I'd Rather Be Sailing

300: Rise of an Empire

It's easy to pick on Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly.. He doesn't make good movies, not in the traditional, artistic sense. His films are low-brow male fantasies filled with more slow-mo and testosterone than body builders on heavy depressants. He has a very specific style of film, but only very rarely do the elements line up where the movie he produces is actually worth watching. 300 was a spectacle where all the elements lined up just so. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not so much.

Thing is, though, that Snyder's style is very specific. It doesn't always work well for him, sure, but there are moments, brief flashes, that are brilliant. Trying to duplicate what he does if you aren't him, though, just won't work out. Case in point is 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel to Snyder's stylish comic adaptation, that tries very hard to be a Zack Snyder while missing the key ingredient of the whole mix: Snyder himself. It leads to a sloppy and tiresome film that lacks even Snyder's brief moments of artistic ingenuity.

Produced seven years after the first film, with director Noam Murro at the helm, 300: Rise of an Empire tells a parallel story to the events of 300. While Leonidas was off, gathering his men and getting ready to match to his death at the Battle of Thermopylae, Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) readied his men to take to the seas and defend the Greek homeland from the Persian armada. The Persian fleet was led by Artemisia (played by Eva Green as an adult, Caitlin Carmichael as a child, Jade Chynoweth as a teen), a fears military commander and right-hand of Xerxes. And Artemisia would love nothing more than to have Themistocles's head mounted on a wall, with the rest of Greece burned to the ground.

As we learn, Themistocles was the one to kill the old Persian king, Darius, ten years earlier. That set Xerxes on the path to become, well, Xerxes. He wanted revenge for his father's death, whatever the cost. Meanwhile, Artemisia had been captured and raped by her own Greek people, trapped on a cargo ship for years as their plaything before they finally discarded her. Only when she was taken in by the Persians, raised by them and trained to fight, did she find happiness. Darius took her into his inner circle, raising her up to be one of his trusted advisors, and with him dead Artemisia wants her pound of flesh. All Greeks must burn, in her eyes, and the way forward goes through the seas off Athens. Its up to the Greeks to defend their homeland, again, or the whole of their free society could fall to this mad Greek woman.

There are a number of issues I have with this film, but the first is probably going to seem a least a little pedantic: the film is called 300: Rise of an Empire, but it neither features the titular 300 nor does it feature, in any way, the rise of an empire. Xerxes doesn't get his empire in this film, so it's not his rise, and the Greeks never made an empire, so that doesn't really apply to them. Maybe you could call it "Defense of Athens, a 300 Tale", but the title they gave this film doesn't really suit any of the various parts within it. The movie offers a bill of goods we can't collect.

When you get into the meat of the film, what you'll discover is that there really isn't a lot to hold onto. The original film focused itself on Leonidas, making him the focal figure of the whole piece. He was our hero, and the film was basically a giant myth all about him. This sequel, though, can't really figure out what it wants to be. Is a heroic tale of Themistocles? Is the rise of Artemisia so she can have her revenge? Is it really about Xerxes avenging his father? What about the Spartans, who have to muster and regroup so they can finally save Greece once and for all? Well, it's all of those things, in equal measure, with none of the elements really getting the time or focus they deserve.

Part of the issue is that the movie is based on Frank Miller's comics, Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander. The issues were that, one, that comic series hadn't been punished yet (and wouldn't even come out for another four years after the release of this sequel film), and that comic was also more of an anthology, telling segments of various stories around Greece without, really, settling on one solid through line. That makes for an interesting comic series, due to the format of the work, but it doesn't really lend itself to being very filmic. The film tries to take the various bits it could and cohere them into a single whole, but there's just too little to build a movie from in those issues. It doesn't work.

Also hurting the movie is that Themistocles is no Leonidas. The Athenian is setup to be our replacement leader, but Sullivan Stapleton doesn't have the charisma of Gerard Butler. His arc is basically the same as Leonidas -- get his people together, fight the Persians, pray they win -- but he doesn't really offer us anything we didn't have in the first film. He's just a more boring version of Leonidas going through the motions again. We've seen this before, and better, so why bother watching it all again?

The one character that does stand out is Eva Green's Artemisia. Her back story is compelling She suffered great horrors and then built herself up. She's on a quest for justice, a woman who has risen to great stature so she can ensure that no one suffers the way she once did. That is the kind of hero arc you want in a film... and yet she's the villain. The film gives us a great character we can get behind and the squanders her so we can focus on a boring Athenian. Thing is, Artemisia is right (in this context) and she should have been our protagonist. A better film would have known who to focus on. 300: Rise of an Empire is not that better film.

About the only thing I can say nice about the movie is that I appreciated the shift from the land battle of the first movie to sea battles here in the sequel. That change means we don't get the same battles we had before, a nice change of pace and scenery. Sadly, the director, Murro, didn't really know how to direct sea battles, so the action is had to watch. It's equal parts too choppy and rather tedious, draining all the fun out of these ocean battles. The potential wasted in this film by the director is staggering.

With 300: Rise of an Empire you get the vibe that Warner Bros. really wanted to kick start a big franchise. 300 had been huge and, with Frank Miller's sequel spanning multiple time periods the studio could have milked a couple of additionally sequels out of the comics, had things gone right. While Rise of an Empire wasn't a complete failure, making $337.6 million against a budget of $110 Mil, that wasn't really enough to warrant further sequels after all. By Hollywood math, that's just breaking even. The bigger budget over the first film ($110 Mil compared to $70) and lackluster audience response made this franchise as dead as, well, the 300. But considering the quality of this sequel, that's frankly for the best.