REVIEW: Immortals Wants to Be 300 So Bad It Hurts
As cool-looking, dumb and deadly serious as you could desire, Immortals openly aims to be the heir to 300, and succeeds in at least being a reasonable facsimile that hits many (too many) of the same testosterone-driven beats. The battles are just as imaginatively bloody, the abs painstakingly chiseled, the dialogue tin-eared, only this time around the stakes are not just the fate of the historic(esque) world, but of the divine one as well. There are gods in this film, beautiful, gold-cloaked ones who watch worriedly from atop Olympus as Greece is overrun by the armies of the wicked King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), a man who wants nothing less than to bring about the destruction of their divine order, though they're forbidden to interfere in the world of man for...oh, who knows why? Also, it's in 3-D -- dark, dark 3-D I'd avoid if given the option.
Despite this new expansion in scale, Immortals lacks the inexorable forward momentum of its role model 300, as well as that movie's audacious, gleeful fascism and oblivious, accidental homoeroticism. You wouldn't think the absence of these elements would leave much of a wound, but there was something mesmerizing about 300's macho outrageousness that Immortals can't equal -- Gerard Butler, his phallic facial hair and his band of fearsome warriors were fighting for their kingdom, by the gods, and their right to continue throwing babies they deemed defective off of cliffs. Theseus, as played by Man of Steel-to-Be Henry Cavill, is a handsome bore who draws his sword "to protect those I love" and who seems awfully attached to his mother for such a supposed tough guy. Raised a peasant in a small village, Theseus has been taught to fight and act noble by a wise old man (John Hurt) who's actually Zeus (Luke Evans) in disguise -- those rules of noninterference are complicated. When Hyperion slaughters Theseus' mother and everyone else left behind in the settlement, our hero is taken into slavery, and there meets a thief named Stavros (Stephen Dorff) and the virginal Sibylline Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and heads toward a rendezvous with his destiny.
Immortals is the third film from Tarsem Singh, who established himself in the arenas of commercials and music videos before making The Cell in 2000 and The Fall in 2006. In this film, Singh continues to display an astonishing visual imagination and far less facility with pacing and exchanges of dialogue. Immortals drags whenever anyone open his or her mouth to do anything other than utter a battle cry, and characters seem to endlessly dwell on how they lost their faith when the gods failed to heal their sick family or give them the pony they wanted. Cavill isn't a bad lead, but the role of Theseus doesn't give him much to work with other than opportunities to dismember enemies with a sword and pose shirtless. Rourke fares better as the evil king, ordering gravelly cruelties from out of the semi-darkness and oozing menace around a series of increasingly goofy headwear. He controls a mighty, rapacious army, though why they stick around is a bit of a mystery -- everyone has to wear a Leatherface-like mask, recruitment seems to involve getting a vasectomy done with a hammer, and Hyperion has an alarming tendency to kill his underlings to make a dramatic point.
While not all of the lavish visual touches work -- Rourke is intimidating no one in that Totoro helmet -- Immortals is packed with shots of grandeur and gorgeousness. Theseus' home village is carved into the side of a cliff, and the approach to it is a winding path that leads in from a lookout through whose cylindrical bell the camera zooms. A white-walled oasis in the middle of the desert contains a pool of blue water, a giant marble wall is the location of the Greeks' last stand, and a metal statue over a flame proves an ingenious torture device. Theseus' ability to side-scroll his way across the screen killing anonymous combatants would have been more impressive a few years ago when it hadn't yet become fairly standard, but the film does contain two exhilarating fight scenes. One provides a clever revision of the myth from which our protagonist takes his name -- a fighter referred to only as "the beast," who wears a bull-shaped headpiece made of wrought iron -- goes to hunt down Theseus in the labyrinthine temple in which he's laying his mother to rest.
The other is the climactic battle between the Olympians and the Titans that unfolds as one of three simultaneous fights and is by far the most exciting, operating on unique physics in which the gods seem able to warp time in service of their wreaking havoc on their somewhat demonic opponents. The pseudo-Greek mythology from which Immortals draws many of its elements is best not examined too closely, or at all, lest you start to wonder why, for instance, the Olympians imprisoned those troublesome Titans in the first place instead of just killing them as they're clearly able to do. But their ridiculousness aside, the moments the gods head down to Earth are when the film truly comes to life, as they plunge from the heavens in pointy hats and use their powers to smear mortals across cliff faces. Those are the times when Immortals breaks free from the shadow of 300 and finds a path toward excess more its own.
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