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Eight years later, is the color of the capes the only thing that’s changed?

300 is a movie that has a bizarre but deserved status in the canon of modern blockbusters. For one thing, it was an experiment by then-newish Zack Snyder, one that melded deplorable and retrograde socio-political statements with a sort of oorah masculinity that functions nicely as a homoerotic parody of the inanity that has hijacked a generation of male self-image.  To wit, it always makes me laugh how popular 300 is amongst the same bros who won’t watch Magic Mike because it features heterosexual men (with more clothes on) dancing for heterosexual women.

At the same time, it’s undeniable that 300 is a well-made and often beautiful film. It made speed-ramping a strong, if overused, verb in the action movie lexicon. It launched Zack Snyder’s career of adapting (translating, really) comic books into colorful, experimental imagery that often works very well in spite of itself. There’s nothing about 300 or its sequel Rise of an Empire that doesn’t feel manufactured. These are fratboy movies, with mostly a fratboy’s sense of responsibility about what it says and does. But you can’t quite hate it. It’s not just because it’s pretty. It’s also because in its amiability with sex and violence, it almost feels progressive even as you set a drinking game to the overuse of “freedom” and its derivatives in a whitewashed, revisionist “history” of a people that utterly relied on the labour of slaves.

As a historical fantasy (what else can you call it?), the movie is only really saved by Eva Green and the fact that it features naval battles, something we haven’t seen before, on the back of the stylization that has become overly familiar in the eight years since 300. That said, this movie has a far more interesting and coherent thematic substructure than did 300. So if you can look past the jingoism, the bad dialogue, and so on, you may find a small measure of substance beneath the washboard abs and hopelessly fake looking Aegean waters. Substance that makes Rise of an Empire less ridiculous than 300 and yet the less enjoyable of the two.Film Review 300 Rise of An Empire

For some reason, they decided it was necessary to try and explain Xerxes’ “godhood”.

Because this is a sequel, expanding on the rich mythology of the original is par for course. Except that mythology is not rich and Rise of an Empire folds those cards fairly quickly. The film’s bookend scenes are with Gorgo (Lena Headey) who has led a Spartan army to the aid of the beleaguered Athenians who have tried and failed to stop a Persian naval assault. She delves into the backstory of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) so we can learn more about him, and the two people who basically created him. As a framing device and a way to tie the narrative into Xerxes’ villainy and the whole backdrop of his invasion makes a sort of sense.

Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) killed Darius, Xerxes’ father with a well-timed arrow during a battle ten years previous to the events of 300. Though Darius was in awe of the Greeks and wanted his son to leave them alone, acknowledging their experiment in democracy and freedom as righteous and awesome (haha), Xerxes only wants revenge. So does Artemisia (Eva Green) a Greek woman and a victim of Greeks. She fucking hates them, guys. She wants to burn Greece down and kill everybody in it. For what it’s worth, she has good reasons. As a child, Greek soldiers killed her whole family for unstated reasons and then kept her as a sex slave for several years. When she was freed, she became a murderer and mystic and Darius’s favorite general. With only Xerxes, who is kind of a snot, she has to step up hard if she wants to get anywhere with her holy quest for revenge. In a nice example of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, the film goes into her intrigues and assassinations which help her consolidate power as Xerxes goes off on a half-baked quest for Godhood. Through mechanisms left so vague and silly that it seems like writers Snyder and Kurt Johnstad lost interest halfway into it, he succeeds and turns into an 8-foot tall golden man who remains basically a big snot (one of the best scenes is when Artemisia tells him to go fuck himself because he’s a big ol’ baby).

So Artemisia gets her way and becomes the tip of the spear. Meanwhile, Leonidas leads his guard to the Hot Gates and gets them all killed. Themistocles spends this time trying to unite Greece with the verbal totem of “Freedom” but basically fails and so gets a vastly outnumbered navy of his own to go out and meet Artemisia head on.

The rest of the movie is basically the series of battles as Artemisia and Themistocles play Battleship: Antiquity Version. Which, good!

300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

Freeeeeeeeddddoooooommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

What I meant earlier about thematic substance basically comes down to this: Themistocles and Artemisia are Xerxes’ spiritual parents. It was Themmy who killed his real pa, and Artemisia who raised him up afterward. They each played a part in creating the egotistical, puerile monster he has become. In this way, Rise of an Empire goes a ways into becoming an interesting origin story in spite of the fact that Xerxes is barely in it.

