Friday, June 27, 2014

Hollywood Romans #13 The Immortals

SEE: Titans In A Box!

Immortals (2011) 110 minutes
Directed by Tarsem Singh      Screenplay by Charles and Vlas Parlapanides
Staring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans and John Hurt

This film's poster should have a banner headline screaming: SEE: Titans In A Box!

The story, in brief:

The Heraklion king, Hyperion, has declared war on the Olympian Gods and all mankind.  To this end he is searching for the Epirus Bow, a divine weapon that will allow him to release the imprisoned Titans and with their help defeat the Olympians.  Why?   Well, it seems that when his wife was stricken with a fatal disease Hyperion called on the gods for help but his pleas went unanswered.  So now he has decided to destroy the Olympians and punish them for ignoring his prayers.  The gods are listening now.

Mickey Rouke as King Hyperion

Not surprisingly the Olympians are disgusted by Hyperion’s cruelty and disregard for the “accepted rules of engagement.”  They are eager to teach Hyperion a lesson or two but Zeus, in his infinite and unfathomable wisdom, has forbidden the gods from intervening directly in the affairs of man.  Zeus has instead selected Theseus as his instrument for the salvation of mankind.  In this it would seem Zeus has chosen wisely. 

The Olympian Gods, roused at last, prepare to battle the Titans

Though of humble birth, whose mother is treated as an outcast and father is unknown (it is said his mother was raped by other villagers but there is every indication that Zeus is the actual father) Theseus has grown into a mighty warrior strong of limb and stout of heart.  The problem is that Theseus is badly out numbered in every fight and is constantly in danger of being killed. 

Zeus unleashes his anger on Apollo for intervening directly to save Theseus

Luckily for him the gods are constantly breaking Zeus’ commandment (with and without his knowledge) and intervening in miraculous ways to save Theseus from certain death.  The real question is: Can the Olympians save themselves from almost certain destruction?  That will be answered in the all too obviously set up sequel.

Titans in a box!  The Titans endure their strange imprisonment

Re-working myths is fine and it often serves to avoid all of the carping about historical accuracy.  Certainly we have been treated to numerous versions of Homer's Odyssey (including the rather imaginative version by the Coen Brothers with George Clooney as Ulysses) or the Jason myth (the seminal 1962 film showcasing the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen being the noteworthy entry here).  However ...

There is little here to recommend this latest re-working of Greek mythology, and the level of violence is not so much gratuitous as it is pornographic.  As director Val Lewton so ably demonstrated, less is often more, but here the director, Tarsem Singh, clearly believes more is not enough.

Poseidon considers the fate of Apollo for aiding Theseus

Costumes are by the famed Japanese costume designer and fashion artist Eiko Ishioka, whose signature headgear is on display here from the fanciful helmets worn by the Olympian Gods to the seemingly Time Bandits inspired travel hats worn by the Sibylline Oracles.  Ishioka-san won an Academy award for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula, and while her designs for Immortals are imaginative, and one of the film's better aspects, they are not served well by the film itself. (For a better example of a fashion designer's costume work in a feature film see The Fifth Element with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier.)

One of the Sibylline Oracles in her “travel” attire

Likewise the acting and fight choreography are, at best, ho-hum, though not from lack of trying.  The film is going for the look of 300 but unlike that earlier film (noteworthy for its faithful rendition of Frank Miller’s comic book stylization) Immortals is a very pale imitation. 

The production team for Immortals appears not to have understood the parameters of that style unlike, for example, the production team behind the Starz cable series Spartacus.  The violence and sex are so stylized in that cable series as to be almost cartoonish and thus more easily dealt with by the viewer.  Immortals, on the other hand, seems caught somewhere between this highly stylized look and a gritty realism (particularly with the violence) that leaves one confused, and not a little bit disgusted by the cruelty that seems plainly out of place in a fantasy film.

Theseus fights with the Minotaur

The idea that Theseus fights not a literal Minotaur but a man in a bull shaped helmet is not new but certainly works within the context of this story.  Likewise, I give the actors credit for working hard with the material they are saddled with, but therein lies the problem -- the story.

Zeus and his daughter, Athena

The story here, such as it is, does not engage the viewer on any level deeper than the most superficial.  The film's director, Tarsem Singh, has said that what he is attempting is:

"Basically, Caravaggio meets Fight Club. It's a really hardcore action film done in Renaissance painting style. I want to see how that goes; it's turned into something really cool. I'm going for a very contemporary look on top of that so I'm kind of going with, you know, Renaissance time with electricity."

All that being said, my disappointment with the film is not that it plays fast and loose with the Greek myths or mixes together art and artifacts from a dozen different eras/countries/cultures or even that the arms and armor have little to do with ancient or even mythic Greece.  This happens all the time in Science Fiction and Fantasy and often to good effect (The Lord Of The Rings comes to mind).  No, the problem here is that at its most basic level, Immortals is boring.  It fails to engage us and indeed actually repels us with its needlessly graphic splatter porn violence.

Theseus and his fellow Greeks prepare for the final battle

Immortals does achieve the impossible by making Zack Snyder's 300 seem Oscar worthy.

My humble recommendation: Save your money - Wait for Immortals to play on cable TV, and then watch something else.

Immortals is currently playing in movie theatres and should make its appearance on DVD and Blu-ray in the first half of 2012.

This review was first published on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in November of 2011.
(c)2011 by David L Reinke