300: Rise of an Empire (2014): Movie Review

If you were a diehard fan of “300” (2006), then “300: Rise of an Empire” (2014), stylishly directed by Noam Munro, will not miss its mark. Thieving audiences of their breath, this retelling of the ancient Greco-Persian spectacle is charged with a relentless war thrumming intensity that quells only when it rams into its own goose bump inducing finish. Not exactly a sequel or a prequel, the movie rows itself to life in a concurrent time frame that is in line with the events of “300”: shortly before, during, and after the march of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), and his three hundred.

While “300” showed us the Battle of Thermopylae, “300: Rise of an Empire” simultaneously directs us to the strategic naval battle at Artemisium in 480 BC, which was led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). A heroic Athenian politician, he is a seasoned warrior blessed with a rare sense of battle wisdom and war planning that would do even Athena proud. What this movie does right is unveiling the missing back-story of what happened before “300”, and elucidating the motivations for why this eight foot quasi-hermaphroditic Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), son of Darius (Igal Naor), is suddenly banging war gongs on Greece’s door. While the ancient source text is derived from the Greek historian Herodotus, the screenplays aren’t entirely inaccurate if we appreciate the larger brush strokes. So indeed, our story begins 10 years after the stalling of the Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, also led by a younger Themistocles.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Unlike Leonidas, Themistocles’ character has a milder shade of belligerence. Perhaps it is his ever-pondering fuzzy countenance, or his lesser adrenaline pumping speeches (relative to Leonidas), or maybe, let’s face it: it’s him being paired up against the ruthless testicle-crushing Artemisia, played by French actress Eva Green. If Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, Artemisia is that sole reason for she must have raped Satan himself before stabbing and slashing her way through to earn the naval command of the Persian armada. Green’s chilling performance is so indulgently fantastic it is almost frightening to gaze directly into those dark crazed kohl eyes. Her laughter borders manic; her motivations are visceral; and her sinister movements are viciously slicing, almost seductive, like a slithery shiny black mamba which moves to tempt and bites to kill.

That sex-scene should be forbidden to avoid future screens from melting. The sword and the sheath rage against and resist one another, rocking to and fro, evoking the nautical imagery of the screenplay. [Spoiler Alert: skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie] Themistocles’ resistance to her charm in the cabin explains his being the only man able to pierce her with his long sword at the end. His initial resistance marks him as her equal, the one that can end her by the very feat of resistance, be it consummation or battle. From a feministic theoretical lens, it makes you wonder, did Artemisia lose because she was a woman or did she lose because she was the bad guy (gal, whoops! I’m being sexist) and that good has to triumph over evil? In a heavily male dominated series which borders on homoeroticism, this movie makes amends by introducing strong female representation, as also seen by Queen Gorgo (Game of Throne’s Lena Headey). It is not Stapleton, but Eva Green who gives this movie what Butler gave its last.

Renowned as a technical innovator, “300” used superimposition chroma key techniques to harness stunning photography as a layering of film—particularly relevant for replicating the graphic novel feel from Frank Miller’s works (from which these movies were adapted). “300: Rise of an Empire” uses these same filters and palettes more expansively. Unlike the previous installment that was drenched in browns and shades of crimson, this rendition also uses hues of transient blues and grays. The dark blue filters accentuate the oceanic thrust of the movie, with aqua as a plane that moves, carries, and crashes the warring armada. In “300”, the war was on the ground and the use of browns and earthy shades was fitting against backdrops of blood-red sunsets and dusks.

Similarly gratifying are the realistic tracking shots, as when one Athenian jumps off a shipwreck with sword in hand to the bottom of a deck to fight. We follow his motion path with stunning velocity and lift, like jumping off a cliff in 3D, except our eyes aren’t closed. The point-of-view shots and frames were also tastefully done. One which comes to mind is Leonidas’ beheading. When Xerxes, on top of his high horse, swings the axe in one long arch, we see the slash coming from the point of view of the gravel resting next to Leonidas’ head, rendering the effect that we ourselves are being beheaded through his unseeing eyes.

The slow-motion sequences could remind one of the Matrix trilogy, but it also more strongly recalls the Max Payne gaming experience of hyper slowed frames that allow for suspension and detailed observation of the action. The battle choreography was, again, spectacular, where the lead characters were given their own “solos” to leave us in awe. Though heavily reliant on green screens and CGI to birth this artistic mastery of the image, the technology seamlessly integrates the movement of well toned muscles flexing to slash, crush and bleed enemies against a backdrop of blood-soaked seas and shores.             

Often neglected is that a movie’s mise-en-scène is also a product of costume. In one particular shot, a vertical tilt, we first see Artemisia’s feet covered in a black dress of sorts and while the camera moves up we find she is seated, and then her black fitting garment is split in the middle with a poisonously gold trim. The symmetry of the split and the fanning throne is reminiscent of a reared cobra ready to strike. Artemisia’s clothes give us insight into her mood, as when she broods over Themistocles’ victories, and as with the last chapter when she is horn rimmed at the back and ready to puncture anyone. Xerxes’ perverse vulgarity is as foreign as it is sexless. The bangles that jangle, and the rimmed golden chains suggest a display of golden excess of a god-king that is not truly a god but an imitation of a lesser malformed form—I think I’m getting platonic here. The Greeks’ costumes, however, typically consist of three elements: sandals, tight leather codpieces, and capes. Their minimalist clothing is a metaphor for their freedom, unlike the slaves of the Persians who are tightly wrapped in yards of black, looking like rolls of carpet wearing silver masks. Cunningly, the Athenian dress code is also to flaunt those stone chiseled bodies. God dayamn; if you need a six-pack just start auditioning for a male role in the 300 series and you should be set for life!

My brother would say the movie “300” is the best way to get the rugby team pumped before the big day on the field. While both movies are action-porn flicks indeed, this movie was like a race to the finish where your tiring oars just kept creaking from each catch of water as you splinter and pull, knowing you are almost there. Each bursting stroke severs another blister, and splits open a callus as the oars gain more weight. This fits a storyline that uses the plot formula of a battle of successive stages where each batch of the enemy proves to be more formidable than the last. The plot was predictable, yes, but if you know what you are coming for, as was my case, then you won’t be disappointed with this movie. You watch it for the spectacle; you watch it for the grace, gore, guts and glory. Critics can yap and criticize till the end of ink, but you are the viewer and your judgment is yours. I would give it an 8.1/10. Adieu.

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