Movie Review: Tarsem Singh’s ‘Immortals’

Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals,” which hits theaters on Friday, has as much to do with Greek mythology as Adam Sandler’s “Jack & Jill” has to do with the unraveling of the structure of DNA.
Yes, the main character’s name is Theseus. Yes, there are characters named Phaedra and Zeus and Athena, just like you might see if you pulled your tattered Edith Hamilton down from the shelf. But it isn’t *that* Theseus. It isn’t *that* Phaedra. And it’s barely that Zeus or that Athena. The effect is similar to watching a slacker comedy about a pair of video store clerks whose names happen to be “James Bond” and “Dr. No.” 
“Immortals” is also set in the perplexingly contemporary and specific 1228 B.C. but it has no connection to any factual history either. 
Scripted by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, “Immortals” in an amorphous blob a familiar pseudo-mythological and pseudo-historical elements possibly culled from a half-reading of Joseph Campbell and grafted together with a half-baked philosophy derived from what I’m fairly sure is a misreading of the Socrates quote that starts and ends the movie.
“All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine,” Socrates said, but when we’re talking about mythological and narrative immortality, it seems to me like what the writers have done to the established story of Theseus and the Gods is basically the opposite of what we’re supposed to believe about the durability and resiliency of legend. It’s like saying, “Yes, this is how you become a legend. And then 3000-ish years later somebody will come along and ignore all of that stuff.”
There’s a point I’m trying to make here and I may not be making it well, so I’ll just bottom line it: With its pretenses towards literary and cultural tradition, “Immortals” gives you a lot to think about, but it’s probably better that you don’t. This is not a smart movie, a thoughtful movie, nor a movie that gives you any reason to invest in character or plot.
What “Immortals” is, though, is a work of frequently breathtaking beauty. The trailers have been cut together to emphasize the involvement of some of the producers from “300” and to make viewers think that what they’re getting is another tale of speed-ramping Spartans and CGI excess. But whereas “300” director Zack Snyder is, at best, an extremely gifted mimic — I’m not going to be forgiving “Sucker Punch” any time soon — Tarsem Singh is that rarest of cinematic creatures: He’s a true visionary, though I’d restrict that mantle to calling him a visionary stylist, rather than a visionary storyteller. 
Because “Immortals” looks and feels like a Tarsem Singh film, rather than a “300” manque, it ends up far outstripping the merits of its script. I don’t think “Immortals” ends up being a good movie, but like all of Singh’s films, it’s going to make a killer full-color, glossy coffee table book.
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In this incarnation, King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is on a mission not only to vanquish the world, but also to unleash the Titans and kill off the Gods themselves. This is a bad thing.
Only one man can stop him. That would be Theseus (Henry Cavill), a low-born bastard [the script’s designation, not mine] whose mother is a believer in the Gods, but who lacks faith of his own. When Hyperion ravages Theseus’ cliffside hometown, he goes on a mission for revenge, with the help of Virgin Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), roguish thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff) and, behind-the-scenes, an assist from the Gods, who aren’t supposed to directly impact human life, but hover in Olympus watching the impending carnage like over-eager football fans, perhaps because somebody has been learning their mythological rules from “Clash of the Titans.” It’s all about Theseus achieving his destiny, but having stripped the best moments from the character’s familiar mythology, I can’t tell you what Theseus’ destiny is, other than to become a nebulous Reluctant Hero Archetype. There’s some side journey involving a magical utensil called the Epirus Bow, which is a pure MacGuffin. 
To a handful of viewers, Cavill is best known from “The Tudors,” but he’s already entered a far wider consciousness as the new Superman. If nothing else, “Immortals” will establish for non-Showtime subscribers that Cavill’s charisma is immense, that he’s utterly believable doing physically challenging stunts and that he can spit out large chunks of horrid dialogue without looking like an absolute fool. You think it’s easy to do those things? Check out Sam Worthington getting consumed by the awfulness that was “Clash of the Titans” to appreciate how utterly unscathed Cavill is at the end of “Immortals.” I was already convinced that he was a great choice for Superman, but this is just a welcome confirmation. 
Rourke seems to be channeling Marlon Brando at his most over-indulgent here, giving himself over to King Hyperion’s excesses. The character is constantly eating and spitting and growling and while he’s surrounded dozens of warriors with six-pack abs, Rourke looks ready to drink a six-pack. It’s not subtle, but it fits a character who wants nothing less than to than to kill Gods and achieve metaphorical immortality. Hyperion has also been given just enough of a backstory to make you wish even more had remained in the movie. [Singh is well-known for trimming scripts, even his own, beyond recognition, so I kinda want to acknowledge the possibility that the screenwriters wrote a better movie than this, but it just wasn’t the movie Singh wanted to make.]
