Once upon a time, there were people who worshipped a pantheon of lying, scheming, meddling, philandering and generally really fun gods. Millennia of subsequent tale-tellers plundered this dramatic gold mine, and so it came to pass that the Greek divinities became Christian, existential, romantic, postmodern and gym toned. But not until now have they been depicted as a bunch of enervated supermodels hanging around a nightclub after a Maxfield Parrish-inspired photo shoot.
That sums up Immortals, the latest vaguely Greek-inspired action spectacular. Director Tarsem Singh (The Fall) approaches the material the way Werner Herzog might approach a film adaptation of “Gossip Girl”: He doesn’t get it, but that won’t stop him from doing his thing.
Singh’s thing is striking, painterly visuals. Even in dimming 3D, Immortals is a pleasure to behold, full of sublimely rugged cliffs and seascapes, luminous red and yellow accents, actors’ pectorals shimmering with oil, and animalistic masks and totems. If it were a silent film, we would knock its rating up two stars.
But alas, there is dialogue. And a plot. Mickey Rourke plays Hyperion, an evil Cretan king who seeks to free the Titans, antagonists of the gods, from their prison in Mount Tartarus. Henry Cavill is Theseus, a peasant secretly mentored in sword fighting by Zeus (John Hurt). He alone can oppose the invading hordes, or so says a virgin sibylline oracle (Freida Pinto) who becomes less attached to her purity when he’s around. Who wants to keep your pipeline to the divine when you could get with the future Superman?
Screenwriters Vlas and Charley Parlapanides can’t seem to find a consistent tone — or build a coherent plot. (Key developments depend on stupid accidents.) Whatever one thinks of 300, it was true to its self-serious vision, while the recent Clash of the Titans reveled in feta cheese. Immortals serves up camp (“Let me enlighten you,” Rourke suggests to a priest before immolating him) along with sketchy attempts at saying something earnest about men, gods and animal masks.
It’s not easy to draw on the enduring resonance of myths, though, when you’ve gutted them. Never mind that Theseus and Hyperion were completely different figures to the ancient Greeks, or that a heroic peasant is a modern concept. While Immortals posits that “immortals” can slaughter one another (and bleed copiously, adding more of those scarlet accents), it neglects to mention the crucial familial relationship between Zeus’ crew and the Titans. More amusingly, this Zeus (who becomes the younger, buffer Luke Evans when he’s on Olympus) sternly lectures his progeny about staying out of human affairs. The slew of mortal women whom the god-king famously ravished might have something to say about that, as would everyone who fought in the Trojan War.
None of the actors transcend the script’s mix of solemnity and silliness, though Rourke revels in it. As for the battle action, much of it unfolds in the alternating slo-mo and fast-mo mode beloved of Zack Snyder. Rather than immersing us, this technique invites us to admire the art of carnage. It’s like walking past a series of friezes and imagining them coming to life — a metaphor Singh cleverly literalizes at the end of the film.
Someday, perhaps, our descendants will wonder why we were as obsessed with slowly spurting digital blood as the Greeks were with divine randiness. And what will we tell them?