Immortals (Tarsem, 2011)

I left Tarsem’s newest film, Immortals, thinking that it was the best bad movie of the year (Ebert called it “the best looking bad film you will ever see). Its advertising campaign proudly referred to it as coming “from the producers of 300,” as sure a sign of its quality as any. Supposedly based on Greek mythology, it tells the story of Thesus, a bastard peasant, as he helps to save Greece from the schemes of King Hyperion, who searches for the Epirus Bow in order to free the Titans.

Theseus, for those who do not know, was not a bastard or a peasant in Greek Mythology; he was jointly sired by Aegeus, king of Athens, and Poseidon, each of whom slept with Aegeus’ wife, Aethra, on the same night. The Minotaur was not a giant man wearing a bull mask, nor was the labyrinth a temple gravesite. Hyperion was a titan, not a warlord who tried to free the titans. The titans, generally speaking, were not depicted as blue skinned monsters with animalistic tendencies, nor did the gods follow a “Star Trek” style prime directive in their relationship to mortals. Zeus frequently states that mortals must rely on themselves, that men have limitless potentials and etc.

Immortals makes use of the “digital backlot” technique popularized by Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City, its heavily stylized visuals reminiscent of 300. The aesthetic here is that of a comic book adaptation, with everything that entails. The cast was chosen, as best anyone can tell, based on their looks. And not necessarily whether or not they look right for their parts as ancient Hellenic warriors and priestesses and Olympians. It seems a distinct possibility that casting was done according to how good each member looked in a costume.

But Eiko Ishioka designed those costumes, so, yeah. And if Immortals rests entirely on visuals (and it does; the plot and dialog are either formalities or excuses) those visuals, for once, carry the movie. If a town etched in a cliff side, whose distance from a deadly drop could be well measured in feet seems like a geographical and technological improbability, and obviously a computer generated façade, it is also an image of extraordinary romance. If the action sequences which make use of Hong Kong style fight choreography, with spinning fighters and whipping chains, seem like anachronisms, they are at least visually pleasing and compellingly so. If Micky Rourke, Frieda Pinto, and Henry Cavill’s acting leave something to be desired, their faces and bodies leave nothing outside of visual satisfaction.

Immortals is the work of Tarsem, director of The Fall, The Cell, and the upcoming Mirror Mirror. Ecstatic visuals are his modus operandi, and Immortals, he admits, was a willing departure from the tableaux visuals of his previous films, in which he used photographic tricks to create his vision. It is true that Immortals bears his trademark sensibility – from the early depiction of the Titans hanging from bars by their teeth, to visions of an Olympus free of clouds and sunlight, the audience knows that this film is not a retread of previous cinematic versions of Greek myth – but it is also true that reliance on computer generated images diminishes this vision. For all that the images appear unique; it is abundantly clear how those images were created.

Some would place Immortals as a descendent of 300, or of Clash of the Titans, or of the Ray Harryhausen films of a bygone era, as a special effects showcase and a shallow, if not outright misuse of mythic sources. I think the real antecedent would actually be Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, another work of a true auteur and dynamic cinematographic virtuoso. Like that film, Immortals is well worth viewing for its style alone, but is similarly forgettable for every moment that its characters speak rather than act.

Immortals is obviously less personal than Tarsem's other films. It watches very much like a summer blockbuster, in fact. But it would be a wonderful turn if summer blockbusters could actually attain this level of visual splendor regardless of their hackneyed scripts.

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