The Oracle’s words stand as a warning. A prophecy. Sparta will fall. All of Greece will fall. And Persian fire will reduce Athens to cinder. For Athens is a pile of stone and wood and cloth and dust. And, as dust, will vanish into the wind. Only the Athenians themselves exist, and the fate of the world hangs on their every syllable. Only the Athenians exist and only stout wooden ships can save them. Wooden ships, and a tidal wave of heroes’ blood.
-Queen Gorgo, 300: Rise of an Empire
When Zack Snyder’s hyper-sexualized and intellectually challenging visual treat known as 300 hit theaters in the spring of 2007, it was a cultural phenomenon by any other words.
Snyder’s visual flare became cemented in the public’s eye as countless other film’s attempted to emulate the “strike of lightning” brilliance that allowed Snyder’s flashy art-house meets megaplex visual flare and his incredible use of CGI to bring Frank Miller’s graphic novel to life.
The tale of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who gave their lives to defend Sparta and freedom itself against the tyrannical and mystical Xerxes and his Persian army was the stuff of box-office gold, despite some mixed reviews and predictions of a financial disaster.
Cut to almost 7 years later, 300: Rise of an Empire, formerly called 300: The Battle of Artemisia, hit theaters under the direction of Hollywood newbie Noam Murro, hand-picked by Snyder, who stayed on as a heavily involved producer and writer while he was hard at work on completing DC/WB’s Man of Steel:
[Deborah] had been a big fan of Noam’s, and still is of course – and now in this new incarnation. That originally initiated the idea that we might work with him, and then he came and told us a little about what he wanted to do with the movie… Frankly, it was a lot of the things that I had said to these guys all those years ago when I was pitching the original movie. What I felt was a symmetry in the full circle aspect of it. Then he did this cool presentation, and then we felt like he had the, sort of, vocabulary to make something cool, and he has. That’s how we came to it.
In 300: Rise of an Empire no flair or compassion is lost under Murro’s lens as he both emulates and transforms Snyder’s vision of ancient war and chaos. The film follows Greek warrior Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) after the battle of Marathon when he loosed the arrow that killed a young Xerxes’ father, and his attempt afterwards to fight for a unified Greece and to repel the threat of the Persian army.
On the other side of the conflict is Greek-turned-Persian goddess of war Artemisia, played by a scene-stealing role from Casino Royale and Penny Dreadful star Eva Green.
The film never once loses sight of what it is, which is an explosive and visceral movie laden with the concept of freedom and sacrifice in one of the most exhilarating and sexual progressive studies of homoeroticsm and the power of women as both an object and an influential part of history in a time where women were less than dogs on a hierarchy of society.
The film begins with Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) speaking to the mighty and chiseled Spartan warriors in a thematic parallel to the book-end of the first film, setting Rise of an Empire up immediately to become immune from film-critic complaints directed at it’s Historical accuracy.
This also harkens back to what makes Snyder such a brilliant writer: he immediately lays a subtle trap to separate those who actually watch and understand his films from those who glaze over them with hateful and ignorant complaints in mind.
With 300 and Sucker Punch Snyder lets the audience know that what they are about to see is an embellished and hyper-realized yarn that is told through a 3rd party and is therefore on the same subconscious level as something like Beowulf.
Murro’s direction is as crisp and elegant as Snyder’s although lacking the same heightened finesse and worldly understanding; but Murro masks the film with a noticeable blue-tint that reflects the aquatic conditions of the war-drama against the original film’s yellow hue to reflect the caked bloody sand and earth that the Spartans fought on. When the action gets personal, Murro cements the viewer so close to it that it’s a miracle of artistry the film is still as crisp and fluid as any deeply nuanced art-house piece.
The film is also noticeable for having two climactic “battles” that are literally only two people; but with the weight and visual magnitude of two CGI armies clashing in a battlefield flooded with blood.
When Themistocles and Artemisia “fight” for the first time, it’s an erotic sex-scene that defies anything ever filmed, pitting two hugely conflicting ideologies against each-other (Freedom and tyranny) in the visage of two beings at the peak of their physical and sexual abilities while Artemisia offers Themistocles to join Persia as her war-commander. The second scene parallels this but in a much different and complex way when Themistocles cuts and kills his way across an armada of Persian war-boats to find Artemisia.
The two battle, a rough and physically brawl with sword and fist that is every bit as erotic as their sex-scene, only this time instead of showing man and woman’s darkest sexual violence against each-other, they are now testing eachother’s desire to kill- something as powerful and contrasting as the battle to “create life.” Themistocles ups her at the last minute, just as Artemisia had abandoned him in intercourse; only this time Themistocles sword is at her throat in a gorgeous display of phallic imagery that deepens the film’s sexual exploration, as he asks her to instead join him.
300: Rise of an Empire ends with a victorious war-cry from Queen Gorgo and her Spartans arriving to help the Greeks and to push forward to meet Xerxes head on, much like her late husband had done in the first film.
The ending sets up a chill-inducing credits sequence set to “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath which leaves the audience hungry for the final installment.
One of the film’s more glaring flaws it seemed was it’s constant insertion of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas in clips and small moments from the other films, which is probably more glaring to me because I watched the first film right before watching Rise of an Empire in theaters; but to someone who hadn’t seen the original in a while or ever, it probably helped more than it hurt.
All things considered, the film is much MUCH better than it has any right to be, being a “late sequel” to a film that ended just fine on it’s own, and despite some minor spots where the CGI blood was noticeable and a sad lack of the viscous monstrosities that are seen in passing in the first film, Rise of an Empire hits all the right notes, and further cements Snyder as a master of the written word.
300: Rise of An Empire is available on blu-ray at Amazon!