Clash, by David Bax
Comparisons to Zack Snyder’s 300 are going to be hard to escape when it comes to discussing Tarsem Singh’s newest film, Immortals. That’s not some pesky inconvenience to be discarded, though, as such comparisons are apt. The similarities, much like the massive enemy armies our heroes face in both films, are legion.
Snyder didn’t invent the bloody swords-and-sandals movie but the likeness runs deeper than just that. Both are stylish films by directors possessing a preoccupation with visual bravado. Both – though more so with Immortals – have supernatural undercurrents. Even more specific a kinship is the presentation of the battles in the stories. Snyder is the most exemplary devotee of “speed ramping,” that thing where the film changes speeds within a single shot. Singh embraces the technique here, to thrilling effect.
Due to 300’s financial success and baffling cultural longevity, these comparisons are likely to hurt Immortals, which is a shame because the latter is a much better film than the former. Despite what some marketing materials might tell you, Snyder is not a true visionary. He translated, as literally as possible, the look of a certain graphic novel to the screen. Singh has presented an undeniable and unique vision dating back to his early music videos (including the beautiful “Losing My Religion” for R.E.M.) and culminating theatrically in the ridiculous 2000 film The Cell (I don’t mean to imply that Immortals is not also ridiculous because it most certainly is). Singh’s aesthetic makes for one of the most intriguing applications of 3D in this new era of the format. That’s how I saw it and enjoyed it though I wouldn’t quite call it an imperative for fulfillment.
Even beyond the mis-en-scène, Singh presents a more nuanced thematic construction, with far less fascism than 300, not to mention far less of that film’s unexplored homoeroticism. Again, this is not to say that Immortals contains no fascism or homoeroticism, just less of it.
Immortals tells the story of Theseus (Henry Cavill), a peasant who wages a war against invading King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). Hyperion cuts a brutal swath through Theseus’s homeland, searching for a mystical weapon called the Epirus Bow. It took me a while to register the exact pronunciation of the armament because Rourke mumbles his way through his role. The bow has the power to unleash the titans, the long sequestered race who are the only hope Hyperion has of defeating the gods.
Gods and titans are, of course, the literal immortals of the title but that word has multiple, deeper meanings within the film. Singh is using this tale to explore the things that outlast a human lifespan; namely, our legacies and our bloodlines. Hyperion speaks at length more than once about his plan to rape the women of Theseus’s country so abundantly that his genes will dominate the land for generations upon generations. Yet Theseus, it is said, will be remembered for what he did. Not just his DNA but his name will live on without him. The point, it would seem, is that the quality of one’s lasting impact means more than the quantity.
Less satisfyingly investigated is the movie’s feminine, but possibly not feminist, theme. Freida Pinto plays Phaedra, an oracle whose powers are bound to her virginity. This isn’t a unique concept but the concentrated way Singh presents her sexuality, along with the sexual politics and power of other women in the film – like Theseus’ mother, Aethra (Anne-Day Jones) and the goddess Athena (Isabel Lucas) – suggests he has something to say on the subject. To my eyes, however, it was never clear what that might have been.
As in Singh’s other work, the presentation is in the driver’s seat here. The story is unsurprising, the dialog is stilted and the characters are hastily defined. The arcs of the people in the story are so predictable that we automatically fill in the blanks ourselves, perhaps not even noticing how little work is being done by the screenplay or the actors. What should be one of the biggest moments of the film, an iteration of Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech scenario, is hastily gotten over with so we can get on with the gory spectacle of the ensuing battle. The cast doesn’t make up for the material, either, turning in roundly utilitarian performances with the exception of Stephen Dorff, whose picaresque but muscle-bound thief brings the sole spark of personality. Character actors like Mark Margolis (one scene) and Stephen McHattie (two scenes as the requisite “liberal” who favors diplomacy over war) disappear before being allowed to make an impression.
Still, the film persists in being entertaining. As I said, these dramaturgical issues are not as important as the action on screen. Singh proves himself to not only be talented in the composition of a frame but in the kinetic splendor of film as well. Speed-ramping can be fun to watch, especially when executed as well as it is here, but it is largely a cosmetic touch. The basic components of any fight scene in any film are choreography and editing. Singh utilizes these tools to give us tight, breathless and beautiful action sequences, even as they are often completely ludicrous.
A film’s being watchable is not tantamount to artistic worth. Yet I believe Immortals has both elements, if not in equal sums. It’s smarter and more meaningful than it seems on the surface but that’s not why you might find yourself returning to it in the coming years. You’ll do that because it’s such a damned blast to experience.