'Immortals' Review: Big Dumb Blood, Sweat And Beauty

Immortals is a flagrantly artificial, insanely violent film. 'Insanely' violent because minutes at a time pass where the frame is filled with nothing but graphically split bodies and crushingly brutal combat, with no point beyond the arresting visual of digital viscera in slow motion. But the director of Immortals, Tarsem, who also made The Cell and The Fall, is talented at fooling us into thinking that looking cool is good enough, and so I drank in the gory violence like spring water at an oasis.

The movie is as dumb as it is gory and pretty. It is, on one hand, imaginative enough to present a creepy and ugly reworking of the myth of the Minotaur. But on the other it is so blind to all but the self-indulgence of beautiful design that all concerns are subverted to the cause of presenting weird and beautiful things. It sets up potentially provocative conflicts, like the virgin oracle who really wants to get laid, but will lose her powers if she does, and then abandons them.

Tarsem is a cinematic Prometheus, who steals ideas from others in order to make them available to everyone, but there's no arguing that the guy knows what catches the eye, and he is adept at putting a certain sort of energy on screen. I might not want to make it a regular practice, but I had a good time watching his weird little Grand Guignol of the Titans.

So, yes, Immortals is all spectacle. Story is the last concern. There is a plot: King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), pissed at the gods, seeks a bow that has the power to kill even an immortal. He thinks the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) can point towards the bow. En route to stealing her Hyperion sacks a village and makes a mortal enemy of Theseus (Henry Cavill), the most well-fed and physically fit peasant to ever walk the earth. Theseus and Phaedra team up to try and stop Hyperion as the gods (among them Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Kellan Lutz) look on and occasionally intervene.

None of that plot translates into story. And theme? Don't talk crazy! Look elsewhere for an examination of man's thorny relationship with the gods and power, or even for a structured tale of honor and duty. As far as this movie is concerned, 'theme' is achieved by opening the movie with a quote from Socrates about how righteous men become immortal and divine, then repeating the same quote at the end of the film. The stuff in between the quotes doesn't really have to relate.

Immortals runs on visual energy. The frame explodes with grotesque masks, eccentric costumes and unlikely architecture. One of Hyperion's strongholds looks like a modernist home lifted out of Italy or a corner of the Hollywood Hills. At the center of a catacomb is an Escher-like tomb decorated with a sort of lantern in the shape of a giant head. Olympus is a spare platform in the sky; the gods are fashion models in repose, bedecked in ungainly ceremonial headgear.

Some of the details are silly, and some are weirdly superfluous. (Armor is occasionally decorated with Joel Schumacher Batsuit nipples.) But a great many flourishes are quite gorgeous. It's all crazy, but it almost always works as fascinating spectacle, because Tarsem never for a moment lets on that he thinks it might not. For those who like to gorge on eye-candy, this is a motherlode. The footage was shot in native 3D, and Tarsem, production designer Tom Foden, and director of photography Brendan Galvin make occasionally stunning use of depth. This is a great-looking 3D film.

Immortals refines the pop-art approach Tarsem has relied upon for years, ever since his video for R.E.M.'s 'Losing My Religion' became a sensation. Tarsem's pop-visualist past isn't something to regard lightly. This is really a giant music video. It has all the depth of a dancefloor hit, but can be just as commanding. Comparisons to Zack Snyder's 300 are inevitable, but I prefer the wild visual antics of this movie.

The violence is some of the most grim and painful I've seen in a major film. It rarely crosses into 'mean.' More often than not it is like Sony's God of War games come to digitally bloody life, and so over the top that it doesn't imply pain so much as disbelieving cries of 'holy shit!' But there are ugly moments, to be sure. Any guy sensitive to ball-bashing should beware.

As in a music video, Tarsem moves his actors around like chess pawns. If they can emote and present the script with dead-serious eyes that's great, but far more important is the ability to appear sculpted from marble in action scene slo-mo. Henry Cavill has all those abilities. He gives a motivational speech late in the game that wouldn't rally a group of neighborhood drinking buddies, much less an army facing certain death, but otherwise he's solid.

I said the other day that few directors can go toe to toe with Mickey Rourke in order to get a good performance out of him. I don't think Tarsem is one of those guys, but in this case Rourke's particular brand of "who gives a fuck" dovetails well enough with the aggressive world-weariness of Hyperion. This is a guy who has grown to hate everything to such a degree that he wants to destroy, just as something to do. Rourke walks through the role, but Tarsem and his editors shape his sullen stalking into something frightening.

And I liked Tarsem's vision of the Olympians as gorgeous, dithering but shockingly powerful fashion models. That presentation of the gods is one place where the visual elements almost resolve into something like theme-enriched content, and Immortals might approach being a genuinely good movie if he had taken that further. There are great depictions of elements of Greek myth here, but aside from a brief glimmer there and there, Tarsem is blind to their potential to be more than big-budget window dressing.

/Film score: 6 out of 10