300: Rise of an Empire review: Artemisia rocks

300 Rise of an Empire yellow light Eva Green

Eva Green stalks this movie with pride and honor, and is almost the only thing worth watching amidst frenetic CGI cartoon battle action and endless ancient carnage.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved 300

I’m “biast” (con): worried about Zack Snyder’s absence as director

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m beginning to understand how supervillains get born. Cuz I was rooting for the evil superbitch Persian naval commander Artemisia here, and I’m not even going to apologize for it.

Look, Hollywood: You mostly ignore us women, treat us like prizes to be won by heroes and blithering morons whose only goal in life is to find husbands. You tell us, in effect, that the stories of our lives aren’t worth telling, that we only matter as adjuncts to men’s stories. And then you give us a movie like 300: Rise of an Empire, sequel to 300, which is like a bad xerox made by someone who doesn’t quite understand how to use the copier… and at the center of it, radiating like a dark sun, is the glory of Eva Green as Artemisia. She is a Smurfette warrior, a lone woman in a boys-only club… and men, even her own men, look on her with fear and awe. She is smarter and more competent and more ambitious than all of them put together. She commands enormous respect and wields vast power and she likes it. Green stalks this movie with pride and honor, and is almost the only thing worth watching here.

Honestly, I’m not sure I really get why she’s the bad guy at all. How am I not supposed to have my notions of right and wrong turned upside-down till I start cosplaying Artemisia at Comic-Con, just to try to grab some of her cool for myself? Guys get to cosplay Superman and Iron Man and Captain America and all those square-jawed noble dudes. If nasty Artemisia is all we chicks get, well, we’ll take her. Ignore us and mistreat us at your own peril, men. (Not coincidentally, Artemisia’s backstory has something to say about this, too.)

Green (The Golden Compass, Casino Royale) manages to pull off her ferocious awesome in spite of the fact that director Noam Murro — who has made only one previous film, and it’s a contemporary dramedy, not an action flick — has no idea how to create the same sense of mythic grandeur that Zack Snyder achieved with 300. Oh, he knows that every now and then he needs to toss in some slo-mo, so we can (he hopes) get a grasp on the frenetic CGI cartoon battle action and enjoy some blood and brain matter splattered across our 3D glasses during the endless ancient carnage. But tossing those moments in at random doesn’t work. Still, something has to distract, I suppose, from the bland soldierness of Greek general Themistokles; actor Sullivan Stapleton (Gangster Squad, Animal Kingdom) is no Gerald Butler, though he valiantly attempts to scowl in what he probably intends to be a meaningful way whenever possible.

Themistokles is totally into saving Greek democracy from the bad Persians, except when the politicians don’t agree with his plan to unite Greece to fight them off. Will Themistokles have to destroy democracy in order to save democracy? I’m not sure if it’s more funny or more sad, but perhaps the most damning thing I can say about Rise of an Empire is that no one is going to be moved to heated debate over whether this movie is an endorsement of or an indictment of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, as happened with 300. There’s just not enough here here to be that interesting.

It should be way more compelling, too, that events here are happening alongside those of 300: when Themistokles goes to Sparta to enlist their help in the coming war with the Persians, Queen Gorgo basically tells him to fuck off, cuz her husband is off preparing for war on his own terms. (This could be the most incisive criticism of Rise of the Empire: its own prequel wants nothing to do with it.) (Oh, and Butler does not appear here, except in a few brief snippets snatched from the first film.) Yet, somewhat bizarrely, though almost everything here is seen through Themistokles’s eyes — except when the action moves to Artemisia’s side — the film is narrated by Gorgo (Lena Headey [The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Purge], also totally awesome, but not in this anywhere near enough). And she’s telling us things she cannot possibly know about, like how Artemisia pretty much invented Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro: The Last Stand, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) as a towering 10-foot-tall, bald and bejeweled god-king. (Turns out that that process is not as cool as you might think, and mostly involves hermits in a cave standing around being hermity.)

In Snyder’s hands, stuff like this — almost, you know, exactly like this — was transformed into a treatise on the power of myth and the necessity of storytelling as a cultural unifier. Here, we just wonder how Gorgo gets her information, and whether we should even believe her. Though when she mentions “the stink of destiny,” it’s hard not to snort and wonder if she smells where that stink is coming from, too.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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