The above image appears in the final moments of Tarsem “Is it okay to call you Singh now?” Singh’s operatic and opulent visual feast and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” fantasia film that is Immortals. It’s an image a young boy conjures when he closes his eyes and imagines the Titans and the Gods duking it out in the clouds above, and it’s a magical cinematic moment you’ll wish there was more of in Immortals. When the visionary director focuses on the visions – like an earlier scene where the beautiful Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) first touches our hero Theseus (an appropriately Superman ready Henry Cavill) and is set into a literal 3D tizzy of finely crafted and overt symbolism – it’s enough to make you thank the cinematic gods for Tarsem…almost.
So I was originally going to open with some revelation about a little known historical fact: Alexander the Great had a time machine that he used to go into the future where he met Salvador Dali, and naturally decapitated him. However, the decapitated head of Dali took on a life of its own and traveled to India where it met up with a little Hindi boy and began whispering the secrets of Alexander’s nightmares into the boy’s ear at night while he slept. That boy grew up to be Tarsem. Seriously, there are some critics who would have you believe Immortals is that kind of bonkers. Oh, if it only it were…but I digress…
The problem with Immortals is that Tarsem, who was so fiercely independent and original with his previous film The Fall, has been tied down by the studio and a big budget to deliver the generic goods. There’s not a sword-and-sandal cliché left unturned by Tarsem and his screenwriters, and it makes for a painfully banal storyline. Luckily Tarsem pulls out all the stops visually – from the Eiko Ishioka costumes (look at the headgear!) to the lighting and cinematography to the fantabulous set designs blended with CGI – everything is beautifully over-the-top and mesmerizing.
Unfairly marketed and compared to the inferior and more fetishistic 300, Tarsem is a far better director than Zack Snyder, though he sadly succumbs to the same obsession with slo-mo death blows. Luckily Tarsem has a keen sense of spectacle within a confined space and knows how to edit, frame and choreograph battle scenes so that they pulse with suspense even when the plot might not be making any sense. He also knows the importance of building actual sets (unlike everything Snyder does to turn film into a video game), though I wished he had done more location shooting (as he so brilliantly did in The Fall) and relied less on the green screens. The malevolence of his imagery puts him more in line with a Guillermo del Toro than it does with Snyder or Tim Burton, and he presents an otherworldly East-Meets-West pastiche that is unrivaled by his more purely Hollywood counterparts.
Tarsem is also clever with his casting. As the evil King Hyperion, Mickey Rourke makes for one beastly bad-ass hell-bent on world destruction and breaking one of the golden rules by gleefully killing the messenger every time. The normally wooden Pinto is picture-perfect as Phaedra, and Cavill has enough charisma to make a compelling hero out of the stereotype. The ridiculously attractive individuals playing the pantheon of the Gods are a little bit silly, as is every scene featuring the actual Immortals – but hell, nobody ever asked for realism from Greek mythology, and it all looks so damn good, so who cares?
While I would’ve preferred a more solid framework to the story – perhaps book-ending it with more of that childhood imagination stuff we saw in the closing moments – it’s hard to say that Immortals doesn’t deliver the goods in spite of its myriad of faults. Let’s be honest with ourselves – nobody goes to these types of movies for the plot or character development. We go for the visual spectacle…and Immortals certainly has that in spades.
If you like bloody battle scenes fought by good-looking people in ridiculously pageant-esque costumes that appear as if they were designed by an Ancient Greek scholar on LSD, then I’d be a fool not to recommend Immortals to you. It’s fleet-footed, weird and fun. For everyone else, you might be best served by waiting for the coffee-table book tie-in.
Written by David H. Schleicher