300: Rise of an Empire (2014) – Directed by Noam Murro – Starring Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Hans Matheson, David Wenham, Callan Mulvey, Jack O’Connell, Yigal Naor, Michael Fassbender, Peter Mensah, and Gerard Butler.
Is the world too complicated for you? Do you pine for the simplicity of a past age that you don’t really understand but are absolutely certain contained less gray and more black and white?
Then 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE was made just for you.
There is a stunning simplicity to the proceedings in RISE, as the entire world revolves around two concepts: Freedom and Revenge. It’s intoxicating. As people out here in the modern world become increasingly aware of the world’s complexity thanks to technology shrinking the world for us, it’s comforting to fall into a world where lines are so clearly drawn, and one’s value is determined not by the size of a paycheck, but how vigorously you are willing to wave the flag of your choosing. Thankfully, RISE stays focused on the participants in the war, so Freedom and Revenge feel alive and vibrant, instead of the jingoistic pap one often hears from our contemporary cable news outlets. It’s the Greeks who are primarily motivated by the flag of Freedom, and the Persians who are motivated by Revenge, but as the film progresses, these two concepts push and pull at one another, and Greek victory is only assured when the two motives are linked together in the heat of battle to destroy an enemy that cannot get past its quest for Revenge due, in part, to a warped sense of what Freedom actually entails.
That is to say, narrative complexity in RISE OF AN EMPIRE occurs almost exclusively because, “You put your Freedom in my Revenge!” or “You put your Revenge in my Freedom!”
And let’s be clear about something concerning our bad guys: Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the “God-King” of Persia, and his Greek-born general, Artemisia (Eva Green), are fully justified in wanting some revenge. Xerxes’ father, King Darius (Yigal Naor) was killed by the Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), while Artemisia’s family was some combination of raped, killed, and sold into slavery by Greek hoplites. I’d be pissed, too, if I were them, and they have as much of a right to seek their revenge as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) has in seeking hers for the death of her husband, Leonidas (Gerard Butler). What, then, makes the Greeks the good guys and the Persians the bad guys? Well, for one, the Persians wear lots of black, so, duh, this is the movies. Two, the Persians are the invading army, led by their mad “god king,” who, for what it’s worth, doesn’t really wear anything black.
I’d have to check, but I’m pretty sure “Xerxes” is Persian for “The Exception That Proves The Rule.”
If this sounds negative, rest assured, it’s not. I dig 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE for knowing, being, and reveling in what it is. There’s a very real, eyeball-pleasing, simplistic, yet life-reaffirming quality to watching all of life’s complexities boiled down to gorgeous-looking battles where death does, indeed, seem as beautiful as everyone in the film assures us it is. On June 30th, both my job and my lease run out. Right now, I have no idea what I’ll be doing on July 1st, and watching a movie like RISE, where the world is reduced to fighting for an ideal or a mad god-king, has an incredible appeal to it. You don’t have to worry about a job or a paycheck or a place to live if the enemy is threatening to bash in your door. All you have to do is take off your shirt, put on a cape, and go fight in slow-motion on a field of battle saturated with blood and just one other color. Like the Greeks Themistocles has gathered to fight under him, the prospect of what comes next (and not knowing what that next might entail) is both exciting and terrifying, sometimes at the same time.
Perhaps color is the best way to look at how RISE (like 300 before it) simplifies the world for us: there’s not even a wide range of colors on display. The Persians and Greeks do not battle on the sea here as much as they battle on a shifting, swarming field of bluish-gray. It’s as if the mere presence of a fuller spectrum of colors runs the risk of pulling us out of the fable, and director Noam Murro knows that is a foolish risk to run. No, better to keep things simpler so as to control the audience’s connection with the film’s heroes.
And when I say “heroes,” I mean the Greeks, the dudes who legislate while wearing outfits that make them look like they are at their fraternity reunion, and who fight wars while wearing nothing more than diapers, sandals, helmets, and a cape. They are the nation that (several empires removed) begat America, a place where farmers believed in democracy and P90X, and fought bloody wars in which they convinced themselves there was nothing more noble than dying for the defense of said country’s ideals. RISE is a fairy tale for anyone who likes to wave the jingoistic flag and reduce opponents to simplified types. RISE isn’t so much an ode to the greatness of Greece as it is a strokefest for modern America: doves can rally behind the artists and farmers, while the hawks can wet themselves over the idea of a war with Iran.
