Starting somewhere around the time of the Star Wars prequels, critics began describing certain movies as “looking like video games.” Since most of said critics weren’t too familiar with the visual feel of video games at all, what they really meant was that these films were filled with CGI. But when I say that 300: Rise of an Empire looks like a video game being played instead of a proper movie, I mean it.
In one shot, the camera looks at the main character (He has a name, but no one will remember it, so let’s call him Protagonisticles), then rapidly zooms several hundred yards to focus on Eva Green’s character, then zooms back to Protagonisticles, all without a cut. That’s not something that’s evolved out of the visual vocabulary of cinema – that’s straight from a Final Fantasy cutscene. When sword and spear and arrow rend flesh, blood flies in huge splashes, gushing forth the same way no matter how the wound was inflicted. It looks very much like pre-rendered animations. This is the nadir of action cinema, a style that totally estranges the viewer from feeling anything at all about what they are watching.
Who is Noam Murro? The studios’ relentless pursuit of the next Fincher or Bay has led one to stoop so low as to hire a man whose only previous film was Smart People to helm a blockbuster, simply because he’s done commercials. The best that Murro, cinematographer Simon Duggan, and editors Wyatt Smith and David Brenner can manage is an approximation of the look Zack Snyder and his team created for the original 300. But there is nothing striking about this sequel, nothing that is at least memorable the way that moments like an army being driven off a cliff were in the first film.
Rise of an Empire is simultaneously a prequel, counterpart, and sequel to 300. The opening sequence gives an “origin story” for Persian despot / jewelry giant Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro); which is empty, given that Xerxes might have less screen time in this film than he did in the first one. His villain duties are taken over by his main general, Artemesia (Green), who leads a naval battle against the Athenians while Xerxes tries to break the Spartans at Thermopylae (which was, of course, what 300 was about). Leading the Athenians is Themisticles/Protagonisticles (Sullivan Stapleton), a hero of the first war against Persia who bears guilt over missing a chance to kill a young Xerxes during that time. The movie is mostly a string of samey battles, loosely strung together on a plot about the Greek city-states trying to get their act together.
A lot of reviews have already singled out Green as the highlight of the film. Certainly, Artemesia is more interesting, sympathetic, and cool than any of the alleged heroes, which means that viewers will be rooting for the “wrong” side on top of every other disengaging factor. But she’s only great in a relative sense, because she’s the only one having any fun. In the first 300, everyone was having fun, relishing the over-the-topness. Green stands out against her dismal cohorts, but she’s a big fish in a small pond… or a puddle.
300 managed to stir up controversy over whether or not it was racist, jingoistic, homophobic, homoerotic, idiotic, self-aware, and/or a parable for the War on Terror, among other things*. It did so because it was, first and foremost, entertaining enough to draw an audience, to surprise people by becoming one of the earliest March blockbusters. But it was also about something. In the context of the time, Lena Headey’s Queen Gorgo pointedly saying that “Freedom isn’t free” was a deliberate discussion-generator, even if such ideas were only justification for gratuitous violence. Headey is back in this film, delivering similar speeches, but with no conviction whatsoever. “Freedom” has gone from motivation to window dressing.
There’s little innovation in Rise of an Empire, generic down to its ubiquitous “rise” title. The battle scenes are numbing, seemingly endless storms of digital blood and seawater. Sullivan Stapleton has none of Gerard Butler’s neanderthal-like machismo and charisma. Nor do his circle of friends possess any characteristics that distinguish them from one another (I could tell one of them apart from the others because he had a scar on his chin, and that’s it). David Wenham’s narration gave the audience the feeling of sitting around a campfire. This time around, Headey’s narration is purely expositional. 300 truly felt like a Greek myth; this is a subpar God of War.
Here and there are hints of a better movie. There’s an underutilized kinkiness to Artemesia, who makes out with a head she just removed from a man’s shoulders and invites Protagonisticles into her quarters for negotiations only to engage in fightsex with him. Indulging an angle like that would certainly help this film separate itself from its predecessor. But the biggest change from 300 is that there is now a blue or grey filter over everything instead of an orange or brown one. Well, that and the fact that everything is much worse this time around.
*The correct answer to all of these is “yes.”