By Richard von Busack
In the ancient days, the godless tyrant Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is on the warpath, furious that the Gods let his family die despite his prayers. On his murderous path is a small cliffside city- state: his real target is a legendary Epirus bow that destroys everything in its path. He feels that if he captures the prophetess Sybil from her temple, he’ll be able to make her talk.
The humble Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a fatherless peasant; he survives Hyperion’s massacre of his town. In the company of the escaped Sybil (she is named Phaedra, and played by Frida Pinto) he overcomes his own bitterness about the gods. These gods watch but they are forbidden by Zeus (Luke Evans) himself to intervene.
Hyperion’s target: the stronghold of Mount Tartarus. Inside the mountain, at the feet of skyscraper-sized statues, are imprisoned the almighty titans. Defeated eons ago, these creatures stand, bridled and mute, in a massive cube of marble waiting for release.
Tell me how you can make a bad movie out of this story. Or rather, go see Immortals, and try to understand why it ended up as bad as it did. It tries to make its impact through violence, as if there was no way we’d take the gilded trunk sale/ Art Deco madness of its design seriously, unless we saw equally serious grisliness.
The crowd, uneasy with sex, has titters galore with the glorious bare butt of Frida Pinto’s body double sashays past the screen. They whinnied also at the impossibly cut and sculpted physiques of the Gods and their towering metal headdresses. (There’s even a line about funny hats in this movie—someone got nervous.) Mickey Rourke’s crab claw helmet was perhaps too rmuch: with a skull like Rourke’s, what does he need with a helmet anyway?
A close-up of Rourke mouth-raping a pomegranate was nasty enough. There’s one fine discreet moment; unseen except for her bare legs, Hyperion’s concubine is lying on the floor; every now and then he tosses her a piece of fruit.
I loved that vision of tyranny, and there’s considerable beauty in Immortals: once again, Singh distills the art of the world into one film; take the Central Asian tribal costumes for the Sybil and her companions, designed, like all the costumes, by the famed Eiko Ishioka.
Immortals is not a sensual film in the sexual sense. Where it gets sensual is in people puncturing, slitting or cleaving each other. Pulsing blobs of blood hovering in bullet time, making abstract patterns in the air. The torture scenes sometimes involve slow-cooking in “The Sicilian Bull,” which recently made an appearance in the doomed Red Riding Hood. What massive opiates were the MPAA on when they rated this R instead of NC17? Immortals is gorgeous, but it’s gross.
Singh (of the amazing The Fall) is a serious visionary filmmaker whose framing, color and compositions, and whose love of “finger of God” lighting marks him as someone on a higher plain than the common action filmmaker. His work demonstrates what the special effects designer Ralph McQuarrie meant when he said: “there’s no button on the computer that says ‘Good Taste.’”
I saw Singh at WonderCon in February telling the crowd he’d wanted Caravaggio and the producers had wanted Zack Snyder. When you hear the script, it’s apparent that Snyder won and the Baroque lost. The woeful script by Charlie and Vlas Parlapanides is the perfect example of what’s meant by the expression “you can write these lines but I can’t act them”.
It’s not an illiterate script; over the roaring and clashing I heard the term “hoplite.” There was one funny bit describing Phaedra and Theseus as “the alluring palm reader and her peasant lover.”
When the Parlapanideses tried to find the ways around the customary sword and sorcery dialogue, they ended up more lost. Hyperion threatens a captive with “discomfort” and it brought me back to my unhappy days copy-editing medical pamphlets. We were never supposed to use the word “pain.”
The words kick you out every time the images try to draw you in: the towering heights of the cliffs, the dust-storm lighting, and the sight of the man-bull in the stone labyrinth, wearing a barbed wire mask and gloves.
Minotaurs are tough customers. In one scene, the monster horribly mistreats a traitor, so I was very happy to see Theseus taking care of it. The creature is played by the gigantic French Canadian Robert Maillet, the 7’ tall fighter Robert Downey took on in Sherlock Holmes.
Why can’t Immortals can’t build this clash up—to make the minotaur seem like an ultimate weapon, or to let us enjoy the fury when the thing’s master finds out Theseus stopped it? This mano y mano just seems like an incident: a sidestep before another giant CG anthill war of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, with yet another fake CG raptor flapping over it. The finale takes place at what looks like an abandoned high dam built as a wall keeping thugs out of Greece). Having this impressive wall, the king of Greece (or whoever he is) turns Neville Chamberlain, which makes abjectly no sense after what’s gone on so far. We have an idea he’s the king of Greece, I should add, but who anyone is in this movie—give or take a half dozen figures—is always hard to tell. Like many visionary filmmakers, Singh uses his actors as models essentially. We know from the prophecy that the titans will get sprung; in the climax-free climax, these creatures look like the boys of the chorus: ash skinned extras who seem to be from Peter Brooks’ film of the Mahabharata.
These new odes to Greek valor always seem to be a spine-stiffeners to the American audience. 300 was as pro-surge a film as they come. After the weakling king is pushed aside, Theseus rallies the troops with a too-edited, close-up free, shield-pounding speech that doesn’t have any ring or rhythm to it.
And there’s an atheist-whipping subtext to Immortals that doesn’t fit into anything we know about the Greek gods. Immortals is a pious movie, as if made for fear of offending those who still worship Zeus. The push and pull between ancient gods and ancient men isn’t here. These gods don’t use humans as chess pieces (as in the smartest scenes in the Harryhausen version of Clash of the Titans), and they’re not wantons who kill men like boys kill flies, for their sport. They stand around with their hands tied, moping, and they lash out at each other, striking and killing each other. However, they’re back for Immortals’ insane can-has-sequel? ending.