With a single arrow the Greek Themistocles kills the Persian king Darius. This leaves Xerxes, Darius’s son, deeply troubled and determined to take revenge. Rise of an Empire is the follow up to the original 300 which appeared in early 2007. That film was based on a comic book written by Frank Miller. Both this new movie and its predecessor are heavily fictionalized versions of the Battle of Salamis. Where the first movie focused on the battle of Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire focuses on events taking place in parallel at the Straits of Artemisium.
300: Rise of an Empire starts with a long-winded narrative that ends with Xerxes transformation into an evil warlord. This suggests that the movie is about Xerxes and Themistocles, but that’s a deception. Though it is indeed a revenge story, the main antagonist is Artemisia: the Persian’s female naval commander. The conflict between her and Themistocles starts to become interesting when she is repeatedly outsmarted by him. Despite Artemisia having a much larger army, Themistocles uses clever naval battle tactics to defeat her several times. Unfortunately, just when that starts to get interesting the movie takes a completely unrealistic turn. This turn completely flips Themistocles around from capable smart leader to clueless commander with weak knees. From that point onwards the story slides straight downhill.
The original 300 was noticeable for its `testosterone’ visual style. This consisted of overexposed images combined with slow motion hand-to-hand combat. While this style is also used in this new movie, the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is a rather mixed bag. The naval scenes are nicely done, which is quite a feat considering all water was digitally added. However, there is more than a handful of scenes that look like they came straight out of a computer game: not something that appeals to cinema goers. The same applies to the excessive and mostly poor looking slow motion blood spurts, which lack any aesthetic. Rise of an empire also tosses in smashed faces and beheadings like they are nothing. This is not necessarily a problem, provided it is really an integral part of the story. However, when Artemisia calls up a Greek prisoner just so she can cut his head off, I really wonder: what were the writers thinking?
One would think that the underlying theme, the democratic freedom of the Greeks versus the feudal oppression of the Persians, would make for an interesting part of the story. The title “rise of an empire” also implies that this plays a central role. Unfortunately, this is yet an other deception: the movie does not even skim the surface of this conflict. Instead it relies on empty dull freedom rhetoric. Some feeble attempt at military drama is included in the form of an extremely predictable subplot involving a Greek father and son. Perhaps the subtitle should have been “the fall of storytelling” instead of “the rise of an empire”.
300: Rise of an Empire has some decent action scenes and good acting by Eva Green as Artemisia. However, it does not have anything else going for it. Furthermore, both the trailer and the movie’s title are misleading. This is definitely one to skip. If you really like the cinematographic style of 300 your time is better spent watching Starz’s Spartacus.