Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Three Days of Sequels, Part 2: 300: Rise of an Empire

In 2007, director Zack Snyder gave us 300 and caused a minor sensation; earlier this year, Noam Murro ushered in 300: Rise of an Empire and... you probably didn't notice.

300's Budget: $65 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 60%; Domestic Box Office: $210,614,939

300: Rise of an Empire's Budget: $110 million; Rotten Tomato Rating: 42%; Domestic Box Office: $106,580,051

I'm not sure if before now I've paused to consider why I like 300. Perhaps it's a guilty pleasure? All I'm certain of is that I quite enjoyed myself in the theater and on subsequent viewings of the film. Yes, I've heard the criticisms about the picture - it's sexist, it's homophobic, it's xenophobic - but as a straight forward action film, I liked it; perhaps there's something in author Frank Miller's worshipping of men of clarity? I'm not particularly interested in Miller's post-80s output with the exception of 300, so I certainly had an interest in another story from that milieu.

Of course, right out of the (hot) gate, 300: Rise of an Empire is problematic as a sequel. It claims to be based on Frank Miller's graphic novel Xerxes, even though said novel does not exist (Miller released a preview in 2011). Then there's the question of titling the film 300 when - although footage of the 300 Spartans from the previous film is recycled - this is not a story of the 300 Spartans. It's not a story of Xerxes either; he returns and his origins are recounted, but then he takes a backseat to the sequel's villain, Artemisia, almost as though the filmmakers were hoping to save a final confrontation with Xerxes for a third "300" movie. Other characters from 300 recur, including the Persian messenger, which probably excited his fan.

What is this film? It's no longer the story of the 300 Spartans resisting Xerxes' army. It's no longer a showcase for Zack Snyder's style - he's only an executive producer in this picture. It's not an adaptation of a Frank Miller comic book. Some will be glad that this film jettisons the fantasy elements of its predecessor (ie, the giants). The sexism, homophobia & xenophobia isn't as potent either, which might be a reaction to the first film's criticism. But what is this movie?

If you have the patience to sit through it, you'll discover this is a film about Themistocles leading the Athenian forces into naval battles against the Persian fleet commanded by Artemisia. Themistocles' followers are largely indistinguishable, other than a father-son relationship (much as the previous films' Spartans were indistinguishable other than the pair who were father & son). And yet, Themistocles is not the central figure as Leonidas was in the previous film - Xerxes & Artemisia each seize control of the narrative early on until Themistocles finally elbows his way to the forefront.

Considering how long ago 300 came out, you might wonder why, if there were ever going to be a sequel, it took this long to prepare it. I wonder if they originally hoped Miller would finish writing his sequel first - it's a pity they ultimately beat him the punch as I have to imagine Xerxes would do more to promote 300: Rise of an Empire than vice-versa. I mean, this film sequel made me want to spend less time in Miller's version of the Greco-Persian Wars, not more.

Yet, why should that be? What, besides time, the cast and the director were lost between the two pictures? I suppose part of it is 300's sense of finality - that the 300 Spartans die at the end of the picture, but not before achieving some kind of victory against their enemies. 300: Rise of an Empire is a more traditional heroes-beat-the-bad-guys picture. This time the good guys seem even nobler (none of that "master race" stuff the Spartans spouted in the previous film) and the bad guys are possibly even more evil (they use suicide bombers because that's a popular trope when dealing with people from the Middle East).

Heaven help me, I think I enjoyed 300 especially because it was uncouth and politically incorrect. It was also a trailblazer, a picture which looked like nothing I'd seen before. Noam Murro, however, was hamstrung by the need to fashion a "franchise" picture that looked like a different director's style. It ultimately offers little more than a riff on someone else's picture - it has no perspective or message of its own. The picture even lacks a proper conclusion! It exists to perpetuate 300 as a licensed trademark, as though the graphic novel & DVD weren't already doing the job!

For all that, I wouldn't call 300: Rise of an Empire a bad film - it's more a waste of time than anything.

Tomorrow: Rio 2.

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