Or: There Will Be Speed Ramping. At first glance, and maybe even at second glance, Immortals seems like a belated attempt to cash in on the myths-on-‘roids craze kicked off by 300 a few years ago. However, it’s also directed by Tarsem Singh, so attention must be paid: Tarsem, a music video director who kicked off his film career with the stylized but inert J. Lo serial killer pic The Cell, became a bona fide auteur in some eyes with his personally financed yet insanely ambitious 2006 epic fable The Fall, which enchanted cultists while alienating audiences. So, what happens when Visionary meets Paycheck?
Well, in the arena of the Hollywood Blockbuster, that's not really a fair fight. When it’s not busy being tantalizingly bizarre, Immortals is busy being breathtakingly cliché. Plot-wise, the myths themselves are mostly thrown out in favor of more modern action-movie virtues. Theseus (Henry Cavill, soon to be of Superman: Man of Steel fame), is here an earnest stonemason — albeit one “touched by the gods” — out to avenge the death of his pious mother at the hands of ruthless King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), who seeks to conquer the world by unleashing an army of Titans kept prisoner deep within a mountain. Along his journey, Theseus is joined by Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a beautiful oracle whom he frees from captivity, and cynical, wise-cracking thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff, doing his best Han Solo impersonation). Meanwhile, the gods — led by Zeus (Luke Evans) — mull whether to intervene.
To be fair, there’s lots to look at here — even beyond everybody’s totally ripped abs, Pinto’s supernaturally smooth legs, and the frequent sight of dudes flying through the air slicing each other to ribbons. Tarsem has a fabulist’s eye and a child’s imagination, combining otherworldly grotesquerie with unexpected dashes of elegance: The Titans are held in place with a contraption that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw movie, inside a gilt cage surrounded by monumental statues holding up a mountain. When the gods, perched atop the clouds in poses recalling Renaissance paintings (I was also strangely reminded of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video, which I later realized Tarsem directed), decide to come down to Earth, they literally dive down, flying through the air and landing with a seismic thud. Zeus fights not with lightning but with a whip of fire. (Also, let’s give some credit to the great Eiko Ishioka, she of Bram Stoker’s Dracula fame, who designed the costumes.)
The problem is that for all his imagination, Tarsem doesn’t seem much able to tell a story — even a simple one like this. A journey should feel like it’s building, driving toward something. But Immortals rarely has any urgency. Interesting conflicts are soon abandoned: Phaedra will lose her oracular powers, we are told, if she loses her virginity, which seems like a setup for some great sexual tension, except that she and Theseus get it on the first chance they get. The gods’ dilemma over intervening in human affairs never feels genuine, since they keep intervening anyway. Meanwhile, the exact nature of the war being fought is explained multiple times, but never quite makes sense. (It doesn’t help that Rourke, channeling late-period Brando, casually mumbles reams of expository dialogue, often while snacking.)
The action scenes vary: Earlier fights traffic in outdated and decidedly un-visionary flourishes; there’s even an Arrowcam shot at one point. But near the end there’s a deliciously violent face-off between gods and Titans that’s impressively mounted, with somewhat surprising results. At moments like these, Tarsem’s twisted imagination seems aligned with the demands of the genre — every time a body is split in half in slow-motion, you can hear an executive get his wings. But ultimately, Immortals veers between the genuinely striking and the strikingly generic.