Monday, November 14, 2011

IMMORTALS: Does Tarsem Singh's Epic Achieve Glory?


- A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of The Fall on blu-ray. The move came highly recommended - a visual tour de force from director Tarsem Singh. I found a lot to like in the film - the movie's fantasy sequences were, visually, absolutely stunning. The movie flashed back and forth between these fantasy scenes and a more somber real-world setting, and a large part of me wished that this had just been an entire film set in that eye-popping mythological world. While the real-world elements dragged, and felt awkward - even tone-deaf - at times, the fantasy scenes showed that Tarsem was someone to watch. This was a guy who had an incredible eye for color, costumes, and perspective - a unique, new voice in film. To that end, I knew going in that IMMORTALS was going to be more than just a 300 or Clash of the Titans clone. With Tarsem at the helm, the movie would look and feel unique and special. And after seeing the movie, that is certainly the case. IMMORTALS is, once again, a visual tour de force - with psychedelic action, stunning cinematography, and an overall look and feel that is gaudy, extreme, and definitely not generic. By the same token, while Tarsem excels with visuals, he is still developing as a storyteller. Like The Fall, the pacing and overall narrative structure of Immortals feels somewhat off, and the movie rarely feels 100% cohesive. Still, these issues are not enough to totally derail the film. As sheer action-movie spectacle, Immortals delivers.

IMMORTALS is a highly-stylized take on ancient Greek myth, with an epic yet very simple story driving the action. Our hero is Theseus, a peasant whose homeland is invaded by the ruthless, conquering armies of King Hyperion. Hyperion's plan is to find and utilize a legendary bow that would make him unstoppable on the battlefield, and that also has a secondary purpose - to help free the long-imprisoned Titans of myth - fearsome demigods who once waged war with Zeus and the rest of the Olympians. So while Theseus leads a rebel faction (including a thief, a monk, and the fabled, prophetic vision-having Oracle) against Hyperion, the Olympians sit atop Olympus and wonder whether they should interfere, so as to avoid another heavenly war with their old rivals.

At least, this is sort of what I gathered to be the plot, as the movie doesn't dwell a lot on story, and even when it does, it's more about giving us melodramatic speeches and monologues than a cohesive plot. For the first several minutes of Immortals, expect to feel a bit lost. Eventually, things fall more into place - or at the least, the action picks up so we don't need to worry as much about the particulars of the plot. But this is one of those movies where I guess you sort of just have to go with the flow. A lot of things don't always make sense.

But, what does stand out is the charismatic cast, who more than ably steps up to make these heroes of myth larger than life. A couple of things stood out to me about this cast. One is that Mickey Rourke steals the show as the sadistic King Hyperion. We never find out much about the character's backstory or anything, but as played by Rourke, we do know that he's one badass sonofabitch. Rourke gives Hyperion a low, somber dialect that's brimming with barely-contained rage, and it makes all of his hate-filled speechifying that much more riveting. In short, he's awesome. The second thing that really was cool about this film was that, in my view, Henry Cavill did a great job in the lead role of Theseus. Sure, Cavill was saddled with some clunky dialogue, but he really showed some good intensity and yes, gravitas. I think fanboys will take note, because the impression I got from Immortals is that Cavill may just make for one hell of a Superman. In this film alone, he shows he's got the acting chops, the physicality, and the screen presence to be the Man of Steel.

The movie is rounded out by a pretty good supporting cast as well. Frieda Pinto for one, well, please just cast her as every exotic fantasy film female from now on, and I'll be happy. Pinto has the presence to pull off these sorts of roles with ease, and as the Oracle, she does a fine job - again, even if she's not given much to work with and is saddled with some groan-worthy dialogue. But Pinto's natural talent shines through (and no, I won't make a joke about her other, um, "assets" ... suffice it to say - men, there's your reason to see this one in 3D). The great John Hurt also turns in a nice performance as the mysterious and unnamed Old Man who materializes to give Theseus advice. I also enjoyed the performance of Luke Evans as Zeus - appropriately theatrical and melodramatic, it was an effective portrayal. A little less great? Stephen Dorff as a thief who acts a defacto sidekick for Theseus. Dorff is supposed to be the comic relief, but most of his one-liners are groan instead of laugh-inducing.

Now, Tarsem has filled his movie with some quality, larger-than-life actors, and the movie really sings when he's got them engaged in some crazy-ass action. The film's action scenes unfold in a videogame-like manner, seeming to take a lot of cues from the God of War series - replicating those games' chained attacks and elegantly-choreographed brutality. In fact, a lot of Immortals seems to follow a videogame-style logic structure. Like I said, the plot is a bit all-over-the-place and fairly bare bones, and in that respect, the movie follows some of the pacing of a game like God of War - swift, chaotic action quickly tempered by character-building "cut scenes" that serve as a brief respite between battles. Now, in a game, cut scenes provide cruscial storybuilding moments, as well as a break for your fingers. But this style of pacing is a bit awkward in a movie like this. It makes the film feel very jumpy - crazy-ass action often - and almost always awkwardly - transitioning into quieter, more dialogue-heavy scenes. Like I said though, so much of the movie is that videgame-y "find the weapon, beat the baddie - pull the crank, open the door" style of storytelling. It becomes less jarring as the movie goes along, and you realize that you're essentially watching a live-action Playstation game. At the same time though, there's a disjointedness that the movie never truly overcomes. Even simple things like "how did the characters get from Point A to Point B?" ... the movie lacks a sense of flow that ties its disaparate scenes together.

But man, even if this is just a live-action Playstation game, well, what a beautiful Playstation game it is. Tarsem colors his mythological world with gorgeous scenes of mountains, oceans, waterfalls, and fortresses. And the costume and character design is very cool - a mix of Greek myth, Eastern aesthetics, and Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy-adventure grittiness. The battles are all choreographed extremely well, and have plenty of bone-crunchingly-satisfying carnage.

Overall, there are glimpses of greatness in IMMORTALS. Mickey Rourke's memorable, villainous turn. The glimmers of action-hero awesomeness shown by Henry Cavill. And the painterly, eye-popping, brutal-yet-beautiful visuals of Tarsem Singh. If only the film had the drama, plot, and characterization to match, it could have been truly epic. So far, Tarsem Singh has proven that he is a visionary director when it comes to visuals - now he needs to match those amazing visuals with equally amazing ideas.

My Grade: B

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