This is a sword-and-sandal epic done Wagnerian style, with battle scenes at sea interspersed with preposterously solemn dialogue.
Greek General Themistocles (played with an Aussie accent by Sullivan Stapleton) gets the action rolling in earnest by shooting the arrow that kills the Persian king Darius (Igal Naor). His heroic but rash action unleashes “a tidal wave of heroes’ blood” as the Greeks, Persians and Spartans spend much of the rest of the movie slaughtering each other.
Action scenes are shot in slow-motion with plenty of martial drumming on the soundtrack. One of the director Noam Murro’s favourite 3D gambits is to show blood splattering toward the camera as if it is about to drench us.
The plotting is crude. The Greeks, though hugely outnumbered, are trying to withstand the vengeful Persian hordes in order to sustain an “Athenian experiment called democracy”. Early on, Darius’ son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) has at least a “streak of decency” about him but then he is transformed into an evil “God King” with superhuman powers.
For reasons never fully explained, Xerxes, who is huge and bedecked in gold amulets and war paint, spends most of the movie preening himself on the sidelines as the Persian fleet takes on the Greeks in a series of very bloody, very repetitive sea battles under grey and stormy skies. (Presumably, Xerxes will feature more prominently in the next sequel.)
Eva Green enjoys herself as the Gothic villainess Artemisia, a formidable, Greek-born warrior queen who detests the country of her birth.
She is the Cleopatra to Sullivan Stapleton’s Antony. In one strange scene, although they are sworn enemies, they make love violently on the eve of battles. (She quickly decides, as she puts it with typical decorum, that he “fights better than he f**ks”.) The battles are choreographed with plenty of flair and the film serves up Cecil B DeMille-style spectacle in abundance.
As storytelling, though, Rise of an Empire falls very flat.