One thing is readily apparent within minutes of Noam Murro’s 300: Rise of an Empire portentous exposition heavy opening and that is its origins as one of the legendary Frank Miller artfully designed graphic novels.
Graphic it most certainly is, almost immediately in fact (although in no way a fitting tribute to Miller’s brilliantly realised work), with the rather leaden scene-setting giving way to mind-numbing, soul-sapping battle after endless battle, each more ludicrously over the top than the last, the only true commitment to authenticity being the copious amounts of blood spilled in 3D-pleasing amounts.
And even that begins to look questionable as an artistic statement about the brutality of life and war as blood spurts forth in quantities so vast and unending that it’s a wonder the noble warriors of a hastily-united Greece, led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) and the black clad goth soldiers of the Persian fleet, commanded by the viciously theatrical Artemisia (Eva Green, who is the only one to acquit herself well in the film) don’t drown in it well before the sea finally and mercifully claims many of them.
The intent, of course, was clear.
Take the big, epic battles of 300, a film that brought the graphic novel upon which it was based to wry and impressive life, and make them bigger, louder, better.
And while the CGI is unarguably winningly immersive, one of the few things about the sequel that does impress on some level, you have to wonder to what end all the visual finery is on display for?
It is certainly not to showcase character development, which is so thin on the ground everyone seems to trample over it in their pec-heavy rush to get into yet another battle, or to augment the historically accurate narrative which is unfortunately nothing of the kind and so perilously lacking in any meaningful forward momentum that it often threatens to grind to a halt.
Which is an exceedingly odd thing to have happen in a film that purports to show the looming annihilation of the disunited city states of ancient Greece at the hands of Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the gold-covered, bombastically inclined god king who, manipulated by the bitter Artemisia (who frankly has not had the most emotionally sound of upbringings let’s be honest) is determined to wipe the people, particularly Themistocles, who killed his father Darius (Yigal Naor) off the map.
The premise is one that should worked brilliantly for a film of this kind.
Revenge and power writ large, motivations for actions both understandable and foolhardy, the trigger for the tectonic waging of war between one of the mightiest, most far ranging empires humanity had then seen and the emerging democratic city states of Greece, should have powered 300: Rise of an Empire through an emotionally resonant, narratively rich running time.
Instead, it all comes off as laughably melodramatic, one battle swamping another – literally given the fact that much of the action takes place at sea on agreeably large and imposing ships – characters so barely and crudely sketched out that when one of them dies you care not a wit, any sense of apocalyptic grandeur subsumed to empty blood-soaked spectacle.
This triumph of style over substance reaches its nadir when Themistocles, summoned to a neutral patch of the sea for a parley with Artemisia, instead ends up in heated, gothic sex with a woman who apparently sees engaging in such vigorous, violent physical intimacy as a diplomatic tool of first and finest resort.
No surprise then that no lasting good comes of all the grunting and groaning below decks, and we almost immediately swing back into yet another turgid battle.
There is an attempt made to invest it all with MEANING – capitals are needed to emphasis how clumsily this is done – Greece is in peril, families will be ripped apart, Artemisia was treated exceptionally poorly and wants vengeance but it all comes to nought, lost in an overwhelming onslaught of blood, a slavish need to placate the gods of 3D (the death of one man onto an obviously placed glass sheet, the better to see him bleed, is unintentionally hilarious) and battles so interchangeable they should have merged them all together and got everyone out of the cinema that much earlier.
Indeed, it all got to the point where I was praying to the gods, any gods (I wasn’t particular), that someone, anyone would win, ending the whole camp explosions-heavy (yes explosions worthy of Michael Bay pseudo-epic; in ancient Greece), histrionic exercise and consigning all the non-characters, hollow storytelling and laughably gratuitous blood-letting to the pages of faux-history, never hopefully to be seen again.