– Summary –
Director : Noam Murro
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Andrew Tiernan.
Approx Running Time : 102 Minutes
Synopsis: Greek leader Themistocles leads his men into battle against the forces of Xerxes and his naval commander, Artimesia, as war comes to the bickering Greek city-states.
What we think : Entirely style-over-substance, Rise Of An Empire is hollow, loud, obnoxious entertainment that is heavy on gore and light on depth. A bland leading man and a bipolar performance by Eva Green as the central villain don’t help matters, as Empire’s brutal conflicts and catchphrase-heavy dialogue elicit minimal enthusiasm for the source material. Generally, a bit of a bummer.
I think they mean Rise of Slo-Motion.
Anyone familiar with pop-culture will doubtless be aware of the significance of Zach Snyder’s sophomore directing effort, 300, the film which launched Gerard Butler and Lena Headey into A-List, and more then enough internet memes. With that film’s success came the allure of a follow-up, yet inconsistent with the Hollywood mantra of churning out direct-to-video slop to capitalize on said success, the second film in the 300 franchise took seven years to come to fruition – an eternity for audiences clamoring to see more of the stylish slo-mo Snyder made (in)famous. Eventually, a prequel film of sorts arrived in multi-plexes around the globe, subtitled Rise Of An Empire. Starring French actress Eva Green, original film co-star Rodrigo Santoro reprising his role as Xerxes, and newcomer Sullivan Stapleton, Rise Of An Empire followed the franchise’s visual beats to the letter, overseen by executive producer Zach Snyder, who was filming Man Of Steel at the time. Considering the original 300’s status among film fans, critics and casual viewers, it’s little wonder that expectation was high (or at least positive) for the follow-up; so what was the result? Is Rise Of An Empire a worthy sequel to the original, or does it struggle to…. ahem, rise to the challenge of providing audiences with a captivating, entertaining mix of gore, brawling and stylish violence?
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) of Sparta tells her men about the Battle of Marathon, in which King Darius I of Persia was killed by General Themistocles (Sullivan Stepleton) of Athens. Darius’ son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), witnesses his father’s death, and is advised to not continue the war, since “only the gods could defeat the Greeks”. Darius’ naval commander, Artemisia (Eva Green), claims that Darius’ last words were in fact a challenge and sends Xerxes on a journey through the desert. Xerxes finally reaches a cave and bathes in an otherworldly liquid, emerging as the “God-King”. He returns to Persia and declares war on Greece.
Off the bat, it’s fair to say that Rise Of An Empire feels something like a different film than the original 300. Yeah, it’s visually identical, filled with copious (and unwarranted) slow motion footage, and retains Zach Snyder’s tonal stamp, yet there’s something vacant about all the sturm und drang. Key to Empire’s tempestuous narrative is the fact that the story itself feels second-hand, a prequel wrapped around a sequel while somehow being a side-quel, and, surprisingly, containing very little of the raw machismo that made the original film so much escapist fun. While it may look similar, and indeed follow a similar voice-over led plot through which we’re told rather than shown the import of the action’s consequences, Rise of An Empire contains a relatively spartan (he he) emotional heft that prevents it from crystallizing as potently as 300 did.
Part of the problem comes with the fact that Empire is pretty much a similarly plotted story to the original – a bunch of vastly outnumbered Greek warriors stands against the enormous fleet of Persian ships (the film consists of a vast number of naval battles) led by Themistocles (such a cool name!) while Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler reprises the role in flashback form, but is essentially non-existent in this film overall) and his 300 soldiers defend the Hot Gates. Empire’s insertion of Themistocles’ story alongside Leonidas is less original than it perhaps acknowledges, for both characters must rally the troops, defend their decisions and battle a throng of faceless, nameless enemies to thwart Xerxes’ war effort. Therefore, Empire doesn’t really offer much that’s new for the franchise; rather, it’s a mirror-image of Snyder’s original in terms of focus, plot and themes.
