Approaching a historical Greek film is always very subjective when the film is mostly embedded in fantasy and sensationalism rather than the portrayal of historical accuracy. For some moviegoers, that’s perfectly okay. Rise of an Empire’s preceding film, 300, dealt with loads of historical inaccuracies—ranging from lobster hands to Neanderthals to super-humans—yet it was a brilliant cinematic experience. To be fair to 300, however, it is a fictional adaptation of a graphic novel and was stylized as such. Seven years later, we are presented with Rise of an Empire, functioning as both a companion and sequel to 300. The graphic novel this film is to be based on has not yet been published, but aims to be of the same caliber in terms of the graphic, animated nature of ROAE. The film holds your attention with its grippingly lucid cinematography and strongly feminist conceptualization of power. As expected, it is not a film without its faults, such as its repetitive nature, predictability, and outlandishly overdone CGI effects for violent shock value.
Rise of an Empire tells the tale of the wars and battles that took place between the Greek cities of Sparta and Athens. The 300 lie dead in Thermopylae, and Xerxes beheads King Leonidas as he declares victory over the Spartans, looking more than ever as a “God-King” as he shines vibrantly in gold. His backstory, or to be exact, what occurred 10 years before ROAE takes place, is presented before we see him head to Thermopylae. This is a film that takes itself much too seriously when it delves into Xerxes’ past but it remains important as it relies on the film’s strongest and most vibrant feature, Eva Green as Artemisia. She is the heart of the brutally villainous tale, even if the film exaggerates her vitality as a historical figure. As mentioned, retelling a Greek film such as this relies on fantasy and shock over historical accuracy, no matter how stylish the film manages to be.
So continues the battle of Artemisia vs. Themistocles, playing with ferocious intensity by Sullivan Stapleton, who gets his own backstory with the Spartans featuring Lena Headley as Queen Gorgo, who is now widowed and begs him to wage war against Xerxes and Artemisia. It’s pleasant seeing Headley shine in her loyal and strikingly ferocious role such as that of Cersei from Game of Thrones, which will no doubt be a feast for fans of the series. At one point, she slowly sneers, “This is Sparta,” and is the perfect embodiment of Cerseri Lannister in a 300 film. As the plot thickens, the battle, or rather the relationship between Artemisia and Themistocles, becomes pretty misogynistic both conceptually and physically, where the alpha male dominates the female though she has allowed it to happen to prove her own sense of power. The film is seemingly self-aware of Artemisia’s symbolic nature, as it injects its own notions of feminism through her dialog. There is no doubt, watching Artemisia and Themistocles go head to head with one another is an astounding display of mindplay and gore, ending quite satisfying for genre fans that enjoy adaptations of over-the-top comic book films.
Rise of an Empire, as well-intentioned and entertaining as it may be, has about as much value as watching your friend play a video game as Themistocles fighting Artemisia for over an hour and a half, lengthy flashbacks and all. Its historical inaccuracies will drive historians to insanity, which is why it is best to take a film like this as face value and enjoy it as a piece of fantasy. Every aspect of it is style over substance, and poorly executed style at that. While attempting to follow the veins of other R-rated graphic novel adaptations, such as Watchmen, Dredd, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For—in which Eva Green also plays a villainous and sensuous role—this film loses itself in its cringe-worthy dialog, meandering action sequences, and wholly unsuccessful attempt to remain a serious film of any historical value when it is laughably badly-directed at times and uses way too many slow-motion segments for its own good. There is no denying that Eva Green is inarguably the dominant force of the film, practically holding it on her shoulders from start to finish. She is fierce, cunning, dementedly macabre, and her performance alone makes the film worth a watch. Additionally, major props should be given to Jack O’Connell who provides a stunningly relentless and emotional performance, in his days long before “Unbroken” and “Starred Up,” and for long-time fans of his, we will always know him as Cook from “Skins.”
But I digress. 300 and Rise of an Empire, as a duo, hold the promise of further films. It ends on a cliffhanger, of course, because long-expected comic book and actions films have had a knack for this for quite some time. As a continuation of 300, it functions when not taken too seriously, particularly due to its ridiculous overuse of CGI. Had Eva Green not been chosen for the film, its chances of being even remotely watchable are near impossible. While it may, thematically, match most of what the first film entails, in terms of facing enemies in spite of unlikely odds, one may argue it does so in a manner that is executed much differently and of a much less sinister nature. If you’re in the mood for a gory, highly fictitious yet visually entertaining look into Greek history, don’t miss 300: Rise of an Empire. At most, I’d say this is a genre film for genre fans.
300: Rise of an Empire premieres on 1.24.15 on HBO. Here’s a trailer for the film: