In a world saturated by sequels and prequels, it takes a special kind of film to be at once a prequel, sequel and equal to its predecessor. So steps forth 300: Rise of an Empire.
The follow up to Zack Snyder’s visual feast takes us back to 10 years before the Hot Gates and Leonidas’ brave stand against all of Persia. It tells us Xerxes’ origin story and in doing so unveils a new hero; Themistocles – the man who made Xerxes the warlord he is to day by an inadvertent battle action. In doing so he also secured the god king’s right hand general Artemisia (Eva Green) who would command the Persian navy.
The film gives us a very detailed look at this past via a narrated flashback that also acts as one of the most stunning visual battles seen on screen in a very long time. We are immediately reminded that this is a 300 film by the sheer amount of super slow motion shots and splatters of CGI blood. As a slight tangent, I recently finally got around to watching World War Z, and I wondered why a film about a zombie outbreak contained virtually no blood. I am now convinced that 300: Rise of an Empire stole all the blood that had been earmarked for that film and used it within the first three minutes of the opening battle.
After this opening melee, we shoot forward to a parallel timeline of Leonidas’ war, and join Themistocles as he prepares for a battle at sea with Artemisia’s fleet. It is from this point that the story mimics the visuals in being an exact replica of Snyder’s original film. There are waves of attacks from the Persians broken up with bland political meetings, a father and son relationship that seems destined to end in tragedy, a sex scene out of nowhere and of course an obligatory rousing speech from our hero that manages to restore the lost faith of a broken army in just a few sentences. At times the film feels so much like the original that it’s easy to believe that Snyder (who this time receives only a writing and producing credit) must have stepped behind the camera. He is after all such a unique visual storyteller, and his signature seems etched across vast swathes of the film.
Where the sequel is superior to its predecessor is in the character development. Xerxes’ back story makes him more than just a one dimensional conqueror and Eva Green’s Artemisia is a brilliant creation; full of complexities and nuance that make her easily the most fearsome character in this universe. She is unflinching and deceptive and yet loyal to her cause. She is also unafraid to use her sexuality as a weapon, which you can see brings a smug glimmer to her eye as armies of men fall to their knees before her.
Sadly though the man who should rally the audience falls a little flat. Themistocles as played by Sullivan Stapleton feels small despite his protein ridden stature. He lacks the commanding presence of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas, and despite the impressive physicality he brings to the role, his soft eyes belie the vengeful intentions of his proud Greek heart. This can be said of the majority of the leather brief wearing, muscle clad Greek soldiers. They all kind of blend into one when compared to the great characterisation and charisma of Artemisia and the returning Queen Gorgo. The great thing about this movie then, is that despite the hundreds of screaming, angry, fighting men, it is the women that are the strongest people.
I also want to give a mention to the music of 300: Rise of an Empire. Created by Junkie XL (nope I’d never heard of him either) this score deftly takes the reigns from Tyler Bates’ original score, utilising minimal ethnic melodies and juxtaposing them with soaring bombast in the form of heavy percussion and enormous brass sections. The battle scenes in particular stood out in the same way Hans Zimmer’s Dark Knight trilogy music does; a seemingly huge cue manages to get even louder at just the right moment to generate a grand, mythical quality that must be heard in a cinema to be fully appreciated. Junkie XL is also scoring Tom Hardy’s Mad Max: Fury Road, so I guess he will soon become a household name (if your household is the kind that loves film scores).
On the whole this is a fun film; a sequel which manages to raise the bar on its older brother in terms of visual accomplishment, but which ends up overlong and with a penchant to think that if things are getting a little dull it can just chuck in another slow motion shot and think its gotten away with it. Worth a watch for Eva Green’s performance alone, give it a try, but remember to lodge your tongue firmly in cheek.