Not everyone sees eye-to-eye. You might love something that’s reviled by most others. When we at PoP! feel like that, we make an argument In Defense Of…
Directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar
Starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans, and John Hurt
When the 2011 swords-and-sandals epic Immortals premiered in theaters last November, it was met with poor critical reviews and was largely ignored by the general moviegoing public. Despite eventually making a small profit at the box-office and earning $227,000,000 worldwide, it is considered one of the most disappointing films of last year. The movie’s 36% Rotten Tomatoes score combined with my general indifference with the previous films from director Tarsem (a.k.a. Tarsem Singh, a.k.a. Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, as he is credited in this movie) led me to skip it in the theater. Though after recently checking it out after it became available on Netflix Instant Watch, I found it to be a fun, if not a particularly mind-blowing, entry in the subgenre of effects-heavy adventure films based on Greek mythology and/or history.
The film takes place in ancient Greece and draws heavily from many Greek myths. Current Superman-to-be Henry Cavill stars as Theseus, a brave but troubled mortal who is unknowingly counseled and watched over by the god Zeus (played in god form by Luke Evans, and in-disguised mortal form by the legendary John Hurt). His village is soon raided by the army of Heraklion, led by the villainous King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), who brutally murders Theseus’ mother right in front of him before selling him into slavery. Theseus soon escapes with a group of convicted thieves and a female Oracle named Phaedra (Freida Pinto), who reveals to Theseus that Hyperion seeks to capture her because she knows the whereabouts of an ancient weapon known as the Epirus Bow. The bow is the only thing that can free the imprisoned Titans from their cell at the bottom of Mount Tartarus so they can mount an attack against the gods of Olympus. Theseus and his comrades then travel with Pheaedra to beat Hyperion’s forces to the bow and then mount an army to try to defeat him. They are aided in their journey by the gods themselves, who occasionally intervene in their favor, despite the explicit orders of Zeus that they must not become involved in the affairs of mortals.
The actual story of Immortals is just as slight and silly as any other movie of its type, but what really made this movie interesting to me was the visual style that Tarsem brought to it. The lighting, art direction, and color palette make the entire film represent a classical painting. Tarsem makes no attempt to make the sets look realistic, and yet somehow they look a lot more real than the green-screen setting of Zack Snyder’s 300. The costumes are all extremely garish, but most of the actors manage to pull off such toned-down, naturalistic performances that the viewer looks past the ridiculous clothes they are wearing and actually start to take the movie seriously. Even Mickey Rourke, who occasionally wears an insane-looking helmet that resembles a lobster claw, manages to be a legitimately menacing villain without going too over the top. I also enjoyed how, despite the existence of such supernatural beings as Gods and Titans in the film, Immortals manages to be slightly more realistic than, say, the two recent Clash of the Titans films. Aside from the Titans themselves, who resemble disfigured humans, there are no real monsters in the film. There is a scene in which Theseus battles a Minotaur, but here that mythical beast is just a large, brutish man wearing a bull’s head made of barbed wire, which I thought was an inventive interpretation of that famous creature.
The majority of the battle scenes in Immortals are filmed with the same slow-motion shots meant to emphasize all the epic kills that have become ubiquitous in films of this type, yet occasionally Tarsem manages to use this trope in an original and creative way. The first time one of the gods explicitly intervene in Theseus’ business, he dispatches of his foes in super slo-mo with his whip, causing their heads to explode like ripe melons. In this case, the slow-motion makes sense, since these mere mortals obviously wouldn’t stand a chance against an all-powerful god. During the climax of the film, when the Gods are fighting opponents closer to their strength level, the action is sped up in some places and slowed down in others, giving the viewer the impression of an epic battle between two powerful forces. The battles among the mortals are less interesting, as they employ the same methods shown in earlier films, but the brutal final battle between Theseus and Hyperion is filmed conventionally, which gives it a much more poignant emotional impact than I expected.
The cast of Immortals is mostly hit or miss. Mickey Rourke does a solid job in a role that could have been awful, and John Hurt is fantastic as always as Zeus in mortal form. Cavill is capable if slightly bland in the lead performance, Stephen Dorff is hilariously out of place as the Han Solo-esque rakish sidekick, and Freida Pinto, as always, is lovely to look at but is extremely ineffectual as an actress here. I thought Tarsem’s choice to present the gods as young, muscular twenty-somethings as opposed to elderly, bearded beings made a lot of sense, because since these beings are immortal, why wouldn’t they want to stay young and hot? I was particularly drawn to Athena, who is played by the very fetching Isabel Lucas. None of the actors playing the gods gave particularly memorable performances, but I admired the choice to have them portrayed by younger actors.
Ultimately, I had a pretty good time watching Immortals. It’s not a movie that stays with the viewer long after it’s done, but it’s a well-made and entertaining time-waster that could have been a lot worse than it actually turned out to be. Perhaps the reason it got such a cool reception was because it didn’t try to be a crazy, balls-to-the-wall action film like the Clash of the Titans remake, but I for one appreciated that it tried new things within the genre and managed to succeed at many of them. By playing the material straight and not going too crazy with it, Tarsem managed to make an eye-pleasing spectacle about gods and warriors that managed to be somewhat grounded and subdued, which made the big action scenes all the more effective since they stood out more from the rest of the film. For exceeding my then-very-low expectations, Immortals gets 3.5 out of 5 Literal Deus Ex Machinas.