Tarsem Singh‘s Immortals doesn’t fit into the boxy constraints of a studio blockbuster, even though it rages with all the warring gods and carnage you could want from a studio-housed, blood thirsty Greek epic. But combine that with the minimalistic and colorfully designed production and artistic flair you get from a Tarsem Singh film and the result is a feature more suitably aimed at a smaller, more niche audience.
And as much as I enjoyed it, I will admit the story isn’t nearly as ambitious or inventive as Singh’s The Fall or even his debut feature, The Cell. Yet, the imagination in its execution is evident, mostly in how Singh and his production design team bring to life a new story of ancient Greece with a style all its own.
Working from a script by sibling scribes, Charles and Vlas Parlapanides — who’ve cherry picked from the annuls of Greek mythology to conjure an alternative story — Immortals centers on Theseus (Henry Cavill), a man whom myth tells us was the son of the god Poseidon and king of Athens. Here, however, he is no king or son of the Gods. Instead he’s a lowly peasant whose cliffside village is one of many in Greece threatened by the war-mongering King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), a man who spits in the face of the Gods and is in search of the fabled Epirus Bow, a weapon that would grant him the ability to free the imprisoned Titans who would then aid him in destroying Olympus and allow him to rule over mankind.
As Theseus soon learns his role in all of this he’s joined by the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and the thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff), a couple of characters whose sole existence would appear to be more as plot devices rather than fleshed out additions to the cast. Stavros gives Theseus someone to bounce ideas off and proves to be a good battle buddy, and Phaedra serves as a foreshadowing storyteller in the early goings only to become a rather weak love interest in the film’s latter half. This includes a 3D moment that had one member of my audience blurt out, “Whoa!”
Looking down on events as they play out are the Gods from their cloudy confines on Mount Olympus. Zeus (Luke Evans), Athena (Isabel Lucas), Poseidon (Kellan Lutz) and Ares (Daniel Sharman) argue over how involved they should get in the human affairs as the film does evoke a clever example of how having religious faith can and will help you in your greatest time of need, even if it seems the Gods aren’t ever listening. Whether this was a goal of the screenplay I don’t know, but it’s definitely in there.
With the Gods scantily clad and adorned in gold, Singh has done an excellent job separating the mighty atop Mount Olympus from the mortals in the trenches on Earth. It’s up here where they argue and decide on how, and whether or not, they will help humans before Hyperion’s power becomes so great not even they can stop him. And even though the film’s marketing would lead you to believe the Gods merely walk around and wage battle in silly headgear, it’s all a matter of context as none of Eiko Ishioka‘s costumes appear out of place at any particular moment.
Yes, there are moments that echo previous films. A lengthy attack sequence from Theseus on Hyperion’s men is reminiscent of a similar scene pulled off by Gerard Butler in 300 and a quartet of arrows fired at once brings memories of a similar scene in House of Flying Daggers. The comparisons, however, don’t limit the enjoyment and they’re hardly abundant. Where my attention was predominantly drawn was to the impressive visuals, stark landscapes and bludgeoning effects. There’s no doubt Immortals is style over substance, but I found myself drinking that substance up at every turn and enjoying every drop.
Fight scenes aren’t merely swords hitting shields or even swords piercing skin in bloody CG bursts, though that is all there. Once the Gods find it worth their time to throw their hat into the ring, chains, tridents, spears, hammers and whatever else may be lying around becomes an instrument of destruction. Yes, I relished in exploding heads that numbered too many to count, split torsos and bodies slammed into concrete to the point they burst as golden gods lay waste to combatants that prove more challenging than they’d ever assumed.
Add to that the visuals. Envision an inky black tidal wave enveloping our heroes only to have the following scene feature Phaedra, dressed in red against the black landscape. Add Singh’s striking vision of the Titans imprisoned in a stone box windowed by gold bars and the architecture of a lone water hole in the middle of nowhere. It’s almost as if these scenes were written merely for the visuals, which only makes me more interested in how Singh’s mind works when he first reads a script. My only complaint would be the full CG horizons, which always look too perfect to be real especially when they accompany the minimalistic nature of the sets, which can be a bit distracting when taking in the complete picture.
As far as the acting and dialogue goes, it’s hardly poetic, but it’s serviceable. Cavill is fine as Theseus and at times commanding, Dorff adds brief moments of comic relief and Pinto is, more often than not, expected to look pretty rather than say too much, which proves to be a good choice when compared to films such as Miral and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The Gods, though, did surprise me. Based on the images I’d seen I hardly expected them to be as dominating as they were. They stand tall and appear strong, leading you to believe in their power especially when compared to the portrait of the Gods painted in last year’s Clash of the Titans. There is absolutely no comparison.
What I’m happiest about, though, is that I never gave up on this movie. Immortals was one of my most anticipated films heading into this year, but negative buzz, a horrible marketing campaign and the studio hiding the film from critics until the last minute (I had to ask about a screening, there was never a formal invite) had me concerned. Yet, my faith in Tarsem Singh and especially my love and appreciation for his last film, The Fall, kept my hopes high.
That said, any fan of Singh’s work should find enjoyment in this film and it may usher in a new following, though I am concerned for its commercial prospects. Immortals is an impossible film to market as any attempt will have people seeing it as a silly mashup of 300 and Clash of the Titans, both being unfair comparisons if you ask me.
Immortals is much more than a cheap knock-off of two mediocre (at best) films. It’s a Tarsem Singh film, a statement that’s come to mean a lot to me. And while this may be one instance where Singh’s art outweighs his story, it sure does look good doing it and I enjoyed almost every minute of it.