300 : Rise of an Empire  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     102 Min        15

The sequel to 2006’s phenomenally successful ‘300’, this time with director Noam Murro replacing Zack Snyder (who acts as producer and writer here) and focusing on the Athenian’s story, in particular their leader Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), during the Greco-Persian wars in ancient Greece, with events primarily unfolding both during those of ‘300’ as well as immediately afterward. The story is burdened somewhat by an untruth told in the first instalment where Leonidas is shown to be more or less acting of his own accord when he marches 300 Spartan hoplites (soldiers) to the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae. In reality, a confederation of Greek city states had selected Leonidas to lead the ground forces in defence against Xerxes’ invasion, and in unison with the army a Greek fleet (of which Athenian ships were to form the bulk of) would engage the vast Persian navy at the pass around the cape of Artemisium, preventing Leonidas’ troops from being flanked.

After the infamous deeds at Thermopylae and the battle of Artemisium, there was to be a third conflict around the isle of Salamis near the Isthmus of Corinth, which forms the climax of the movie and was to prove one of the most important battles in the history of western civilisation. Technically, Themistocles wasn’t actually in charge of the Greek navy – for diplomatic reasons a Spartan, Eurybiades, had been elected overall commander as Sparta had but a handful of ships and Corinth, another seafaring city, did not want to see her Athenian rivals in charge, but in reality Themistocles seems to have called all the shots.

The film misses the chance to put all of these events into the proper context, and instead we end up with a much more contemporary action orientated, attempted spectacle. Although a lot of the details do fit into the real story somewhere, just not necessarily in the order or way that they are presented to us. One of the most egregious inventions is when we are shown the battle of Marathon, 490BC (Thermopylae, Artemisium & Salamis took place in 480BC), which is where the Athenians triumphed against the odds to defeat the first attempted Persian incursion into Attica (and of course where our modern day Marathon run originates as Pheidippides supposedly ran from Marathon to Athens to tell the people of the victory {having just ran to Sparta and back}. Admittedly, he collapsed dead from exhaustion immediately afterwards) and we see Themistocles kill the Persian king Darius I, who was in fact not even present for the battle. It is, however, true that after this Darius planned a full scale invasion before an Egyptian revolt prevented it, and that his son Xerxes would fulfil his plans after his death due to ill health, whilst Themistocles would climb ever higher within the political structure of Athen’s greatest gift to the world, its democracy, to convince the people that the city needed a navy to better protect itself from the Persians he was sure would return. Interestingly, their democracy was a direct one, wherein the people did not elect representatives to vote on their behalf, but rather voted on each issue themselves – sadly the renaissance does not seem to have reinstated this virtue in the west.

A fascinating and exciting backdrop for the film then, but unfortunately its biggest problem is the fairly childish overuse of blood effects which splatter over the screen in ever increasing amounts, which is bad enough, but what they have used looks absolutely nothing like blood and more like some sort of purple, thick, goo that splurges out of bodies over the screen constantly, more akin to raspberry jam than someone’s insides. An element of this would be ok, and fitting with ‘300’, but its obvious some scenes have been orchestrated purely with this effect in mind, rather than any focus on tension or the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The same cinematography and stylisation from its predecessor is used once again, and it mostly looks as good as before, although there are a number of scenes with ropey CGI soldiers milling about – some of the action is reasonably satisfying, but then other elements are far too over the top. ‘300’ was the perfect blend of stylised filmmaking with a story based on truth, but here there are a lot of moments where you can say with certainty that never in a million years would what we’re watching be feasible. Stapleton has a difficult job to do, following in the footsteps of Gerard Butler’s iconic turn as Leonidas, but he does quite well overall, though it is difficult to fully get behind him, partly due to the obvious character conflict with his Australian accent (much like Sam Worthington’s as Perseus in ‘Clash of the Titans’ 2010 and its sequel) and partly because unlike in 300, we never really see the protagonist not in ‘battle mode’ as he is effectively waging war from start to finish and, ultimately, it is a bit tiring to watch someone constantly trying to look stressed, shouting and giving rousing battle speeches. In terms of Greek history he is one of the most important characters, and more of a back story and characterisation would have been much better, perhaps focusing on his rise from the poor quarter to the heights of Athenian society.

The naval battles are once again a mixture of real tactics thought to have been used on both sides (not always the correct ones though) and pure invention. Estimates for the forces involved put the Persians setting sail with 1200 ships versus the Greek navy of about one third of that, and the scale in itself is fascinating, with the film exhibiting both great artistic detail and yet tactical execution that is at once enthralling but also dubious. One of the best aspects, which the film actually gets correct, is that the Persian fleet was commanded by a female, somewhat ironically named Artemisia, the Queen of Halicarnassus. Played onscreen by the wonderful Eva Green, she was held in high esteem by Xerxes and by generals on both sides, indeed the film sees her challenge the other commanders under her to impress her and in real life the legend is that during Salamis she was being chased down by a Greek vessel and so hoisted the Greek flag and rammed into one of her own general’s ships (one she had recently disagreed with) shaking off her pursuer having convinced him she was a defector, and apparently watching from above Xerxes and his generals were equally convinced that she had just sunk an enemy ship causing the ‘god king’ to infamously comment “My men have become women, and my women men”.

The movie plays with the rivalry between Themistocles and Artemisia turning it into sexual tension – perhaps not so unmerited given the Greeks had put a high price on her head for a live capture, ostensibly, history argues, because they were so offended at being outmatched by a female, but in reality what could possibly make a greater prize and conquest for a male general? Sadly, she is treated with perhaps the greatest historical disdain with what occurs at the climatic battle.

Returning to reprise her role as Gorgo, queen of Sparta, is Lena Headey, who incredibly looks EVEN BETTER than she did in the first one, and she sizzles onscreen with a reinforced confidence that success with ‘Game of Thrones’ has no doubt brought her. Another strong and wonderful character from antiquity, she delivers lines like the one below with such relish that it is impossible not to love her.

Overall, it is a little disappointing but still reasonably fun, and it does inspire interest in the subject matter, perhaps even more so than the already well known story displayed in ‘300’. If you don’t mind much of it being ruined to some extent by self indulgent and silly effects then it might still be worth a look in, and the story is yet to be completed with the events of the following year, 479 BC, required to conclude everything. They will need a better team to helm the project if they take it that far though.

Quotes

“Themistocles. You’ve come a long way to stroke your cock whilst watching real men train.”   Lena Headey/Queen Gorgo

“Artemisia whispered the seed of madness that would consume him … He surrendered himself completely, to power so evil and perverse, that as he emerged no part of a human man survived… Artemisia watched her flawless manipulation take shape.”   Lena Headey/Queen Gorgo

“Only the gods can defeat the Greeks. You will be a god king.”   Eva Green/Artemisia

“Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks.”   Eva Green/Artemisia

“SEIZE YOUR GLORY!”   Sullivan Stapleton/Themistocles

“Let it be shown, that we chose to die on our feet rather than live on our knees!”   Sullivan Stapleton/Themistocles

Interviews with the leading ladies …

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