When what would become Noam Murro’s 300: Rise of An Empire was first announced back in 2008, the sequel to Zack Snyder’s 2007 smash hit was tentatively titled Xerxes, to mirror both the unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name and the giant gold villain at the heart of both films. That moniker was then jettisoned for 300: Battle of Artemisium, a hefty title that was widely misreported to be 300: Battle of Artemisia, a strangely specific name that seemingly signaled how essential the character of Artemisia would be to the proceedings. Eventually, however, the project became just 300: Rise of An Empire (or 300: ROAE, if you’re into keeping things short), a title general enough to appeal to plenty of moviegoers, even those unfamiliar with the first feature.
Really, though, they should have stuck with the (again, totally misinterpreted and never official) title 300: Battle of Artemisia, because despite scads of shirtless men huffing and puffing over battle, 300: ROAE is entirely the Artemisia Show, and it’s all the better for it (and for her).
300: ROAE is not precisely a direct sequel to Snyder’s 300, at least not in the linear way sequels typically unfold – the film doesn’t take place after the events of 300, instead telling a side story that intersects with and overlaps the first feature. Basically, 300: ROAE takes place before, during, and after 300, and although it works hard to clarify and reiterate plot points and important characters shared between the two projects, it’s significantly better when telling its own standalone story. The first act of the film is made up primarily of flashbacks and flash-sides and nods to the first film, and while they prove informational, it’s oddly difficult to differentiate what “present day” is when it finally comes, and the film takes time to settle into a coherent narrative. It mirrors many of the main beats of the first 300, so it’s fortunate that 300: ROAE has the benefit of a bit of time between it and its predecessor (it’s also fortunate that its “side-quel” narrative doesn’t necessitate a rewatch of the original).
The first 300 quite memorably turned Gerard Butler into a bankable movie star, and it appears that the team behind 300: ROAE had a similar idea when it came to casting the mostly unknown Sullivan Stapleton as its lead Themistocles (the Aussie actor may look familiar to some audiences – he had a small role in Gangster Squad and also starred in the Sundance standout Animal Kingdom in 2010). Unlike Butler’s hotheaded Leonidas, Themistocles is an Athenian warrior whose great deeds in battle, including the seemingly off-the-cuff assassination of Persian King Darius at the Battle of Marathon, have placed him high on both the Athenian political spectrum and its military maneuverings. As war continues to rage between the Greek states and the Persian empire, Themistocles seeks to unite the disparate states to battle the empire together, now ruled by Darius’ maniacal “god-king” son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, returning to his 300 role).
Themistocles comes up against many obstacles in and around various bloody battles, particularly the resistance of the Spartans (including Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’ wife, also returning) to join up with the rest of the Greeks and the vicious nature of the eye-popping Artemisia (Eva Green), a skilled naval commander bent on wiping out Greece for good.
While Stapleton is perfectly serviceable in his role, Green grabs hold of the feature and never, ever lets go. She’s an outsized villain to be sure, but the addition of a tragic backstory, some hefty sex appeal, and one of the most fabulous on-screen wardrobes of the year make her strangely sympathetic and immensely compelling (she’s also just deeply entertaining, and Green’s dedication to the role, even when it calls for a violently brilliant sex scene, is intense). 300: ROAE may not be called 300: Battle of Artemisia, but make no mistake – this is the battle of Artemisia.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare quite as well, and Themistocles’ interchangeable men at arms can only be differentiated by vague personal characteristics (like “guy who kind of looks like Jared Leto” and “father and son duo”), as their names are scarcely mentioned. Elsewhere, the film provides a bit more insight into both Xerxes’ emotional aims and exactly how he became the so-called “god-king” (it apparently involved a desert hot spring, of all things). Xerxes, though, for all his towering villainy, is still just a side character in the film, and he remains somewhat obtuse and hard to engage with.
300: ROAE is not as outwardly gory as the first feature, though it’s quite generous with thick, splattering, and pouring CGI blood, the kind that bathes the camera and spills out at every possible moment (and even a few impossible moments). Themistocles and his men specialize in “shock combat” which, loosely examined, appears to simply involve making what appear to be really, really, really bad tactical choices and running with them (like attacking other armies when they are severely outnumbered), the kind of choices that lead to the type of large-scale action set pieces the first film also traded in.
The film offers plenty of stunning shots – the bulk of 300: ROAE’s battles are sea-set, and the ocean provides an impressive background for even the most literally unbelievable of war sequences – and Murro admirably infuses some actual beauty and technique into scenes that could quite easily rely on still more goopy bloodshed. Persian boats glide across still ocean waters that look like glass, brave Athenians leap from rocky cliffs, and Artemisia fills the screen with spiked battle suits and a steely gaze – an engaging enough outing, even if it’s not a required one.
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