Sometimes it’s all about expectations.
The Immortals doesn’t even require you to be in a forgiving mood: it requires you to go into the movie with your eyes open. This is a film which follows in the wake of revisionist swords and sandals flicks like Snyder’s glossy adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. It borrows familiar elements from classics like Conan the Barbarian and Clash of the Titans; plays fast-and-loose with eons-old Greek Myths; and tests future Superman-star Henry Cavill’s action-chops opposite a marvellously villainous Mickey Rourke channelling Brando’s Kurtz from Apocalypse Now in a Genghis Khan-like role. All of this rolled up in a visually opulent package directed by Tarsem Singh, bringing his usual crew on-board, including the late, acclaimed Costume Designer Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), and the same Production and Set Designers he worked with on The Cell.
What did you expect from all of this? Shakespeare?!
The story re-envisions – or even jettisons – almost everything you may already know about Greek Gods; the decade-long struggle between the Olympians and the Titans; and the Odyssey-like plight of the human son-of-the-Gods, Theseus, the founding hero of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur. What we have instead is Tarsem Singh’s myth-lite take on the whole situation as scripted by newcomer writer-brothers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides.
They introduce us to a world where the Great War of the Heavens has long ended; the victors naming themselves Gods, and the vanquished being named Titans and imprisoned for eternity in the depths of Mount Tartarus. In 1228 BC, the vengeful warlord King Hyperion is on a mission to rape his way through the land and achieve immortality through the dissemination of his seed. Seeking payback for the Gods allowing his family to die a slow death from disease, he plans to spite the Gods by unleashing the imprisoned Titans, but, to do so, he requires the powerful Epirus Bow, a deadly weapon which was lost during the Great War.
Meanwhile Theseus, the bastard son of the Gods, lives in a local village; trained by an old man who may or may not be the mortal incarnation of Zeus. When Hyperion lays waste to his village and takes Theseus captive, he is spotted by Phaedra, an oracle who has been having premonitions of the Titans being unleashed, and who sees him as playing an integral role in both the search for the Epirus Bow and the defeat of Hyperion. Will he be able to rise to the challenge?
The world would honestly be better off if more films were influenced by Tarsem Singh. He’s not a great filmmaker – indeed it’s difficult to regard him as even a good one, with just two feature films and a bunch of music videos and commercials in his back catalogue – but he is a wonderfully imaginative visionary. His artistic inclination has the same WTF reaction that you would expect from the (early) works of David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, Videodrome, Scanners, Existenz), but, where Cronenberg’s surrealism was borne out in an almost organic form – practical effects allowing for gloopy bone-fused weapons to be generated from character’s bodies – Singh’s eye is for the more fantastical.
With a dreamlike - or perhaps, more accurately, nightmarish - quality attached to his work, he paints lavish, visually opulent worlds which carry an impossibly symmetry in their set design, using vivid, almost garish colour design to create a setting that it almost super-real. Indeed where Cronenberg’s inclinations lend themselves towards practical effects - and look more dodgy when handled using CG - Singh’s ideas seamlessly blend lavish, real-life sets with CG imagery (at once a dead soldier's helmet in a pool of blood with transform into a boat in the Ocean). Like Avatar, he does not wish to paint a picture founded in reality, he wishes to take you to another world which does not even bear an approximation to this one.
Of course it’s impossible to divorce the work of Singh himself from the many professionals who have collaborated with him to produce this end result. He has long-time assistants on Set Design, Production Design and Costume Design, and their work is evident in every frame: from the cube-like cage which holds the Titans, who are pinned by metal bars between their teeth, to the Minotaur battle set against a backdrop which feels clearly informed by the designs of Escher (both of which can been seen in the enlargeable screenshots attached to the review).
