“Rise of an Empire” is dead in the water

Kyle Garrett, Staff Writer

Zach Snyder’s “300,” an adaptation of the Frank Miller comic by the same name, came out seven years ago. It was a horrible, boring movie that substituted character and substance for gore flying everywhere, a neo-conservative or even fascist ideology including worship of war itself and hatred of Iran.

“300” conflated the moral character and overall worth of a person with physical beauty, which in its view was whiteness, absence of physical flaws and being from the west. The film literally and metaphorically demonized all the peoples of the former Persian Empirer. Despite its surface-level abhorrence, it took off like a rocket, infesting popular culture for years and bringing on a new worship for all things Spartan.

This is said not to drag out a decomposed horse for another pummelling, but to illustrate the stage its late coming sequel, “300: Rise of an Empire,” steps onto. “300” has largely been forgotten, even the most enthusiastic repeaters of the “this is Sparta” meme having long since moved on to new things. What, then, is the point of releasing a sequel now? It comes out as inheritor of a forgotten legacy, at a time when it would barely be noticed, and feels like more of the same – including the hateful warmongering – with no apparent purpose.

While Gerard Butler’s Spartans are being slaughtered to a man by the endless hordes of fey Persians, an Athenian named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), who can’t stop going on about the “experiment” that is “democracy,” is leading his city’s fleet against the Persian navy. The Persian navy is commanded by the sultry and intimidating Artemesia (Eva Green) whose Greek birth makes her the only competent person in Xerxes’ entire empire.

The Persians have come to knock over all of Athens’ stuff, and Artemesia wants to seduce the unflappable Themistocles because just being Athenian apparently makes him irresistible. The conflict between the two builds up to the decisive Battle of Salamis, a real battle in the Second Greco-Persian War which is here reduced to background dressing while the Greeks mutter about “freedom” and “duty” and run around in leather skirts.

Running alongside this tale is a prequel, the story of Xerxes’ rise to power after the death of his father Darius the First (Yigal Naor) at the Battle of Marathon, upon which Xerxes – still played with embarrassing and insulting flamboyance by Rodrigo Santoro – was told by his men not to pursue revenge, because “only the gods can defeat the Greeks.” Isn’t it nice when your enemies start worshipping you for no apparent reason?

If this summary seems dismissive, it’s because the story is treated like an excuse to just get to splattering blood all over the screen as soon as possible.

Exposition is piled upon the viewer in endlessly tedious voiceover, then any pretense at real plot or characters worth investing in is tossed aside to get to the next barely-choreographed swordfights. Like a video game, the film assumes the audience will consider pretty CGI and the evisceration of countless swarthy foreigners by white men who won’t shut up about democracy an acceptable substitute, and the performances of the cast do nothing to anchor the viewer in the world “Rise of an Empire” presents.

Director Noam Murro must have been thrown overboard at some point, because there is no sense of real weight or physicality here, and all the actors either listlessly drone out their lines or desperately chew at the scenery to stay afloat.

If the original “300” had one strong point, it was its visuals, which were striking, distinctive, and captured the feeling of a graphic novel in motion.

This movie is not so lucky. Everything is a dreary blue and grey except for splashes of blood or the few moments of ugly brown when the sun breaks through, and the treatment for its 3D version leaves all the scenes looking drab and washed out. There are no memorable shots here, just Persians being reduced to chum and a blind worship of bellicosity for its own sake.

This one should have stayed anchored at port.

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