Review by Gene
It’s been nearly 8 years since Zack Snyder brought the famous battle at Thermopylae (“The Hot Gates”) to life on the big screen. 300 Spartan warriors (and some other less impressive Greeks) fought to the death against the Persian army invading their lands, and Snyder cemented himself as a legit director. Guys everywhere gravitated to this movie, imagining themselves as King Leonidas, fighting against the self-inflicted restraints of a treacherous fellow Spartan, while also fighting for freedom against a foreign tyrant king who fancied himself a god. The self-proclaimed god, Xerxes, is continuing his assault, but Rise of an Empire is much more than a follow up to the battle at Thermopylae.
Snyder hands the directing reigns off to Noam Murro in this sort-of-sequel. I say “sort of” because this film deals more with the events prior to and concurrent with what’s covered in 300. So it’s not as much of a sequel as it is a parallel. With Rise of an Empire we’re given a wealth of background information of not only Greek, but also Persian history to get us to the point at which 300 left us. Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say that anyone disappointed in the simplicity of the plot in 300 should be at least sufficiently satisfied with Rise of an Empire. There are multiple moving parts dependent on one another to all fall in place. There are schemes playing out both on a personal level and at a national level. We’re introduced to a new hero in Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), commander of the Athenian Navy. Stapleton is something of a newcomer to the big screen. He’s had some minor roles in films but is primarily a television actor. He holds his own suitably in this, though I don’t think he ever reaches the epic level of Gerard Butler in 300. Equaling him across the ocean is Artemisia (Eva Green), commander of the Persian Navy. When I first read of Green’s casting in this role I had my doubts. I must say, I was very impressed with the range she showed from her typical roles. Her character has a good ax to grind with Greece, not to mention her manipulation of Xerxes. She was very convincing as the evil villain.
Speaking of evil, King Xerxes is given a foundation surrounding his accession to the Persian throne. This scene is somewhat silly. It is loaded with a sense of mysticism in a film that is otherwise void of it. Xerxes wades into a pond of some sort, in a cave that is home to some random vagrants (read: ancient homeless dudes). Next thing you know he’s emerging as this bald, gold emblazoned giant. A little weird, but there is some spiritual application we can make here. Xerxes was mourning the loss of his father, Darius. In the midst of his sorrow he is approached by the temptress Artemisia, seeking her own pleasure. (Bonus points if you’re connecting Eve’s temptation in the garden with the temptation by an actress named Eva) She presents him with a simple but profound thought that would be his driving force for the next decade: become a god. Xerxes was an emotional wreck. As simply as he was motivated to revenge, he could have just as easily been pushed to seclusion. Think of your emotional state after a major loss in your life. You’re a wreck, you’re in mourning, you’re vulnerable. Now imagine you have no spiritual foundation to bring you reassurance. No “big picture” in which to see a heavenly Father, “who causes all things to work together for good for those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). We may not reach the level of proclaiming ourselves a god, but we may decide to be god over our own lives and reject the love and direction of the one true God. Remember, we have the love of Christ, “which surpasses all knowledge” (Eph. 3:19), to fill our hearts with love and comfort even in the greatest moments of distress.
I would be remiss if I went much further in this review without issuing some stern cautions. 300 was widely regarded as one of the bloodiest, graphically violent movies of the previous decade. Rise of an Empire may well earn that title for this decade, and if you can imagine it, I think it surpasses 300 in the violence category. In fact, the violence in this combined with the sexual content has me wondering what it takes to reach an NC-17 rating anymore. How many severed heads, disembodied limbs or scenes of rape and pillaging does it take? If you were at all put off or disgusted by anything in 300, I would recommend skipping this movie completely.
As should be expected, there were a number of common traits between this and 300. A large emphasis on protecting freedom from tyrants, the hero-leader in Themistocles, the heralding of Sparta as a mega-warrior city… but also some that seemed unnecessary to re-hash. For example, we’re given another father-son fighting combo in which the father is a friend of our hero and the son feels the weight of pleasing his father. Why? It’s been done. Let’s do something different with secondary characters this time around. The plot, while deeper than the previous film, is still very predictable. Of course it has to be a little bit predictable if the film is even remotely close to portraying history accurately, but about 1/3 of the way through it’s easy to see how events will likely play out.
The sub-title of this review, a wind of vengeance, is of course a reference to vengeance sought for King Leonidas’ death. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about seeking your own revenge. We’ve talked about how Romans Ch. 12 and 13 cover this issue as it pertains to our personal lives, and then how it pertains to government. We are told in those chapters not to seek our own revenge, and elsewhere to even go as far as turning the other cheek (Lk. 6:29). Having said that, I believe we see here in Rise of an Empire a good application of properly placed vengeance. Rom. 12:19 says to “leave room for the wrath of God”, then later in Rom. 13: 4 it says the governing authorities are “an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Notice the connecting word “wrath” there. In our film, Persia is the aggressor who seeks to destroy Greece and the freedom they employ. They are the ones who “practice evil”. Within the context of Romans 13, the governing authorities are perfectly within their rights to protect themselves and their citizens against forces seeking their annihilation. There is a lot more that could be unpacked along these lines, especially with respect to a “just war”, but I think it’s an important distinction to notice in this application of Romans 12 and 13.
The visuals in this movie are superb. I remember thinking 300 seemed a little grainy, though that was likely done purposefully. That has been removed from this film and we get a much crisper look and feel to each scene and all surroundings. The use of color is still within a small range of golds, blacks and dull reds and yellows, but it remains strikingly beautiful. It’s amazing how stunning the cinematography can be despite employing such a small spectrum of color. The slow-motion battle sequences, particularly in the opening scene, are quite impressive and very reminiscent of similar scenes from 300.
I thought the acting was pretty solid. Xerxes’ character takes a small step back but is sufficiently replaced by equally strong and intimidating foes. Leana Headey has a reprisal as the Queen of Sparta, Gorgo. I wasn’t as pleased with her to be honest. All but maybe one of her scenes feel forced, like they’re trying to find ways to make her relevant still. She wasn’t as convincing for some reason as I felt she was in 300. Maybe that’s an intentional change in character. She is after-all dealing with the loss of her husband. Just felt a little off for me. But again, Eva Green and Sullivan Stapleton did wonderful in their roles, Green especially. Overall, if you were a fan of 300 you will undoubtedly be a fan of Rise of an Empire as well.
My Rating: 3.5/5
You pretty much know what you’re getting when you walk into this. Or at least you should. I would rate this slightly lower than 300 largely because there’s not a lot new here. Aside from a couple interesting new characters, many thematic elements were just recycled. Nothing terribly wrong with that, but nothing great about it either. I’ll caution our readers again; this movie is rated ‘R’ and is graphically violent and equal to 300 in sexual content. Most of the violence is within the scope of war and as such does not bother me too much, but be prepared for it. I did enjoy it as a movie but it would be a stretch I think to call this a “great” film. It’s good. There’s plenty to like about it. But there were enough little things here and there that kept it from reaching the level of it’s predecessor.