Interactions between god and man have long been a subject for film, from the biblical epics of the 1950s to, well, Percy Jackson And The Olympians. Immortals, the latest movie to plumb the depths of mythology for its plot, takes an engagingly literal view of its source material, even if its script does tend to seem less like a well-made quilt of various myths than a messily-constructed buffet plate. It is a marriage of sumptuously beautiful visuals with a script that is inconsistent at best and dull at worst, and although it features some of the most entertaining fight sequences of any movie to see release this year, you'll have to wade through less palatable material to get to them.
This should really be called Tarsem Singh’s Immortals: it’s a film that overflows with his trademark visual style, consisting largely of tableau-esque, square-on shots (which work really well in 3D, even if some of the color is washed out), well-framed dissolves between objects, a painter-like and elaborate use of color, and environments that range from larger than life to grandly over-the-top. Although Immortals might be the most commercial film that Singh has yet made, it’s still a beautiful one, and that goes a long way towards making it watchable. He makes good use of his inspirations, from Caravaggio and other Baroque artists, in crafting the Hellenic world where his characters fight and die, a world possessed of villages carved into cliffsides, desert oasis structures made of pure white marble, and Titans imprisoned for millenia in golden cages, their hands and legs bound and mouths prevented from opening for eternity. All competent visual directors have a grasp on mise-en-scéne, but Singh seems to have a singular ability to translate the images in his head to the screen, with results that are sometimes literally awesome.
He’s not afraid to bend plot to lend his visuals a boost, either. One of the more visually compelling moments is a simple conversation between young warrior Theseus (Henry Cavill) and Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a seer who knows that Theseus’ fate is wrapped up with that of Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), a war-king who rampages across Greece. Through circumstances which would be far-fetched in a film without the literal intervention of gods, a tidal wave of oil-slicked water has swept aside their enemies, leaving Theseus exhausted, struggling for breath and covered from head to toe in black liquid, while Phaedra, conveniently wiped clean and re-dressed in her crimson robes, comes next to him and tells him what they need to do next, as they both sit in front of square cages that previously held slaves awaiting transport. It’s a moment of odd and striking beauty and color, with little movement, that surrounds people speaking rather dull lines to each other, reinforcing the sometimes awkward sense that Immortals would be equally appreciated as a series of high-resolution wallpapers as it would an actual film.
That balance plays out through the rest of Immortals, with understandably mixed results. The plot, such as it is, sees Hyperion rampaging through the Greek peninsula, intent on finding the fabled Epirus Bow, the only artifact powerful enough to free the Titans, whom he wishes to set against the gods. Why? It’s never clearly explained that I can recall, although apparently he used to be a Titan himself, or possessed the body of a man, or something. The gods, having imprisoned the Titans in Mount Tartarus after a long and bloody war, understandably don’t wish this to occur, but are bound by ancient laws against intervening in the affairs of humans, mostly because that gives Theseus an excuse to do his thing rather than Zeus ending the movie before it starts by coming down and uppercutting Hyperion’s head straight into the troposphere.
Only the barest of character histories are provided here, but the characters are broad enough to generally be understandable, even if their workings in the plot often aren’t. Theseus wishes to avenge his dead mother by killing Hyperion, and that goal aligns with Zeus’s, even if Theseus and the rest of the Greeks no longer believe in the gods, their policy of non-interference having eliminated most solid proof of their existence a millenia ago. It’s those pesky ancient laws that wind up holding this film back somewhat, as it’s the moments when they’re broken that Immortals becomes immensely, wonderfully entertaining, even if those moments are far too spare.
The few scenes of actual god combat in the film put the rest of the movie to shame, in other words: despite the laws, there are a couple of scenes when Zeus and the gang come down to Earth to put the hurt on sundry bad guys, and the results are amazing. These are gods who are well-trained in the art of ass-kicking and aren’t afraid to show off, as the film’s R-rating allows them to do: an early scene features a single god managing to explode a dozen heads with a hammer before the first body even hits the ground. And I mean “explode” literally: there’s no skimping on the gore of these scenes, as heads fly off, bodies are split in two by lengths of chain, arms are removed, and characters sometimes simply disintegrate from the weight of the beatdown that they’re receiving. If you’re into such things, these are singularly entertaining scenes, almost majestically so, but their running time is unfortunately short.
The bulk of the rest of the action mostly consists of Theseus roaming Greece, searching himself for the Epirus Bow and taking on various and sundry members of Hyperion’s forces in the process. Cavill deserves credit for lending Theseus some manner of character, as he’s not given much to do besides look attractive while stabbing people for long stretches of the film, and is a relatively taciturn character besides. Look attractive he does, though, as does the rest of the cast, from the gods, none of whom choose to appear as older than 25 or so, to his sidekick Stavros (Stephen Dorff). The breasts are plump, the abdominal muscles sharp enough to grate cheese on. If you are a fan of physical beauty, Hollywood offers up a surfeit of entertainment choices that will appeal to you, but Singh’s visual style somehow manages to emphasize his casts’ attractiveness beyond even what you might expect.
So, this is a beautiful film, in the most sincere possible application of that term but that will only take it so far, and it’s unfortunate that the plotting and characterization is so thin. Stavros, for example, makes clear his intent to escape Greece and Hyperion’s raging armies, only to change his mind and accompany Theseus after the latter man almost kills him. Phaedra is a virgin oracle until she decides it’s time to hop in the sack with Theseus. The Epirus Bow is found and lost in an almost ridiculously convenient manner. What’s more, the rest of the framework of the plot leaves plenty of more general questions unanswered: why did the Gods not simply kill all of the Titans rather than lock them up? Why did they hide the Epirus Bow rather than simply destroy it, if it was the only thing that could free the Titans?
The distracting plot holes would perhaps be forgivable if the sections of the film between action scenes weren’t generally so slow. Singh rarely fails to give you something interesting to look at, but the script itself is largely humorless and straightforward in a manner that is competent, if little more. Stavros may have been intended as light comic relief, and Dorff gamely plays up his lines as such, but he rarely mines any actual comedy. It’s an immensely dry film, full of a self-importance that it doesn’t quite manage to earn. Rourke, for his part, does manage to create an intriguing villain in Hyperion. He plays the character straight, never giving himself over to evil laughs, and Hyperion’s cruelty often comes across less as something that he loves than as another tool he can use to accomplish his mission. It’s a good performance, even if we don’t get a sense of Rourke pushing any personal boundaries.
The weaknesses of Immortals outnumber its strengths, but don’t perhaps outweigh them, those strengths being as unique and rare as they are. Those weaknesses do make for a largely frustrating viewing experience, though, as if everyone involved simply wanted to make a movie that looked cool while forgetting to put together any kind of connective tissue that would actually keep an audience entertained. Still, it does look cool, at times immensely cool, especially when the brakes are let off and Zeus and company are set free to do their thing. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport,” laments Gloucester in King Lear. One can only hope that the seemingly promised Immortals 2 takes more inspiration from his invocation of hands-on deities.
Trailer 3: Immortals
What can defeat the mighty Hyperion and his army of Titans? Nay, not the gods: only a killer six-pack.
Trailer 2: Immortals
The gods need a hero! And a good accountant. And probably a lawyer. And throw in a personal trainer while you're at it.
Tarsem Singh directs a very pretty looking Greek mythology movie starring Mickey Rourke and your new Superman, Henry Cavill.
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