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TBTS Reviews: Immortals

November 23, 2011

Oh, Tarsem. You mad genius you… Why don’t you spend a little less money on your striking visuals and a little more on a decent screenwriter?

Immortals poster - AresImmortals director Tarsem “Tarsem” Singh has a solid body of work behind him.  He made a name in the 90’s directing music videos, the most memorable of which was REM’s “Losing My Religion.” In 2000 he brought his considerable visual style to The Cell, a beautiful but flawed thriller starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, and Vincent D’Onofrio. The basic premise of The Cell made it a passable serial-killer popcorn fest, and what it lacked in character development and dialogue it more than made up for in memorable scenes with bold color, severe camera angles, and downright disturbing shit.

Tarsem followed up in 2006 with his positively gorgeous film The Fall, with footage shot in 24 countries and a reported four year filming schedule. It was tailor-made for Tarsem’s style, given that the bulk of the story takes place in the Technicolor-on-acid imagination of a precocious five-year-old girl. Again, with The Fall Tarsem gave us a entertaining movie that left audiences with memories of fantastic locations featuring many wonders of the world. Although better than The Cell, it still offered only just enough in the way of a compelling story. This seems to be Tarsem’s thing. He’s got oodles of amazing visual effects and set-pieces bouncing around in his head. He needs an outlet, but he seems to think that providing something cool to look at will make audiences completely forget that we have been given no real reason for the characters to be in the situations he puts them in.

Having said this, I want to be clear here: I like Tarsem’s movies. I have enjoyed them, and despite what I’ve written above I still recommend them to friends and acquaintances. For no other reason, viewers should check out his films for their Gilliam-esque flights of fancy and attention to detail. Who else would visualize a horse being sliced like a cucumber? Or a solitary masked man standing atop a ziggurat at dusk, his striking red cape billowing in slow-motion behind him? Or film an elephant swimming? From 20 feet under the water . . . ? Immortals has images like these, but for the same criticisms levied above it is still a disappointment.

Immortals is a loose, loose, loose retelling of the story of Greek peasant Theseus (Henry Cavill, the new Superman), favored by Zeus (and, apparently, only five other gods) to help mankind prevent the brutal King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, for absolutely no reason) from acquiring the fabled Epirus Bow and using it to unleash the destructive Titans upon the world. Theseus is aided in his quest by virgin-oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire) and smart-ass thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff, implying that Skeet Ulrich wasn’t available).

My summary is short on details, but I assure you they are not necessary. The audience is afforded only the barest wisp of story to carry it from set-piece to set-piece, culminating in the final, brief battle between the gods and the Titans. The gods, having heretofore opted to stay out of the affairs of men, finally change their minds at the last minute and decide to provide the film’s last fifteen minutes of ass-kickery. And, oh, what sweet ass-kickery it is. When a god in a Tarsem movie decides to take someone out it is a sight to behold. Even Ares, punished by Zeus for daring to aid Theseus’ crew without the boss’ say-so, is dispatched spectacularly and with prejudice. The impeccably choreographed fight scenes have an eyeball-pleasing splendor not seen since the first Matrix movie. In short, they are decidedly cool.

That’s what’s good about Immortals. What’s bad is that themes and plot points with developmental promise are either glossed over or crudely shoved aside by some gruesome visual before they have a chance to sink in. The film’s antagonist, the vengeful and bloodthirsty King Hyperion, has vague notions of the kind of immortality that comes from great men doing great deeds. But he goes a step further. He wipes out his enemies, completely and entirely, so that their progeny and the very memory of their existence will disappear from history, replaced by his own accomplishments. Sounds like a pretty compelling idea if explored in, say, the context of other human endeavors. Alas, it is given little momentum besides a bit of speechifying, then immediately overshadowed by a scene in which a man’s testicles are literally pounded with a giant hammer so that he will produce no offspring. The audience is given no time to absorb Hyperion’s words (which, alas, are delivered in voice-over, in the most trite way possible) before the onslaught of yet another ghastly image.

It is clumsily explained that the oracle Phaedra’s gift of premonition derives from her virginal purity, yet she jumps in the sack with Theseus almost immediately thanks to a throw-away line in which he recognizes her ability as a burden rather than a gift. He gets her, man! This happens not after some great internal struggle spanning at least a decent chunk of the movie, but because we are lazily led to believe it is inevitable and we might as well get it out of the way. Apparently Phaedra didn’t think her ability would come in useful in any part of the quest. Or she simply thought that Theseus, repeatedly naked to the waist and perpetually oiled like 80’s Schwarzenegger, was just lookin’ so fine. (A body-double was employed for Pinto’s nude scene with Cavill. Yet another disappointment for lecherous bloggers everywhere…)

Tarsem’s style has potential; he has more than proven that. He knows what looks cool and he knows how to make things that shouldn’t look cool look cool. He’s apparently got enough connections in Hollywood to pull in the likes of John Hurt for his movies. From what I understand, CGI is relatively cheap; so maybe spending more of a reported $75-million budget on a better script would have helped Immortals make that money back at the box office. Tarsem’s got a lot riding on next year’s Snow White adaptation Mirror, Mirror. I hope he learns his lesson, because his eye-candy is pretty sweet. But like regular candy . . . if that’s all you get, it’ll make you sick.

  1. November 25, 2011 2:31 pm

    It’s probably one of the best-looking films of the whole year (yet, I still haven’t seen Tree of Life) and the action is awesome and in-you-face which is something I always like. The story dragged on a bit and I couldn’t help but think that if the writing was a tweaked a little better, this would have definitely been a very solid film. Instead it was just fun and pretty to look at. Good review.

    • Paul the Geek permalink
      November 25, 2011 10:25 pm

      Thanks man! I read your review as well, and I’m glad to see we’re pretty much on the same page. If you’re so inclined, you really should at least check out The Fall. It’s actually pretty good and does a better job of using visuals to help you forget the character holes. :)

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