‘300: Rise of an Empire’: Blood, gore made pretty

Movie: 300: Rise of an Empire; Director: Noam Murro; Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures; Rating: R; My finding: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.

If you like your blood and gore in beautifully realized digital bulk, then a trip to “300: Rise of an Empire,” the “sequel” to 2007’s “300,” should definitely be in the your list of things to do this weekend. Outside of super fans of gore and simmered-down mythological sagas, though, this one can be missed.

The reason I put quotes around the word sequel is because the film takes place largely concurrently with what happened in the original film. In fact, even though we don’t see it happen, the famous fight of the 300 Spartan warriors defending their home from an overwhelming onslaught of Persian conquerors is just one of many battles featured in this new film, albeit seen as a turning point toward a unified Greek front.

The change here, though, is that this new film takes place primarily on the naval front rather than on land. That is, after the first battle which founds our hero, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton).

Themistokles realizes that the Persian forces led by King Darius (Igal Naor) will be too great and decides to lead his Athenian fighters to the ocean shore to greet the seasick and tired Persians just as they’re getting off their ships. It’s a bit like guerrilla warfare, except they still just kind of rush in a big crowd of swords and horses and various metals. It’s brutish. Arms and legs go flying and at least one Persian fighter gets his face smashed flat by the hoof of a flailing, terrified horse.

But what makes Themistokles the hero, full general and charismatic politician he becomes is that he picks up a bow and puts an arrow through the heart of King Darius, who watches the fighting from a warship offshore. It is also here where we learn that he instantly sees that he should have first struck an arrow through the heart of Darius’ son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) first.

The entire film feels like a product of post-production, computer-based fine-tuning, just as the original film had felt. Even lowly scenes of a character or two simply talking has digital dust particles or embers floating through the air with the contrast in the video image bumped to let the oils and sweat glisten more unrealistically on their bodies. For some reason, though, the wunderkinds who are capable of making live video feel like an oil painting decided not to spruce up the look of hate, anger, vengeance and ambition in the eyes of young Xerxes. It’s an odd choice, given that Themistokles saw by the look of his eyes that Xerxes was the true evil conqueror.

It will take time, though, for Xerxes to become that way.

At the deathbed of King Darius, we meet Artemisia (Eva Green), who wears all black – from her hair to her S&M-style wardrobes, to the eyeliner and sweat-smudged eyeshadow. That ambition and hatred that we came to know in Xerxes from the first movie already glows deep in her and she paints a cold wickedness as she rips the arrow from Darius’ heart to end his pain. She is in stark contrast to the early Xerxes who resembles a young Cat Stevens more than he does a God King.

He whimpers and moans and is obviously no ruler or war hero. For seven days, we hear in a Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) voiceover, much like an omniscient lower-brow Homeric god, Xerxes mourns the loss of his father. But Artemisia convinces him that revenge is key to settle this setback and he must become something great.

With very little warning we are thrust into the caverns at the head of Hades, we presume – though it feels much more like Dante’s Divine Comedy – where the lowly Xerxes dips his body through gold-glowing waters to his humanity and soul to the underworld. He emerges as a bronzed goth-nightclubber incarnation of a Persian God King. Immediately, his rule is shown to have no sympathy or patience with the ways of the past, and the only thing that matters now is war.

Now the fun part of the movie is over and we are treated to a B.C.-version of the game Battlefield. You see, Artemisia is Admiral of all of Persia’s navy, and it’s quite a spectacular navy at that. Nothing in her armada seems less than an early warship and they travel all the way up to hellish cities of the sea that produce nothing but fire and bad dreams.

The naval battles are actually quite fun to watch but then they are interrupted by the end of the day where great, manly speeches of encouragement are shouted out to great, manly fighters with hardly any clothing on. The problem is that Sullivan Stapleton as Themistokles hardly has the presence Gerard Butler had as King Leonidas in the original film. It is harder to stir within people the idea of democracy and freedom if the only part of that these farmhands think they have left is death at sea.

Democracy and freedom are glorious things, and that lifestyle is certainly the better alternative to life as a Persian slave – or death – but the Athenian lifestyle is an easy one of relative decadence. With the 300 warriors of Sparta they had been training for battle their entire lives and the entire point of their existence was the glory of death in war. Making men out of boys is something that inspires people to grow in that culture. Convincing people that the thousands of deaths that preceded their own are totally worth some promise in the future, even though everyone just wanted to make some contract with Persia, instead, isn’t nearly as thrilling.

What was new in 2006 and 2007 feels worn thin and now, in 2014, a lack of a serious plot over the course of nearly two hours can’t as easily be polished up by pretty computer effects. At least the homoeroticism that people joked about in “300” has been somewhat balanced by the nearly pornographic presence of Artemisia who seems to be literally sexually rejuvenated by death and destruction and appears fully topless for at least a minute of runtime.

Blood, gore, sex and distracting computer generated imagery are all things filmmakers use as a dressing to make something less appealing or interesting, like the formulaic base of this film, go down a little easier.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)