300 Rise of an Empire

300: Rise of an Empire has a difficult task in front of it. Naturally with the success of the first film there was a desire from the studio to tell more stories in the Zack Snyder-ized Greek Universe, but with King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans dead, where could the story possibly go? After some early rumour of an origin story focused solely on Xerxes, Rise of an Empire chooses to build up instead of sideways. Described as a ‘companion’ piece to the first entry, the Noam Murro picture introduces audiences to a new group of Athenian warriors, led by the mighty Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton.

Standing in their way is the Persian Navy, led by Xerxes’ commander Artemisia, portrayed by the talented Eva Green. The story takes place before, during and after the battle at the hot gates and refers to the actions of Sparta as the inciting event that united all the armies of Greece. Interesting though it may be, the whole idea seems like the filmmakers took the idea of 300 and stretched it almost to its breaking point. The new setting and new characters infuse the film with a fresh energy, but ultimately lacks the passion and investment of its predecessor.

On the positive side, the film fits in nicely to the established continuity and is the definition of high octane action filmmaking. The progress in computer generated sets and effects is evident as the technology has taken huge strides towards realism in the past seven years. Green puts on a spectacularly menacing and twisted performance as Artemisia, further neutering Xerxes’ character and revealing him to be little more than a puppet lacking any real power. Not only is she more skilled as a warrior than Xerxes, but also carries his father’s fervour as well. In response Xerxes takes to the sands to transform himself into the God-King that we are all familiar with, but unfortunately this feels a bit of a retread of his arc from the original film, but in reverse. We know from the beginning of “Rise” that Xerxes is not the mighty figure he makes himself out to be. His ornamentation, his pageantry, his aura are all an illusion to portray strength. So his ultimate transformation lacks some of the punch since we already know the God-King can bleed.

This new look at familiar events turns out to be much less interesting than the first journey and the army following Themistokles generally fades into the background. These are the painters, the farmers, the potters that have been well established as a mediocre fighting force by comparison, so it’s challenging to be as invested in their success as in the first film. Themes of hard work, commitment and passion run deep in the original and at times makes this sequel feel like a watered down version of your favourite drink. The Spartan’s absence from the spotlight is greatly missed and the heroes of this entry look almost as inferior as the Persians.

It might be unfair to constantly compare this film to the genre redefining epic that was the first film, but inevitably the discussion shifts to its far superior older brother. Returning players Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro and David Wenham inject a certain level of legitimacy to the project, but still fail to capture the same magic audiences felt the first time around. Equally challenging for the director Murro is striking a balance between staying true to the predecessor while simultaneously taking the franchise in new directions. There are moments (especially in the opening minutes of the film) where Murro comes off like little more than a Zack Snyder cover band.

If you are expecting to see buckets of blood, no less than 25+ slow motion shots and the angriest sex scene of all of 2014, then 300: Rise of an Empire will not disappoint you. If you are perhaps expecting a more complex narrative with unexpected twists and turns in addition to the crazy action, just wait a few more weeks until Game of Thrones returns to our screens.