The Spartans Meet The Muppets, or 300: Rise of an Empire
It would be a mistake to dismiss director Noam Murro’s sword and sandal “historical” pageant 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) entirely, if only because mainstream pop culture films can often tell us more about the times we live in than so-called “quality” films, since they pander so shamelessly to their audiences. So it is with 300: ROAE, but let me hasten to add that most of what it has to tell us is unintentional freight. The makers of this film – the producers, screenwriters and the director – wanted a serviceable follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2007 original, to create what could be a profitable franchise, if properly handled – and Murro delivered it. It’s a maelstrom of unending cruelty, barbarism, and conflict.
You want endless, mindless, slow motion violence, delivered with a minimum of dialogue or motivation (other than the standard “I want revenge” card)? You got it. Battlefields littered with corpses? Check. Huge, panoramic vistas that trail off into infinity, as the protagonists strike heroic poses in the twilight? Coming up! Spectacular battles on sea and land? Gotcha! Sex scenes with a dollop of violence? Of course! It’s all here, trotted out to meet audience demand, something Murro is no stranger to. Murro has directed numerous high-end commercials and videos, and one feature, Smart People (2008), starring Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker. He’s even worked with The Muppets! Now, if only he could learn to direct people.
That’s probably good training for this film, because most of the cast walks through their paces like so many automatons; what really saves the film as a visual construct is Murro’s sense of non-stop kineticism, which is easily the equal of some of the best action directors in motion picture history. Mind you, I’m talking sheer technique here, not resonance; the film is as empty as it is dazzling, but nevertheless, some main points come to mind. Watching the film, I kept thinking of what a first rate talent like Sam Peckinpah might have done with similar material in his prime; “Bloody Sam” would have been right at home here, provided he was willing to bring the film in on time and under budget.
That said, 300: ROAE is better than the original, if only because it’s devoid of any dime store mysticism that “visionary” director Snyder imposed upon the vacant spectacle of 300, and it moves along at a much faster clip. Clocking in at a sharply edited 102 minutes, it’s just the right length for what is essentially a thrill ride. Secondly, special effects have improved markedly in the last seven years, and though the film was shot with digital RED cameras in conventional 2-D and then converted to 3-D after the fact (you can take your pick in the cinema; I recommend the 3-D version, since it foregrounds the only real visual interest the film has), the 3-D effect carries from the front of the frame to the back in one clean sweep, rather than appearing as a “pop up” book, as with such recently reprocessed for 3-D films as Louis Leterrier’s 2010 remake of Clash of The Titans.
But make no mistake about it; this is a film in which almost nothing is real, least of all the sets. As Murro told interviewer Zorianna Kit,
“this is a movie that takes place in water. [But n]ot a drop of water was on set. That is a complicated thing to achieve. [—] Green screen is tough to do. You need to pretend you’re on a ship, the ship is going through hard waters, something hits the side of ship, and the Persians are coming at you. [—] Because of the hyper-realism, the operatic quality, and the poetic nature of the film, it becomes a fantasy. The potency of the violence is diminished because it went over to this fantasy world. There’s no real blood, so you understand it on a visceral level in a different way.”
This is certainly true; one of the most captivating aspects of the film is its relentlessly dreamlike quality, as if one knows that none of this is really happening – it’s all a fever dream, created in the studio.
Though much of the cast from the original film return, they might as well have been replaced by CGI phantoms; there’s nothing going here in the acting department that’s even remotely involving. The problem is simple: Murro has no idea how to direct actors. He can set up an arresting visual, but other than the faux Maxfield Parrish lighting that suffuses the entire film, illuminating the endless series of heroic landscapes, complete with special effects created by a slave galley of hundreds of CGI technicians, Murro has no idea what to do with his performers except to place them strategically within the frame and hope for the best. But there’s one exception: Eva Green, who made her debut in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), not a particularly good film, and has since toiled in the commercial cinema, waiting for a role she could really sink her teeth into.