Pinto looks stunning and Singh has no trouble knowing how to work around her limitations as an actress, filming her perfectly both clothed [gorgeous costumes… more on that in a bit] and unclothed. But if you stop and unpack what “Immortals” is saying with her character and the notions of male heroism and female heroism, it’s actually repulsive. Do NOT attempt to unpack the gender politics in this movie.
From there, the other actors make only variable impressions. Once you get over Zeus looking like Luke Evans rather than Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson, Evans is surprisingly good in a couple quiet moments. Dorff’s flat American accent is an odd distracting in a character who mostly serves as weak comic relief. “Vampire Diaries” fans will be surprised and pleased with how solid Joseph Morgan is in one pivotal part, while “Breaking Bad” fans will surely be happily ringing bells at the sight of Mark Margolis.
But that’s entirely too much time wasted on actors. 
Tarsem Singh is the star of “Immortals,” particularly in his collaborations with cinematographer Brendan Glavin, production designer Tom Foden and costumer Eiko Ishioka.
Ishioka has worked with Singh on both “The Cell” and “The Fall,” which Foden also worked on “The Cell” and there’s something marvelous about the continuity between the three films, visually. 
From the opening shot of the film, featuring the Titans, drenched in cracking body paint trapped within a cube cell lined with tiny arched windows, you instantly abandon any fear that this was Singh selling out and making an assembly line studio film. You look at Singh and Foden’s depiction of the mythological labyrinth leading to a temple where supplicants kneel before gigantic gauze-covered heads and you recognize the vision. You see Hyperion’s battle mask, like a lobster claw perched atop a venus fly trap with pointy fangs dripping down over his face and you recognize the vision. You see the purity and simplicity of a scene in which the male stars are covered in black, oily water, practically blending into a stony wall, sitting next to Pinto’s Phaedra, freshly washed and wrapped in an untouched blood-red shawl and the effect is nothing less than painterly. Singh likes to talk about his compositions as tableaux and more than anything, I’d recommend viewers pay attention to when the director utilizes overhead shots and the way he almost stops caring about narrative momentum in favor of reveling in lines and colors on his canvas. As I mentioned in my intro, Singh films make great coffee table books and that’s not empty rhetoric. I enjoy my book of “The Fall” every bit as much as I enjoyed the movie. I could see “Immortals” having the same appeal.
But don’t go into “Immortals” anticipating only artiness, because the movie is fetishistically brutal as well. Heads are constantly flying through the air, arterial blood is constantly splashing onto walls and when that bores Singh, he goes in for even more sadistic violence. It’s all cartoonish, but that doesn’t mean that fatigue doesn’t begin to set in.
The action sequences are solid, if mostly uninspired. I was grateful for Singh’s willingness to take advantage of Cavill’s strengths to do a number of extended takes that feature nicely choreographed sword-work and fighting. When the Gods finally get to let loose at the end of the movie, everything begins to go haywire and while some viewers are probably going to go utterly nutty over the God-Speed sequences, I felt like their upstaging of the Theseus scenes cheapened the whole story. Tarsem Singh favoring a neat-o visual motif over the theme and characters in his film? Crazy, right?
As I reach the end here, many people will be asking at least one other key question: 3D or not 3D? “Immortals” was shot in 2D, but was always intended for a 3D post-conversion, which is more than could be said for the lifeless “Clash of the Titans” post-conversion. There were a few shots that seemed to reward the 3D experience, but there were also scenes in which the 3D made some of the backgrounds and limited sets look a bit shoddy, which couldn’t have been the intent. In the action scenes, the 3D added little, but also didn’t detract. I think my general recommendation would be 2D, but that’s pretty much my default recommendation on post-converted 3D.
There really was a time when a movie like “Immortals” would come out and I’d say, “Well, it’s not a good movie, but if you’re going to see it, you’ve got to see it on the big screen, because it’s so cinematic.” I don’t know if I feel that way anymore. The story and the emotional hook of “Immortals” are so weak that I can’t recommend it as an overall experience and I think that “Immortals” will look nearly as good on a huge TV on Blu-Ray. Yes, there’s much to be said for the immersion of the movie theater experience, but I think “Immortals” may be even more enjoyable when you can press pause on your favorite images, study your favorite compositions and maybe, if the DVD is specialized enough, eliminate the dialogue track entirely. 
“Immortals” is now in theaters.