Friday, March 7, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (D)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McAleer) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

Let's begin by stating that 300: Rise of an Empire [2014] (directed by Noam Murro, screenplay by Zach Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel  Xerxes by Frank Miller, based ultimately on The Histories of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus) is a hard-R film.  It's definitely not intended for kids and while most teens would probably "get it" (and even probably get something about "ancient Middle Eastern/Greek history" out of it), this is definitely not a film that most parents would want to take their 14 or 15 year olds to.

There's just way, way, way too much blood splaying, hacked-off limbs and decapitated heads flying (all in glorious 3D ...) violence with some rather graphically depicted sex in this film to boot -- whether Persian or Greek, the people depicted weren't derisively dismissed as "pagans" later by our "turned away from old ways" baptized/believing Christian ancestors for nothing ... -- for the average shell-shocked parent, who just wanted to take their kids out to see a nice movie one Saturday or Sunday afternoon to have to contend with.  On the other hand, as a testosterone driven 17-18 or even 20 year old, I'd probably think this was the coolest film I'd seen in a long time even if I'd definitely NOT want to live in a world that was _really that savage_. 

And this then is the dilemma of a Christian/Catholic viewer (and reviewer): How to write about a film that one honestly should probably go to Confession for going to see (and at least partly enjoying) in the first place?  (Honestly, the smiling Jesus of the recently released Son of God [2014] telling the future St. Peter that "we're going to change the world" portrays such a more positive vision ...),  But we do live in the world, and we are called to slowly lift it out of its morass.

So what is 300: Rise of an Empire [2014] about?  It's intended to be "a companion piece" (neither a prequel nor a sequel but kinda both ...) to Zach Snyder's 300 [2006].  That film was about the ancient Spartans' stand at Thermopylae against the Persians (read ancestors to today's pesky Iranians) invading Ancient Greece (read "true ancestors" to "our Western Civilization") in 480 BC.  The current Rise of an Empire is about "the other battles" of that conflict, most famously the one at Marathon (featured at the beginning of this film) which had taken place 10 years BEFORE Thermopylae and then the naval battle at Salamis (which took place SOMEWHAT AFTER Thermopylae) which (MILD SPOILER ALERT...) proved to be the decisive engagement that sent the Persians home packing for good.

Now a word about THE STYLE of the "storytelling" here.  The direct inspiration of both 300 and the current Rise of an Empire is the work of Frank Miller a "graphic novelist," that is to say, one who uses the "comic book" art form to tell stories that even adults would be interested in.  And given the way "history" was told or written, both in the Bible and by Herodotus, this is not necessarily a bad choice of art form.  These are ancient texts, based on previous oral tradition, often remembered in "episodic" form often with words "that packed the most punch."  A graphic novelist would transform these texts' rather evocative words into imagery, and the more evocative/explosive the words, the more bracing the potential for that imagery.  The films in turn, while still using live actors, are highly stylized (using a lot of high contrast imagery and CGI), giving the film a "legendary" / "mythic" / "storybook" feel.  In line with the "(an)nother worldly" feel of the imagery of the films, their makers clearly made the choice to explore (push for) the far evocative limits of the descriptions of events given by Herodotus to make the story as bracing, as "hyper-real" as possible.  And they certainly succeed.  Both films are quite unforgetable.

But then, what does one remember?  Certainly a lot of blood, a lot of heads and limbs flying about, the result of depictions of some very desperate up-close-and-personal hand-to-hand combat, as well as, in the current film a perhaps unforgettable (yet, I'm guessing here, probably apocryphal...) sexual encounter between the current story's two central (and historical) characters: the Athenian patriot and naval commander Themistocles [IMDb] (played by Sullivan Stapleton) and a really pissed-off (for good reason) and sexually intimidating Artemisia [IMDb] (played by Eva Green) who though born Greek was actually a naval commander for the Persians and whose counsel (even by Herodotus) even the Persian "God King" Xerxes [IMDb] (played by Rodrigo Santoro) leading the invasion of Greece respected.  

Yet, beyond the blood (and, honestly, actress Eva Green's rather impressive ... physique) what else does one remember?  WELL, PROBABLY that ARTEMISIA WAS ONE TOUGH WOMAN (and again, even Greek historian Herodotus was apparently impressed by her).

And this then becomes very interesting, because even though in both films, 300 and now Rise of an Empire, the Greeks were portrayed as fighting for Freedom (led by the Spartans in the first film) and Democracy (led by the Athenians in the second), the Persians were portrayed as far more Cosmopolitan and tolerant than either.  


The Greeks, in contrast, fought very bravely and very skillfully (and heck, they even won...).  BUT FOR WHAT?   For the right to remain Xenophobes (fearful and disrespectful of all that which they deemed "foreign") and to keep their women (and even their cripples) down.

Fascinating.  But again, this is a film that's DEFINITELY NOT "for the little ones..."

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