Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011)

Dressing up 300's presentation ancient Greek carnage with even more slow-motion, gore and fussy but meaningless art direction, Tarsem Singh's Immortals represents a significant step backward for the director whose long-gestating labor of love, The Fall, made him an instant cult icon. Immortals, sadly, resembles more the director's prior The Cell, a thin, borderline offensive premise made both more alluring and more repellent by Singh's grandiose, immaculate designs. Most of the shots in this film display an intricate control of mise-en-scène, but the florid colors, precise blocking and refreshing use of tactile objects where possible only make it more frustrating that no one apparently stopped to take stock of how awful all those obsessively arranged objects were.

Awkwardly inserting itself between a revisionist exposé of how great but mortal deeds become godlike and an endorsement of supernatural mythology, Immortals never properly finds its footing. Vaguely retelling the story of Theseus (Henry Cavill), the film depicts the mythological hero as a peasant who has honed his fighting skills from childhood under the tutelage of a kind old man (John Hurt) who just might be more than meets the eye. Theseus' village, a stacked network of homes etched into a sheer cliff face near Mount Tartarus, comes under fire by Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), the king of Crete, who seeks to free the Titans caged in the giant mountain to bring about the death of the gods he despises. We soon learn that gods do indeed exist in this world, but despite the threat of unleashing the Titans, they force the humans to fight their battle for them.

This is but the first and most prominent element of the film to make no sense. Zeus (Luke Evans) warns any other god who might think of helping Theseus and the tiny contingent of support the man amasses because "the law" forbids gods to interfere in the affairs of man. Heracles, one of a number of children he made with a human women, is literally standing there when he says this. His daughter, Athena (Isabel Lucas) also mentions Zeus being that old man who coached Theseus from childhood, which the supreme god defends by saying he was in human form, the supernatural equivalent to, "I smoked, but I didn't inhale." There is a point to be made here about the hypocrisy and egomania of the gods, a point the Greeks themselves made in some of their myths, but Singh presents this arbitrary restriction without comment, needing any excuse to ward off the audience asking, "Well why doesn't Zeus just put a lightning bolt up Hyperion's ass and end this now?"

Not much else in the film obeys any logic, internal or otherwise, either. Singh stages a number of swordfights without any grounding in drama, making the hacking and slashing feel more like a video game cutscene than a film. In fact, I kept thinking of the God of War games while I watched CGI bubbles of blood explode out of people slashed with rote button-mashing repetition. Those games not only have a more engaging mythological revisionism, they better capture and critique the unchecked arrogance of the gods. They also give some sense of scale as to the difficulty of killing an immortal, which here seems a matter only of getting the drop on a timeless being. The Titans themselves just look like charred people, and the gods can kill them nothing more than chains and the rod part of Poseidon's trident. If they were this easy to kill, why imprison them in the first place? And why, when the gods have to finally face their old foes, do only six of them show up? This is fate-of-the-world stuff, Hephaestus, maybe get off your ass.

Yes, yes, it's just an action film, and one more visually sophisticated than the usual tat. Singh said he set out to cross Fight Club with Caravaggio, and he largely succeeds. But that artiness privileges the tableaux of the master shots, not the eventual slide into incoherent action scored to what sounds like Hans Zimmer's "braaam" refrain from Inception crossed with an audio recording of a hurricane taken with a cellphone. The climactic battle betrays Singh's flaws when it comes to handling the variables of people, who cannot be so minutely controlled in large numbers and undo all that work he put into the lovely tunnels and caves. By founding his film on prettiness, not humanity, Singh not only prevents any kind of moral connection to the violence but perversely beatifies it. One could justify this as the director canonizing the all-too-real deeds of man into a great mythological event, but even the depictions of torture in this movie are so finely crafted as to revel in the blood.

Immortals does get a few things right, chiefly in that portrayal of ancient Greece not as some utopian place of peace and wisdom but a bloodthirsty place of horrific war and atrocity. Hyperion in particular is, despite the thin reasoning behind his quest to bring about the end of the world (between this and Star Trek, I'm so sick of people taking out the loss of a loved one on an entire planet), frightfully plausible. He plans his subjugation across generations, trying to leave as many descendants as possible not merely to perpetuate his own line but to leave genealogical scars of his conquest in order to gain victory even in death. But Immortals never capitalizes on these brief displays of clarity, soon dropping right back into the saber-rattling, blood-letting glory of war. Then again, its costumery and staging are so absurd that the fights here are more likely to be canonized by Aristophanes than Homer.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this one, agree, it aint a 'deep'film, but hey, it entertains with its visuals which were in usual Tarsem fashion, a beauty to look at.