All at CCC
Sometimes you go in to see a film with an almost unshakeable conviction that it's going to turn out to be nonsense, or worse. In my case, the mystery attached to this is not so much where these sort of certainties come from, as the fact that I invariably end up going to see the film anyway. Perhaps it's just to see if I was right in the first place, I don't know. I sort of recall having that sort of feeling prior to seeing Zack Snyder's 300 back in the middle of 2007. I was in Japan at the time, and the English-language films coming out were somewhat limited, but that really isn't an excuse, is it?
Anyway, off we went to see the film anyway, and somewhat to our surprise we found it thoroughly, if rather disreputably, enjoyable. I recall that my literary advisor was one of my companions and even he was mildly impressed by the fact the thing was (very) vaguely historically accurate. We agreed the film had achieved the neat trick of managing to libel the then-current Iranian government with its depiction of troll-monsters and goat-headed guitarists, dismissed the whole thing as silly fun and went on with our lives.
However, a $456 million box-office take has a weight and significance all of its own and I suppose we should not be greatly surprised that a follow-up has finally emerged, fresh and glistening, from wherever it is that Zack Snyder generates his work. Snyder was apparently busy making Man of Steel while 300: Rise of an Empire was in development, but he is still involved as co-writer and producer. In charge of making actors stand in front of the blue screen this time is Noam Murro, whose lack of a Wikipedia entry should tell you something about his CV.
Rise of an Empire gets straight down to the business of reassuring the audience of the previous film that it will be business as usual this time, too: we are treated to volcanic quantities of spraying blood and jiggling bare breasts within the first minute or so of the film actually starting (both are thoughtfully presented in slow motion, as is much else that follows). It's not immediately apparent what this film is going to be about beyond random carnage and general naughtiness, but reasonably soon it becomes clear – Snyder and his team are taking a crack at that most ill-favoured of cinematic beasts, the 'interquel' or 'parallelquel', which is to say that many of the events of this film occur in parallel with those of 300 itself.
So, we are treated to the Battle of Marathon, ten years prior to the shenanigans at Thermopylae, and the death of Darius, father of 300's chief villain Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro again) at the hands of Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Following his ascension to the Persian throne, Darius falls under the sway of total and complete nutcase Artemisia (Eva Green), who is a-lusting for revenge against the Greeks following a rough childhood. His transformation into slightly suspect jingly bald megalomaniac complete, Xerxes sets out to conquer the world and kick off the plot of the original movie.
Things go on in this vein. If nothing else this provides the opportunity for virtually everyone from the previous film to come back, even if they died the first time round. Even the bloke who got kicked down the well comes back for a couple of scenes, and there are extended bits, not just for Santoro, but also Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo as David Wenham as the Spartan warrior with an iffy accent and only one eye.
But the bulk of the movie is about an extended naval standoff between the Athenian navy, commanded by Themistocles, and the Persian navy, commanded by Eva Green. This is largely a retread of the plot of the first film, but with boats and rather less of a homo-erotic subtext between the two antagonists, and everyone settles down to a good old-fashioned bloodbath...
For the last week I've been going around cheerfully telling people I was off to see the sequel to 300, which I openly confessed I fully expected to be absolutely terrible. Well, I went, I saw it, and I'm pretty sure that by any objective standard it's a ludicrously bad film. However – and this is one more way in which it resembles its predecessor – it is strangely enjoyable to watch.
Well, always assuming that astounding, non-stop graphic violence and men in leather shorts spouting cobblers about the brotherhood of warriors are your thing. (I didn't think they were mine, to be honest, but clearly I was wrong.) They are so absurdly, operatically over-the-top that the film is impossible to take seriously, which is actually a good thing: it would just be nasty and objectionable otherwise.
Murro does a decent job of capturing the feel and tone of the original film, although he is saddled with a few problems which would try the creativity of an experienced director. Most obviously, while most of the original cast were clearly very happy to come back, one of them obviously wasn't, and there is a glaring, Gerard Butler-shaped hole in this movie. Sullivan Stapleton just can't bristle and sweat with the same degree of charisma, nor can he shout in an inappropriate accent with quite the same degree of conviction.
Some of this is made up for by the presence of Eva Green. I have spoken in the past of the off-kilter emotional intensity, imperious sexual magnetism and peculiar accent which this actress brings to all her roles, but here she is, quite frankly, off the leash to the point of seeming completely bonkers. Here she is the de facto main villain, but this doesn't stop the producers giving her and Stapleton an actual sex-stroke-fight-scene together. This seems to be here mainly to a) provide an excuse for Eva Green to get 'em out and b) give a pretext for Green to deliver the immortal line 'You fight harder than you,,,' during the final battle.
I suppose the primary mission of any sequel is satisfy anyone who liked the original, and I suspect 300: Rise of an Empire will deliver this in spades. It has the same striking aesthetic, soaring sense of its own profundity, and absurd lack of historical accuracy as the first film (just two examples: there appears to be an oil tanker in the Persian fleet, and the climactic Battle of Salamis, one of the most famous naval battles in history, features somebody riding a horse). And all the previously-mentioned gore and sex, too. For me, 300 has always been a definite guilty pleasure – Rise of an Empire was too, although the guilt was a little more pronounced and the pleasure slightly less. This is a very bad film in many ways: and yet, as a result, a lot of fun to watch. It's a strange world sometimes.