Friday, March 14, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Alternate Title:  Go Persia!

One sentence synopsis:     The Athenian General Themistocles must lead a coalition of Greek warships to defend Greece from the Persian hordes of God-King Xerxes and Queen Artemisia

Things Havoc liked:  Despite my well-founded hatred of films that take it upon themselves to rip history to pieces to suit some shallow modern obsession (Troy, for instance), I openly adored Frank Miller and Zack Snyder's 300. The film was almost comically inaccurate, depicting the Battle of Thermopylae as one of hyper-muscled Spartans in leather thongs battling the orcish hordes of a nine-foot Xerxes. Yet I had no objection to it, partly because the spectacle was so amazing, but also because, despite the bare chests and slavering monsters, the film actually did bear a relation to the historical source material, albeit not the one that most historical epics pretend to have. 300 was not the Battle of Thermopylae as it happened, but the Battle of Thermopylae as the Greeks would have described it, a record not of the history, but of the mythology that grew up around it in Greek circles. This was the version of the battle that Aeschylus and Herodotus would have presented, a visual version of the Epic Poetry that was written in volumes about one of the signature battles of the Persian War. I was therefore hyped to see the sequel, wherein Snyder and his crew took on the immediate aftermath of Thermopylae, and the turning point in the war, one of the most important battles in human history, Salamis.

What a surprise therefore, that the thing I liked the most about this film wasn't in the original.

Looking back, I think I've been waiting for an opportunity to like Eva Green, and yet I'm not sure I could tell you why. She was wooden and unremarkable in Kingdom of Heaven, Dark Shadows and The Golden Compass were awful films, and while I did like her in Casino Royale, it was hardly the sort of performance that cements one's career in memory. Yet moreso than many character actors I have enjoyed, I've always remembered Green's name and face, and wondered what she might do if given an opportunity to completely slip the leash. In Rise of an Empire, this is precisely what she was given, and the answer to the question appears to be "raving camp". Green plays Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus and ally of Xerxes of Persia, here elevated to the overall commander of the Persian fleet assembled to annihilate the Greeks once and for all. As the primary antagonist of the film (Xerxes himself being demoted to an occasional presence occupied with Leonidas), Green plays a character straight out of Rocky Horror, passing well beyond camp and straight into a semi-genre-savvy pastiche of an evil warlord. This is one of those villains who isn't merely evil, but gleefully, riotously evil, and while that's tremendously inappropriate for a straight historical drama, for a stylized mytho-historical action orgy like 300, it fits absolutely perfectly. Artemisia, one of the more fascinating characters of classical Greece, here becomes a cross between Nicholas Cage and Captain Ahab, whether dual-wielding broadswords against Greek hoplites, calling enemy commanders to her flagship for casual threats mixed with sex, or masterminding pan-imperial assassination plots to maneuver her handpicked selection to the throne of Persia. Moreover, Green is the only character provided with an actual backstory, explaining the passionate hatred she, though Greek herself, bears for all of Greece. Buttressed by this backstory, and the nature of the film, Green lets herself go all out, and is easily the best thing in the entire film.

300 was an action spectacle, a blood opera in keeping with the finest works of John Woo or Donnie Yen, and its sequel does not disappoint in this regard. To the customary sword and spear-play, replete with copious limb amputations, this film adds naval combat to the repertoire of stylized slaughter, with triremes ripping one another apart and naptha bombs setting the sea alight. Eschewing the dreaded shaky-cam, the film uses 300's patented slow-mo/speed-up to linger on every single mutilation and every bone-shattering impact. And while the fighting isn't quite as studded with "wow" moments as the original, that may simply be the lack of novelty. 300 changed the way action was done, at least in good films, and this one proves that the formula still bears fruit.

Things Havoc disliked:  But it proves a few other things along the way.

The original 300 was not subtle, nor was it oversupplied with characterization, but it was a simple story told simply and with skill. It eschewed modern sensibilities in favor of a stylization of how Greeks might have seen the battle in question, and when you took the orcs and monsters and oiled chests out of the equation, it portrayed the Battle of Thermopylae more or less the way it actually happened. The Persian army, confronted in the pass of Thermopylae by a small force of Spartans and other Greeks, was unable to batter their way through, taking horrific losses, until finally they outflanked the position and annihilated the Greeks, winning the day, but providing a preview of the horrific defeats to come. It played like a mythologized version of the real battle, not a complete invention, which is why I defended it to those who argued its historical qualities. And yet I'm frankly not certain if any of this was apparent to the actual filmmakers, because judging from the way this movie portrays its material, it might all have been an accident.

