The Monuments Men, The Lego Movie, Dallas Buyers Club, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2, American Hustle, The Desolation of Smaug, Frozen, Captain Phillips, Thor: The Dark World; these are the new releases I have reviewed since November. They all have one thing in common: I didn’t hate any of them, even the weak ones.
300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
The Plot: Slightly before, partly during, and mostly after the events of Zach Snyder’s abhorrent 300, them plucky Greeks have yet more problems from them pesky Persians. Naval problems. Led by Athenian Leonidas (Sullivan Stapleton), the Greeks assemble their ragtag navy of tiny ships and engage in a series of battles against the mighty Persian fleet, commanded by Artemisia (Eva Green). A woman in charge of a navy!? No wonder the Persians lost! Guffaw chortle ha. Hating women is almost as fun as excessive blood spatter!
Ah, what to address first. Shall we begin with the history? So yes, the Persian Wars were decided largely by three battles: Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis. Like the movies mentioned in the opening paragraph, these battles all have one thing in common: regardless of who won, they were all incredibly well fought, and victories were won by tacticians, not by shirtless men in capes flailing about and hoping their sword connects with a Persian stereotype. Admittedly, the drama of a battle is monumentally cheapened on film if the characters aren’t involved. Would Helm’s Deep have been all that engaging if Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli weren’t right there on the wall? If Maximus isn’t leading the charge, do we care very much if the Romans beat the Germans? I will entertain that without Leonidas 2: The Revenge and Artemisia on the front lines, the battles would be less interesting. Oh wait… no, that’s impossible.
Perhaps the most impressive achievement of 302 is that the action sequences are somehow boring to watch. I was really keeping my fingers crossed that I could at least derive some sort of voyeuristic enjoyment from watchin’ dudes kill each other with swords, but alas, the film was populated with one bland, slow-motion blood-fest after another, and while a few of them did make me laugh in confused bewilderment, none of them quite managed to entertain me. Who knows, though, maybe I would have found them intriguing if there were any real people involved.
What do I mean by “real people”? This stuff really happened. Blue-cape Leonidas was a real dude. Artemisia was a real chick. True words, all of them. Salamis was a real battle, and a pretty interesting one at that. What’s more, Themistocles was a fascinating, wily character, and Artemisia was a wise commander and, according to Herodotus, who probably knew his stuff, she was the only female commander… possibly ever as far as he was concerned. Let me tell you about Themistocles and Artemisia a little bit.
Themistocles, to whom I have been referring as some variation of Leonidas, because that is all he allowed to be in this film, was a clever guy. After his pseudo-defeat at Artemisium, which in this film is dramatized with some Greek fire and sea monsters, Themistocles thought to himself, “Crap, this isn’t going well. Xerxes killed all those Spartans at Thermopylae and now he’s probably going to kill us, too. What do I do?” His answer to his own question? “I know, I’ll send a message to Xerxes, who’s probably pretty content in his victory as is, and tell him that if he acts quickly, he can probably crush the remaining Greek forces, and I’ll tell him that I’m on his side, but still command the Greeks. That way, if we win, awesome, but if we lose, I’m still in the clear.” Inciting Xerxes to such a hasty attack did eventually spell the Persian defeat, but boy, you gotta admire the man’s subterfuge-ing. Well, not in 300: Episode 2: Attack of the Persians, Again. No, in this cinematic wonder, Themistocles is reduced to, well, to just being another Leonidas. The closest he comes to subterfuge is just really scummy. That’s a good segue.
SO, about Artemisia. Now, I don’t like to bandy around the word “misogyny.” It’s a powerful word, and there are surely arguments to be made about sweeping trends across the whole film industry, but not a lot to be accomplished by complaining about every underwritten female character. It’s an unfortunate, unfair status quo, but there it is. It is altogether prudent, maybe even fitting and proper, however, to criticize films that seem to go out of their way to create bad female characters. Artemisia, in real life, was a well-respected, much loved queen of Halicarnassus, who allied herself with Xerxes against the Greeks and did a pretty good job as a wise leader and strong tactician. Her political fluidity rivaled Themistocles. You could say that they were appropriately matched as adversaries. She advised Xerxes against attacking the Greeks, but he didn’t listen, and lost because of it. In the battle, seeing a Greek ship coming at her, she rammed another Persian one, making the Greeks think she was on their side, and making Xerxes, who mistakenly thought she’d rammed a Greek ship, think that she was an even bolder attacker than his male commanders. She was cunning and manipulative and everyone respected her.
Now, the lazy option in this case, the absolute easiest route for the writers, would be to just keep her as she is in history. But no, they actively sought out a way to make her a weak character. She’s a bad leader, advising Xerxes to attack the Greeks when he wishes not to (oops! Did we get that backwards?), killing all of the generals who disobey or fail her. They rewrote her backstory so that she was raped by Greeks and so hates them, because God forbid a woman become a violent force without being sexually abused. Despite her power and sensibility, she still can’t think of a better way to sway Themistocles’ allegiance than by seducing him. To an extent, I get that an intimidating sexuality is an important feature of any femme fatale, but the admirable male character is usually supposed to resist those temptations. This leads to possibly the most arbitrary, gratuitous, and badly directed sex scene I have ever seen. So, Artemisia’s strategy boils down to, “If you agree to side with Xerxes, we can have sex.” Flawed, but it seems effective. Themistocles’ reaction is essentially, “Der, okay,” followed by the aforementioned awful sex scene, followed by Themistocles triumphantly shouting, “PSYCH!” That’s what I meant when I referred to his scummy almost-subterfuge. So yes, this intriguing, powerful historical figure is (quite literally) stripped down to the object of a teenager’s sex fantasy, and then later Themistocles kills her because I guess why not? For those interested parties, the real life Artemisia survived Salamis.
Gosh, badly developed characters aside, this movie actually just sucked. The historical “interpretations” were only slightly less confusing than interpretations of things like fire, general physics, blood, the moon, and what someone’s diary led the writers to believe sex must be like. I think the runtime would have been about forty minutes without slow motion. I was hoping I would be able to say that at least Eva Green is a pleasure to look at, but she’s only there to be looked at. Was this movie worse than Troy? I don’t know. It may have been, but I’m sure we all know how much I hate Troy. I guess, if I could offer you all one closing sentiment, it is this: my mother, who had the misfortune of viewing 300, or Things I Drew During Study Hall with me, stated that Sharknado was a considerably better film. That’s right, everyone. If any of you are still thinking about going to see 300 II: Intolerable Cruelty, let me instead encourage you to watch Sharknado.