300 is a movie I have a lot of fondness for. It’s the ultimate guys’ movie, heroic bombast at its finest. And yet not entirely a mindless slaughterfest, either. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest movie, but it was smarter than it needed to be, and maybe it wasn’t the most heartfelt movie, but it put more feeling into the story than it needed to.
So I was eagerly anticipating the sequel from the moment I heard about it.
Of course, it’s an old story by now: I missed it in the theatre because Real Life was in the way at the time. But now it’s made it to Netflix, so I was finally able to see it.
Rise of an Empire takes place mostly concurrently with the events of 300. While the Spartans seek to hold the Hot Gates, the Greek fleet, led by the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), battles the Persian fleet at Artemisium and Salamis.
Themistocles’ rival is Artemisia (Eva Green). Greek by birth but with a profound hatred of her homeland, Artemisia is Xerxes’ most loyal adviser and most ruthless commander.
Over the course of the film, Themistocles and Artemisia vie against each other across the open seas, resulting in no end of spectacular and ridiculously gorey battle sequences. Whereas Xerxes was a minor prop in 300, Artemisia has a much bigger role with much greater development, and Eva Green does a decent job as the ruthless femme fatale.
However, while much of the same elements are there, I didn’t find Rise of an Empire as compelling as its predecessor. There’s all the same bombast and gloriously absurd violence, but it feels hollow somehow.
Part of it is that Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistocles has none of the charm or charisma of Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. On the whole he’s just not very convincing as the famed hero of Athens. At least they did justice to Themistocles’ brilliance as a tactician.
Lena Headey puts on another strong performance as Queen Gorgo of Sparta, but her role is too small to have much of an impact on the film as a whole.
Also — and I realize this may seem a ridiculous problem to have — it did bother me how many historical inaccuracies were in Rise of an Empire.
Don’t get me wrong. I know these aren’t documentaries. I wasn’t expecting a perfect adaptation of history. But 300, for all its cartoonish extravagance, stayed surprisingly true to the story of the Battle of Thermopylae. Its biggest departure was the implication that only three hundred Spartans fought at the Hot Gates, when there were also several thousand soldiers from other Greek cities present. Otherwise, you’d be surprised how much of 300, including much of its more memorable dialogue, was ripped right from the pages of history.
Rise of an Empire takes much greater liberties. Darius didn’t die by Greek hands, not at Marathon or anywhere else. There was a Queen Artemisia who served in the Persian navy, but the character in the movie bears little resemblance to the historical figure beyond that.
Similarly, 300 presented a very rich — if somewhat simplified and exaggerated — depiction of Spartan culture, but Rise of an Empire does not do the same for the Athenians. They’re just random dudes with swords. How did they make a ninety minute movie about Athenian soldiers and not mention the goddess Athena once?
300 was like an enhanced version of history, painted in broad and dramatic strokes to heighten the story. Rise of an Empire is just an action movie loosely based on historical events.
Overall rating: 6.8/10 Rise of an Empire lacks the spirit and vigour of its predecessor, reducing it to naught but an empty bloodbath.