by Callum Petch
I honestly don’t think that anybody involved with the creative side of 300: Rise of an Empire is a bad person. OK, maybe Frank Miller, but other than this being a very loose telling of his unpublished Xerxes series he has nothing to do with the film in question. This sign of good faith, admittedly, is because I prefer to try and see the good in most people (I may physically be 19, but my mental age and naivety is a lot lower) and also because I don’t know anybody involved with the creation of 300: Rise of an Empire personally, so I’d feel kinda bad calling them bad people sight unseen. What I don’t think anybody involved does have, however, is any kind of self-awareness. Like, none. At all. See, if they did have some self-awareness, then they might have realised that the movie they were responsible for making is actually horrifically misogynistic, racist and supportive of doomed offensives.
I’m going to stop for a second here before I get down to business. This review is not going to talk much about the film in the way that you may typically see films reviewed. You know: I give a plot summary, point out some good stuff and some bad stuff, praise or trash the acting and wrap up from there. Purely technical terms, “[x action scene] was pretty exciting, [y actor] was as convincing as a cardboard standee of [y actor]”. No, that’s not happening here and if that’s what you’re looking for, I am sorry to disappoint you. Fact of the matter is, how this film is as a constructed product (and that constructed product is “boring meeeeeeeeehhhhh”) is but a distraction from the more problematic undertones that this film seems to unintentionally peddle. I will eventually talk about the film as you would expect me to, but that’s only if there’s still time. Take this info how you may and either keep reading or don’t.
OK, into the breach.
The major problem with 300: Rise of an Empire, the problem that left me leaving the cinema feeling dirty for having experienced it, is that it doesn’t think. It’s so determined to be cool, to be action-y and manly and exciting and violent and “LOOK, THAT GUY’S RIDING A HORSE IN A NAVAL BATTLE THROUGH FIRE!!” that it never seems to just stop and think about what it’s actually doing. It has noble Greeks facing off against eeeeevilll Persians… where the Greeks are all white or tanned and the Persians are of a foreign persuasion. It has a badass female character who actually has the most developed backstory of anyone else in the film… and then makes her a villain with The Tragic Backstory (the one tragic backstory that all male writers, without fail, will saddle their Dark Action Women with to justify their behaviour) and a quirk that I can’t talk about because it constitues a spoiler but OH MY GOD. It has a hero who fights for democracy and knows that Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are doomed for their hubris… except that he’s counting on it failing because it will unite everyone behind their senseless sacrifice and milks that for all its worth.
This is the issue. On paper, divorced from further context, these sound fine. Good vs Evil is the basis for most every story, well-developed and badass female characters need to be more of a frequent presence in action movies and having characters recognise that the Spartan march isn’t as romantic a notion as it sounds are all great ways to go. There’s a lot you can do here. But, for some utterly bewildering reason, the film keeps making the worst decisions with these ideas simply because it sounds cool. And at no point did anybody stop anyone else involved and explain to them the wider implications of what their decisions entail.
Take, for example, Themistocles (Strike Back’s Sullivan Stapleton rarely showing the charm and charisma he showed in Strike Back) and his attitudes towards the Spartan march on Hot Gates. He knows it’s doomed and he knows it’s foolish, as you can tell because every so often he voices his concerns that they’re going to get slaughtered, yet his entire plan revolves around lionising the 300 as martyrs to the cause of Greek democracy, thereby uniting Greece against the Persians. I take issue with this because this, to me at least, gives off the impression that those involved are supportive of doomed offensives against enemies because of the propaganda material they provide. Having the lead character very occasionally state his belief that the Spartans’ offensive will fail is not enough of an offset for the scene in which he gets said news and reacts with (thanks to the very limited range of emotions characters display in this film) what one can charitably describe as glee. I’d like to see Themistocles’ take on The Battle Of The Somme, he’d likely grumble a bit about its doomed-to-failure-ness but then base his entire plan around claiming it to be the greatest piece of tactical mastery the British Forces ever came up with. Because that’s how you unite the peoples.
Quite honestly, though, that’s nothing compared to the film’s two female characters. Yes, two. Admittedly, I’m pretty sure that’s one whole person of the female orientation more than the original 300 provided us with, but it’s still a man-run show, despite Eva Green as Artemesia trying her damndest otherwise. Despite her ever omniscient narration, Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey who I really wish would star in an action flick that knows how to use her for once) is otherwise in the film only three other times and two of those involve her sulking and refusing to help the Greeks. I’m not saying that she needed to spend the majority of the film fighting alongside the Greeks and slaughtering people left and right; what I am saying is that she needs a character. Because she doesn’t have one. She has the Obstructive Bureaucrat archetype and that’s it.
As if to make up for this, Artemesia is easily the most developed character populating Rise of an Empire. But, yes, said development involves a childhood where [x] happens and then she spends the next several years [y] before being left for dead, found by That One Persian Guy From The Last 300 Who Was Also In (The Much, Much, Much Better) Spartacus: Blood And Sand. Assuming that those of you reading this are relatively seasoned movie watchers, you should already be able to figure out what x and y are. But although it left a bad taste in my mouth (because I am so sick of lazy filmmakers always going for [y] when they want to justify their Dark Action Women), it wasn’t derailing the show and especially not Eva Green’s performance, which I can basically equate to a ham and cheese interpretation of Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Of everyone else in this film, she’s the only one who’s having any fun and not just relying on their physical presence to carry them through.
