Immortals is visually extravagant – a triumph of special effects, costume design, and art direction. This is to be expected from Tarsem, who belongs on the same shelf as Tim Burton as one of the most unique visually inclined directors alive. While not the film’s greatest achievement, he should be commended for shooting it in 3D and successfully translating the process into a theater format. For the first time in what seems like ages, here is an immersive experience that isn’t dim or muddy; I could clearly see what was going on, even during the dark scenes. I like that I don’t have to give you my usual advice of saving your money and seeing it in traditional 2D. This time around, you can base your decision on what dimension you prefer, not on sparing yourself from a barely visible projection.
But I’m making this sound better than it actually is. The plot is essentially B-movie material – Greek mythology crossed with the comic-book action of an Italian sword-and-sandal epic. This is somewhat disappointing given Tarsem’s previous film, The Fall. Apart from being a sumptuous visual feast, it was also a heartfelt, beautifully structured story within a story. It was the work of a free filmmaker, bounded only by the limits of his imagination. Here, he brings his vision to a serviceable but routine screenplay of the same league as Clash of the Titans and Conan the Barbarian (in both cases, I’m referring to the remakes). There will inevitably be comparisons to 300, although if you actually see this film, you’ll quickly realize that the two are in fact quite different.
Immortals will probably never rank among Tarsem’s best works, but for what it is, I thought it was entertaining. The story is as follows: King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) has declared war on humanity and the Olympic gods following the death of his family. He seeks a legendary magic bow, which can produce arrows out of this air when the string is plucked. This weapon will allow him to free the Titans, who for eons have been imprisoned deep within a mountain. Rather than follow the current trend of making them beasts of colossal proportions, they are instead of normal human size, looking like nomads caked with mud. Their prison is actually kind of interesting; they’re neatly lined up within a cramped square cell, and their teeth are clamped on rods passing through the walls. The immediate image that comes to mind is a foozball table.
Anyway, the Olympians, led by Zeus (Luke Evans), are by law forbidden from siding with mortals during times of war. It seems, however, that they’re not forbidden from preparing mortals for battle well ahead of schedule (I admit, the details are a little sketchy). Here enters Theseus (Henry Cavill), the bastard son of a peasant woman. Although he doesn’t believe in the gods, he has been expertly mentored by an old man who isn’t given a name, except for Old Man (John Hurt). Exactly who he is, I leave for you to discover. What I can say is that he delivers the expected wise-elder dialogue – observant, cryptic, and just a touch humorous. A stock character, to be sure. My favorite line of his doubles as the film’s opening title card: “All men are immortal, but righteous men are immortal and divine.”
Into Theseus’ life enters Phaedra, a virgin oracle priestess (Freida Pinto), and a cynical, wisecracking thief named Stavros (Stephen Dorff). Their quest to find the magical bow before Hyperion is surprisingly violent; in the course of this movie, we will see numerous battle sequences, all involving stabbings, beheadings, and impalements. Some scenes achieve an unexplainable perverse beauty through the use of editing, special effects, and choreography. This would definitely include when one of the Olympians decapitates his way through a blockade of Hyperion’s men; the bodies fall in slow motion, and the blood sprays dramatically. Other scenes are a bit too heavy handed. One involves torture victims roasting to death inside an iron bull sitting atop an open flame. Another involves Hyperion taking a sledgehammer to a man’s nether regions.
I mentioned the battle sequences. Most of them are typical action fare – swords clanging, spears flying, wounds opening, people dying. It isn’t until the obligatory final battle that we get the male posturing that was once rousing but is now funny. Just before the fight, Theseus stands on a ledge and shouts to a battalion of men, all ironclad, all raring to go. Tarsem adds interest to the scene by having the men rhythmically pound their swords on their shields. Cavill delivers a line. Bang! Another line. Bang! Line. Bang! Line. Bang! It lasts no more than a minute or two, and yet it achieves an almost musical quality. Can you blame me for laughing at this? Story wise, I have a sneaking suspicion Immortals was intended to be taken with a grain of salt. But in terms of the work that went into the film’s look, it’s impossible to not take that seriously.
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