Live on Your Knees or Die on Your Feet: Is RISE OF AN EMPIRE the Anti-300?

Spoilers for both 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire abound here.

In 2006 a little action film opened up that you may have heard of.  It was called 300.  It made waves wherever young men could hear its roar.  The Spartan kick, yelling “This is (city you’re from)!”, and the hearty “harumph!” projected by scores of men have become iconic in their own right.  When it comes to tales of badassdom, the fight and fall of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans is hard to surpass.

And then they made a sequel to it.  And it came out in theaters this past weekend.  And it’s called 300: Rise of an Empire.

So how do you recapture the testosterone-filled battles of the original?  Perhaps a better question is: how have male power fantasies changed since then?  Do young people today want yelling, leather-thonged, bearded men kicking each other around in floods of CGI blood?  Well the filmmakers think so.  But it’s been almost ten years since the original film, so something must have changed in that time.  It’s not enough to hope that Rise of an Empire is going to be a clone of 300, in fact it shouldn’t be.  But what does Hollywood think we want out of a 300 film today?  What does it think we want out of films in general?

Let’s go back to the original.  300 told the story of how 300 Spartans marched against Xerxes’ Persian masses to certain death.  These Spartans were bred for battle since they were infants.  Their entire culture was steeped in their fighting abilities.  At one point they meet with an army of neighboring Greeks comprised of farmers and blacksmiths.  When asked what profession the Spartans hail, they give a resounding battle cry.  These are dudes who go into battle basically naked.  The only thing they wish for is a glorious death on the battlefield, which is what they ultimately accomplish.  I think one of the appealing things to guys is that these men give it all in the name of glory, country, and freedom.  The fact that they didn’t win stands as an even greater testament to their resolution.  They fought greater forces where failure wasn’t a possibility, it was an inevitability.  It’s like Rocky where the glory isn’t in the outcome, but in the battle.

Sullivan Stapleton stars as Themistokles

Sullivan Stapleton stars as Themistokles

Rise of an Empire, on the other hand, tells the story of an army of Athenians who, before, during, and after the events of the first film, try to assemble the Greek city-states together to overthrow the Persians.  Unlike the Spartans (whom they even try to recruit to their cause), the Athenians fight for victory.  The Spartans in this film are shown to be arrogant dissidents, refusing the join everyone else in battle because they want to fight their own fight.  Only in the end, when they do join the other Greeks, are they shown to be doing the right thing.

Now, the Spartans didn’t just fight with all their spirit, they were literally born to fight.  The challenge alone is motivation.  They don’t fight because they’re forced to, they could have easily rolled over and played good dog or planned out a strategic war.  But they didn’t.  They chose to march 300 of their finest men to meet the Persian masses to show them what free men could do against hordes of slaves.  They wanted to punctuate their cause not by winning, but by showing that they would give the most aggressive damn fight the Persians had ever seen before dying as free men, rather than kneel before a man posing as a god.  It is a powerful statement.

The Athenians, however, fight because bad guys are knocking at the door and we must unite to defeat them.  The message of the film isn’t about putting up a fight for yourself to make your point, it’s about going along with popular opinion for the greater good.  It is a motivation that plays it much safer.  It’s easy to say that we should all work together and not go against what’s considered to be the popular consensus, but it’s much gutsy to say that individuals need to stand up for what they believe in despite common opinion.  In 300, the Spartans were lauded for their gumption, in Rise of an Empire they are shown to be ignorant jerks who refuse to join the other Greeks to fight until the very end.

This can also be seen in the way both films are made.  Both are extremely stylized, but 300 is truly unique.  Mixing flourishing narration with symbolic imagery and almost beautifully bloody fight scenes, the original tries to be something different while still making sense.  I won’t try to defend the film’s graphic nudity and exploitative use of violence, but I will give that these attributes have a point beyond blatant exploitation.  For Spartans, the fight is all they live for, and the glories of the battlefield are embellished in fountains of blood and body strewn fields.  Xerxes’ army is comprised of hideous monstrosities and sexual perversions, a testament to the corrupt nature of the god-king and his rule.  Rise of an Empire tries to up the ante by adding even more gruesome violence and unnecessary sexuality…but the key word here is unnecessary.  The graphic content feels shoehorned in simply because this is a 300 movie, and it’s what everyone expects.  It devolves to the point where it’s not fun and it’s not trying to say anything, it’s just gratuitous.  Rather than try to do something new, the filmmakers give us more of the same because it’s what’s popular, despite whether or not it makes sense or is warranted (which it isn’t).  Like the gladiator fights of old, we are expected to cheer and crow at the violence for its own sake, not for the cause it is delivered under.

The way the story is told is also played much safer.  300 told the story through symbolic visuals, poetic narration, and highly stylized cinematography.  Rise of an Empire tells the story as a more straightforward narrative with characters speaking like normal human beings.  The style is still there, but there is a greater focus on trying to make the story more…”normal”.  Since many of the heros all look the same, you don’t care for them as much.  The most memorable person in the movie is our main villain, who steals the screen because she plays her part so outlandishly.  Basically, the film doesn’t want to take risks, and in doing so risks falling into obscurity.  It wants to be every other action film out there today.  Once again, taking a risk is bad, conforming to what everybody else is doing is good.

Lena Headey reprises her role as Queen Gorgo

Lena Headey reprises her role as Queen Gorgo

Now, I did enjoy Rise of an Empire while I watched it, for the most part, but since then the film has been fading from my memory.  Scenes from 300 are still fresh in my head, if not because I directly remember them, then because they have been so ingrained into pop culture that I can’t help but remember them.  It’s a film that takes huge risks at putting it’s outlandish style front-and-center, sacrificing in-depth story for visual bravato.  It’s a film that in both execution and theme tells you to stick to your guns, to fight for what you believe no matter what everyone around you are telling.  It’s a film about not compromising your values.  Rise of an Empire wants to do just the opposite, telling you in both theme and style that what everyone else is doing is best.  Both movies have problems and both movies are exploitative in some regard (though I’d argue Rise of an Empire is the more gratuitous and exploitative of the two), but despite its faults, I’ve got to respect what 300 is trying to say in some regard.  I have a hard time justifying to myself that the graphic content shown in Rise of an Empire are warranted in any way at all.

Does the message of these films reflect the American cultures of their times?  That’s for you to discern.  It hasn’t even been ten years since 300 was released, so it’s not like we’ve had decades to change over that amount of time.  I do think it’s hard to deny that films in general have changed much since then, and at least they think they’re giving us what we want.  So how about it?  Does Rise of an Empire accurately portray what we want to hear today?

Joe Campbell is a short film director and movie enthusiast.  You can follow him on Twitter@CredoFilms1 or on Google+.  Also check out his OTHER film review blog where he occasionally remembers to post stuff.

300: Rise of an Empire is now in theaters. 300 is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Blu-Ray.