Rise of a Franchise?

Sullivan Stapleton stars as Greek general Themistocles in director Noam Murro's follow-up to 2006's "300." Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers and Legendary Films.

Sullivan Stapleton stars as Greek general Themistocles in director Noam Murro’s follow-up to 2006’s “300.” Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers and Legendary Films.

With the death of the main characters, a sequel to Zack Snyder’s 300 seems far fetched, almost as ridiculous as a proposed Gladiator sequel that almost happened. However, 300: Rise of an Empire manages to be an entertaining, bloody good time.

The movie is not a sequel, or even a prequel, to the original film. The best way to describe it is as a “parallelquel,” a story that takes place along side the Battle of Thermopylae.  While the film occasionally returns to the 300 Spartans, its focus is on Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), an Athenian general who fought at the Battle of Marathon.

During that battle – according to the movie, not history – Themistocles shot the arrow that killed Persia’s King Darius I and set in motion the rise of Xerxes. Years pass and Themistocles is a politician in Athens who rallies men to fight the Persian onslaught. Meanwhile, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), now the god of bling bling, has assigned general Artemisia (Eva Green) to engage the Greeks by sea.

Unlike 300, Rise is mainly the story of Greece’s naval battles with Persia, focusing on the battles of Artemisium and Salamis.  The battles are dramatic and visually gorgeous. Like the original, Rise has the look of a graphic novel – although the visuals here look more like Immortals – but the color palette is richer than 300’s sepia and blood swathed filters. The style of 300 has been stolen and used too much since the film’s release. Starz’ Spartacus series used it to good effect. I enjoyed Immortals. However, Renny Harlin’s The Legend of Hercules and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii looked cheap. I recently re-watched Troy, which used a classic, realistic look. I miss that look. But Rise has more right than any film to use the visual style of 300.

Zack Snyder, busy making films about another hero in a red cape, serves as co-writer for Rise. Noam Murro takes over the reigns well, creating a mythic vision of Greece as the cradle of democracy and heroes. He adds more blood and gore to his film, although most of the CGI blood disappears into the digital ether.

Eva Green stars as Artemisia, the only Persian fleet commander discussed in detail by Herodotus. Although portrayed as a villain in the film, she is a strong female character in a male-dominated story. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures.

Eva Green stars as Artemisia, the only Persian fleet commander discussed in detail by Herodotus. Although portrayed as a villain in the film, she is a strong female character in a male-dominated story. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures.

Stapleton is fine as the lead, but he portrays a much different type of leader than Gerard Butler’s Leonidas. Themistocles is a more practical man and not obsessed with the beautiful death the Spartans considered a holy experience. Although she is handed some silly dialogue, Green stands above the chaos as Artemisa, the Persian general.  Both Eva Green and Lena Headey, returning as Queen Gorgo, portray strong women, capable of leading. If only Green didn’t spend so much time staring into nothingness. Since the film is more concerned with hero worship than historical accuracy, it never mentions that both of these figures were strong women outside the normal Greek social structures, which demanded that women stay home and not be a part of society.

I hope Rise sets off a franchise of films based in this fictional version of ancient Greece. What’s next? That would have to be the Battle of Plataea, the one that ended the war.  Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition is another great one. Why that has not been adapted to film is a mystery to me. It’s a great story with action and drama. Finally, Snyder and company can tackle Alexander the Great, but make it more exciting and comprehendible than Oliver Stone’s misguided film.

Rise is not a smart movie, or a historical document. Like 300, it takes Greek history and adds a dash of fantasy, creating a mythology that makes sense within the two films.  I don’t go to these expecting to be educated. I want to be entertained. And 300: Rise of an Empire entertained.

Copyright 2014 Tony George

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“Immortals” Is Good Old Fashioned Adventure with A New Coat of Paint

When you take away the modern visual splendor and the explicit blood and gore, Tarsem Singh’s new film “Immortals” is a great old-fashioned adventure movie based on Greek mythology. I almost expected Steve Reeves* to appear in the film.

The film stars Henry Cavill as Theseus, a young peasant who lives with his mother as part of a costal Greek community. King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) wants a bow that descended from Mount Olympus during a war between the gods and the titans. Hyperion kills Theseus’ mother and the stage is set for the hero’s journey.

If it all sounds terribly familiar, it should. The story is typical, but the presentation is spectacular. The advertising makes a point that this film is produced by the same people who produced “300.” But Tarsem’s visual eye has been displayed long before that film with his debut “The Cell.” Since Tarsem and “300” director Zak Snyder were classmates together in film school, perhaps advertisers should have said “from the director who went to school with the director of ‘300’.”

The film is full of grand fights and battles. And the techniques used do remind a viewer of “300.” But is that so bad? Actually, while Snyder’s Greek epic imitated the visual style of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, “Immortals” looks more like it was painted. Each scene is filled with complex lighting and vivid colors.

The score and soundtrack are very busy throughout the film and, at times, overbearing. But “Immortals” will never be accused of being a subtle film.

The acting is fine, but a bit wooden at times. Cavill fills his role well, but at times seems to channel King Leonidas from “300.” As a side note, Cavill is currently filming in Zak Snyder’s new Superman film. Physically, he is perfect for the Man of Steel. Stephen Dorff shines as the thief Stavros, who provides a few needed scenes of levity.

I admit I have a fondness for Greek mythology and literature. It is difficult to be too harsh on the film. It has flaws, but it overcomes those by having great sets, costumes and action scenes.

  • Steve Reeves played Hercules during a run of Italian made fantasy films in the late 1950s. “Immortals,” perhaps unintentionally, serves as a homage to that era of fantasy filmmaking.