Monday, March 24, 2014

Reviews: 300: Rise of an Empire


           300 was an over the top tribute to the Battle of Thermopylae; crude, heavy-handed, and overly-stylized, but which ultimately worked beautifully because of its absolute commitment both to the righteousness of its heroes’ cause and to their warrior ethos. In a world where most cinematic heroes are plagued with self-doubt and hesitation, the virile and unrelenting Spartans were a breath of fresh air. Besides which, the story itself – 300 men who gave their last breath to defend Western Civilization against invading tyranny – was compelling enough that the extremities the film went to tell it seemed fitting.
            300: Rise of an Empire, on the other hand, is little more than an unfocused, meandering, occasionally repulsive retread of the first film, lacking all the urgency or emotional power of its predecessor: a limp, mindless exercise in style and brutality. The first film at least maintained the basic facts and import of Thermopylae: this one can’t be bothered to do anything similar regarding Salamis.
            The story: as King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) invades Greece and the 300 Spartans march to the hot gates to stop him, the Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the hero of Marathon, tries to unite Greece to form a naval defense against Xerxes’ chief admiral, Artemisia (Eva Green).
            There are two major problems that sink the film; the first is the lack of any kind of story structure. The first movie was built around the Battle of Thermopylae: it was a simple matter of “the Spartans, vastly outnumbered, stand at the pass while the Persians throw everything they have at them.” This one wanders all over the place, so that we’ve almost never quite sure where we are or why it’s at all important to fight the Persians here rather than somewhere else, or what the stakes will be if they lose. Nor do we really get a sense of what the Persians are trying to do: half the time Artemisia seems to just be sending out small fleets to attack the Greeks while she sits back and watches with the rest of her navy. If she’s that close to the action, why doesn’t she just send her whole fleet in and overwhelm them with superior numbers on the open sea? The battles have no context and, hence, no urgency, or even any basic notions of what is and is not possible at any given point. When Themistocles leads the Persian fleet into a trap, the reaction is “oh, so they’re close to the shore? Where are they again?”  
The climactic battle of Salamis, meanwhile, falls completely flat, being entirely route and uninteresting. The first film was at least honest about the basic details of Thermopylae. This one can’t be bothered: the narrow straights that gave the out-numbered Greeks their crucial advantage over the massive Persian navy, the attempt of the Persians to block out the straights and trap the Greeks, which backfired so spectacularly on them, the chaos that resulted in neither side being able to keep to any clear strategy, none of this is brought out in the film. Indeed, the depiction of the Persian fleet being backed against a cliff and surrounded by the Greek fleets is flatly the opposite of the actual battle, which had the Greeks surrounded by the Persian fleet (what is the Persian navy even doing all bunched up against the shore like that? As far as we can tell, there’s nothing stopping them from sailing out and overwhelming the Greeks, so why would they waste their numerical advantage by just sitting there in a pile?). About the only accurate detail of the battle is the fact that Xerxes observes the fight from a nearby cliff. 
            At the same time, the movie keeps hitting the same beats as the first one: hero with small band of loyal soldiers? Check. Successful encounters with an overly-confident enemy? Check. Father-son soldier team? Check. Villain tries to convince hero to join him/her? Check. Persians resort to ever-more esoteric methods to break the Greeks? Check. It’s really nothing more than “300 at Sea,” except that implies something more interesting. They even shrink the Athenian navy – the best of the Greek City States by far – into a tiny force of doubtful ships to try to drum up the same sense of overwhelming odds. The combined navy of all Greece being outnumbered four-to-one wasn’t enough for them?
            The burning of Athens, amazingly, is relegated to a single scene with no lead-in whatsoever. This scene being one of maybe three or four that were even set in the city (almost all the others being interior scenes). We therefore get no notion of Athens as being anything at all special or important in the ancient world. That it’s a center of arts, commerce, and learning, the birthplace of democracy and philosophy, and one of the cornerstones of western civilization is never established (worse, the little we see of democracy here is so unflattering that you really have to wonder why they’re so keen on saving it). There is no sense of the burning of Athens being any kind of a tragedy or devastation: it simply happens and the movie moves on. If the characters themselves don’t seem to care about the destruction of Athens, why should we?
            The other and much more serious problem is in the use of Artemisia. First they give her an unnecessarily cruel backstory (which makes it kind of hard to generate any enjoyable hatred for her), then they stick her in a completely gratuitous and vile sex/rape scene with Themistocles (one that has zero relevance to the plot and even less emotional impact, unless faint nausea counts), and finally they end by having burly Sullivan Stapleton engage her in one-on-one combat, wherein he knocks her around the ship and finally stabs her to death. The whole thing is so vile that it sucks out any joy that Eva Green’s performance might have had. Artemisia is too pitiable to be an enjoyable villain and too evil to be really pitied. She’s simply repulsive in the most real-world sense of the term (and, needless to say, none of this has any basis in history).
            People sometimes complain that, in action movies, women are only allowed to fight other women. Rise of an Empire reminds us of the reason for this trope: it’s no fun at all to see a big, muscle-bound man smacking a petite woman around the deck of a ship before gutting her with his sword. That’s even allowing that they make 5’6”, slender-armed Artemisia “the greatest fighter in Persia” and show her mopping the floor with a six-foot-plus Tony Todd lookalike. The moment Themistocles backhands her, the illusion is broken and we’re just watching our hero knocking an abused woman around. Coupled with her aforementioned backstory (which opens with her, as an eight-year-old, watching her family getting raped and murdered before she’s kicked in the face) and the gruesome scene where she tries to seduce Themistocles and he effectively rapes her, and you’re left just staring at the screen wondering who the hell thought this would be in the least bit entertaining? 
            There are other, less vital problems that help drag the film down: I found the constant slow-motion to be annoying rather than cool this time, as though the movie were having trouble loading. Apart from Themistocles, it’s hard to keep track of any of the other Athenian characters or their relationship to each other. A subplot about a young man’s desire to fight and his father’s unwillingness to let him is set up, achieves nothing (the father is kind of blasé when he finds out about it), and is dropped at the last minute. Once he’s served his purpose, the film literally forgets about the kid, and we don’t even learn whether he survived the final battle or not. Themistocles’s visits to Sparta are pointless padding and Queen Gorgo’s reluctance to fight anymore makes no sense whatsoever (she’s a Spartan, and she was the one urging the Spartan assembly to get into the war in the last film! Why has she suddenly gone all “stop killing my sons in your useless war?”). 
            The film’s ‘origin story’ for Xerxes is just kind of weird: did we really need to find out why he’s a seven-foot piercing-addict? I mean, I kind of assumed that was just because he was the ruler of the richest, most powerful empire in the world and was into that sort of thing. And does this mean he actually is a physical god, or what? What was the point of any of that, except to pad out the film a bit more?
            To be fair, it’s not entirely bad: the visuals, especially our glimpse of Persepolis, are spectacular. I loved the brief glimpse we have of Xerxes’ bridge of ships across the Hellespont (which was actually the way he got his armies into Greece). Some of the sea battles are pretty darn cool, with rammings and splinterings to spare, and the warrior ethos of the first film is again depicted reverently, with all its comradery and virile dedication to a higher cause. The fact that the Persian ships are rowed by slaves and the Greeks by (apparently) free men is another nice touch (not sure if that’s true, but it’s a nice touch). And as was the case in the first film, any attempt to tell these vital stories from the birth of Western Civilization is appreciated. If the film inspires people to actually learn something about Marathon and Salamis, then it’s done better work than many a superior film.
            Not, of course, that anyone would learn much history for this movie. Besides what I already noted, the most egregious historical sin (which the film makes much of) is having Themistocles kill Darius at Marathon, thus giving Xerxes a “motive” to invade Greece. Leaving aside that this is stupid (why does the most powerful emperor on Earth need a reason to invade an unsightly free state on his border?), Darius wasn’t even present at Marathon. He died peacefully about three years later while working on another invasion plan. Also, the plot point about the Athenians begging the Spartans to supply them with ships was lame: the Athenian navy was vastly the superior of the Spartan navy, and while I’m sure the Athenians appreciated the help, it was Athens who supplied the most and best ships at Salamis – over half the total number – while the Spartans sent a comparatively puny force of sixteen ships. This alteration takes a lot of the glory away from the Athenians and gives it to the Spartans, which is just kind of weird: I mean, the Spartans already had their day of glory at Thermopylae, why did the filmmakers feel the need to give them another by minimizing the Athenian contribution at Salamis?
            Oh, and about Artemisia: she didn’t die at Salamis and she wasn’t an admiral (obviously; Xerxes admiral was actually his cousin, Ariabignes, who did die in the battle). She was a Halicarnassan Queen who commanded a small portion of the Persian fleet (five ships out of 1200) and who occasionally advised Xerxes, who had great respect for her. She fled during the battle when she saw it was turning against them, ramming another Persian ship commanded by a rival in her desire to escape, which both convinced the Greeks that she was an ally and caused Xerxes (thinking she had attacked a Greek ship) to lament “my men have become women and my women have become men!” She was also the one who advised Xerxes to leave Greece, reasoning that if the occupation succeeded, Xerxes would still get the credit and if it failed, he at least would be safe. They both then lived quite happily and profitably ever after in their respective kingdoms.  
            After I saw 300, I wanted to go join the Marines. After I saw Rise of an Empire, I wanted to go take a good, hot shower with lots of soap. The glory of Greece, the heroism of the Athenian navy, and the warrior ethos are there, but buried under tons of vileness and lazy storytelling.

