There is something undeniably seductive about war. It is the ravaged desert where Glory plays her siren song and makes mortal men believe that they have a chance at immortality. There is something ineffably magnificent about charging at your enemy with nothing more than bloodlust roaring in your ears. Such are the moments when humans give in and revel in sheer bestiality, when they take a break from thinking too much.
War is a blessed distraction that way. You can give in to your instincts. In fact, war makes a lot of things - which would be normally unacceptable because they don't fit in with our idea of civilization - seem reasonable.
But then, they don't say "all's fair in war" for nothing.
Frank Miller's 300
was a splendid graphic novel. It managed to capture, quite succinctly, the grandeur that's often associated with war, but with a poetic sensibility that left readers awestruck and asking for more. Zack Snyder's cinematic adaptation managed to tap into this poetic rendition of savagery, and gave us a period film that unabashedly revelled in the baser desires of the human psyche - the thirst for violence, the quest for eternal fame, and the thumping rhythms of war's mad dance.
While 300: Rise Of An Empire attempts to tap into the same vein of romanticising Quixotic endeavours - for what can be more misconceived than taking 300 men to fight an army which comes in waves of thousands? - it comes up short on many counts. But first things first.
The events in 300: Rise Of An Empire take place simultaneously, i. e., in the same timeline as those of the first movie. The Persians have already attacked Greece once before, and it was then that the valiant Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) had killed the Persian king Darius. Darius' son, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) vows to exact revenge. Under the hawk-like gaze of Darius' menacing naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green), Xerxes transforms from a fledgling prince to a god-king, and sets off on his journey of vengeance-by-ruthless-conquest.
In 300, the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) had led 300 men into battle against Xerxes' enormous army. This time around, it is Themistocles who must protect Grecian democracy against a usurping army - led by Artemisia who will leave no stone unturned to seek the destruction of the Greeks.
So, while the 300 Spartans are resisting the Persian army at the Hot Gates, Themistocles and his men are warring with Artemisia's naval hoards on treacherous waters near the island of Euboea, and the Bay of Salamis.
Like Leonidas and his men, the Greeks here are outnumbered as well. And the adversary - a crazed Artemisia who, when it comes to battle, is dangerously cunning and resilient - is even more unyielding than the king she serves. To the logical mind, it would seem that Themistocles is fighting a losing war.
And therein lies the precious nugget of wisdom behind the entire premise of the 300 storyline. There is nothing more glorious than dying in battle, and nothing more spectacular than rushing headlong into a situation where the odds are stacked dishearteningly against you. We always applaud bravery and risk-taking. Achilles was warned that he won't return from the Trojan war, but that he will be remembered for times immemorial if he does decide to ally with Agamemnon. Doesn't history tell us which option he ended up choosing?
When Themistocles goes to Sparta to seek Leonidas' help, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) turns him away, saying that Sparta is not fighting for a united Greece, but for its own protection. However, the film is narrated by Gorgo, and in the first few opening sequences, we see her dressed in black battle robes and addressing a crowd of similarly armoured men.
It is interesting to note how the narrative makes use of the chronological sequencing of the events that actually transpired by employing flashbacks, simultaneous storylines and intellectual montages.
In fact, in one of the more striking frames of the film, Themistocles is preparing his men for war, and telling them how, when the wounds are too many to count, and the blood is gushing forth from their bodies, and the desire to keep coming back with righteous rage is gradually dimming, they only need to look at the comrades fighting next to them. For you are closest to the man whom you bleed with, Themistocles says.
While the Athenian general is delivering this morale-boosting pep talk, the frames are intercepted with scenes of slaves in the enemy ship, their hands bloodied from manoeuvring the oars, and their backs bloodied from repetitive lashings. They too are united in bloodshed, the frames seem to be saying. They are also men who bleed beside each other, and who take consolation from the one who suffers with them.
In that respect, 300: Rise of An Empire makes some pertinent points. But the downside is that all this point-making is shrouded with overwhelming action scenes where blood sprays out with striking visual clarity, and men's entrails are strewn across the scene in glorious 3D.
The action takes over, and spells doom for an otherwise engaging film. Leading all this hullabaloo is Sullivan Stapleton, whose Themistocles is disappointingly flat, especially when compared to Gerard Butler's deliciously rugged turn as Leonidas.
Eva Green, on the other hand, is delightful to watch. Her Artemisia is remorselessly cruel and manipulative. She is brimming with cold hard anger, and Green uses her strikingly chiselled face to flesh out her battle-hardened character rather convincingly.
The battle scenes which take place at sea are breathtakingly beautiful, and in that sense, the film totally engulfs the watcher. But on the downside, when there is no battle being fought, or when Artemisia is not striding around chewing the scenery, you do tend to get bored.
Watch 300: Rise of An Empire by all means. If you want, stay back for the end credits (a very fetching cover of "War Pigs" is played at the end). But don't expect it to be as good as 300.
Because this is certainly not