[NOTE: the following essay contains spoilers. As to whether a film that’s already rotten can be “spoiled” … well, that’s a debate for another time.]
You know it’s a bad sign when you only have to pay a buck-fifty to see a movie and you’re complaining about it. I was supposed to have earned a free pass from my local theater chain, but the movie I was going to see, 300: Rise of an Empire, was less than 12 days old, so the pass only covered part of the ticket. What was so magical about 12 days? Had the baby Greeks not opened their eyes yet? Were they not yet weaned?
I sighed and paid the buck-fifty.
Part of my grumpiness was because I had never intended to see this particular movie. You see, I hated the first 300. Hated it. Which is strange because I’m usually a soft touch—especially with movies. It’s also strange because I actually admired the original Frank Miller comic, despite its flawed depiction of the Persian King Xerxes. But in the film adaptation, director Zack Snyder’s efforts to be “faithful” to the comic had managed to lose all the good elements of the book while magnifying the bad. So until a couple of weeks ago, I had no intention of seeing its sequel. But that had all changed now, and I knew exactly where to place the blame—Veggie Tales.
Let me back up a minute. For those of you who don’t know (that means all but about two or three of you), Veggie Tales is a series of computer-animated specials for children that adapt famous stories from the Bible. Like the Muppets, the characters on the show are essentially “actors,” so one character might play Moses in one special and King David in another. And, of course, they’re all anthropomorphic vegetables. There’s a tomato, a cucumber, a squash, and … well, you get the idea.
So my kids were watching one of these specials about Esther, a Jewish woman who marries the King of Persia and winds up saving the Jews from genocide, when I heard someone refer to the giant pickle playing the king as “Xerxes.” That’s when my mind started racing. Xerxes? King of Persia? Surely not.
Faced with a question about ancient history, I did what any other self-respecting member of the academic community would do—I Wikipedia-ed it. And while there is some dispute—the King in the book of Esther is referred to by his Hebrew name, Ahasuerus—he’s traditionally associated with our man Xerxes.
At which point I thought, “There’s a topic for a funny column—comparing the bald, giant, god-king from 300 with the dim-witted pickle version in Veggie Tales. Which version is more respectful? Which is more historically accurate? Which is more racist?” That all sounded about my speed. The problem was this new movie. Wouldn’t I be expected to say something about it? Especially because it’s supposed to be based on an unfinished graphic novel by Miller.
Besides, I had a free pass. I figured I could sit through a couple of hours of blood-soaked sword and sandals melodrama and then bury a mini-review in the middle of my “Frank Miller Eats His Vegetables” column. Little did I know that this film, much like the mold that grows in the produce drawer of a refrigerator, would wind up contaminating everything.
The title itself—300: Rise of an Empire—should’ve been a giveaway. First, it’s not exactly clear what “Empire” we’re talking about. According to most sources, the Persian Empire began with Cyrus the Great, so Xerxes’ failed invasion of Greece actually marks the beginning of the empire’s end. And since neither Athens nor Sparta boasted an empire … well, why quibble? But the decision to keep “300” in the title also seemed odd considering that the number refers to the Spartan warriors who died in the first film. Maybe the studio thought most people would assume 300 was the year. After all, it’s pretty close, give or take a couple of centuries.
So there I was, still smarting over the buck-fifty, preparing to watch a movie that was about neither 300 Spartans nor the rise of an empire. Granted, that’s not the best frame of mind to see a film, but then again I wasn’t sure a mind was really required for this one. And then, after about thirty seconds, I remembered one of the reasons I hated the first movie. Visually, the 300 films have to be among the ugliest ever made. They both look like an old-fashioned TV set two weeks before the picture tube blows. I guess the filmmakers are attempting to duplicate the look of the original comic, but in their fruitless effort to capture Lynn Varley’s color scheme, they give us a film that looks like something you might color in elementary school using an old Crayola bucket where the good colors are gone and all you’ve got left is a worn-down stick of “Burnt Sienna.”
Give them credit for ambition though. They’re working hard to show us things that we’ve never seen before. In this case, it’s ash. Since the Greeks had no electricity, they’re always standing near open fires. So the makers of this film want you to see exactly what it would’ve looked like, which means lots and lots of floating ash and sparks. The end result is that the daytime scenes are swarming with floating dust bunnies and the nighttime scenes look like outtakes of a horror movie about killer fireflies.
Did they do this in the first film? I couldn’t remember, but after a while it was the only thing I could look at. At first I wasn’t even sure what it was supposed to be. I kept looking at all the floating dust motes and wondered why they couldn’t hold off the cleaning crew until after the day’s shooting. It felt so much like an antihistamine commercial, I kept waiting for the movie to pause so Hippocrates could step forward and say, “Hay fever got you down? Try this new allergy draught. Four out of five doct … well, since it’s ancient Greece I guess there’s really just me.”
But seriously, the whole floating ash effect is one of those ideas that might sound good in theory, but in reality it just made me think about the dust speck in Horton Hears a Who. While Themistocles lectures his fellow Athenians about war, I kept wondering if there were entire worlds on each floating speck, and if there were, would you have to wait 12 days to use a free movie pass there too?
But I digress. The basic story for the film more or less runs concurrently with the events of the first film. So in a sense, the whole movie is kind of like Disc 2 from a Director’s Cut. You know, the disc Netflix doesn’t even bother to send to you because … well, it’s not actually a movie. There’s also a lot of exposition to cover, but the filmmakers manage to do it in a way that feels seamless and natural. Besides, who doesn’t love a ten-minute voiceover?
