One of the challenges of sequels is that they often wind up being too little, too late; following up 2006's "300" 8 years after the fact, "300: Rise of an Empire" actually offers too much, too late. Within the first minutes of the film, as Leana Headey's Queen Gorgo gives exposition in a clipped, Olivier-esque voice, we get to see beheadings, boobs and bloodspurts; while Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) surveys the fallen of Thermopylae from astride his steed, we cut for the sight of a horse hoof plunging through a dead human being's face.. We don't get to know any of the people involved in these brutalities and excesses; they're just presented as part of the film's constant, designed-to-overwhelm imagery.
But pummeling presentation will only go so far; eventually, director Noam Murro has to tell us a story, as taken from Frank Miller's sequel to the original "300" graphic novel, "Xerxes." The script (credited to Zack Snyder, director of the first "300" and Kurt Johnstad) is the story of what happened while the Spartans were at Thermopylae. With the Persian army delayed by the 300 Spartans, Athenian general Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton, given so little to do it hurts) leads a rag-tag army of veterans and farmhands and a small fleet of ships against the arriving Persian navy, whose fleet spreads from here to the horizon under the baleful command of Artemesia (Eva Green), whose past of tragedy and abuse in Greece has made her a vengeful terror. (Many critics are praising Green's work here as the film's standout, but being the best slice of ham on a plate full of bloodied raw meat and rot is a matter of contrast, not quality.)
And there's nothing wrong with the story here; it's inspired epic poems and great novels, other films and enduring legends. The problem is style, or rather Miller's style; "300" and "Xerxes" were originally graphic novels, which is what you call "comic books" when you know you should be lightly embarrassed by them. Comics are a static medium; the best of them create still images whose power, fluidity and impact suggest and imply movement and action. Adapting that illusion to film is tricky, and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films are a great example of how this can happen well. But "300:Rise of an Empire," like "300," simply plays out like a series of violent oil paintings: still and lifeless, over-created and under-thought. Every time a Greek slashes a Persian with a sword, or vice-versa, there's a 3D blood-spurt that then, in slow-mo or stopped for a moment, resembles nothing less than if you were making the punctuation marks for a new font made entirely out of pudding.
And it's not that this alone is awful boring (although it is); it's also that Murro literally has no idea of when to turn this stuff -- notably the slowing-down, stopping, and then re-accelerating actions, better known as "Speed-ramping," off. When Themistokles goes to parlay with Artemesia and the negotiations turn into something like a seduction, Murro even speed-ramps one of their kisses, as if there was a concern that abandoning the one style trick the film knows how to do for even a few moments would frighten the audience. When Themistokles is talking strategy with his fellow soldiers, or any other time there's more talking than fighting, CGI 3D dust motes or ash particles float in the air, presumably so the audience for this film won't be confused by the absence of blood and body parts floating in the air and become concerned their 3D glasses stopped working.
But the empty violence and pointless style are only the biggest problems. Much like the Clive Owen-led "King Arthur," and the first "300," "300: Rise of an Empire" shows us Greeks who say mysticism dying but then consult oracles; who say they are working on a glorious idea called "democracy" even though Athenian women couldn't vote and Athens had slaves. The need to retrofit modern morals onto ancient civilizations for lazy drama is bad enough, but when it's done to stack the deck so we can cheer as one side slaughters the other and boo when the dark-skinned foreign invaders gain any advantage is both bad storytelling and a shallow reading of the truths of the past; "300: Rise of an Empire" is going to be a thrilling historical epic for people who don't really know what those words actually mean. Long on crimson spurts of blood but low on character, larded with production value but bereft of any other kind of it, "300: Rise of an Empire' is a 3D joke. It's a not-especially-good FX reel masquerading as a movie, a story of brutality and empty violence that cloaks itself in glory and meaning. The story of the Spartans at Thermopylae is a tale of blood, battle and bravery that will, of course, never be forgotten; this film, like its predecessor, is a tale of banality, blood and more blood that is never anything but forgettable.