Aside from the elaborate sets – which have obviously been considerably augmented by CG (or, in many cases, are entirely made up of CG effects) – the visual palette is further enhanced by the Costume Designer, the late Eiko Ishioka. The name may not immediately ring a bell, but think back to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and imagine the red armour that Oldman sported during the battle sequence (the one which looked like it was inspired by the human form, only without skin). Imagine the crazed helmet Oldman wore. Now think back to The Cell, and recall a similar outfit for Jennifer Lopez? That’s all Ishioka. If you can’t for some reason picture any of what I’m reminding you of, then just take a look at the designs on the film pictures for this review, whether in the poster or the actual screenshots (for example Mickey Rourke’s helmet or the Olympian outfits). She’s the woman behind all these intricately-detailed, often fetishistic outfits of Grace Jones. In fact, probably everything we associate with the rather otherworldly Jones is thanks to Ishioka’s imagination.
So with all these artistic talents involved, are we just talking about a simple case of style over substance? Is there anything behind it all to back up the pretty pictures?
Frank Miller’s 300 championed the notion of style over substance, even before Zack Snyder got his hands on the graphic novel and turned it into an equally slight (but effective) movie. Indeed, it worked quite well with 300 because the solid – if undeniably simple – against-the-odds story was just enough of a framework upon which to hang the impressive visual imagery that was brought to the table.
Tron: Legacy was, in many respects, a similar example of spectacle triumphing over story. Sure, it would have disappointed those who were looking for a smart movie, but, purely as an audiovisual experience, it was one of the most immersive releases of 2010.
Singh’s Immortals certainly adopts a similar approach. The story, whilst it attempts to exists on its own terms – apart from the age-old Greek myths which it really should have had more respect for – is still dangerous close to being incoherent. If you were to bother to take your time and examine the character motivations and even the simplest of plot developments, you would likely find that they make little sense – our supposed hero’s plight is actually pretty inconsequential; the behaviour of the Gods is fairly whimsical and never fully explained (nor is the incarceration of the supposedly ‘bad’ Titans); and the only person who seems to have an even halfway decent plan is the villain, King Hyperion. If you’re going to throw away a bunch of well-known and well-loved Greek myths in favour of your own ‘take’ on the legends of yesteryear then it might be a good idea to get your story straight. But none of that really matters because the story, however much you could probably deconstruct it using just one single half-functioning, alcohol-soaked brain-cell, the filmic experience is enough to make you not want to bother.
From the malevolent undercurrent of bass that pervades the piece to the exciting theme music that becomes rousing during the action sequences; from the grand scale of some of the larger set-pieces to the ingenious intricacy of some of the smaller ones; from the slow-motion super-powers of the Gods to the slow-motion super-skills of our hero, it all goes a long way towards making this a surprisingly entertaining watch, even if it could never be called a cerebral one.
The players, too – however flimsy in construction – only further enhance the spectacle through the earnest characterisations of all of the actors involved. Basically everybody commits to this project, which makes it much easier for the audience to do the same (if you’re prepared to).
Henry Cavill was a bit of a non-entity to me prior to seeing this movie. He might be the latest Superman in the upcoming Man of Steel reboot, but that’s just another questionably unnecessary reboot in just another franchise that feels like it’s failed (at least in terms of being consistent) more than it has succeeded. Here he actually gets to show his mettle and, at least in terms of being an action star, he acquits himself admirably.
Sure, we live in an age when an action star doesn’t actually need to have any skills whatsoever – slow-mo and effects will do the leg-work (sometimes literally) – but Cavill, perhaps most importantly, convinces as a halfway decent hero. That his character arc is, as aforementioned, quite anticlimactic and totally against all of the Greek myths that surround the ‘real’ Theseus is neither here nor there – when he picks up a sword, spear or any other pointed object, he means business. Honestly, he could have even handled more single-handed action scenes; getting lost in the furore of a massive battle strips some of the magic, but there is plenty here for him to get his teeth into even if it’s not acting muscles which we get to see him flex.
