300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
If there’s one word I never thought I would use to describe anything related to 300, it would be “nuanced”. That the original film was completely devoid of narrative complexity or subtlety was part of why it worked. It painted its story with broad strokes, recounting its historical subject with the same bravado and theatricality of an ancient legend. Its simplistic but effective script, combined with the exquisite visual wonder Zack Snyder specializes in, made 300 something like a masterpiece, albeit a deliberately juvenile one.
So noticing that its successor 300: Rise of an Empire has actually attempted to be a story about something deeper, with multiple layers, symbolism, and themes, I’m at a loss to decide whether or not that’s actually a good thing. It’s certainly admirable, but one wonders if this is the best place for it.
The story is concerned mostly with the Battle of Salamis, a naval engagement between Persia and Athens, and takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film. In place of Leonidas, our protagonist is the Athenian general Themistocles (an oddly subdued performance by Sullivan Stapleton). Whereas Gerard Butler had just the right amount of gusto on display in the last film, Stapleton’s performance feels out of place and drags the film down a bit.
Fortunately, this is more than compensated for by his co-stars. Lena Headey, who was an underused asset last time around, is back as Queen Gorgo, and is given a lot more to do. But the undisputed MVP and arguably the real star of the show is Eva Green as Themistocles’ nemesis, the Persian commander Artemisia. Eva Green has been getting more and more femme fatale roles lately*, but she’s a revelation in this. She doesn’t just steal the movie—she utterly dominates it to the point that I was actively rooting for her to triumph over the heroes. And in retrospect, I’m not sure that was unintentional.
[*She is, in an incredible coincidence, scheduled to play another seductive villainess in another way-late sequel to another adaption of a Frank Miller comic that also made heavy use of green screen backgrounds and an unreal, color-filtered look. Talk about oddly-specific typecasting.]
This review will get a bit spoiler-y, assuming it’s your position that 300 or its sequel might have the kind of story that can be spoiled. Artemisia’s backstory** in the film involves the Greeks (specifically the Athenians, if I remember correctly) raping and murdering her entire family and then keeping her as a sex slave (she was eight at the time, as if her story weren’t horrific enough) for years, before leaving her half-dead in the streets when they decided they were sick of her.
[**Heavily-fictionalized, by the way. This film strays from historical fact even more than its predecessor. Artemisia survived the Battle of Salamis in real life.]
She’s found by a Persian (the same guy Leonidas kills at the beginning of the first movie) who saves her, raises her, and teaches her to fight. As a grown woman, she’s a legendary warrior and the real power behind the Persian throne (it turns out she basically made Xerxes, the Persian “God-King” from the first movie, and has him wrapped around her finger), and is hungry for revenge against the Greeks.
Considering that her nemesis Themistocles is a big, beefy, violent he-man whose people raped Artemisia, their rivalry takes on an uncomfortable subtext, which the film does nothing to discourage. It expands upon it, in fact. Halfway through, Artemisia’s openly sexual admiration for Themistocles very literally climaxes in one of the oddest, most memorable sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s actually more of a fight scene than a sex scene, shot in the same bombastic manner as the silliest slo-mo action in 300, with the two characters fighting for sexual and mental dominance. I’m not sure it entirely works as intended, since the whole thing is more laughable than dramatic, but it certainly makes an impression.
But what’s important about the scene is that it basically plays the film’s hand, turning my allegiances instantly to Artemisia’s side once I realized what (I think) the film really is: a giant metaphor for rape. Artemisia’s genesis was a literal rape scene perpetrated by shadowy, helmeted figures that could very easily have been Themistocles himself (they aren’t, literally; he’s far too young to have been there, but the symbolic connection is present). Within that context, the sex/fight scene becomes not an evil seductress tempting the hero, but a rape victim trying to regain control over her sexuality.
And as if to dispel any doubt, the film climaxes with an epic sword fight between the two, during which Artemisia defiantly challenges Themistocles’ sexual prowess, for which she is rewarded with a phallic weapon through the stomach, causing her to fall down in a position mirroring that in which her Greek rapists left her on the streets.
In addition to the brazen sexual politics, the whole film seems to have been written as almost a rebuttal to the last film in a multitude of ways. Everything about the plot and characters of 300 is discredited or made small. The noble Spartans are seen as selfish, stubborn isolationists and brutish, mindless thugs (as if practicing ancient eugenics wasn’t reason enough to hate them). The mighty God-King Xerxes is an impotent figurehead, under the control of a woman. The Greeks’ precious new democracy is seen as chaotic and ineffective. And through Artemisia, as previously mentioned, the macho ideals of manhood of the first film are subtly vilified. Given the self-loathing hatred of masculinity Zack Snyder displayed in Sucker Punch, it wouldn’t surprise me if he at some point had a hand in crafting this story.
All of this is very interesting and fun to analyze, but I’m not sure it makes for a good film. Newcomer Noam Murro lacks Snyder’s gift for visual storytelling, and as a result the film doesn’t quite have the grace and polish the first one delivered. And while the script is certainly daring, the result isn’t as tight or focused as 300 was. Still, 300: Rise of an Empire entertained me and gave me something to talk about, which is all I ever ask of a movie.