The big reason 300 made such an impact in 2007 was that nothing resembled it. Tougher and bloodier than most gladiator epics and introducing a signature look and highly stylized battle sequences, 300 was the come-out-of-nowhere success story of that year. It was directed by Zack Snyder, his follow-up to the equally surprising Dawn of the Dead remake. It starred a largely ignored Gerard Butler. Still, the film was the highest-grossing opener ever in the month of March to that point, effectively moving the summer box office calendar back two months. A franchise was born.
Then the momentum stopped. A sequel or maybe a prequel—writer Frank Miller was reportedly wishy-washy on the whole thing—was discussed then killed a few times.
Now, seven years later, there is 300: Rise of an Empire. It's kind of a sequel, in that events from the first film are referenced as having happened in the recent past, but it's also a contemporary of its predecessor, so that the events in this film aren't strictly a reaction to what happened in the original. Based on Miller's comic Xerxes, the film shifts its perspective from Sparta to Athens, another of the Greek city-states, as the nation battles the Persian Empire.
It is one of the more effective things in the entire picture, allowing director Noam Murro to bridge the familiar with the new. Gerard Butler, whose own reticence about doing more of these movies also didn't speed up the franchise possibilities, is seen a couple times as King Leonidas, probably just in archival footage. Lena Headey, who played his bad-ass wife and queen, has a more significant role.
There are slight differences between Leonidas and the Spartan warriors and their Athenian cousins, but they're purely cosmetic. Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) is a handsome, bearded hero, for whom no obstacle is too great nor no enemy too imposing. He has the unbridled respect of his men despite being vastly outnumbered and facing near-certain death. Themistokles is a more politically motivated soldier: The idea of a unified Greece rising as one against Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is what drives him most of all.
That's true to form for the historical Themistokles (or Themistocles), as well. In fact, say what you want about the bloodshed and cinematic violence that make these films so unrealistic, but Frank Miller has at least consulted a little bit of the archives here. Leonidas was real, Xerxes was real, and this time around, he introduces Artemisia, a female naval commander born in Greece but serving on the Persian side of the war. As remarkable as it may sound, this person did exist and did lead naval fleets for Xerxes 2,500 years ago.
It is doubtful, however, that Artemisia looked a hell of a lot like Eva Green. Green, best known for her work as Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, always brings a sense of carnality and danger to a role. If Angelina Jolie made a pact with Satan, that would be Eva Green. You can't help but look at her here or in Casino Royale or just about anywhere and not think that her Internet browser history might be a little too much for you to handle.
Having said that, she's perfect—stone cold perfect—for this movie. Artemisia tempts and threatens Themistokles, culminating in a hair-pulling sexcapade that begins as a negotiation and ends as a clarion call to battle. In fact, insomuch as there is a story here, it has more to do with Artemisia and Themistokles than Greek independence or some history lesson about the Greco-Persian wars.
But honestly, who's buying a ticket to this hoping to unlock history?
Whether or not a 300 prequel or sequel would have been somewhat different had it followed a more traditional path to the screen, this one isn't taking any chances. It recreates the look, sound, and feel of the first movie pretty accurately. It's simplistic in its approach and for some of the reasons the first film was a success, this one comes as close to capturing that essence as you can nearly a decade later.
There have been a few technological advancements along the way, so Rise of an Empire features more snap zooms than the first one and—at least it seems like—a lot more slow-motion. The film would probably run five minutes shorter without all the slo-mo impalings. And, to his credit, director Noam Murro makes pretty good use of these tricks throughout the film. Much of the large scale battle scenes are just overkill, but throughout the film in general, it's a pretty good carbon copy.
But that is all we're dealing with: a copy. It improves on nothing and introduces very little, but at least Eva Green helps pass the time.