Zack Snyder’s 300 moved me. The film has fallen prey to biting parody in recent years, but I knew then that 300 was one of the era’s great cinematic experiences. Movies like that demand to be seen on the big screen. Like both The Matrix and Gravity, 300 was a masterpiece of visual splendor. And it was unique, too; never before or since have I reacted so emotionally to any film’s aesthetic. It remains one of my favorite pictures for that reason.
300 received a fair amount of criticism when it was released because of its simplistic narrative arc and grossly romanticized storytelling. But for me, 300 was pure magic. It did nothing more than it set out to do, taking a rather straightforward – spartan, if you will – approach to the Battle of Thermopylae. With 300: Rise of an Empire, graphic novelist Frank Miller and director Noam Murro take this focused scope and blow it up. Unfortunately, this creates far more problems than it solves.
Everything from the Battle of Marathon to the Battle of Salamis is haphazardly squeezed into less than two hours of film. As a result, fascinating characters like Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) are sidelined in favor of hamfisted speeches and brawny chest beating. Simultaneously, almost no time is given to distinguish the Athenians from the Spartans outside of exposition. Where’s their poetry? Their sculpting? Their art? That contrast might have given the Athenians a much-needed dose of humanity. Instead, they come off like two-bit knockoffs of their Spartan counterparts.
But this skirts the main issue I had with Rise of an Empire. Some may recall that 300 was divisive for its decidedly East versus West conflict-driven plot. Historically speaking, however, this subtext was first and foremost in the minds of the Persian empire and the Greeks who resisted them. It is an ideological fight that persisted long after the Persian empire crumbled, arguably continuing through to modern day.
With Rise of an Empire, however, writers Miller, Zack Snyder, and Kurt Johnstad push this allegory well beyond its reasonable historical limit. The movie conflates several important and separate ideas, using longwinded monologues to associate a unified Greece with the modern American watchwords of Freedom and Democracy. In one particularly incriminating speech, Gorgo even refers to “our lady liberty.” With this change in tone, the movie becomes less popcorn entertainment and more an exercise in unabashed jingoism. And considering the United States’ current relationship with Iran and the rest of the Middle East, the “Rise of an Empire” epithet suddenly takes on a far more sinister meaning.
Every time the movie leapt from one momentous but horribly misrepresented battle to another, I could see my Greek history professor suffering a small heart attack in my mind’s eye. The 300 franchise was never one for historical accuracy, but there is a difference between fantastical allegory and outright propagandizing. 300 bathed safely in the waters of the former, but Rise of an Empire wades triumphantly into the deep end and nearly drowns in the process.
Consider that not a single Persian character in this movie has any shred of intelligence. Artemisia (Eva Green), a formerly Greek woman who grew up to command the Persian navy, suffers the dimwittedness of her Persian subordinates through much of her conflict with the cunning Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who we knew to be prideful after his pathetic attempt at besting Leonidas in 300, comes off like a spoiled, shortsighted moron.
To complete the insult, nearly every Persian in Rise of an Empire is distinguished from their strangely white “Greek” counterparts by darker skin and stereotypically Middle Eastern garb. Where in 300 the Persians were more mysterious boogeyman than outright caricature, here the light skinned American versus dark skinned Middle Eastern iconography floats obviously to the surface like the mangled detritus of the plentiful shipwrecks at Salamis. The more I think about Rise of an Empire, the clearer its arguably racist but certainly nationalistic intentions become.
I am aware this review doesn’t speak much to the content of the film. If you’re wondering how the movie stacks up against its predecessor, it doesn’t; it is merely serviceable, forgettable, big screen entertainment. The lack of visual novelty in a post-300 world is apparent. Still, the elegant fight choreography can be fun to watch and the cinematography is, at times, reminiscent of cinematographer Larry Fong’s magnum opus.
But I must ask audiences to think beyond the film’s pretty exterior and see this movie for what it is. Rise of an Empire is a fundamentally manipulative superimposition of modern American ideals onto important but distorted historical events. To me, that is not only educationally irresponsible – it’s morally deceptive. And I want no part of it.
Movie Verdict: Meh