Historical inaccuracies are forgivable in period-set films, especially when they are so clearly more “fantasy-oriented” or anachronistic or just for the sake of enriching the atmosphere, style, story and entertainment value. The problem is that 300: Rise of an Empire just is not much fun or entertaining. We live in an age where trashy rock ‘em sock ‘em “junk food” films have been pretty much perfected. Unfortunately this awkward spinoff to the 2006 Zack Snyder film 300 sort of forgets much of the stylish grindhouse ingenuity of the original in favor of a heavy handed talky/expository affair that is at times jingoistic, misogynistic, mean-spirited and ultimately dull. Whereas Snyder’s film was a macho death-fantasy, this one plays like a derivative cover-band recreation that misses what made the original so special and enduring. The film depicts a war between white (or orange, as per the film’s odd color palate) people who “don’t negotiate with tyrants” and the brown people who hate their freedom. The original film had its fair share of troubling implications but the stylish way in which beefed-up dudes slaughtered one another whilst half-naked made the film far too silly and over-the-top to have its issues be taken seriously. This film however, dumps much of the testosterone power fantasy in favor of…philosophical debates and exposition which all but put a spotlight on the film’s troubles.
Led by Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), outnumbered Athenians disembowel their way through the faceless Persian/Achaemenid horde in the name of freedom and democracy, but mostly they just pause to look off into the distance while musing aloud about the brutality of war and the cruelty of slavery. If you know your history, you’ll notice a hint of irony to the myth of the film. Out of all the Ancient Greek city-states, Athens depend the most on slave labor; meanwhile the real-life Persian/Achaemenid Empire did not practice slavery. Athens is also notable for refusing to grant women any legal rights. They did indeed practice a form of “democracy” – open to only a small portion of the population (male elite) -Athens was hardly a model society (is any really?). So why quibble with the historical details of a movie like this? The reason is that in the way the film idealizes Athenian and Greek society, it reveals its ugly values. Ancient Greek misogyny is passed over, because the movie conveniently features only two female characters: the Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the Carian commander Artemisia (Eva Green). Visually, the Achaemenids/Persians are adorned with black leather and gold: a look that’s half space-Nazi, half Kanye West concert tour. More troubling is the fact they are led by Artemisia, the film’s villain, a treacherous, sexually-liberated aggressive woman who is vilified by the film and its characters despite her sympathetic backstory. The Athenians, who are protecting the core values of modern Western society, are composed entirely of white men without body hair or pants adorned with flowing capes that would make Superman jealous. Director Noam Murro and co-writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad are probably not racists, misogynists, or xenophobes but the film does seem to suggest otherwise. Creative choices, which are actions and not intentions, hold value.
Beyond its troubling peachiness, the film is just terrible at the one thing that it needed to have in order to ascend its issues: action. There are only about 3 action sequences (4 if you count a violent sex-scene) in the film and most of them are repetitive and hold none of the flair or originality of the original film. The sex-fight scene was the film’s one attempt at ingenuity but it falls short as it veers into Showgirls levels of laughability and awkwardness: it’s never “sexy” or “fun.” The director attempts to bring some design and style to the non-action sequences, but there are only so many ways you can shoot people talking and walking.
The term “cash-in” gets thrown around a lot but that is exactly what this film is. It is riding on the success of a now 8-year-old film that while a benchmark for digital filmmaking, is now more a curious relic than classic. Coupled with the failings of this film, there simply is nothing worthwhile here for anyone looking for more than 90+ mins of time-killing.