'Immortals' Lacks Humanity
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Full disclosure: I belong to that oft-referenced "cult" that rates Tarsem Singh's "The Fall" as a singularly beautiful celebration of storytelling and its near-mythic power to create worlds so fantastic they could exist only in the imagination. Even Tarsem's first film, "The Cell" (2000), unreeling in the fecund mind of a serial killer, contains moments of mad splendor.
Sad to say, "Immortals," a sprawling epic cobbled out of faux-Greek mythology, exposes the limitations of this ambitious director's ultra-stylized approach to film design. Almost every shot gobsmacks the eye, but its impact stands alone, never carrying over to the next image, accumulating narrative momentum and meaning. This monumental tale of warring gods and men is a beautiful, dead thing, bereft of organic or kinetic life.
Don't look for sharp dialogue or multifaceted character in this sword 'n' sandals bloodbath, the latest in the abs-obsessed genre featuring "300," "Clash of the Titans" and "Conan the Barbarian." There's little saving poetry; in this glum movie, death mows down men and immortals alike. Even the deployment of 3-D effects in Tarsem's empty, horizon-spanning landscapes and incoherently choreographed battle scenes feels obligatory rather than instinctive or spontaneous.
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The story's bare bones: King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) means to conquer the world, once he finds the Epirus Bow -- an automatic weapon that fires magic arrows -- and frees the Titans, imprisoned in Mount Tartarus by the Olympian gods after a bloody internecine war. All that stands between Hyperion and his goal is Theseus (Henry Cavill), a Greek peasant built for body worship ... and a big role in the future of humankind. The protagonists are linked in their mutual hatred of and/or disbelief in the gods and the brutal loss of beloved mommies. If the story had flesh, Hyperion might be a Darth Vader, sire to fatherless Theseus.
Rourke's villain is pure brute, appetite incarnate. Hot to outbreed the Olympians, our stringy-haired barbarian dreams of creating a nation of Greeks in his own image, seeding every woman with his DNA. Bellowing in his sewer-like hangout, eternally feeding his face while devising horrendous tortures, Hyperion's a slob king, the antithesis of sculpted, gold-girded Zeus (Luke Evans, promoted from "Clash of the Titan"'s Apollo). Topped by a wicked helmet equal parts beetle-pincers and Venus flytrap, he marshals a dirty, metal-masked army, boils virgin priestesses in a fiery silver bull and sends the fearsome Minotaur to annihilate Theseus.
Theseus, of course, is a superman (perfect preparation for Cavill's upcoming portrayal of the Man of Steel). Coiffed in curls, blessed with square jaw and cleft chin, he goes bare-chested most of the time, in contrast to Hyperion's exotically armored minions. He treats the beautiful Sibylline oracle (Freida Pinto) with civilized love and respect and is backed by a faithful thief (Stephen Dorff) given to yelling, "I'm right behind you!" in tight spots. Handiest of all, Zeus has been mentoring Theseus since boyhood, in the guise of an old coot (ever-sweet John Hurt) who sermonizes about earning immortality through righteous deeds.
Cavill is less of a lump than most superheroes; he occasionally hints he might be smarter than his role, as he did playing the rakish Duke of Norfolk in Showtime's "The Tudors." But there's no call for his Theseus to do more than pose, grimace, swing sword. What glamour and excitement the film possesses comes courtesy of Zeus and his divine clan. Every time they (literally) drop in, "Immortals" gets a pulse, especially during the horrific battle between golden gods and the corpse-colored swarm of Titans.
Almost every shot (I almost said painting) benefits from the opulence and mystery of Tarsem's designs. A visual voluptuary, he revels in creating a world on the monumental scale. Mortals narrowly carve out villages and religious sanctuaries on towering cliffs and promontories overlooking vast plains and wastelands, under an endless, lowering sky. Above, the gods, all in their prime, lounge about a balcony that juts out for an IMAX-sized view of earth's "reality shows." Similarly, Tarsem's camera looks down on ebon-haired, carmine-garbed hotties as they link arms and sway in circles of saffron or scarlet satin. There's frisson in the juxtaposition of the Minotaur -- its great horned head wrapped in barbed wire -- with the Oracle's white-swathed, pool-sized skull, its vision blind to all horrors but those of the future.
Action sequences are mostly a mess. Eruptions of flesh-hacking and blood-spraying punch up the flagging film, but filmmakers seem to have lost the knack of elevating pain and death out of videogame perfunctoriness. Where's the terror and pity in watching meat get sliced and diced? And in the end, that's what dead-ends Tarsem's latest foray into myth: It's terror and pity that lie at the heart of Greek tragedy.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.