They even go so far as to have the Persian naval ships spouting oil just so they can reinforce “Persia” means “Iran” and they can goddamn blow some shit up.
And it’s all so simple: Freedom. Revenge. Freedom. Revenge. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Going in, I was most curious to see what RISE OF AN EMPIRE would actually be up on the screen, as it’s been seven years since 300 eyeball-stroked the world to the tune of nearly a half-billion dollars box office, and four years since Spartacus brought sand, sword, and sex to ridiculous new heights on television. EMPIRE comes off as a mix of the two styles. While it retains the visual look of 300 (washed out color palettes, slow motion carnage), there’s also a clear nod to the sex and splatter of Spartacus, though there’s precious little of the soapy machinations of Spartacus, and almost none of the nudity. (Though there is some nudity. I’m not a parent but I was cringing at the sight of parents walking in to see RISE with pre-teens in tow.) I watched RISE in IMAX 3D, and buckets of crimson red blood were shot in my direction from start to finish.
RISE OF AN EMPIRE is now walking a visual style forged by others, but it’s still a pleasing style to watch. I love the addition of the sea battles, and I especially love the addition of Eva Green.
Gorgeous, deadly, wicked, manipulative, it’s Eva Green’s Artemisia who sits at the center of this movie. Where Themistocles, the Athenian hero of Marathon (where he killed Xerxes’ daddy), represents Freedom (and we know this, because he says that word 842 times during the movie), Artemisia is the embodiment of Revenge.
And she looks ridiculously hot doing it. I’m not even sure why her battle armor has spikes running down the back, but I’m not complaining about it.
Like Themistocles, Artemisia’s basic function in the movie is to give speeches to rally her troops. There’s a lot of posturing for the camera and a lot of singular declarations instead of actual dialogue, but unlike Themistocles, Artemisia is overflowing with passion and life. Even lurking in the background as Xerxes declares war to his people, Green makes Artemisia infinitely more interesting than Themistocles ever is, including all of his infinite speeches rolled together.
In fact, as Derrick Ferguson has already argued, Artemisia is “far more intelligent, formidable, skilled and ambitious than anybody else and I’m willing to bet that like me, by the time you get to the halfway point you’ll be wondering why the whole movie wasn’t about her. She’s the kind of bad guy you secretly root for; the one that you hope ends up winning in the end.”
As he so often does, Derrick hits it square.
Despite the abundance of speeches from Themistocles, Artemisia, and Queen Gorgo, it’s only the Persian general who produces anything close to a quotable utterance. The first, is the title of this reaction, when she promises her troops that they will soon “dance across the backs of dead Greeks,” and when she taunts Themistocles during the final battle that he “fights harder than he fucks.” The film never wavers from her being the centerpiece of the story: she’s the person responsible for Xerxes transformation from an emotionally-devastated prince to god-king, she’s the person who calls for the meeting with Themistocles, she’s the one who twists and teases and seduces Themistocles into engaging in a sexual battle with her (their aborted coupling is predicated on physical dominance), she delivers the best defense of Athens (when Xerxes burns the city, she tells him he’s burned the only thing of value in Greece), she’s the only character in the film to offer so much as a rebuke to Xerxes, and when Themistocles bests her in combat (perhaps the most unbelievable act in the entire film), it’s Artemisia who pulls the Athenian’s sword through her, assuring her death.
Artemisia is also the only character with a compelling backstory, as her and her family’s degradation by the Greek hoplites and rescue by a Persian (Peter Mensah, who doesn’t get a name in this film any more than he got a name in the last film), who then trains her in the arts of war, makes me want her to get her revenge.
Other than Green’s performance, the most interesting part of RISE is in it’s relationship to 300. This is neither a straight sequel nor prequel. Instead, RISE takes place before, during, and after 300, making it one of the more unique sequels I can remember. It’s a highly effective technique. RISE weaves itself in and around 300 (Lena Headey, Andrew Tiernan, and David Wenham are back to film new scenes; Butler and Michael Fassbender appear in flashbacks), creating a new context for viewing the first film. Most surprisingly, RISE takes the Spartans’ high opinion of themselves and both reinforces it (they really are good fighters) and mocks it (they really are not the brightest bulbs in the Grecian system). When Queen Gorgo arrives with a fleet of Spartan ships to help win the day, it’s both stirring and anti-climactic.
They’re Spartans, after all. Are they really going to do something else than show up for a big war?
Reservations aside, 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE is a pretty good time.