The first question that would seem to apply when regarding any sequel is “Does this feel like it is of a piece with the first film?” It doesn't have to be the same movie to be a successful sequel, but it should do something interesting. It should either be a response to the first film or a deliberately different type of film or it should build on some interesting story thread or it should enhance our understanding of the world or the characters. By that standard, “300: Rise Of An Empire” is a worthy sequel to “300,” stylistically consistent and equally loony, featuring what may well be the first truly can't-miss performance in a film this year.
It would not shock me if, twenty years from now, people talk about this film the way they talk about “Poltergeist” now, simply accepting it as common knowledge that Zack Snyder “really” directed the film. It is so precise in the way it builds off the first film's visual style and so carefully built to wrap around the events of the first film narratively that it feels more like deleted scenes from the first film instead of something that stands alone. That may sound like an insult, but it's not. I would assume Snyder, who co-wrote the script with Kurt Johnstad, probably signed off on every single storyboard, and I am sure Noam Murro was given full access to all the resources that Snyder had at his disposal. It's remarkable how much this feels like it is simply more of the same story, told the same way.
That's probably not going to win anyone over who didn't like the original film. While there is a credit that says this is “based on the graphic novel 'Xerxes' by Frank Miller,” that hasn't been published yet, and I'm not sure how much of this is actually adapted and how much of this was developed specifically for this film. The approach is fairly strange, though. This movie takes place around “300,” backing up far enough to show us how Xerxes went from man to god, and then carrying on after the slaughter of the Spartans to show us how that event influenced the larger war between Greece and Persia. For at least half the film, what we're seeing are scenes that play out on one side or another of scenes from the first film. Remember when that messenger gets kicked down the hole after Gerard Butler yells “THIS IS SPARTA!”? Well, there's a scene here that starts about five minutes later, right after Gerard Butler's walked away, as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) talks with Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), this film's lead.
Essentially, the film starts with Themistocles setting into motion the events that led Xerxes to transform himself after his father, King Darius (Igal Naor) is killed by an arrow fired by Themistocles. It is Artemisia (Eva Green), a brilliant fighter who worships Darius for everything he has given her, who gives Xerxes the idea that his destiny is to become something more than human so that he can lead a Persian army back to Greece to destroy them. Artemisia is ultimately the engine driving this entire film, and this movie makes it clear that she was the engine driving the original story, even though we didn't know it. For that to pay off, Artemisia needs to be a tremendous character, and needs to be played by an actor who can make it seem plausible that they are the secret engineer of this entire conflict.
Enter Eva Green. Since she made her debut in “The Dreamers” in 2003, she has not worked anywhere near as frequently as she should have. Her English language debut, “Kingdom Of Heaven,” was a much better film than it originally seemed in theaters, something that only became plain when Ridley Scott's longer director's cut was released. She works hard as Serafina in “The Golden Compass,” but the film's got so many gigantic problems that it doesn't matter what work she does. I think she's very good in “Casino Royale,” and I buy it that her character got to James Bond in a way a number of other women never did. She basically fell off the Hollywood landscape after “Compass” tanked for six full years until she played the bad guy in “Dark Shadows,” and I think that performance almost feels like a dry run for this one. She does some very strange, very outrageous things in that film, and she seems positively carnivorous in one rambunctious sex scene she plays with a startled Johnny Depp.
There is a scene like that in “300: Rise Of An Empire,” a mid-movie collision between Artemisia and Themistocles after their first few naval conflicts, and it is another sex scene that is more about power and gamesmanship than anyone getting off in any way. Sullivan Stapleton's very best acting in the film is in that sequence, and he looks like he's not sure how he ended up being thrown around the room by this gorgeous but terrifying lunatic. There's not a single scene in this movie where Green is anything less than completely engaged, electric to watch, completely in control. If I were Rodrigo Santoro, who reprises his role here as Xerxes, I would be quietly seething, because this movie sidelines Xerxes early on, revealing him to be little more than a figurehead. Artemisia is so much more interesting, with a strong back story and a sort of evangelical drive to victory in battle, that Xerxes fades even though he's such an outrageous design.
The film's unorthodox structure is due to the idea that Themistocles wants to unite Greece to face Persia in battle, and he first tries to bring the Spartans into an alliance with the rest of Greece. When they won't join the larger cause, he gets the idea that all he needs to do is wait until Persia's inevitable victory over the Spartans so they can be used as martyrs, their deaths serving to give him the united Greece he desires. There's not really any tension about this as a plot point since we know how the first film ends, so the film is more about filling in these beats around what we know is coming. I like that this is just as weird as the first film. There are moments that are blatantly impossible, surreal, underlining the idea that we're not watching a literal representation of history, but the version that was passed down by oral tradition, embellished and exaggerated and raised to the level of myth. The hyper-violent slow-motion carnage of the first film is present here as well, and there are any number of shots that are just gorgeous and ridiculous and soaked in crimson. Those people who were hung up on the idea that the first film is homo-erotic get tweaked pretty hard by some specific dialogue here, and there are several beats where there are visual sexual references every bit as subtle as Hitchcock's infamous train driving into a tunnel. Then again, I'm not sure “subtle” is a paintbrush that “300: Rise Of An Empire” is painting with, and it seems to be the entire point. It feels like this film used up Warner's entire quota of 3D for the year. There is no more 3D left in Hollywood now, because it's all in this movie. There must have been one entire FX team devoted to nothing but floating particulate matter in the space between the actors and the audience, and adding 3D to the already intense visual plan of “300” feels like someone putting ice cream on top of a piece of pie baked into a piece of cake that is covered in cookies. It's overkill, but by the time you get to this level of overkill, it seems like that's the only choice that would work at all.
If you weren't down with the first film, this one will not change your mind, but if you're up for sea serpents, exploding fat men, and an impressively insane performance from Eva Green, then “300: Rise Of An Empire” should entertain you tremendously.
“300: Rise Of An Empire” opens everywhere on Friday, March 7.