15 November 2011

Movie Review: Immortals

Immortals (2011)
Directed by Tarsem Singh. Starring Henry Cavill, Stephen Dorff, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Luke Evans, Kellan Lutz.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Relativity Media and Rogue Pictures should be thankful that they released Immortals the same week as Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill, which has turned into the One-Stop Shopping place for hilariously negative reviews. The Adam Sandler beat-up took the attention away from Immortals’s poor reviews, and likely helped push the film to its #1 spot at the box office for the weekend. I can imagine the scene at the multiplexes:

“So, honey, what do you want to see?”

“Anything but Jack and Jill.”

“Okay, how about that thing that looks like Clash of the Titans?”

But even though watching Immortals meant that I wasn’t watching Jack and Jill and therefore helping the betterment of global society, I ain’t letting Immortals off the hook for a moment. Except to praise the wacky headgear.

In a development so startling it may upset the balance between Law and Chaos, Immortals manages to be a worse fantasy movie than the recent Conan the Barbarian. If you understand how much I loathe the Marcus Nispel Conan fiasco, you know that I do not make that statement lightly.

Why does the international movie world (this is far from being just a “Hollywood” issue) hate Greek Mythology so much? Why do they feel they can pilfer a few elements from these stories that form the basis of Western culture, and give the finger to what actually makes them work? Using characters like Theseus and Perseus, but robbing them entirely of their mythic context and what makes them fascinating is . . . well, stupid. Except from the pure cash perspective (Clash of the Titans cleaned up internationally, and Immortals is top of the charts and will have huge international as well), the only thing that matters.

Sigh. I argue in a void. But I believe that trying to really work with Greek myth could produce a film both visually exciting and dramatically and thematically compelling. Something that Immortals fails at entirely. It’s overdone visual garbage and a narrative disaster.

The main character of the movie is named “Theseus” (Henry Cavill), and although there are some hand-waving gestures to pretend he has some connection to famous hero of Athens, this is just an impostor created for a new, bland story. The king of Crete (Mickey Rourke), named Hyperion for some reason, and leading a group called the Heraklions, for some reason, is looting made-up holy places in Greece so he can obtain the Epirus Bow and release the imprisoned Titans so they may bring down the Olympians. The Heraklions kill Theseus’s mother, and with some prompting from a disguised Zeus (John Hurt) and an oracle (Frieda Pinto), he sets out to do the required heroic things shown in the trailer.
After about fifteen minutes, there is no point in paying attention to the story. The film has no interesting in telling it to you. Events crowd onto the screen, scenes fall next to each without any sense that one connects to the other except for chronological proximity, and the feeling is that the plot is treading water and trying to disguise it by occasionally throwing bloody chum around to attract sharks. But sharks won’t eat characters this lacking in flavor, so they never arrive.

One of the worst crimes that a film (or book) can commit is to force the audience to ask every few minutes, “So what?” and have no answer. Looking at the story from a distance, such as writing the above plot synopsis, the stakes appear obvious. But never in the film do they feel this way. The story and characters are walking in a circle, achieving nothing. The heroes wander about on the same three sets for most of the film, interrupted with scenes of Mickey Rourke interrogating and then killing someone. This goes on and on until the ludicrous final battle.

So it is a terribly story, told terribly. That double-tap will kill any movie. But I want to combat one of the few items of praise other critics have given the movie even as they shred it. Immortals is not a gorgeous film. It’s an ugly, overburdened mess with no sense of a consistent culture to it. Director Tarsem Singh claimed he wanted to reference Renaissance art in the film’s look, to create, and I quote: “Caravaggio meets Fight Club.” I think he meant he wanted a complicated backdrop with shirtless guys hitting each other in the foreground. He did achieve that it, and it looks awful.

