Director Tarsem Singh has only made two movies but is widely regarded as one of the finest visual artists working in the film medium. He’s made tons of commercials, which is apt because his first feature, 2000’s The Cell, felt like the world’s longest perfume ad. While amazing in its design, the movie was incredibly stupid. I haven’t seen his other feature, the more personal work The Fall, a movie that nobody wanted to make. It’s probably because they regrettably saw The Cell. Now the guy seems downright prolific, with a Greek mythology action movie in release and next year an update on the Snow White fairytale, the first shot in the Great Snow White Duel of 2012 (Kristen Stewart stars in the other, next summer’s Snow White and the Huntsman).
In 1200 B.C., King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is marching an army across Greece, laying waste to city after city. He’s looking for the mythical Epirus Bow, believed to be the only weapon capable of unleashing the titans, who were imprisoned after a war with the Olympian gods. Mankind’s only hope is Theseus (Henry Cavil), a strapping young lad born into low class. His real father is Zeus (Luke Evans) who keeps tabs on his spry son by posing as a wise old man (John Hurt). Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is a virgin oracle, a priestess who has been granted prophetic visions. Theseus rescues her and other prisoners of Hyperion. Together, they must find the bow and convince their countrymen to fight against the overwhelming forces of Hyperion. In the meantime, Zeus has sworn death to any god who interferes in the affairs of man and helps Theseus on his important quest.
One word I feel accurately that sums up the experience of watching Immortals is… “viscera.” This movie is obsessed with filming the destruction of human bodies in the most gloriously beautiful ways possible. The violence and gore are given an intensely operatic boost. One moment involves a god zips around the slow-moving mortals, smashing one head after another with his humongous war hammer. The scene plays out at a slower speed, allowing the explosions of glistening blood and skull to fill the screen, each a mesmerizing fireworks display of human goo. The visuals are often a balletic, phantasmagorical, Grand Guignol display of human carnage. When you watch this at home, you may need a squeegee to clean your TV. It’s mesmerizing to watch, getting lost in the painstaking yet sumptuous visuals, even when it’s buckets of spaltterific gore. There’s one scene involving a sledgehammer that’s guaranteed to make every male in the theater uncomfortably cross his legs. The final image is also memorably striking – the sky filled with thousands of battling titans and Olympians, suspended high in the air and hacking and slashing away (Grecian weather report: 50 percent chance of blood showers. Bring an umbrella).
Tarsem never skimps out when it comes to the look of his movies. Immortals looks like a living Renaissance painting; the director of photography should be credited to Caravaggio. Unlike Tarsem’s earlier films, this movie does not take place within the realm of imagination, but that doesn’t hamper the movie’s aesthetics. Taking a cue from the golden-hued Greek/Roman epics of recent year, notably Zack Snyder’s 300, the film exists in a heightened reality. We’re dealing with mythology after all (more on the specifics of that later). The iconic imagery of Greek mythology is all there, stunningly realized in lavish CGI and a production design that is frequently jaw dropping. The action sequences are resolutely exciting, with special mention for the climactic gods vs. titans battle. The gods, decked out in spiffy gold armor and capes, bounce off the walls aided by Matrix-style moves and slice and dice their wicked immortal brethren in creatively gruesome ways. It’s a thrilling sequence that almost makes you forget the movie’s catalogue of sins.
The movie plays fairly fast and loose with the Greek lore. The Theseus of legend was mainly known for slaying the ferocious Minotaur, the guardian of a great labyrinth. His father was Poseidon, not Zeus. Some versions even have Phaedra falling in love with Theseus’ son from his first wife (Theseus was a busy boy, taking after his father). These details, and more, may seem inconsequential but if they’re going to be so loose in the adaptation, why even bother keeping the name Theseus? Immortals does have an interesting albeit brief bit where the Minotaur is seen as a human warrior wearing a bull mask made of barbed wire. Short of the gods and titans, there isn’t any depiction of the supernatural occurring on Earth. The monsters and mythic creatures are absent, leaving some Greeks to question the validity of the gods. The movie takes an unexpected twist early by declaring, in a self-serious tone, that immortals can… die. It seems that the gods just discovered one day that they could kill each other. I would have liked to be there for that discovery (“Yeah, go ahead and lick that electrical socket.”). The film lays out that the titans and the gods were one in the same, it’s just that the winners of the battle of the heaven called the losers “titans.” If they’re the same then why do the titans act like feral monkey creatures and look like ashen, Hindi gods (no disrespect, one billion Hindus)? Have they simply gone wild after being locked away in such a unique prison? When they fight, the titans move at the speed of mortals, not gods. I also believe the titans were supposed to be considerably larger.
