300: Rise of a Empire isn't even a sequel to 300 — it's set in a parallel timeline. That's just how intellectually challenging this film is. The scathing, multi-layered political commentary begins with the movie's very first scenes: As Queen Gorgo describes the fall of Athens in voiceover, a soldier grabs a woman and jiggles her bare breasts in front of the camera. Producer/writer Zack Snyder has recreated the depth of King Lear, only elevated to the sophisticated level of a YouTube comment thread.
This movie demands that we hold a lot of stories in our minds as we relive the events of 300, so it's a great choice to include so many clips and images from the previous film. Otherwise we might get lost in the intricately interwoven tales of Artemesia, the Greek sex slave who grew up to be a great Persian warlord; the god-king Xerxes, who wants nothing more than to please his father with his divine depilation plan; and Themistokles, the man who leads the artists and farmers of Athens against the evil military threat from magical Persians who fight with oil tankers. The drama of these characters' ambivalent relationships unfolds as Queen Gorgo tries to decide whether the Spartans should join with Athens.
As blood squirts in slow-motion streaks across the screen, and men die with swords smashed into their brains, we're asked to ponder the value of the nation-state in the face of seemingly stateless actors like Xerxes and Artemesia. What, after all, does Artemesia represent? What is this "Persia"? Obviously Snyder wants us to consider the plight of today's Middle East, and its tragic clash with the freedom and democracy of the United States.
You'll relish his nuanced representation of the Persians, who are thoroughly humanized when they put on their bondage outfits and golden chains. Xerxes' transformation into the God-king, with his glowing, hairless skin and golden briefs, is a positively harrowing and emotionally gripping journey. We truly understand his motivations when he walks into that hermit's cave and dives into the enchanted pool, and are given a new appreciation both of Iranian cultural history and what's at stake in today's global conflicts.
The clash between Western democracy and Middle Eastern statelessness reaches its climax in the scenes between Artemisia and Themistokles, which are rife with tension and convey the complexity of battlefield politics better than movies like Argo and Hurt Locker ever could. When Artemesia jumps on top of Themistokles and has sex with him on top of a military map, we see how passions can overwhelm tactics. And during their final sword fight, Artemesia's brilliant line — "You fight harder than you fuck!" — sums up these characters' commitments to warring ideologies that threaten to sunder the ancient world.
Perhaps the greatest moment in the film, though, comes during the battle that the Athenians nearly lose to Artemesia's massive fleet of ships. Dressed in black fringe worthy of a goth Stevie Nicks, Artemesia commands a tanker full of oil to dump its payload into the ocean. Then, as the Greeks try to figure out how to react, men with flammable backpacks swim secretly toward the spreading black stain on the ocean. The backpack detail is one of those moments where you see how much Snyder respects his audience to figure out the suicide bomber connection for themselves — he could just as easily have put them in suicide bomb vests, but he lets us figure this reference out for ourselves, using historically accurate details.
When the Greek fleet is destroyed by the suicide bombers, Themistokles is hit and sinks deep underwater. Arrows and dead men and ship parts float past his head, in the gooey slow motion style that elevates the 300 franchise from mere war porn to aesthetically rich political statement. At that moment, Themistokles sees huge sea monsters rising up from the depths, eating men out of the water. The metaphorical implications are incredible. These creatures snarf up men the same way Artemesia tried to consume him with her anti-democratic sexuality. And their immense size suggests the power of Persia, rising up against the perfect democracy of Athens, where slaves treated really well and women who don't want to be chattel have the choice to become slaves or whores if they don't like patriarchy.
We're on the edges of our seats. Can the good white men of Athens withstand the authoritarian forces of women and brown people from Persia? But then Themistokles awakens: the sea monsters were all a dream. And he still has a war to fight. Snyder will never allow you to forget the important messages in this film. Just in case you do forget, though, he's sure to include several voiceovers from Queen Gorgo, some of which repeat at least two times. Luckily the words in those speeches are so magnificently well-chosen that you'll be glad to hear them again. I could have listened to Queen Gorgo telling Themostokles to stop "stroking your cock" all day.
If you are looking for a shallow, rapey movie that undercuts its amazing battle scenes with boring monologues, then I'm afraid you're out of luck when it comes to 300: Rise of an Empire. This movie is going to be remembered for centuries, the same way Shakespeare's plays have been, for its complex treatment of political enmity in a changing world. With its sympathetic, well-rounded characters and thoughtful allegorical references to current events, 300: Rise of an Empire is probably Snyder's greatest triumph. That's right — it's even better than Sucker Punch.