What makes the film’s crazy-quilt design extra grating is that it is supposed to be historical. In a self-defeating move, a title card announces in the second scene that it is “1228 B.C.” Really? You want to be that specific for your outrageous, unreal fantasy flick? Why not tell me if that’s Wednesday as well? If the film announces that kind of date, putting us in the late Bronze Age palace society of Mycenaen Greece, it better try to look something like it. But I saw one—count ‘em, one—location in the movie that reminded me of Mycenaean architecture. And it’s a small room that appears for a few minutes.
There is also nothing in the movie that relates to anything real in late Mycenaean Greece. Instead, there are a bunch of lame faux-Greek names like “Hellenics” and “Herklions” and a ream of fake cities. It is asinine to ignore that treasure trove of the time period, both in visuals and story-telling possibilities, and instead make a connect-the-dot generic fantasy rip-off of 300 and the Clash of the Titans re-make. It is flat-out lazy, lazy filmmaking.

Immortals is extremely violent, earning the “R” with numerous decapitations, throat-slashings, and other side-effects of swinging around sharp pointy objects in a crowd of near-naked people. It’s boring violence as well, carrying no impact because the stylizations of the fight scenes reduces them to “who cares who kill who?” levels. Besides, I’ve seen the 2007 Rambo, and that raised the bar impossibly high for gore in a mainstream action film. (Villains who bayonet babies! Nobody will beat that. Nobody should try.)

Considering the epic nature of the story, the action scenes feel weirdly constricted. The final battle takes place packed inside a hall, making it seem that a war broke out between class bells. The characters spend most of their time in the same three or four locations, and the geography of the movie is so poor that it feels the story is taking place entirely on one soundstage. (Which is probably was, but you don’t want the audience thinking that.) I don’t think “cramped” was what the filmmakers were going for in making a fantasy epic, but that’s what they got.

Oh, and there’s no Minotaur. Seriously! In a wild supernatural fantasy film about Theseus, where the gods and the titans are real and people fight with magic weapons, somebody thought that the Minotaur had to be “realistic.” There’s a burly guy wearing a wire bull helmet, looking for all the world like he got lost from the set of an leather fetish version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but no real Minotaur. This isn’t a Mary Renault novel! Give me a damn human-bull hybrid monster!
The movie does contain two minor “pros”. First is the regatta of hilarious headgear. The Olympians apparently rummaged through the cast-offs from the wardrobe of a Lady Gaga video for their helmets. Poor Mickey Rourke gets stuck in a helmet that makes it look like someone should grab his legs and start using him to trim the topiary animals. I can’t imagine the costume crew wasn’t doubling over with laughter each time they presented these ludicrous designs and director Tarsem Singh approved them. (“What an idiot! He fell for it!” I bet that’s on the crew T-shirts.)

The second “pro” is Athena (Isabel Lucas) slicing open a bunch of people. The goddess is poorly cast in the “fashion model” style and lacks any trace of the Athena’s fabled wisdom, but she’s my favorite god from any religion in any time period, so it’s a pleasure watching her bust heads.

Lead man Henry Cavill is our upcoming Superman, and I feel confident he’ll do well as the Man of Steel. But that’s because I’ve seen him in other movies; based on Immortals alone, I would lose all hope for the upcoming Superman epic. Like some of the other performers in the movie, Freida Pinto in particular, these are fine actors stuck with a nothing script and flat-line direction. They all seem to be trying—except for Mickey Rourke, who appears to labor under the effects heavy pain medication because of the weight of his silly helmet. The Vicodin bills on the budget sheet must have dwarfed the cost of craft service by a figure of ten.

And did John Hurt need a paycheck that much? John, if you need some money, I’m sure people all over the world will gladly give you the $7–$10 admission price and skip the film.

I cannot recommend Immortals on any level. There is nothing non-ironic to enjoy here except as an example of the worst trends in fantasy filmmaking that have developed over the last five years.

In closing, I would like to draw attention to two twentieth-century novels about Theseus that explore the myth in fascinating ways, both of which are worthy of big-screen adaptations: The King Must Die by Mary Renault and Reign of Wizardry by Jack Williamson.