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Style over substance, but quite a lot of style.
on November 11, 2011
Western literature has been mining Greek mythology ever since the time of the Romans, but the last few years have seen a volume of screen adaptations not seen since Ray Harryhausen was in his prime. The start of the 2000s saw a couple of films set in Ancient Greece but without the gods ("Troy", most notably, then "300", though the latter adopted an oft-copied stylized book that had little to do with reality either), which gave way to myth-based adventures (the "Clash of the Titans" remake, the adaptation of "Percy Jackson and the Olympians"; incidentally, though that latter film was bad, I highly recommend the books it was based on). "Immortals" has, based on the trailers, been pegged as a "300" knockoff with the gods present. There are certainly some similarities, but Singh's visual sense is ultimately much different than Zack Snyder's was (there's a lot more beauty and colour in this world, for starters, whereas Snyder's emphasized earth tones and grime. Plot details are discussed hence, so be warned for spoilers.
In Hellenas (Greece), our hero is Theseus (Henry Cavill, the future Superman) - actually, to get this out of the way, the film uses a bunch of mythological characters' names (Theseus, Phaedra, Lysander, Hyperion), but the characters in question haven't any real relation to their mythological counterparts - the bastard son of a village woman. When the evil Heraclean king, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, surprisingly not out of place in the ancient setting, though the heavy stylization doubtless facilitates that), sacks his village and kills his mother, Theseus finds himself in the company of Phaedra ("Slumdog Millionaire"'s Freida Pinto, on duty as the love interest for the second time this year; she has more to do here than in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes", though that was the superior film), the virgin Oracle, who has prophesied that he will play a crucial role in the war between Hyperion and the gods (he seeks to unleash the Titans and end the reign of the Olympians, in revenge for the deaths of his family). Hyperion, meanwhile, seeks Phaedra, who can reveal to him the location of the Epirus Bow, a fabled weapon of immense power. A quite exceptional amount of violence ensues.
As a story with characters, it's pretty minimal, but I imagine anyone going into it expected that. I will, nonetheless, comment on the plot in one aspect: in the past I've encountered films where the hero's only heroism was all about stopping an evil that they had accidentally caused, which often doesn't come across as especially heroic; "Immortals", on the other hand, features a hero who *fails* to stop anything. Theseus would have to be considered the least successful action hero since Indiana Jones in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (if Dr. Jones had gone on an extended vacation to Yugoslavia, would the ultimate result have been very different at all?) - in fact, you can build a pretty good case that if Theseus had done nothing at all things would have turned out better, since his only meaningful action was finding the Epirus Bow and then losing it so that Hyperion could use it to free the Titans. The gods defeat the Titans, and Theseus' killing of Hyperion is meaningless since the villain would have been killed along with his armies when Zeus collapsed the mountain. Sure, he was brave, but what did he actually accomplish in the grand scheme of things?
Henry Cavill is a credible hero, and has great pecs (certainly, he feels less over-the-top than did Gerard Butler in "300", though I'm not sure whether he actually is). The aforementioned Rourke is a menacing villain, aided by the director letting him do some memorably gory things to make an impression. Freida Pinto, as I said, gets more to do here than in her last blockbuster, and I'd say she does fairly well with the movie's main female part (the movie never pretends that the petite Pinto is an action hero either, which I appreciated after too many movies featuring waifs with the combat skills of a Green Beret), though it's hardly a demanding role. Pinto is also, among the cast, the primary beneficiary of her director's aesthetic skill, as he finds many ways to showcase her beauty (a brief nude scene is not actually her, but there are many stunning images of her in a red dress). The supporting cast includes Stephen Dorff as what I suppose is meant to be a Han Solo figure, Stavros, and Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Kellan Lutz as gods.
Tarsem Singh is the real star of the proceedings, though. He does some remarkable things with his camera, producing quite a few memorable images and setpieces. His use of colour stands out repeatedly, particularly the aforementioned red dress that Pinto wears (which does a great job of staying clean even in the midst of a typhoon of oil that coats everything else). His rendering of Mount Olympus is by far the best I've ever seen on film - there's not a trace of the simple fluffy clouds populated by people wearing bedsheets so often seen in older films; pure majesty. For all the inventive fight scenes, though, I don't understand how Zeus (Evans) could go the whole movie without using his thunderbolt even once (though he proves adept with chains).
As a story, this is lacking in numerous respects, but as a visual experience it's quite a marvel. I came away thinking that Singh could perhaps be a great director if would devote as much care to his stories as to the images used to tell them. As it is, we have a visually stunning mediocrity.