On the back of this subtext, the battle of wits these two engage makes sense even when it strays into personal territory. They respond to each other in a bunch of different ways and, as ridiculous as it is, it’s emotionally and viscerally understandable that they should fight, fuck, and kill each other and have a bunch of complicated feelings about it. Eva Green is far, far more up to the task of conveying the complexity of character required to make her side of the relationship work, and she carries Stapleton past the limits of his physicality to make this shit feel like it’s something. That ain’t bad.

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She is a far better character than Gorgo or Xerxes, anyways.

There’s some merit to be found in the fact that this film’s best character is a woman. Not only that, but Queen Gorgo gets a lot of screenplay and even leads the Spartan troops in battle. She also bookends the film and gets to play the role that David Wenham played in 300 (storyteller!). Moreover, Artemisia is unintentionally more interesting and more morally supportable than Themistocles. He’s an empty cape of a hero, and we learn nothing about his motives beyond that he’s a “Company Man” in service to the aspiration of a Greek civilization. Only when Artemisia is around does the movie do something with occasional hints that he’s a man who loves battle and tactics and the challenge of a good opponent perhaps more than he should.

The rest of his allies are totally boring and forgettable. There’s a few “oh right” moments with actors/characters from 300 but the vast majority of the time, you’re hanging out with Themistocles and his band of goofs. They recycle the same fucking father-son relationship as 300 but do explore another side of it. Likewise, there’s another earnest lieutenant character with a dopey haircut (but this time, he’s not the father). Gone are the colorful, enjoyable performances of Dominic West or even Michael Fassbender.

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We do get this fucking guy, of course.

When 300 came out, some people took exception to its treatment of women, people of color, and the deformed. In the antiquity of this fairytale of brawn and democratic supremacy (again: haha), anyone not white and espousing vagaries about freedom is bad. Rise of an Empire features very little of the ugliness that its predecessor contained, but it doesn’t really drop the revisionist ownership of the Greek stand against Eastern aggression.

Why is this a thing? Well. Throughout the history of Empire, its been politically and socially expedient for tyrants to claim direct ancestral lineage to whatever big awesome empire ruled the world in the Before Time (the Long, Long Ago). In the case of Nazi Germany and much of Industrial Europe, it was all about the Roman Empire. In the time of the Romans, it was Alexander’s Hellenistic Empire and the semi-mythic Troy of Aeneas (recast by Virgil as the founder of Rome). For the United States, it’s whatever Western European tradition seems convenient at the time. Ever since at least Braveheart, these pseudo-historical fictions have recast American values in continuum with historical civilizations in narratives that at best draw a connective line between the best of humanity in the past with things we still care about now. At worst, it’s about the exceptionalism borrowed from mythic recasting of peoples and events that have little to do with the American Experiment.

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This sex scene is getting a lot of press coverage; it’s vicious, exciting, and sodamasochistic.

It’s sort of boring and redundant to point out that the United States has been indulging a little imperialism since WW2, but that doesn’t make it less true. Rise of an Empire reflects that truth by acting as the sort of incidental propaganda of a nationalism that sees itself as the inheritor or continuation of a previous Greatness, and a previous Struggle with the Other. In the case of 300, that struggle nicely reflected Islamaphobia and the fear of the East. As we fly through the second decade of this millennium, that fear begins to transfer from the Arabs and Persians (Iranians) and Muslims and on to the “Orient”. We’re already seeing the films reacting to that state of affairs (Red Dawn for example). 300 came at a time where the general need to recast other peoples of Planet Earth as an aggressive, Freedom-hating/threatening Great Other was pretty well set on the Middle East. Usually, those fears are far more spread around, like they are right now, between anyone who doesn’t seem to appreciate the great American gift, which this movie pretends was originally the great Greek gift, of which the USA is the natural inheritor and redistributor.

Rise of an Empire brings us back to the Middle East, but it also takes a species responsibility for itself that 300 never did. Themistocles killed Darius during a battle and set the aggression in motion. The Greeks kept sex slaves like Artemisia. They are not the paragons of Freedom and the Light of Civilization that the film pays lip service to. Somehow, a bit of mild subversiveness snuck into this sequel. It tells us how we sometimes create our own enemies, or that the line between where we end and they begin may not be so sharp. That this reflects the American psyche and recent history so well makes Rise of an Empire a bit more than a glitzy muscular fairy tale. It makes it topical and responsive to something that is specifically true of the US and generally true of all people who play their roles in the song and dance of aggression, violence, war, and death. Turn on your TV and watch Russia swinging its dick around. It’s not like Rise of an Empire teaches us some great lesson about ourselves. Instead, think of it as a snapshot of our times, a snapshot that is a little more aware of itself than the last one in the series, but never quite as vital.

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Or ignore all that textual analysis stuff because BLOOD AND SATURATED COLORS OMIGOOOOOOODDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD.

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