The supporting cast is rich with familiar faces, from the ever-gorgeous Freida “Slumdog Millionaire” Pinto – unfortunately body doubled more than you’d have liked – as the Oracle Phaedra to John Hurt (Alien, Tinker Tailor) as the old man mentor to Theseus; from a surprised-to-see-him-back Stephen Dorff (Blade, Somewhere) as one of Theseus’s poorly-developed companions to Luke Evans (Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood) as the God of Gods, Zeus himself. Evans’s believability in the role is greatly assisted by veteran actor John Hurt (you’ll understand if you see the film), lending much needed weight to the proceedings, and, whilst the Gods, as a whole, aren’t really all that well developed, Evan’s Zeus stands out as being the most interesting of the bunch, with Isabel Lucas’s Athena coming close partly because she looks so damn good as a gladiatrix (you may remember her ‘transforming’ in TF2).
Then there’s Mickey Rourke. The resurgence in popularity for this great actor has been unfathomable – Sin City, The Wrestler – and he genuinely appears to be committing to every single project, irrespective of merit. The time and effort he puts into researching his roles is unparalleled amidst his peers, bringing the method art of acting to even the most undeserving character (Iron Man 2, The Expendables), and even the most undeserving films (Passion Play, 13, Killshot). You might argue that there isn’t a great deal you could do in terms of research for the role of a fictional character which appears to be nothing like the mythological character upon which they are based, but you’d be wrong.
Rourke is on great form as King Hyperion (who has little to do with the Titan from which his name has been taken), giving him genuine pathos: you feel his palpable desire for revenge against those that have forsaken his loved ones. And why not? The Gods appear to be sitting around on their gold-leaf laurels whilst people like him are ravaged by War and see their families consumed by disease. Whilst Rourke clearly goes down the Genghis Khan route in terms of his character’s arc (in another film this character would have probably been more of an anti-hero), he also forges Hyperion’s twisted, tortured soul into something not that far removed from Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalpyse Now, ruminating in the shadows with tension all around him as if he were a coiled viper. Only Rourke could make such an otherwise despicably evil villain into a man who you actually feel a tiny bit sorry for and nearly even come to root for (I’d love to have seen the alternate universe movie where Theseus and Hyperion reluctantly team up to take down the Gods and/or Titans).
Evidently those that actually liked this movie are in the minority. Sure, Box Office numbers may say otherwise, but if Box Office accounted for taste then Transformers 2 would also be the best movie in the world. Ever. No, it’s quite clear that this isn’t a great movie, nor even a very good one. The script is shoddy, the hero has a painfully redundant character arc, the supporting players are cannon fodder, the Gods are whimsical (and isn’t it about time we had an all-out Olympians vs. Titans movie?!), the action is massively style-over-substance and the whole story is such a bastardised version of Greek myth that you find it hard not to take umbrage with the wanton disrespect exhibited by the writers.
But it’s still, unbelievably, pretty damn good fun: the near-two-hour runtime flies by with either entertainingly stylised action or weirdly captivating visual treats staving off even the slightest hint of boredom; the future Mr. Superman gets to flex his muscles; the supporting actors relish their parts, no matter how flimsy; the Gods kick ass, even if they are utterly (and perhaps even literally) wasted; and Mickey Rourke actually makes you sit up and pay attention for scenes which often feel like they almost ought to have been in a different, better movie. Oh, and it’s all shot like 300 on acid by a director whose visualised ideas are equal parts disturbing and imaginative, and are unlike anything you have ever seen before (there are even a couple of shots that look like they were filmed backwards and then played in reverse – to further add to the alien, unnaturalness of the piece). At the very least, this is a bloody enjoyable audio/visual experience, and with just enough going on behind the visually opulent surface, what more could you really want?
You have to ask yourself what you are expecting from this movie. If it’s another 300 then you shouldn’t really be disappointed, this one certainly hits the spot, and will more than fill the void until 300: Battle of Artemisia comes out. If you’re just looking for a better film than 2010’s pointless Clash of the Titans remake (aka “how to bring both 3D and CGI into disrepute in one fell swoop” then you’ve certainly come to the right place, but that’s not exactly a high benchmark. And if you’re prepared to allow yourself to be transported to an impossibly fantasy-like world where Gods and mortals fight warlords and Titans, and do so in style, then you should definitely give Immortals a shot.