Except then the film frames her insane lust for violence down to not having a good strong man fighting alongside her. It’s hinted at early on, when she notes that she’s “surrounded by thousands yet I feel so alone” (or words to that effect) about her underlings’ lack of success in bringing down the Greeks. Then it becomes all but full-blown text when she invites Themistocles to neutral ground, turns into a temptress and… No, I’m not going to spoil it. Needless to say, it frames all of their actions afterward, including the final battle, in a much uglier light and culminates in an action that, the very second the inadvertent subtext that the film had amassed up to that point joined up with the action in question in my head, caused me to unintentionally shout out “JESUS H. CHRIST” in the crowded cinema. I was that disgusted by what I saw. And my leading to this realisation and outburst wasn’t on purpose, I wasn’t trying to see the action as something awful, my brain had simply applied what the film had inadvertently told me about Artemesia beforehand to that action and the reaction unfolded. I felt dirty for having witnessed it and, if you too pay attention to the subtext, you will know it when you see it.
Quite honestly, on any other day, the fact that the Greeks black up for the finale would have been the headline, here. OK, their faces are supposed to be painted like that of a white skeleton on a black back-nope that looks even worse written down. Not to mention the fact that, again, we have a predominately white cast representing absolute good fighting a predominately non-white cast representing absolute evil. That was a problem in the first 300, it was a problem in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender and time has not made it any better. See, the problem with doing cool things without thought is that stuff like this happens. You get across a tonne of unfortunate implications and enough of them can make the whole film a slowly more repulsive experience that gets harder to tolerate the longer it goes on.
Stepping away from the subtext, now, although, quite frankly, discussing the film removed from it feels pointless. See, Rise of an Empire, which takes place before and during and after 300 and depicts Themistocles’ attempts to unite Greece against the invading Persian army and navy, is a competently made and forgettable action flick. If its various bits of inadvertently horrendous subtext weren’t there, this review would not currently be halfway through its third page. That’s how dispensable this film is. Excepting Eva Green, nobody turns in a particularly noteworthy performance. After the first particularly exciting and interesting naval battle, the rest blend into one anonymous amorphous blob. The hand-to-hand fight scenes are “meeeeh” and the copious CG is clearly going for stylish but too often seems to use that as an excuse for just plain sloppy switches between live-action actors and CG models handling the more exciting moments (pretty much the entire opening battle is done in CG, to an extent that makes me wonder why the actors even bothered coming in that week). And the signature Zack Snyder “slo-mo-speed-up-super-slo-mo-speed-up-slo-mo-again” visual style that’s perfectly aped by director Noam Murro is still really stupid and nowhere near as cool as it thinks it is.
In other words, it’s an inoffensive product. A bland, average and dull movie that doesn’t have anything bad happening on the surface or within its individual components. All of the film’s big, giant, offensive, enjoyment-killing problems come from the inadvertent subtext that it presents with that big, dumb, loud, violent and inoffensive surface. More forgiving critics or fans of the film will insist you need to “turn off your brain to appreciate it”. I’m sorry but fuck that. Firstly because it presents the incorrect notion that fun movies don’t need to be smart (and I wouldn’t even call this one fun, in all honesty, unless “mind-crushing dullness” sounds like your idea of a party) but also because it gives off the idea that it doesn’t matter what kind of horrible ideology and iconography a film can slip by as long as the surface is cool enough, and that is a concept I refuse to abide by.
Words and actions carry unintended meanings and consequences and for every 10 people (most likely men, in all honesty; this is a film made for straight, hormonal and possibly teenaged men) who watch the war room sequence that I started describing earlier with glee, there will be at least 1 other person horrified by what they are seeing because they aren’t distracted by the pretty lights. They paid attention to the undertones of the film’s cool sequences and they started getting uneasy. The film shouts “Look at these beefy white men slaughtering all of these evil baddies! Isn’t this fun? Pay no attention to their skin colour, if you do you’re thinking way more than we did when we made it!” “Isn’t this line we gave Eva Green badass? She’s so strong and powerful and sexy! Just divorce it from everything else that surrounds it as, in context with what surrounds it, it may be kinda disturbing but who cares BADASS FIGHT SEQUENCE! COOL COOL COOL!” but that person is having none of it. They’re disturbed, offended, worried that the slightly sickening undertones are being played off for fun. Just another gory, dumb action romp. You can’t read too much into these things(!)
No. Fuck that. The idea that I should let 300: Rise of an Empire off for its accidental racism, misogyny (dear Maker, I will never get that action out of my head, and if you’re dying to know what it is tweet me and I’ll tell you) and whatever-the-word-is-for-attitudes-towards-senseless-sacrifice-that-I-don’t-agree-with because it’s supposed to be a big dumb action film and I shouldn’t read so much into these things is deplorable and I refuse to accept it. We shouldn’t let films off for being “good enough given the circumstances” or to state that “turning your brain off” will somehow increase your enjoyment for a film. No, we should just demand better goddamn movies and take films with as disgusting an inadvertent subtext as 300: Rise of an Empire to the same task as we do genuinely racist films like Birth of a Nation. Being a big, dumb action film should no longer be an acceptable pass-grade excuse for a problematic film such as this one.
When I left 300: Rise of an Empire, I felt like I had set cinema back several years. Do not. Spend money. On this.
Callum Petch is outta control but he’s playing a role and he thinks he can go to the eighteenth hole. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!