The original 300 was an interesting movie experiment. Could they make a bronze age battle epic that looked both gritty and fake? Practically every scene was a green screen effect. The battle scenes were stylized to the point of being composed to look like moving bas-relief sculptures you’d see in a museum. The characters were stylized as well: larger that life Spartans with the sole motivation of glory on the battlefield. Which, in a story of necessary doom for our “glorious 300”, worked. Every Spartan on the field of battle (with the exception of one messenger and one traitor) gets their fondest wish: death for Sparta.
So, what could the filmmakers do to follow that up? Thankfully, the bulk of the heavy lifting for 300: Rise of an Empire falls to Sullivan Stapleton (a new face for me) as the Athenian general Themistokles and Eva Green as the Persian admiral Artemisia. Neither of these characters is averse to war, but they both have more nuanced reasons for it than “This is Sparta!”
In fact, as the Persians bear down on Greece, the Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) is, in this film, more of an obstacle than a support. She’s singleminded in her desire to protect Sparta at the expense of all the other city-states, and turns down Themistokles’s request for help. Spartans don’t have any interest in a unified Greece.
Headey is the first, but certainly not the last familiar face we see in the film. (David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro and Peter Mensah are particularly good to see again.) With a structure that is neither sequel nor prequel, this film envelops the original 300 with its story. We see the genesis of Xerxes’s desire for conquest; we see the machinations in the Athenian government that leave Leonidas alone to protect the Hot Gates. And we see the aftermath of his death, culminating in a huge sea battle between the Greeks and the Persians.
Stapleton does some nice work, but Green steals the show. She’s one of those villains with a tragic backstory, but you never actually feel sorry for the adult character. In our modern world, it’s remarkably easy to vilify her for “not getting past” what had been done to her. And the film never attempts to subvert that tendency. We hate her. Though we love hating her.
The action sequences are what you’d expect. They’re bigger and more complicated than the previous film–and, unbelievably, they have more blood, to the point that it stops being gritty and realistic and moves into near parody.
And, surprisingly to me, the film ended with the perfect set up for a capper to a trilogy. Artemesia’s navy is destroyed, but Xerxes remains in Greece with control of Athens and a fricking huge army under his command. If this film does well at the box office (and a $45 million opening is nothing to sneeze at), expect to see 300: Xerxes Gets What’s Coming to Him at a multiplex near you in 2017.