What They Say:
Based on Frank Miller’s latest graphic novel Xerxes, and told in the breathtaking visual style of the blockbuster “300,” this new chapter of the epic saga takes the action to a fresh battlefield-on the sea-as Greek general Themistokles attempts to unite all of Greece by leading the charge that will change the course of the war. This film pits Themistokles against the massive invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes, and Artemesia, vengeful commander of the Persian navy.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
It’s been eight years since 300 arrived in theaters and really surprised people with what you could do with film. That film certainly has its detractors for a whole host of reasons and I’ve met many people that just find it vile and unworthy on so many levels. I hadn’t seen it in theaters but got introduced to it when the Blu-ray release first came out and simply fell in love with it. It has its issues of course like every film does, but it was one of those rare pieces that really made you feel the power of the human body and what it’s capable of it in all its violent glory. There is a place for such violence and the situation that was presented is one that really does demand it since you have to put it in some historical context, even if the details are obviously fantastical. Setting in the 5th century BC is not a place where things are all wine and roses.
With that film launching Zack Snyder into other properties from there on out, which has left me quite pleased with the results, I can’t say I ever expected another film in this world, though you knew someone at Warner Bros. wanted to try it. That movie made $456 million theatrically on $65 million budget and it’s hard to leave that kind of money on the table. While Snyder wasn’t coming back to this, Warner brought in Noam Murro to direct it based on a screenplay by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad on the still unpublished graphic novel that Frank Miller is working on, which was the source of the previous film. What becomes interesting about this film is that it really is ambitious in what it wants to do and it has it by the tail, but that tail whips it all around rather than being controlled. Which isn’t too surprising but it doesn’t deter the overall results, one that I suspect will be even more enjoyable when you break it down a bit more in subsequent viewings.
The tale of 300 was fairly complete, though it was just a stepping stone to the larger Greco-Persian war that existed as there is much rich history here to mine. There are several touches and nods to what came before with footage brought in and manipulated to move the story forward, but it’s not a quick move forward. Rise of an Empire takes us back to what had happened fifteen years prior to 300 which gave us the origin of Xerxes himself as we see how during an invasion by his father, King Darius, went badly when the Athenian general Themistocles makes an impossible shot with an arrow and kills Darius on the deck of his ship. That drives Xerxes to madness in a way, but he’s not even half the man that his father was. This shifts us back to Persia where we see the final hours of Darius with the arrival of Artemisia in the city to see the man that gave her command of the Persian navy, a necessary tool towards her own revenge on Greece that she seeks.
Artemisia has a pretty good back story given here with the time to make it real and rough and that fits so well into the present version of her that is manipulate in order to achieve her goals. She’s a powerful and intense woman who orchestrates Xerxes into becoming the God-King we knew from 300 and mixing both of their origins together in a way works really well since both have an air of the impossible about it as well as mysticism. Suffice to say, while Xerxes views himself as the God-King and full of power and command, and he is, we also see how Artemisia views herself as the one in control of him and manipulating events to further her goals of the destruction of Greece. She spends a great deal of her time beginning to box in the series of nation states with her Navy, which runs in parallel to where Xerxes and his army had met up with King Leonidas at the Hot Gates. There’s a nice blending of events and the return of several characters through this segment that helps to build upon the overall back story, told through Leonidas’ wife and queen Gorgo, which helps to cement both past and present before launching into the sequel part.
While much fighting is going on in various locales, the background push that goes on is by Themistocles, who knew he made a mistake all those years ago in killing the wrong person based on what Xerxes has done, and he’s been spending his life trying to build a unified Greece in order to move the nation forward in a bigger and better way. That’s not easy to do in the best of time and in the war that they find themselves in the middle of, they still can’t seem to do it for the most part. Especially with Sparta, who has no intention on being a part of it. There’s some interesting political wrangling going on with this and watching it unfold works nicely to help set the stage a bit more. But it all comes down to the larger fight that is the third act, the sequel itself to 300, as Xerxes forces move forward after defeating the Spartan forces at the Hot Gates and Artemisia pushing her ships forward for greater conquest. With a thousand ships at her disposal against the hundred or so that Themistocles has, it becomes more a fascinating battle of early tactics than anything else, something that has transcended the centuries quite well.
This film has a lot of hurdles in front of it and in a lot of ways, it does handle it well. You can’t go into a film like this expecting another 300 because that’s simply not how it works. Especially since it’s riffing off of historical basics. It’s also obviously going in a rather surprising but good direction from my point of view by wrapping its story around the previous film but expanding and going in new places with it. That story focused on those men in that situation and the holding position and what it entailed in dealing with such strange and bizarre forces that Xerxes kept with him. Here, there’s far less of the surreal in a way with what they’re using, and that can make it feel diminished, but it also goes for something that is highly appealing to me. It’s more about the naval battles that happened and the tactics of it, the strategy between two very different sized forces and the force of will of those that commanded it. Having grown up playing simulation games (Ancient Art of War At Sea!), there’s a huge appeal in seeing such classic structures come to life like this on the big screen. We do get a lot of the fighting style we saw before as well through the supporting stories here so it’s not missing, but it’s a lesser part compared to the naval aspect.
The character that really takes on the Leonidas style in a way, but works in a more controlled and intense form, is Artemisia. Eva Green is getting plenty of plaudits for her performance here and it is largely warranted because she brings something really fun to the role. She’s driven by vengeance but is in a position to throw massive amounts of force at the problem, but realizes it comes down to certain people that must be dealt with. She’s manipulating an entire empire and has no care for what happens when it’s discovered because it means nothing to her. There’s a real sense of power to her, a player in the game with the real innate ability to rise above and beyond the ordinary and to change the nature of the world. With her controlling a navy, that gives it an interesting twist, but in the end it’s all about the performance. There is just, to me, such a sense of power within her that even when she’s just sitting in her command chair, you can understand why her crew and commanders have a significant fear of her. A fear that’s different than what you get from being under Xerxes since his violence comes across more as whims of displeasure. For her, it’s failure of service with a far different intensity.
As a personal sidenote, I have to say this was an interesting viewing experience. I took it in at 2D showing as I can’t stand the additional price for the uncertainty of how good a 3D conversion it will be. Prior to seeing this, I re-watched 300 so it was fresh but also because my just about 14 year old daughter wanted to see this as well. I’ve had her on a film education path for about five years now and have worked some engaging and very different films for her over it so she’s “a bit ahead” in some ways with what she wants to see and why. I was a bit apprehensive about the previous film with her because it is so violent, but she liked it for mostly the same reasons as me and we talked extensively about it. Coming out of this film, she was quite taken with it and loved what Eva Green brought to it in her portrayal of Artemisia. It struck a chord in a way because there are few big mainstream films that you see this kind of role in without trying to change the character or soften her with some secret truth. Taking in some of her perspectives has been interesting in providing new ways to look at a film, especially since even with as much as she’s seen, there’s so much she hasn’t so there’s still some innocence to it by not comparing it to so many other works.
I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly have high hopes going into this feature since I wasn’t sure if they could pull off the structure well and there was no hugely compelling presence going into it similar to what Gerard Butler achieved ahead of 300. There’s that feel of too much of, well, not a retread but rather too much covering of what happened before. But they pulled it off well here even if it feels a bit overcrowded at times. 300: Rise of an Empire is playing to a far larger series of events than what its predecessor did and that makes for a very different and more difficult dynamic to work with in terms of getting us into the characters. It’s not a heavy focus on Athens like what we got with Sparta, it’s more about a lot of diverse elements. I think it pulls together very well and I’m already looking forward to revisiting it when I can get a 3D Blu-ray edition this summer.