Final Rating: 1.5/5: Great visuals and some glimpses of the virtue of Greece are lost in a meandering story that has little of the impact of the first one and overwhelmed by the exceedingly nasty use of the villainess.   

Vivat Christus Rex!

1 comment:

Charles said...

". . . The fact that the Persian ships are rowed by slaves and the Greeks by (apparently) free men is another nice touch (not sure if that’s true, but it’s a nice touch). . . ."

FWIW, Athenian triremes were typically rowed by free men, but this was confined to the lowest classes of manual labors. (At the time of the Persian Wars, rowing was one of the main forms of military service that working-class Athenian men were expected and able to perform -- they could not be hoplites, since hoplites were expected to furnish their own weapons and armor.) In the few cases where Greek poleis were known to have used slaves as rowers, in an emergency situation, to row a war-ship, it was actually typical to emancipate all the slaves afterwards, or even before loading them into the ship.

Of course the situation was complicated, since Athens was full of slaves and the elite classes' political and economic status depended on exploiting slave labor, even if they didn't directly drive slaves into the fighting. The huge fleet of triremes that Themistocles got commissioned in 483 and then later commanded during the war, in particular, was funded out of the windfall revenues from a new silver mine at Laurium. But those mines, which funded the fleet, were worked by about 10,000-20,000 slaves, under the most unimaginably squalid and lethal conditions.

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