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Film Review: ‘300: Rise of an Empire’

Film Review 300 Rise of an Empire Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures

David Ives - published on 03/06/14

Not a good date night movie.

“Kill shot,” “takedown,” “finishing move”… call it what you will, it’s become a staple of the modern video game. It’s that moment in combat when your opponent is nearly beaten, and the only thing required to seal the deal is to unleash that special one-of-a-kind maneuver you’ve been reserving until the time is just right. I ask you, is there anything more satisfying than pressing the correct sequence of buttons on your controller that causes your avatar to deliver that final crushing blow? I mean, what could possibly be cooler than watching your Nordic barbarian decapitate a troll in the mountains of Skyrim, or seeing Batman cripple some nameless thug in the bowels of Arkham Asylum – all of it in glorious slow motion so you don’t miss a single drop of blood? Man oh man, if only they could find a way to translate the vicarious thrill of kill shots to the movies… wouldn’t that be the greatest?

Oh wait, they did that already! It was called 300, and it came out about eight years ago. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name,300 was the extremely fictional retelling of the events surrounding the legendary Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas of Sparta led a small band of soldiers in a heroic last stand against the overwhelming forces of the Persian king, Xerxes. That wasn’t the first time the story had been put to film, of course, but what made 300’s rendition unique was its visual style. Combining the comic book art direction of Sin City with the slowed down “bullet time” effects of The Matrix, 300 became the equivalent of watching a non-stop series of live action finishing moves play out on the big screen. I read somewhere that the video game Tattoo Assassins set the record for most kill shots with an incredible 2,196 unique – and often gruesome – takedowns. I’m not sure if anyone counted, but it sure seemed like 300 beat that number.

And if 300 didn’t, then surely its sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, must do so. Time and time again throughout the film, the furious onscreen action lurches to a near halt in order to linger on the super slow motion image of a sword lopping off a limb or an arrow piercing someone’s skull or a spear thrusting into… well you get the idea. Barring the sure-to-be-talked-about sex scene (wait for it, we’ll get there), hardly a three minute stretch of time goes by in 300: Rise of an Empire without an extended slow-motion sequence involving dozens of highly choreographed kill shots. Seriously, there’s probably more choreography in this movie than in any dance recital you’re likely to see. The difference is that it’s put to the purpose of simulated slaughter rather than soubresauts.

One would imagine that if any of the movie’s copious disemboweling looked at all realistic, audiences would probably be forced to run from their seats in search of the nearest vomitorium, but like it’s predecessor before it, 300: Rise of an Empire has little interest in reality. Rather, it puts its cartoonish, jelly-like CGI blood spatters to the task of mythologizing the events surrounding the real life battles of Artemisium and Salamis, in which the Athenian general Themistocles led Greek forces in naval combat against the Persians.

The movie begins at roughly the same time as the events in 300, with Themistocles in Athens attempting to convince the various Greek city-states to commit to war. Having as little success as Leonidas did in Sparta in raising a significant army, Themistocles assembles what little forces he can from willing farmers and craftsmen. This results in one of the film’s few variations from the visual style of its predecessor. Whereas the Spartans of
300 famously sported abs that looked as if they had been chiseled from stone, the fighting men of Rise of an Empire appear as if they only work out at the gym five or six hours every other day. Pathetic, I know, but they’re shown that way on purpose to point out what anemic resources Themistocles had to work with.

While Leonidas leads his three hundred to their fate at Thermopylae, Themistocles engages the Persian fleet at Artemisium. Thanks to Themistocles’ cunning strategies, the initial engagements favor the Greeks despite the Persian’s superior ships and overwhelming numbers. Unfortunately, the leader of the Persian navy, Queen Artemisia – we’ll get to her in a minute – is equally crafty. While Xerxes overruns Leonidas and his men, Artemesia manages to drive Themistocles into retreat. With the Greeks now in disarray, the Persians are free to begin their invasion in earnest and immediately move to sack Athens. Realizing the entire country is on the verge of falling, Themistocles uses the martyrdom of the three hundred Spartans as a rallying call to ignite the spirit of his fellow Greeks. Newly emboldened, the united Greeks challenge the Persians to a final battle at Salamis. Lots of slow motion carnage ensues.

What is there to say? Like 300 before it, Rise of an Empire is most definitely not a character study. In fact, if it’s at all possible, Rise of an Empire is even less subtle than 300. Gone are even the meager attempts at tenderness the first film showed between Leonidas and his wife. The closest the new movie comes to that side of the emotional spectrum is Themistocles’ manly tears over his dying friends. Even sex in Rise of an Empire is devoid of anything approaching intimacy. During a break in the fighting at Artemisium, Themistocles is invited to Artemesia’s ship, where the queen hopes to persuade the Greek to switch sides. The sexual encounter that follows is depicted more as a battle than an act of pleasure, with the two commanders intermittently strangling and pummeling each other as they attempt to establish dominance.

Yeah, for that scene alone, 300: Rise of an Empire is probably not the ideal choice for date night. Still, that portrayal is consistent with the way Artemesia’s character is depicted throughout the film, which is basically that of an unstoppable killing machine of a man who also just happens to have breasts. It probably wouldn’t be much of a big deal if we were watching a video game where the choice of sex is about as important as what color armor your character is going to wear. But the problem here is that the historical Artemesia was nothing like this, so any viewer privy to that fact has to wonder about the purpose for which history being distorted.

Anybody familiar with the works of Frank Miller knows that he is notorious amongst his critics for his poor handling of women. In Miller’s fictionalized universe, only masculinity (his version of it, anyway) is of value, while any hint of the feminine is seen as a sign of weakness. Any woman who expresses a trace of genuine femininity in a Miller story is most likely doomed to be raped, killed, or both. However, if she adopts masculine traits as Artemesia does, then she has worth beyond her role as a sexual object. Oh, she may still die a horrible slow motion death, but at least she’ll do so like a man, going down fighting amidst the glory of battle.

While to some it probably seems progressive to depict Artemesia in this manner, it’s actually something of a step backwards. One of the innovations to come along in the book of Genesis was the idea that man and woman were created with one and the same dignity in the image of God despite their different masculine and feminine natures. In light of this teaching, the differences between men and women become a strength of our species, with both masculinity and femininity serving important purposes. Suppressing one for the other actually holds us all back. Given that, depictions like the one of Artemesia are harmful in a way, devaluing femininity as they do.

Of course, I suppose that’s only a problem if you take something like 300: Rise of an Empire seriously, which is admittedly pretty hard to do. If you just stick to the surface level, then the film is nothing more than a two-hour long compilation of expertly crafted video game kill shots that come with the added bonus of not having to press any buttons in order to see them. If your inner thirteen to thirty-five male video game player is excited at the thought of seeing that, then 300: Rise of an Empire is the movie for you this weekend.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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