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Immortals (2011)

Myth Conception

This may come as a shock, but if you're a fan of Greek mythology or the film 300, you should probably stay away from Immortals. True, the movie is being advertised as a warring-gods-and-oiled-men epic, brought to you by the producers of Zack Snyder's bloody CGI opus, but director Tarsem Singh and writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides have delivered a pretty imaginative take on well-worn material that may surprise audiences with both its narrative liberties and lack of mindless splatter.

For the record, I'm a fan of 300. As such, I can acknowledge that the constant battles--while slightly different and exciting in their own ways--become tiresome after awhile, and the obviousness of Snyder's reliance on green screen backdrops gives the film a kooky, made-in-the-basement feel. I should also note that I'm not intimately familiar with Greek myths. I might recognize the names of some gods, if you threw some at me, but I'm more in tune with their Marvel Comics incarnations than how they're represented in historical records.

This preamble is my way of cluing you in as to what kind of maniac might actually enjoy Immortals, a film that, judging by the trailers, is another loud, dumb, CG-swords-and-sandals epic in the vein of the Clash of the Titans remake (which I enjoyed) or The Prince of Persia (which I don't really remember).

Mickey Rourke stars as King Hyperion, a nasty tyrant so enraged at the gods for allowing his family to die of disease that he plots to free the titans--a race of immortal creatures who were imprisoned in the earth after a pre-historic war in heaven. To do this, he must find the fabled bow of Epirus, whose location is known only to Phaedra (Freida Pinto), the virgin oracle. Hyperion's army lays waste to countless villages in his quest to capture the oracle, including that of Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant who has been groomed from birth by a wise elder (John Hurt) to be a crusader for justice. After Hyperion sweeps into town, "justice" means exacting revenge for his mother's death at the hands of the butcher-king.

No one will blame you for having flashbacks to Star Wars, and Immortals plunges deeper into George Lucas territory as Theseus and Phaedra encounter a wisecracking rogue (Stavros, played by Stephen Dorff) and his loyal sidekick (Alan Van Sprang as Dareios) on their way to warn the people of Athens that Hyperion's men are ready to wipe out the last bit of resistance. 

What separates this film from other modern epics of its kind is its willingness to give the villain as much depth and screen time as the protagonist. Rourke is awesome as the disillusioned ruler with the reputation and resources to make the world suffer for his personal agonies. It's easy to look at a movie like this and chuckle when the actor pops up with a scarred face, ratty hair, and armor (Ian raises hand guiltily), but, like all the performers here, he takes the role seriously and imbues his character's utterly monstrous acts with a tinge of empathy. He's not a one-dimensional bad guy, as evidenced by his reaction to an Athenian turncoat who he could have easily used as a pawn (like the wine bottle scene in the beginning of Pan's Labyrinth, there's a moment early on involving the traitor that let the stunned, silent audience know Immortals isn't just fluffy escapism).

It also helps that Cavill makes a terrific leading man. He plays Theseus not as a helpless whiner like Luke Skywalker or a blank slab of beefcake like Jake Gyllenhaal, but as a proud man of little means who won't take crap from anyone of his own station or above. His charisma, bravery, and leadership qualities are self-evident, without being superheroic.** His chemistry with Pinto is tender and believable, and both actors underscore the tragedy of their characters at every turn, instead of bouncing off each other with sassy one-liners (their lovemaking scene--SPOILER!--is surprisingly, emotionally powerful, where in other hands it could have simply been exploitive).

But no one goes to these movies for the story, right? It's all about the visuals, baby! I'm joking, of course, but in Tarsem--who goes by his first name, professionally--you have a director known for a bold, Eastern-influenced style of fantasy that can turn even the weakest of material into a reason to go the the theatre (see also The Cell--if you must). From the film's opening scene, Tarsem sets the audience off balance with weird, stunning imagery that typically has no place in a film like this.

Tarsem's Greece looks like it was sketched by Moebius and rendered by ILM. He gathered the perfect storm of really interesting visual artists in cinematographer Brendan Galvin, production designer Tom Foden, and costume designer Eiko Isioka. Nearly every frame of Immortals looks like a painting or a panel from the world's most dynamic storyboard artist; unlike Snyder's trademark slow-down/speed-up action scenes, Tarsem uses suspended motion to help us better appreciate his crew's artistry and choreography (real-world and virtual).

The film is being promoted as a 3D experience, and I can't recommend enough that you watch the 2D version. Even the best 3D glasses have a darkening effect on the film's presentation, and Immortals is such a bright, expressive picture that any tampering with the palette is a crime. To his credit, Tarsem also directs like he's working on a Pixar movie--meaning that there's enough dimensionality in his compositions that further enhancements are unnecessary.

Rendering gorgeous landscapes and armies made of thousands of masked brutes is easy (okay, not "easy", but at least expected in today's industry of multi-multi-million-dollar computer epics). But making those landscapes and characters interesting to look at is another art entirely. I love Tarsem's take on Mount Olympus, a large, cold city in the sky, populated by a handful of gold-clad gods whose dour, worried mood seems to have infected their environment. On the rare occasion that the gods do descend to earth, their actions are truly spectacular. Immortals has one of the best uses of scale and consequence that I've seen in a blockbuster, and such attention to detail goes a long way in selling the weight of a given scene.

It's a shame that Immortals will likely be lumped in with movies that, at a glance, are just like it. The others I've mentioned seem like sketches, like incremental improvements leading up to a definitive masterwork. This is an effects marvel that tweaks myths and genre conventions just enough to be truly memorable, a smart tale of courage and adventure that deserves to be praised as a go-to fantasy film for this generation.

Note: I'd be remiss in not giving a shout-out to Luke Evans and Isabel Lucas as Zeus and Athena, respectively. As gods who are bound by laws and tempted by emotions, they help sell the film's cosmic predicament by playing up the humanity of their characters, rather than parading around like pompous, unfeeling monoliths. Zeus' solution to the problem of the unleashed titans surprised me, as I'd expected the filmmakers to cheat their way to a happy ending.

*To those of you shouting "Joseph Campbell, asshole!" right now, I say, calm down and realize that the number of people who know who Joseph Campbell is gets smaller every week--unlike Darth Vader's fan base, which will thrive for as long as there are action figures and video games.

**Yep, that's a silly nod to the fact that Cavill is the next big-screen Superman.