Movie Review: Immortals (2011)
Cast: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Dorff, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans ~ Writers: Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides ~ Director: Tarsem Singh
Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)
The Low-Down: A ridiculously stylised and deeply demented flipside to last year’s Clash of the Titans, Immortals is a barmy mix of mythology, action and borderline insane costume design that packs in some unexpected pleasures for those willing to go along with such a seriously kooky approach.
What’s it About?: Thousands of years ago in ancient Greece, a conflict took place between two warring groups of immortal beings. The defeated, named the Titans, were imprisoned beneath Mount Tartarus, while the victors, naming themselves ‘Gods’, now rule over the world but are forbidden to interfere in the fate of mankind. However, the Heraclian king Hyperion (Rourke) is on a vengeful quest to bring down the Gods, and the only man able to stop him may be humble peasant Theseus (Cavill)…
The Story: (A brief note – Immortals was shot in native 3-D, but as I’ve recently been having major problems watching 3-D movies (and prefer not to get headaches and eye-strain at the cinema), the 2-D version is the one under review.)
For someone who’s only notched up three directorial credits so far, Tarsem Singh is ending up as a seriously divisive filmmaker. Right from his movie debut, the 2000 serial killer thriller The Cell, he’s showcased a deliberately sumptuous, lush and in-your-face approach to visuals, costume design and filmmaking technique that there’s absolutely no middle ground on – you either get swept along by his almost theatrical approach to visualising fantastic sequences on film, or you find his whole ethos deeply annoying and ludicrous in the extreme. Now, eleven years later (and with his only other movie inbetween being the quirkily weird and beautiful low-budget drama The Fall, which Singh mostly self-financed with his lucrative work in the commercials sector), he’s made a return to big budget filmmaking, and there’s absolutely no sign of him backing away from his idiosyncratic visual stylings – in fact, Immortals takes the lush insanity of the fantasy sequences in The Cell and The Fall and pushes it even further than before.
The result is a mythological actioner that basically functions as a style-over-substance fever dream, a lush and barmy journey into a world where normal rules of cinematic reality don’t apply. Anyone going into Immortals expecting a 300-style tale of throbbing manliness is largely going to be disappointed – while Henry Cavill looks admirably heroic with his shirt off and there are a selection of very well-realised traditional combat sequences, the limb-lopping, bone-crunching violence is more influenced by Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy than Snyder’s testosterone-soaked opus. Added to which, with its approach to mythology, Immortals frequently plays like a creature-free, gory version of a 1960s Ray Harryhausen adventure, tackling its story of gods and men with an admirably po-faced level of seriousness. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a fantasy actioner that’s been this deliberately portentious and stony-faced since John Milius’s Nietzche-influenced take on Conan the Barbarian, and the melange of accents and acting styles, along with the truly bizarre approach to costumes and visuals (with the strongest visual reference being 16th Century painter Caravaggio), all gives the film a wonderfully rich and exotic sense of mythic oddness.
This bizarre blend also includes the approach to the story, and while Singh has an amazing eye for visuals, with Immortals embracing even more than 300 the idea of making greenscreen movies deliberately artificial, the story doesn’t always hang together. Weirdly enough, at various points the movie is both a remix of Greek myth and a ‘realistic interpretation’ – we get intertitles informing us of specific dates and locations, and Theseus’s showdown with the bull-helmeted ‘Beast’ soldier is obviously meant to be the beginning of the legend of the Minotaur, and yet the film also plays the mythology as completely real. This is absolutely a film that’s at least attempting to tackle what it means when Gods mess about with human lives, but it’s only fitfully successful in doing this, while also showing a weird habit of building up strong conflicts only to either abandon or forget about them.
Lysander (Joseph Morgan), the traitorous soldier who sells out Theseus’s village (and is also the victim of one of the more memorable and eye-watering moments of baroque violence) is built up throughout as a relatively important character, only to be abruptly dispatched with little ceremony in the climax, while oracle Phaedra (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) is given a potentially major problem – she’ll lose her powers of prophecy if she loses her virginity – but then hops into bed with Theseus halfway through the story and spends the rest of the film as window dressing. The story of Theseus really boils down to a fairly predictable hero’s journey, as he’s maneuvered into place by fate, destiny and the actions of the Gods, and the film never quite comes to grips with one of the biggest features and problems of Greek myths – keeping dramatic tension going when, at any moment, powerful deities can turn up and deliver stunningly realised ultraviolence at the drop of a hat.
Of course, in a film that features more than its fair share of exotic, eccentric and downright insane costume choices (particularly Hyperion’s natty giant lobster-claw hat), the weirdest and probably most divisive choices are kept for the Gods themselves. Presented as fey, ludicrously beautiful fashion models swanning around Mount Olympus in massive gold cloaks and headgear that boggles the mind (especially Apollo and his spiked-mohican helmet), they’re a gigantic distance from the usual portrayal of Greek gods – and yet, it’s almost as if they’re a deliberate litmus test, that Singh is pushing his love of operatic theatricality as far as it will go and challenging the audience to keep up, making the Gods seem exotic, weird and oddly inhuman in a way that doesn’t involve using CG (a device he only really uses to transform landscapes and create insanely over-the-top violence). It’s a stylistic choice that manages to be utterly ridiculous and yet weirdly effective and powerful at the same time, especially in the final battle, where the Gods are finally pitched against the bestial, dog-like Titans, and suddenly those perfect bodies are being subjected to all kinds of blood-soaked gory violence.
Immortals isn’t a film to look to for a traditional, expected version of Greek mythology, and what it tries to say is somewhat muddled by Singh’s sheer determination to make everything subservient to the wonderfully weird visual atmosphere he’s building. The performances vary wildly, with Rourke and Cavill feeling like they’re in different films, although Cavil does acquit himself well – aside from a woeful rousing pre-battle speech – and shows enough screen presence to make him an intriguing choice for the upcoming new Superman film. Rourke’s natural sense of mumbling menace is occasionally effective, although it’s hard not to think Hyperion would have been an even more effective villain with half as many scenes, and his climactic fight with Theseus seems to go on for at least five minutes too long before his absurdly protracted death.
But ultimately, this isn’t an actor’s film – it’s a fantasy romp and a visual feast that’s so deliberately off-the-wall that for some, the emphasis on surreally theatrical eye candy is either going to be too much or boring in the extreme. Once again, there’s no middle ground on Singh’s sword-and-sandals epic, and yet while 300 is undoubtedly more focussed and direct, Immortals is weirder, more textured, less grotesquely right-wing, and ultimately a hell of a lot more interesting. Tarsem Singh may have a genuinely great film in him somewhere (although, from the looks of the recently released trailer, it certainly isn’t his next project, the dreadful-looking fairy tale comedy Mirror, Mirror), or he may be destined to remain a filmmaker who dazzles the eyes while never quite mastering the art of balancing the style with substance. However, for the moment, he’s made a fantasy action adventure that’s nuttier and more visually bizarre than anything else on the market, and with most Hollywood blockbusters going out of their way to be as bland and homogenous as possible, that’s at least something to be applauded.
The Verdict: The best example of visual style balancing out muddy storytelling since Tron: Legacy, Immortals is undoubtedly a brutal, eccentric and frequently ridiculous movie – and yet, there’s something about its single-minded determination to deliver visual weirdness that’s ultimately quite beguilling. A mess, but a visually stunning and weirdly compelling mess all the same.