It took eight years but a follow-up to 300 has finally come to us in the form of 300: Rise of an Empire. I don’t know if anybody still wants this — I like to think that we’ve matured in eight years and realize that 300 wasn’t that good, even with all of its internet memes on release — but here it is. The quick-and-dirty? It’s about as good as the original, for better or worse. Expository and clichéd speeches lead into gory slow-motion battles. Rinse and repeat for a couple of hours and you have a 300 movie.
Rise of an Empire takes place primarily during 300, which will probably be somewhat of a shock to people hoping for either a straight prequel or sequel. There is a bit of a prequel and a few scenes following the events of the first film, but for the most part we’re following a parallel story, this time involving a bloody sea battle between the Greeks and Persians. The Greeks are a small fleet led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), while the Persians outnumber the Greeks by thousands and are led by Artemisia (Eva Green). They fight for three or four days, resting at night to deliver those aforementioned speeches.
The “prequel” part essentially shows how Themistocles attempts to gather his forces for the upcoming battle, and also how Artemisia is mad at Themistocles because a decade ago he killed the Persian king or something. So, for her, the battle is personal. We also get a flashback showing that Artemisia is Greek by birth but was tortured and raped by some bad Greeks, and then trained as a fighter by the Persians. She wants to see Greece burn.
Notice how two sentences in that paragraph were dedicated to Artemisia’s motivation while nothing much came from Themistocles? I suppose he doesn’t need much reason to go to war other than “they’re invading us and that’s bad for our country,” but the point I’m making is that Artemisia is the only character in this film to feel like a character other than a generic soldier — one of whom happens to be the lead and the general of an army of generic, ripped, white guys.
If I could remember more of the completely forgettable 300, maybe I would know why the Persians are considered the bad guys. The Greeks represent freedom and they represent oppression, and they’re the invaders so naturally they’re bad, but apart from that they’re exactly as bland and generic as the good guys, except we don’t have to listen to their terrible speeches about being macho. They also have cooler armor and a leader who is actually interesting.
I mentioned that there are a few scenes that take place after 300. They lead to a cliffhanger and a promise of a huge land battle — one that we don’t get to see. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s stories that end on a cliffhanger with no promise of a conclusion. We have no idea if we’ll see another 300 movie, even though for the story to end we need one. It’s a disgusting practice and if there’s one thing that Rise of an Empire does that angered me more than anything else, it’s ending on this cliffhanger. If it takes another eight years to get to the next chapter, it’ll be too long.
If you were a fan of the graphic novel aesthetic, the gory and slow-motion action — and likely nothing else, because that’s more or less all there is to these films — will have enough of that to keep them satisfied with this follow-up. Without seeing the credits, one would likely be unable to tell that the project has switched directors, or even that there has been a large amount of time between the projects. It fits right in with the first film, for better or worse.
There’s a considerable amount of technical expertise on display in Rise of an Empire. Many of the action scenes have takes that seem to go on forever, which is impressive unto itself. A couple of them near the end are staggering in how long a single take goes on. It’s also incredibly violent and bloody. Having it primarily take place at sea rather than on land allows it to feel fresh and allows the filmmakers to come up with some more creative ways to battle that keeps it from feeling repetitive when watched in close proximity to the original.
Even with all of this praise, most of 300: Rise of an Empire is a mediocre movie with pretty visuals. The only standout is Eva Green, who carries far more of the film than she should. It helps that she’s the only interestingly written character, but the way she commands the screen and distracts us from the emptiness of the rest of the production is astounding. She single-handedly almost makes this movie worth seeing.
300: Rise of an Empire is pretty much what you can expect from a follow-up to the 2006 film that made “This is Sparta” a thing. It’s gory, it’s got a ton of slow-motion action, it goes back and forth between this action and overly macho and clichéd expository speeches, and it looks good. Its plot is non-existent, and most of its characters are generic, chiseled, white men. Eva Green crafts a character and carries far more of the film than she should have to. It ends on a cliffhanger without the promise of a sequel, which is unforgivable. If you liked the first one, this is more of the same.