I went to see 300: Rise of an Empire, the movie adaptation of… it is hard to say. Technically the film is the movie adaptation of the graphic novel Xerxes by Frank Miller of comic book legend, but the graphic novel is itself a sequel to the graphic novel turned into a movie we know as 300. Then it should be stated that both graphic novels are theoretically based on the defense of Greece from Persian invasion that actually happened. It is at about that point where I get dizzy and stop trying to maintain my attribution. It was a movie, sort of.
300: Rise of an Empire is a stunning collage of visual effects, but it is difficult to say that it is quite a movie. I counted more than five minutes of 4-second establishing shots in a row, which makes this much more like a moving comic book than what I would normally think of as a film.
Let me hit the highlights first: The raw graphical design work involved in this film does not beggar the imagination, it replaces it. Every shot has something beautiful, artful, or deliberately terrible to see. I was constantly awestruck by the visual medium. There were cuts and establishing shots of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who died with him at Thermopylae that were nice to see. The fighting was like watching a ballet as interpreted by WWE and Akira Kurosawa with three thousand buckets of digital blood thrown in.
It was an absolute spectacle.
But I cannot recommend it as more than that.
Frank Miller, whose story this really is, was at one point the pinnacle of graphic novel and comic book storytelling. He single-handedly revived the Daredevil and the Batman franchises. It you enjoyed Watchmen you know another of his most famous works. But word is out in the industry that Miller is past his prime.
I was skeptical because I loved his work so much, but if this film is anything close to his graphic novel I now believe it.
This story is ripped right out of a sick fourteen-year-old’s fantasies. In truly latent homosexual fashion the Greek outfits seem to have gotten even more thong-like, and waxed chests are everywhere you look. There is a token woman, who apparently wants to get involved in the most revolting scene of sexual violence I have seen in years, as the two main characters simultaneously try and rape the other in what only a socially maladjusted virgin could possibly conceive of as sex, and how it scraped by under an NC-17 rating may be the most incredible part of this film.
Obviously there is very little to do with actual history going on. I was able to hang in there believing in the story until the very first Persian iron-clad oil tanker showed up on screen, at which point I was just done.The few intelligent portions of 300 are gone. Yes, I just said that. Remember how Lena Headey played a valiant warrior’s wife, who had to deal with a male-dominated political system to try and rally support for her husband’s cause? It turns out she was actually the sole ruling dictator and everything she went through has disappeared. She has entire armies and navies to order wherever she wants. That’s right. Her husband died for no reason, but you aren’t supposed to remember that because there is lots of blood and mostly naked men wrestling around together (never mind that the warriors of the time wore about eighty pounds of bronze armor that covered as much of their bodies as possible).
Also missing is piety. Frank Miller presents Athenian democracy as an alternative to superstition and religion, as he puts pretty much that line in Themistocles’ mouth talking to Sparta. The Greeks and the Romans after them were fundamentally, persistently religious. Read their writings, listen to their epic poems like Homer’s. I do not even remotely agree with their religion and I had to shake my head at the total lack of gods-fearing of a single character. (Remember the controversial oracle scene from the first film, the oracle, the one who talks for the gods? I remember it being slightly… um… important to the whole freaking plot?!) Who needs plots or motivations? We can just flex and hack. That is all the audience cares about. And in a disturbing twist the half-naked dudes are even younger, or have a younger person in the screen. Does anyone find the rush to put barely-legal-appearing young men half-naked a bit troubling? If they were barely-legal-appearing half-naked women, as the oracle was in the first film, there would be a great uproar.
If you are the type of person who really enjoys watching people torn apart with loud screams and buckets of blood, doing so will make your enemy women want you to rape them, then this is the sort of movie for you. You won’t care about the ridiculous idea that the narrating character could not possibly know a tenth of what she describes. The writers don’t think you can remember the story from the last movie, as long as it has as much or more skin, blood, and mutilation.
I’m all for stories about defending your homeland, fighting for freedom, and standing against impossible odds. I even thought the tiny little nods here and there to fighting for the man next to you were good points. They take up about half of one percent of the story. If you want honor, courage, and camaraderie I suggest getting a copy of Lone Survivor. If you want something about faith (and the Greeks cared a lot about the Gods,) supporting you in the face of death, look elsewhere as well. I find that strange since knowing one is about to die magnifies the significance of the afterlife just a tad.
For the second time this month I find myself in the rare case of having to completely down-check a bit of media. I far prefer offering up reviews of things worthwhile, trolling through media to point out the bright spots.
This is not one of them. I even sort of liked the first film. I would rather read Like a Mighty Army out loud than re-watch this film. Just like Weber’s book, it is all the worse because it had the potential to be so much more. Without Themistocles the battle of Thermopylae would have been meaningless, and I value Themistocles more because his naval contribution was the result of years of forethought and discipline, while the actual Spartans’ sacrifice, however noble, was not much different from what they trained for all the time.
I’m afraid that search engine optimization will make it difficult for you to dig up the real story of Themistocles of Athens, or even Thermopylae, since these films have used history for toilet paper, but there is some good military history avoided by these films, and some patriotic heroism well worth remembering. If you cannot find it online, a trip to the library will bring an excellent lesson in military preparedness. By the time the crisis comes it is too late to build up your defenses. Themistocles of Athens embodied this lesson, and saved his whole region, much less his country, because of it.