Part of the problem is the main character, Themistocles, played by Animal Kingdom's Sullivan Stapleton. Where Gerard Butler's Leonidas was a very Greek archetype, a somewhat one-note killing machine of machismo and combat prowess, the filmmakers this time round try and make Themistocles into a modern hero, conflicted and unsure of himself before rising above his flaws to become the champion Greece requires. This is all wrong. The man who singlehandedly forced Athens to first build a navy and then use it to battle odds scarcely credible was neither "conflicted" nor "humble", but instead a leader of overwhelming arrogance and self-assured power, one who knew he was equal to the task at hand, and single-minded towards gaining it. This version of Themistocles is a mincing violet when it isn't time for him to butcher vast numbers of men, to the point where the movie has him give a pre-battle speech acknowledging that he is inadequate and telling his men that he doesn't mind if they desert him. Not only does this turn the character into the same damned reluctant hero archetype of thousands of other films (and a boring one to boot), but it shatters the illusion that we are watching anything resembling the actual Battles of Artemisium and Salamis, even ones as seen through the lens of Greek tale-making.

But then, that illusion doesn't hold up for long anyway. The original 300 played fast and loose with everything except the actual facts of the war itself. This movie throws that notion out the window instantly. In a desperate attempt to raise the personal stakes, the movie opens on the Battle of Marathon, some ten years earlier, and has Themistocles (somehow now promoted to command of the Athenian army) personally slay Darius, father of Xerxes, thus setting off some sort of revenge plot between him and Xerxes. Ignoring the fact that Darius was not at the Battle of Marathon, nor did he die during the war in question, this scene is problematic because it touches off the way in which these new filmmakers (Snyder is creditted as a co-writer this time, but the directing duties fall to newcomer Noam Murro) plan to treat the history of their subject. Battles are fought which never happened, in locations that do not exist, under circumstances that never transpired. Worse, people die who actually survived the war, fighting in battles they did not participate in, while armies that did not exist appear from nothing to save the lives of people who needed no saving in the real version of history. The film goes so far that when the Battle of Salamis finally rolls around, it is fought using a strategy completely alien to the real battle, by forces utterly alien to the ones in the real thing, with results that have very little to do with what actually happened. I understand the need to be fresh with the material, but when the entire reason that the battle was so important is junked in favor of some other battle whose repercussions would have been vastly different, one begins to question the point of the entire exercise.

If you're going to change history around though, the least you can do is try and distract us from this fact by way of providing something else interesting to watch. Unfortunately, besides the items I listed above, there isn't much of that. The characterization, both of Themistocles and of his various allied warriors, is so paper-thin that we actually wind up with better character moments when the movie turns back to returning actors Lena Headley and David Wenham, respectively playing Queen Gorgo, and Delios of Sparta. The original characters had very little characterization themselves, but it's emblematic of this movie's flaws that, when those two are on the screen, it's a serious improvement. Bereft of them, we have painfully obvious rehashes of the subplots from the first movie, complete with the whole father-and-son dynamic that the original used as a means of trying to distinguish a few of the Spartan mass. It didn't really work then, but it really doesn't work now. And given this, the movie is unable to distract us from the structural problems it has in spades. While the fighting and choreography is superb, the blood effects in this film are some of the worst I've seen in a decade, as if the movie-makers had squirted red jelly on the film stock. The Persians, Artemisia-aside, are such bumbling fools wandering blindly into certain death over and over again, that all sense of drama or tension is lost, even when the filmmakers arbitrarily reduce Themistocles' fleet from 300 triremes to 5 for the final throwdown. The effect is so bad that even the fighting becomes tiresome, as we wearily wait for the Greeks to effortlessly slaughter another horde of men eighty times their number before they can actually get around to doing something dangerous.

Final thoughts:   This movie confused me more than anything, as many films that seem to deviate from a winning formula for no reason do. Why would you make such radical changes to the characters and the story of the battle you have selected to portray when it was precisely the lack of such changes that made the original a great movie? Did Hollywood, or whoever was responsible for the first film, simply luck into 300, or did Frank Miller understand his subject matter far better than those hired to follow him up? Indeed, the very title of the film betrays confusion, as I fail to understand why a movie about the shattering defeat of what was then the mightiest polity in human history would possibly be called "Rise of an Empire". The film is not, overall, badly made, and Eva Green's performance elevates almost every scene she is in, but the ultimate result of this project is contrivance and incoherence, and not all the beautiful slaughter in the world can disguise it. Ultimately, for those who adore the poetry of an action film, as I do, Rise of an Empire is a worthy thing to see, along the lines of the Expendables or the brainless action films of yesteryear. But given the effort that went into the previous film to produce something truly unique, it is disappointing to see 300 reduced to another chop-shop tale of modern, conflicted characters, dressing up in Halloween costumes and fighting the innumerable forces of thundering idiocy.

After all, if I wanted to see that, I'd watch The Patriot again.

Final Score:  5.5/10

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