But as enchanting as the visuals are, there are still the other senses that are criminally malnourished. The screenplay by brothers Charlie and Vlas Parlapanides is about as bare-bones as you can get. It’s your basic hero’s quest, trusting young stud Theseus with finding a magic item and stopping a bad man. If that sounds plainly generic then congratulations, you’ve seen more than one movie with men in togas (Animal House does not count). Mysterious parentage? Check. Close relative that dies early to spur vengeance motivation? Check. Noble sacrifices by members of his team? Check. Eventual intervention of the gods? Check. What I just described could also have been the plot for 2010’s joyless Clash of the Titans remake. What’s up with Zeus and these noncommittal gods? He refuses to get directly involved in the affairs of man, but if King Hyperion releases the titans (should have gone the long route and unleashed the Kraken) then the Olympians are jeopardized. It seems like they have an interest in giving Theseus a mighty assist. The magic item, a bow that creates unlimited arrows when plucked back, is pretty much a forgotten relic. It gets used, I kid you not, exactly three times in the entire movie. All of this fuss over a super weapon that the characters can’t be bothered to utilize. They’d rather fight it out with a traditional bronze sword. What exactly does it mean to be immortal when even the gods can die? King Hyperion says he’ll be immortal by essentially raping a nation of women, keeping his bloodline alive for centuries (the Genghis Kahn defense, your honor). But if having kids is being immortal, I think we’re setting the bar pretty low.
The Phaedra character is so underwritten that she almost comes across as a parody of the role of women in these guy-heavy action spectacles. As portrayed, Phaedra is the definition of convenience. She doles out a prophetic vision to save the day, provides some grade-A eye candy thanks to the splendor of Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), and even casually slips into Theseus’ bed for a deflowering (sorry guys, it’s clearly a body double). She will be haunted by visions of the future until the moment she loses her virginity. Let’s stop and think about this. Having one member of your team be able to SEE INTO THE FUTURE seems like a decisive tactical advantage. I understand the lure of a naked and willing Pinto, but Theseus needed to think beyond the needs of his little Greek. In an abrupt and off-putting turn, Phaedra is never really dealt with in any capacity after this seismic bout of lovemaking, nor do she or Theseus talk about what has transpired. She just provided some casual sex while the hero was recuperating and then checked out. Her major prophetic vision of Theseus and Hyperion joining sides is also just forgotten, turning out to be a letdown.
The actors were basically hired for their visual appeal, and to that end they succeed. Cavill (TV’s The Tudors), tapped to wear Superman’s cape in 2013 by Zack Snyder, is suitably buff and hunky. His performance is rather flat, no matter how many times he makes his eyes go big with anger. In contrast, Rourke (Iron Man 2) will chew whatever scenery he can find. His flamboyantly costumed villain at one point seems to wear a lobster claw on his head. He wants to punish the gods because they refused to intervene when Hyperion’s wife and child were slaughtered. When the gods do intervene to save Theseus, that’s when the character should go off the rails. Rourke just plays it in the same sleepy menace. Pinto gets to stare off into the distance regularly and pray. It’d be a stretch to say that the material challenges any of these actors.
Immortals is a testosterone-soaked action movie that feels like it minored in Art History. The production design, CGI, and practical special effects, all attuned to the extraordinary vision of Tarsem, makes for a brilliant looking movie with several sequences of memorable carnage. But we entered the age of “talkies” since 1927, and Immortals suffers when it concerns dialogue, story, characterization, and acting. The movie is a pretty loose adaptation of Greek mythology, falling back on a rote hero’s quest and leaving plenty of narrative dead spaces for the visuals to fill in the interest. Even a movie as visually resplendent as Immortals can only go as far as its story will allow. In this case, Immortals might just be the best-looking piece of borderline mediocrity you’ll ever see in your life.
Nate’s Grade: C+