I have to confess that I’m not personally familiar with the work of director Tarsem Singh. I’ve learned from some brief research, though, that he has a reputation for incorporating striking visuals into his movies. That technique is certainly on full display in his most recent release, Immortals – a highly-publicized action flick based on the Greek myths about the hero Theseus.
Immortals is a beautiful movie, with sweeping shots that boast a rich colour palette. Unfortunately, that’s about all you can say about the movie, because it’s plagued with limp storytelling, uninteresting characters and an ambivalent, deadening climax.
The film takes us back to 1228 B.C., where the evil king Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is marching his masked Heraklion army around Greece in an effort to find the superpowered Epirus bow and use it to release the mythical Titans. They, in turn, will end the reign of our favourite Olympians: Zeus, Poseidon, Athena and the rest.
The hero Theseus (Henry Cavill) doesn’t really care what Hyperion is up to, because he doesn’t believe in the gods. But when Hyperion kills one of Theseus’ family, he decides to man up and take down Hyperion, more out of a selfish desire for revenge than a noble goal of saving the world. Along the way, he teams up with a comely oracle (Freida Pinto) and some other characters (who really just fill up the screen), and we’re supposed to be impressed by this grand interpretation of classic myth.
If the ironic tone of this review hasn’t clued you in, Immortals is essentially a weak story polished up with some pretty pictures. At no point does it feel like Tarsem Singh really cares about his characters, or whether his characters care about anything themselves. The film plods from scene to scene, with occasional glaring jump cuts, creating a series of vignettes joined by little connective tissue.
The script, by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, boxes the actors into a corner. All three of the leads (Cavill, Pinto and Rourke) have talent, and it’s a shame none of them can exercise it in Immortals. Cavill is left to stand about flashing his well-oiled chest and Pinto’s character is rendered useless halfway through. Rourke, meanwhile, just growls and murders his way through his scenes.
It’s all very puzzling, because Charley Parlapanides wrote the far better films The Royal Tenenbaums and The Hours. Theseus does not develop as a character; he simply wanders around for the first two acts, and is somehow made an officer of the defending Greek army prior to the climax. Then he delivers a comically uninspiring speech and grapples with Hyperion, for which he is made into a god.
I was especially disappointed with Pinto’s “virgin oracle” character Phaedra. She is supposed to see the future, but Theseus learns nothing of value from her visions. I think we’re supposed to believe that she’s haunted by her foresight, so she decides to have sex with Theseus to take away her innocence, and therefore her ability. Of course, Theseus is happy to oblige, and this simply transforms Phaedra into an even more useless character.
On the whole, the rest of the people in Immortals are similarly ignored. Good and bad armies run at each other and Tarsem never reveals who wins. Hyperion is defeated and there is no scene of celebration – in fact, no mention is made of it at all.
Neither do we get a full look at Theseus proudly standing with the gods on Olympus. The movie ends with a war in heaven (which is not explained), where Theseus and the thousands of other gods fight the Titans’ army like a cloud of so many bees.
But! Despite all of the lack of interest Tarsem apparently has in his own story, Immortals is wrapped in a lovely cloak of imagery. Most of it was rendered in a computer, and there are beautiful shots of cliffs, oceans and trees, all presented in a warm, bronzed colour palette.
Costumes are peppered by bright splashes of red, blue and gold. The Epirus bow and Hyperion’s masks look like they are covered in sequins. Sadly, without a solid story to support these sights, Immortals might as well be one of those ethereal fantasy wallpapers people use on their desktops.
Indeed, what replaces real storytelling in this film is lengthy slow-motion fight sequences, packed with more CG gore than you find in some video games. Granted, it can be fun to see Cavill’s athletic fight choreography on display - at least in slow-mo, the manoeuvres make sense, rather than being a mess of incomprehensible shots.
Still, the violence in the movie is deadening (pardon the pun). By the time the Olympians teleport down to tussle with the Titans, we’ve seen so many heads explode and jugulars sliced that the “kills” have no weight. Zeus (Luke Evans) is reduced to whipping a pair of chains around to bisect Titans in elaborate, murderous acrobatics.
I was so pummelled by these sequences that I didn’t notice that Zeus doesn’t throw a thunderbolt once in the movie – he’s too busy butchering the endless waves of Titans (who look more like Sméagol/Gollum crossed with a Na’vi and covered in mud). I’ll leave the list of mythical inaccuracies at that, because Immortals plays more fast and loose with Greek myth than 2010’s Clash of the Titans - something I didn’t think was even possible.
Immortals should be a lesson to filmmakers aspiring to make their own Greek epics. You can have all the delicious imagery in the world, but if you abandon the classic narratives that have doggedly survived the past 3000-4000 years, your movie will fall apart. It’s also a shame that Immortals couldn’t offer a better primer for Henry Cavill’s work as Superman in the upcoming Man of Steel - a movie I'm still very excited for.
For its laughable disregard for its characters or story, and the resulting empty visuals, Immortals gets one and a half stars out of four.
Note: I saw Immortals in 3D (by mistake, actually) and the effects were better than usual, especially during interior scenes. Nevertheless, the 3D cannot save the movie or make it worth the higher ticket price.
Have you seen Immortals? Could you suspend your disbelief and drink in Tarsem Singh’s pretty pictures? Or are you embarrassed that Greek myth has suffered another boring film treatment? Let me know what you think in the comments section, and check out my other film reviews: