Tarsem Singh’s Immortals is a strange beast, a hybrid creature not unlike the minotaur of legend, part man, part bull. In legend, the minotaur has a man’s body and a bull’s head. I guess that makes it about one fifth bull. Well, the proportion of bull in Singh’s movie is considerably greater than that, but Immortals is still a magnificent spectacle, a veritable feast for the eyes!
Writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides describe a cosmos in which gods and Titans, seers and magical weapons are a reality but then they do something quite strange, they interpret the legend of Theseus in a far more mundane and materialistic way. Their hero is not the demi-god son of two fathers – the gods Poseidon and Aegus by a princess, Aethra – he’s the bastard son of a raped peasant woman. Gone too is the labyrinth and the divine (if somewhat sordid) origin of the minotaur; in fact the minotaur isn’t really a beast-monster at all (well, not literally).
It’s as if the brothers Parlapanides wanted to give us the wonder and magic of Greek mythology but also to find some basis in reality for the legend of Theseus. The two approaches don’t sit all that comfortably together. The challenge they gave themselves of presenting mythology as if it’s real AND of performing a structuralist interpretation of that mythology in search of an underlying “truth” seems to have been too much for the writers. What we end up with is a mish-mash of materialist and metaphysical ideas from class politics on the one hand to a profound anti-rationalism on the other (atheism – and the pursuit of reason – are proven to be blind faith, not to mention detrimental to your health).
More could be said on that score but that’s as far as I’d want to take any critical analysis of Immortals. For all its incredible artistry and its allusions to Greek philosophical thought, this movie was not created for intellectual debate: there’s little intellectual depth to the artistry and the philosophical allusions are shallow (live rightly; deeds ensure immortality; it is not enough to fight – there must be a cause…).
In short, leave your thinking cap at home: this movie is one to be experienced for its spectacle. If you’re familiar with Singh’s earlier movie, The Fall, you’ll know that the director has a unique vision and aesthetic. More arthouse than mainstream, he works with an incredibly rich palette of colours and images which are hyper-real. With Immortals, he takes that approach to a whole new level. His vision of a world of gods and men is ravishingly beautiful and horrifically brutal.
I stand by my judgment that the narrative and dialogue in Immortals don’t inspire critical thought but if mythology expresses something profound from our subconscious, the vision that Singh brings to the screen speaks directly to that level of our mind. It is ravishing, sumptuous, awe-inspiring. What we witness is hyper-real, it is surreal, it is the landscape of dream and of nightmare. It speaks to us but at a level below conscious thought.
And I’m delighted to say that for the first time since Avatar, here is a use of 3D that actually enhances the movie, demonstrating finally that post production conversion can work.
Although, I’m still not convinced that post-production conversion is worth the effort and expense.
The story is loosely based on the legend of Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant in whom Zeus has (for reasons unexplained) taken a hand in educating and training since childhood, forging a magnificent warrior.
King Hyperion of Crete (Mickey Rourke) leads his army on a bloody rampage across Greece in search of the Bow of Epirus, an invincible weapon of legend created by Ares, God of War. With the bow the king intends to free the Titans from their imprisonment in Tartarus: defeated by the Olympian gods in an ancient war known to legend as the Titanomachy, the Titans will take Hyperion’s war to the Olympian Gods themselves. Forbidden to intervene directly in the affairs of men, the gods instead “provide” a hero in the form of Theseus, a man intent on revenge after his village is raided and his mother killed by the king himself. When Theseus meets the Sybelline Oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto), her disturbing visions of his future convince her that he is the key to stopping the destruction. With her help, Theseus assembles a small band of followers and embraces his destiny in a final desperate battle for the future of humanity.
But really, forget the plot. Don’t analyse it. Don’t even think about it. When all is said and done, it’s far too often contrived and illogical.
Oh, what the hell, here are some thoughts about it: Theseus is a peasant with no noble or divine origin and yet Zeus took a personal interest in the child, guiding, educating and training him. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because the writers decided to present mythology as if it’s real AND to perform some sort of bloody structuralist interpretation of the mythology in search of an underlying “truth” combined with some trite class politics! They want to humanise Theseus and ground him in reality but they can’t stray too far from the mythology so they end up with a narrative that doesn’t bear close examination.
So forget the plot and enjoy the spectacle. Especially the action, which is magnificent: brutal and glorious. The combat and violence has something of 300’s hyper-real, stylized movement to it, in particular Theseus’s fighting technique. But when the gods take up arms, then we learn the meaning of awesome. Each of the gods fights with a unique style that speaks of their character (not unlike the samurai in Takashi Milke’s brilliant 13 Assassins) and they do so with balletic grace and bloody horror. It is glorious. Divine, majestic violence.
Not all the violence is easy to watch however. Hyperion, played with convincing menace by Mickey Rourke, is a homicidal maniac, a psychopath with an army of mindless thugs to bring his brand of depravity to the world. What motivates him is not entirely clear however. He claims to seek immortality, not through deeds as such but through conquest, the killing of men and spreading of his own seed. And yet his army rampages across the land with a specific purpose: to locate the Bow of Epirus. While he could use this weapon to defeat the armies of men, his aim seems only to release the Titans, taking the war to the gods themselves. But why? For revenge because the gods turned a blind eye when his family died, as he says? Seems like a wee bit of an over-reaction. So is there more to it? Perhaps. In mythology, there was a Titan called Hyperion, so are the writers obliquely referring to this when King Hyperion seems focussed only on destroying the gods? Is King Hyperion an incarnation of the Titan Hyperion out for revenge? Or did the character start out as a Titan but the writers decided to humanise him, leaving him with a motivation that makes little sense?! Who knows?
But damn, I’ve just ignored my own advice and thought about the plot again.
Although Immortals is not without its flaws, it is a magnificent spectacle to behold. If you can switch off your critical faculties and enjoy it for the spectacle, you will be rewarded.
For all my criticism, tongue-in-cheek and otherwise, I did thoroughly enjoy it.