300: Rise of an Empire: 4 out of 10

This just isn't as compelling as the source material.

It is generally silly to dwell on a-historical depictions of history and historical characters in Hollywood films, especially one adapting an unreleased graphic novel. But 300: Rise of an Empire is a special case, dealing as it does with events and characters described by Herodotus, the Greek 'Father of History'. Where the original 300 took a single event from his Histories - the Battle of Thermopylae - and adapted it into a recognizable and broad-strokes-accurate story, this sequel chooses to adapt the Persian Wars as a whole. And just as in the original 300, there is a lot to admire when the "true" history of Herodotus shines through. Unfortunately, this sequel falls short both in accuracy and artistic value, usually at the expense of the narrative.

Let's start with the opening voice-over, where Lena Headey, as Queen Gorgo of the Spartans, prophesies that Athens will only be saved by wooden ships. This actually refers to a prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi, which foretold that Athens would be saved by its "wooden walls". The people of Athens originally interpreted this literally, and wanted to expand their walls to defend against the upcoming attack; but Themistocles, an Athenian politician and general, encouraged his people to interpret the prophecy as a metaphor for the Athenian fleet.

The movie's presentation of this prophecy may have the virtue of being short and sweet, but it kills the story-telling potential of introducing Themistocles - who turns out to be the protagonist of the story. We don't hear about his vision for the Athenian navy, or how he had convinced the Athenians to build their ships over the last decade. Instead, we are told that he was the Tortured Hero of Marathon ten years before, when he shot King Darius of Persia (note: this didn't happen). Rather than being shown a compelling and flawed Athenian historical figure, Themistocles is turned into a brooding and lifeless Action Hero fighting for democracy and justice.

Artemisia fares better than Themistocles, but only because her character was so ahistorical as to make the whole exercise of comparing to history worthless. The historical Artemisia was the Queen of Caria, a Greek colony that was under the control of the Persian empire. She was in fact a naval commander under Xerxes, notable because of her gender (women really didn't exist in these circles in the 5th century BC) and because she did stand out at the naval battle at Salamis. Conversely, Artemisia-the-movie-character (Eva Green) was quite effective in her role - colorful, bigger than life, and above all memorable - but she wasn't actually shown as particularly competent in her role as naval commander. Indeed, the only skills that she showed were a) cutting and stabbing anybody around her and b) hating Greeks (and, well, everybody else).

The battles themselves - well, at least most of the battles depicted actually did occur. The depiction of Greek naval warfare was fairly accurate: triremes would ram and sink each other, and if that failed the ships would simply be platforms for hand-to-hand combat. Some of the tactics in the battle of Artemeisium were even fairly accurate. But the battle of Salamis was shown as a typical Hollywood battle - the plucky good guys up against unstoppable odds, holding out bravely against the final onslaught, until unexpected reinforcements arrive to turn the battle in their favor. This is especially frustrating when the actual point of the battle was that strategic and tactical planning can turn the tide against superior numbers - the point, in fact, of the original 300!

And the Spartans - well, let's just say that their depiction in the original 300 was more complete than this.

For all of that, 300 2 (302?) still delivers on what was expected: stylized action and gore, excellent storyboards and well-done cinematography, a scenery-chewing actor (well, actress - Eva Green did by far the best job in this movie), and a strong dose of shallow jingoism. Within its own requirements, it's not a terrible movie. I'm just not sure that I can recommend seeing it.

Rating: 4 (out of 10)

A few other points:

  • There was a lot of flesh on display, as was probably the point of this exercise. The Athenians were fairly interchangeable as Big Buff Guys With Beards, and oh there sure were a lot of them! As for the female characters, only one that I can recall - Lena Headey - was not topless at some point during the movie. I'm not sure if this is all overall a plus or a minus, but it seems worthy of note.

  • What was the 'rising empire' in the title, anyway? Persia? They only showed it clashing. Athens? Historically that may be reasonable, but no focus was offered here. Greece as a whole? Maybe that's what they were aiming at, but, again, they missed.

  • I find it frustrating when movies claim to be adaptations of other media, and that other media doesn't even exist yet. I find it especially frustrating in this case, because I'd like to see this art! Frank Miller is an exceptional artist, even if his work has become especially crazy-in-a-bad-way over the last few years; and given that the true draw of this movie and the original 300 was the beauty of the comic book art used as story boards, it's a shame to not have that comic book art to which to compare.

Trailer Thoughts:

This movie definitely announced the beginning of the Summer Movie Season with its premiere trailers for Transformers 4 (5/10 - meh, I'll see the movie but the trailer wasn't great) and Godzilla (9/10 - now, that is a trailer). Interestingly, much of the focus was on horror movies - Oculus (6/10 - effective, but far from my style), Deliver Us From Evil (3/10 - drek, with an evil Angry Bird) - which seemed an odd choice for connecting to a standard action movie, but I guess that they don't have that many chances to advertise in front of R-rated movies nowadays.

The weirdest trailer was the red band trailer for Arnold Schwarzanegger's Sabotage, which focused on the joy of being a red-band trailer rather than being an actual preview for the movie. There were breasts, several exploding heads, and an absurd amount of cursing for a 90 second trailer, and there was no emphasis on story, characters, or plot. Meh. (4/10)

Finally, there was a trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. I don't think this trailer is standing up to repeat viewing that well, but I'm still excited to see the movie, so I guess it's working okay. (6/10)