for-hire director Noam Murro are simply being a little brassy with the Persian invasion of Greece, poking fun at history repeating itself and laughing all the way to the bank. Stapleton does his best to fill the tight leather shorts and flowing cape left by his Spartan brother, but Green steals his attempted thunder with her remorseless, over-the-top vixen. Rise of an Empire might be a mixed critical bag, but the visual exploits throughout, turned up to eleven, are certainly something to behold on the big screen.