As the warrior queen Artemisia, Green is the only performer in the film who brings any sense of urgency to her role, even as she’s required to deliver such ludicrous dialogue as “you fight better than you fuck” in the film’s climactic showdown, and her sense of timing and daring are unmatched by anyone else in the film. Decapitating yet another enemy, she holds his head aloft before kissing it passionately, then throwing it aside with a gesture of infinite disdain; as she dispatches one unfortunate underling after another, you get the sense that she’s having a great deal of fun with her character, and it shows. It’s probably her breakout role, though I hope she doesn’t get perpetually cast as a femme fatale.
The same can’t be said for returning cast members Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Andrew Tiernan, Andrew Pleavin and Peter Mensah, or franchise newcomers Sullivan Stapleton, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, and Jack O’Connell. They’re all interchangeable, and character direction is almost absent; if they hit their marks and say their lines – or rather, shout their lines – then Murro is content to get it in the can and move on. It’s obvious that Eva Green is directing herself; she’s so much better than everyone else in the film that she seems to be in a different movie altogether. Someone more proficient with actors might have coaxed better work out of the other principals, but here, they are left to their own devices.
As the God-King Xerxes, in particular, Rodrigo Santoro has little to do but strut around and look menacing, which he does with a notable lack of conviction, while Sullivan Stapleton as Themistokles, the male lead, is full of sound and fury but signifies absolutely nothing in his supposedly “rousing” speeches, ostensibly designed to rally his followers. As Queen Gorgo, Lena Headey is reduced to little more than a bookend at the opening and closing of the film, which revels for the most part in slow motion battlefield violence, complete with fashionable near-freezes at points of especially splatterific impact. So it’s really not fair to talk about the acting here; this is an action movie, pure and simple.
But the resonance here, a resonance the film probably isn’t aware that it possesses, is that it resolutely occupies a place in post 9/11 cinema by virtue of its vision of a world of unceasing combat, in which despotic rulers use and then dispose of those below them, only power and money matter, and violence rules above all else. There’s no love here, and no real sense of hope; the film’s last images are of Headey and Stapleton locked in the heat of battle against their adversaries, in a war that will obviously continue long after the final credits have rolled.
We’re perpetually at war here, as we are in real life, and as the Cold War heats up again with Putin’s latest gambit in the Ukraine, we can see that the film has a sense of how things really are in the world today; it’s the rule of the jackboot, or back to the 1950s, both in real life, and on the screen, where 3-D spectacle lures jaded patrons in to watch an unending parade of slaughter and depredation. We can expect more of this in the future, as audiences seek to escape their barren lives, and the rich become still richer, as the poor struggle to get from one day to the next.
Shot in Bulgaria with an army of local technicians, with underwater tank work completed in Britain, 300: ROAE depicts a world of constant warfare, scheming, and depredation, in which the lust for vengeance and power informs everything else in the film, and no one can be trusted for a moment. There’s always an enemy out there; there will always be death and carnage; there is no escape from violence; peace does not exist. And so far, this vision seems to be selling; at this writing, 300: ROAE is topping the US box office, and in its first 11 days of release has racked up more than $236,000,000 in revenues. So there’s bound to be a sequel.
As for Murro, he’s pragmatic about the entire affair. As he told William Bibbiani, who asked how Murro was chosen to direct the film, “look, I’ve done a lot of very, very big commercials that really had quite a bit of technical expertise in them, but it’s like you asking me why did my wife choose me. I don’t know! I’m glad she did!” – so why ask why, right? When asked by Zorianna Kit about the difference between directing 300: ROAE and the Muppets, he laughed and added, “it’s the Muppets, you know? When they called and said, ‘hey, do you want to direct the Muppets?’ [in a commercial for Lipton Tea] I said, ‘yes!’ I mean, who wouldn’t want to have that under their belt? I was like, I’m gonna meet Kermit! I’m doing it!” Muppets, Spartans, it’s all the same to him. So check it out; meet the Spartans; they’re fun, too! If you don’t mind the odd head rolling around on the battlefield.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes frequently for Film International.
Bibbiani, William (2014), “Exclusive Interview: Noam Murro on 300: Rise of an Empire”, Crave Online, 6 March. Accessed 18 March 2014.
Kit, Zorianna (2014), “Spotlight: Director Noam Murro Visualizes the Visceral Poetry of 300: Rise of an Empire”, Studio System News, 7 March. Accessed 18 March 2014.