This particular one, spoken by Queen Gorgo, the unfortunately named widow of King Leonidas, also helps underscore the larger themes of the movie by answering one of history’s great mysteries: why did Xerxes’ father, Darius, invade Greece in the first place? It’s a question that might have scared away some films, but not this one. Leave it to Gorgo to settle things once and for all: apparently, Darius was “annoyed by Greek freedom.” Of course. The idea of a free Greece practicing democracy was just too much for Darius who promptly launched his military into a full-scale attack. Darius dies in the battle, settling once and for all the debate about whether someone can truly be “annoyed to death,” but his son, Xerxes, survives—a fact made less impressive when you consider that the real Xerxes was never there. But seeing his father die in his arms affects the movie-Xerxes considerably, sending him into one of those my-dad-was-annoyed-to-death-by-Greek-freedom-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy-T-shirt kinds of funks that often plagued the teens of ancient Persia.
When the Persians invade again under Xerxes, the Greeks in Athens hold a meeting where they practice their democracy with an open debate. The film only devotes about sixty seconds to this depiction of Greek freedom in action. Not sure why we didn’t get more of it. Perhaps they were afraid we would grow annoyed.
But Themistocles, the Athenian hero from the battle of Marathon, makes the case for fighting the invading Persians by telling his fellow patriarchal, slave-owning, freedom lovers, “You can’t negotiate with tyranny.” He goes on to add that the Athenians “can only judge the future by what they’ve suffered in the past,” which struck me as a little self-pitying and paranoid for a victor from the privileged classes, but I would hate to spoil the moviemakers’ little Dick Cheney-meets-Braveheart moment.
To its credit, 300: Rise of an Empire does try to change the formula of the previous film somewhat, most notably by introducing us to Artemisia, a Greek woman raised by Persians who hates Greeks. After Darius is killed, she helps turn Xerxes into a god, which apparently involves wrapping yourself in linen, going on a walkabout, and dipping in what looks like Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit. Ra’s, of course, receives immortality, but for Xerxes it mostly involves hair loss and growing about four feet taller. I kept thinking, if only Xerxes had shared his secret he could have assembled the greatest basketball team of all time.
One of the other major differences in the two films is that this one primarily focuses on naval battles. The good thing about being at sea is there is less opportunity for all the floating bits of ash, but they make up for it with a hazy mist that fogs up the screen so much I had to fight the urge to look for a “defrost” button. I was pleased that they didn’t get bogged down in complicated nautical terminology like “bow,” “port,” or “stern.” Instead, when Themistocles wants the ship to back away, he simply hollers out, “Reverse!” It made me wonder if, when they were ready to stop, would the ancient Athenians “drop anchor” or simply “put it in park.”
The only memorable performance belongs to Eva Green who plays Artemisia like a graduate of the Bellatrix Lestrange School for Dramatic Arts. Green is a fine actress—very good in The Dreamers and Casino Royale—and she tackles Artemisia with aplomb, which is the word you use when you’re too sophisticated to say “sheer nuttiness.” In one of her earliest scenes, she lops off the head of a Greek captive, whose body then crashes to the deck. Luckily the Persians sailed glass bottom boats so we get to see the body land from an angle under the deck, although I could’ve sworn it was made of wood in the previous scene. Regardless, as Artemisia holds the severed head in her hand like some out-of-work actor auditioning for Hamlet, I was speculating about what might happen next. But none of my speculations involved having Artemisia make out with the bloody head, which, I guess, is why I don’t write for the movies.
I did think they missed an opportunity for a recurring motif later in the film when Xerxes holds Leonidas’s severed head in a similar shot, but I guess they would’ve had to pay Gerard Butler royalties for a post-decapitation kissing scene.
The rest of the movie features lots of fighting and swordplay, and yes, that sentence applies perfectly to the obligatory Themistocles/Artemisia sex scene as well. As with its predecessor, this film has piles of hacked off limbs and buckets of spurting blood. You’ve probably seen water droplets accidentally land on the camera lens in movies that were shot on water. Well, 300: Rise of an Empire is so clever that in one scene we get blood droplets splashed on the camera. Get it? ‘Cause there’s so much blood? So funny.
Strangely enough for a movie about a naval battle, I didn’t notice any of those water droplets on the lens, but then again, Rise of an Empire doesn’t appear to have been made using any “real” organic materials. The backgrounds are obviously fake—like the painted backdrop on an old TV Western. I guess it’s a stylized approach designed to somehow make everything seem more like a comic book. The problem is that the backgrounds in Frank Miller’s 300 are largely designed to look like the real world of ancient Greece. Like so much of what is abominable in the 300 movies, this artificiality is a deliberate choice. But it’s a choice that throws the viewer out of the movie, landing, no doubt, in one of the refuse pails with a couple of hacked off arms and a stray head. Even the 3-D effects—throwing spears and buckets of blood directly at the screen—have less subtlety than the paddleball barker in the old Vincent Price version of House of Wax.
I feel a little guilty mocking so much of the movie, but this doesn’t seem like a case where a group of filmmakers gave it the old college try and things just didn’t work out. Very little of what I’ve described here is inadvertent. It’s all quite … advertent. (Don’t look at me that way. I’m pretty sure it’s a word.) That’s what makes it all the more offensive. This film represents a series of aesthetic choices, virtually none of which work, and those that do are in questionable taste. One of the strengths of Miller’s 300 is that despite its flaws, it seems pretty clear that as artist and writer, Miller is committed to the story and the characters, and there’s very little of the cheap thrill in his version. The same cannot be said for 300: Rise of an Empire.
It does a disservice to the comic, it does a disservice to history, and it does a disservice to film.
And I still want my buck-fifty back.