Equally problematic is the films’ inability to find a lead actor as charismatic as Gerard Butler. Poor Sullivan Stapleton comes off as Gerard-Butler-lite, a bland, presence-free character whom derives no emotion from the audience other than to miss Leonidas even more. Stapleton chews the scenery (down to every last CG pixel) with aplomb, and at times really looks the part, but his character neither earns nor deserves our empathy. Themistocles’ right-hand-dude is Scyllias, played by Aussie actor Callan Mulvey (and yes, that scar on his jaw is the real deal), while Scyllias’ son, Calisto, is played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Jack O’Connell, as close as we get here to any kind of emotional arc. Eva Green leads the villainy, as the psychopathic Artemisia, and for a while I struggled to determine whether her character was supposed to be the comedy relief, or not. Green’s overacting and arch, carved-from-stone haughtiness are completely at odds, twisting her tragic back-story into a 1-dimensional revenge-seeking cliche; albeit a beautiful cliche at that. Green’s “sex” scene with Stapleton mid-way through the film is one enormously enticing WTF for the audience – it’s a baffling scene involving the film’s two antagonists, who engage in a bit of casual rough-n-tumble intercourse, slathered with energetic “Imma kill you later” chatter.
Rodrigo Santoro reprises the role of Xerxes, a towering figure of evil and cruelty who, unlike the first film, seems more in the background than he ought to be for somebody of his stature. Santoro gives as good a performance as he can under all that bling, but Xerxes is all hook and no heart in terms of audience engagement. Andrew Tiernan reprises his hunchbacked role of Ephiates as well, albeit with better prosthetics and a somewhat digital embellishment to the horrid creature’s visage. And look quickly for David Wenham as Dillos, one of King Leonidas’ most trusted warriors, who pops up throughout the film. Lena Headey steps away from Westeros for a brief moment as Queen Gorgo, Leonidas’ vengeful wife, and although Headey is a terrific actress, here she’s terribly serviced by some atrocious scripting and – if I can be honest, which I can – dreadful direction.
Stumbling into the directors chair for this effort is “never-heard-of-him” Noam Murro, who quite possibly could be a pseudonym for Zach Snyder, so closely does he follow Snyder’s style. Whereas 300 was set on land, Empire is dominated by sea battles and naval fleets, yet it all manages to feel part of the same world, thanks To Murro’s ability to work with the enormous green-screen sets and digital trickery on display here. I should also mention the incredible over-reliance on CG blood and gore; every slice, dice and kill, every beheading, stabbing and hacking of limbs, every cut-and-thrust of battle, is flooded with a sea of gratuitous blood spraying from arteries into the camera. I didn’t know the human body contained so much blood, with liter after liter spewing across the screen upon every rending of the flesh. It’s so confronting, so overused, so in-your-face obvious, that after a while it becomes tiresome rather than “cool” or “stylish”. I’m all for a film using the occasional CG work to add punch to its action moments, but Empire uses this as a set-piece on its own, and in the end it just belabors the point.
Murro uses a lot of slo-motion in Rise Of An Empire, often in moments that don’t deserve it (although one early bit, where a rearing horse comes down atop a prone soldier, is memorable!), and his inability to carve out his own niche within this franchise is telling. Murro’s work here feels a lot like “director for hire”, mandated to do things a certain way and not deviate with his own creativeness. As one might expect, Empire looks slick as oil, shiny and gory where it needs to be, and most definitely the epitome of a film borne from a graphic novel. Like 300 before it, every frame of this film is stylized to look like a comic book panel, although unlike 300, this film never bridges the gap between look and story.
300: Rise of an Empire is still a lot of fun, however, if only to see some cool computer graphics rendered in ultra high definition playing out on the screen. Characters are barely developed beyond simplistic cliche, the story offers little new or exciting, and the action sequences tend to become a white noise of screaming, flash-bang lighting and copious CG blood; Empire is problematic in many areas, but as an example of mindless time-wasting cinema, there’s something here for everyone. Except kids. Definitely don’t let kids watch this.
I know I sound like I’ve hated this thing since the beginning, but I don’t mean to – I enjoyed the film for what it was, although I expected something more out of the franchise than just increasingly mindless swordplay, and by the time the end credits rolled I’d seen enough digital gore to last me three lifetimes; yet the thrill of 300’s aesthetic reprising itself cannot be undersold. Loud, brutish, brutal and pumped full of adrenaline and testosterone, Rise Of An Empire is an empty, vacuous, style-over-substance affair that neither emboldens us or involves us – it simply is, and I guess if that’s all you ask for, you’ll be happy. Personally? I’d hoped for a little more.