The first 300 was, ostensibly, a movie about men in their underwear hacking at each other with swords in slow-motion. Needless to say, the girl I was dating at the time declared it her “new favorite movie ever.” It was also an art movie told through action scenes.
What I remember best from 300 isn’t any particular fight, though. I remember the field in which Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) says his goodbyes to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) before heading off to battle. As much as that film glorified war, it also glorified a field of wheat in sunrise as the wind carried through it. It made going to battle a bittersweet, complex choice, and it glorified the reasons to stay home just as much. It was the rare action movie from which liberals and conservatives both lifted messages, and that both sides still argue is “theirs.”
The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is not an art movie. It’s an action movie that looks artful because if it didn’t, it couldn’t call itself 300. What it champions is warmongering. There’s not a single scene that shows us what’s at stake. Our Athenian hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who dreams of a united Greece, treats Athens like his own private, military dictatorship. You might expect this in itself to be a strong political statement, but nope – it just hurries the plot along faster if the screenwriters don’t require anyone else to speak.
300: Rise of an Empire also makes its villain far more interesting than its hero, but commits the cardinal sin of not realizing this. We cheered for Leonidas in the first film because Butler knew a movie filmed entirely in front of a green screen needed an anchor. He needed to act like the audience was 1,000 feet away, so he had to shout and wink and chew every piece of nonexistent scenery just to match the tone of his CG surroundings. This time around, it’s Eva Green (Casino Royale) who snarls and sneers and stares piercingly through every line of dialogue. She plays the evil Persian general Artemisia as if Darth Vader found the goth section of Katy Perry’s wardrobe.
The film gives Artemisia such a tragic backstory that you’d be a terrible person to root against such a survivor. I tire of boys in genre movies being captured and trained to be gruff and manly and fight as noble gladiators while the narrative equivalent for girls is to be sexually abused. It’s needless, lazy, and offensive. Combine such tragedy with Green acting circles around the rest of the cast and Themistokles’s incessant blandness, and I found myself rooting hard for Artemisia to win the day.
Yes, in the film, Greece represents democracy, Persia represents slavery, and Themistokles can’t sneeze without trumpeting the word “freedom,” but the movie does an awful job of championing any of these ideas or showing them in practice. When Themistokles isn’t outguiling bad guys, he spends all his time trying to get Mel Gibson’s Braveheart monologue right. I stopped counting at the sixth attempt. There’s some fresh air when Sparta’s Queen Gorgo finally gets involved (I’d much rather the movie had followed her into battle), but it’s too little too late.
Some of the art direction is inspired – particularly in the first two battles when the actors are the focus. As more CG is involved, however, the mostly naval battles feel increasingly generic and fast-forwarded. Zack Snyder, who directed the first 300, was smart enough to treat his visual effects in a painterly way. Graphics were to add background and tone, to emphasize the human form or, at most, to create some unspeakable enemy. When there was blood and viscera, it was strangely beautiful, and clarified each move of the fight choreography by extending it into an arc of unreal color. In Noam Murro’s sequel, the effects increasingly take over the battles and play both hero and enemy. Blood gushes everywhere for the shock of it and, like most shocking effects, becomes quickly tiresome.
As for 3D, Murro often washes out his backgrounds with shafts of sunlight or flashes of light in darkness. These are nice effects in 2D, but have the tendency to blur out details and strain viewers’ eyes in 3D. 300: Rise of an Empire is rated R for pretty much everything – bloody violence, sex, nudity, and some language. The first 300 used these things to make a point. It’s hard to forgive its sequel for not bothering to have one.