It figures that Tarsem would be the one to figure out how to do something halfway decent with 3D. The visually stunning director of The Cell and The Fall has hit one out of the park with Immortals at least as far as its looks go. As for substance, well, it looks like it’s trying to be another 300, which like most Frank Miller adaptations is a lot more stylish than it is a good story.
The movie basically melds the stories of Theseus and the Minotaur with a follow-on to Titanomachia. In the distant past there was a war among the immortals who preceded the rise of men; the winning camp styled themselves “gods”, while the losers were renamed “titans”, and imprisoned for eternity under Mount Tartarus. As men arose, the gods — led by Zeus (Luke Evans) — imposed a law on themselves not to interfere with mortal events unless the titans were to be released again.
This doesn’t sit well with King Hyperion of the Heracleans (Mickey Rourke); his wife and child died from a plague despite his prayers to the gods. And so, in his anger, he swears to unleash the titans to take on and throw down the gods. But to release them, he needs the Epirus Bow — a lost weapon of incredible power — and to find that he needs to find the Oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto).
Meanwhile, Zeus puts his hope for the Hellenes opposing Hyperion in the peasant Theseus (Henry Cavill), and to help him without breaking his own rule he sends an old man (John Hurt) to gently nudge him towards being the sort of person who will come through when the time is right. When Hyperion sweeps through the village and slaughters his mother, Theseus is thrown together with the oracle and another peasant slave, Stavros (Stephen Dorff). Together, they set out for their revenge.
Now, the story does make feints towards the kinds of philosophical topics I could see Frank Miller exploring thoughtfully on the page, but the execution is amateurish at best. “The gods have a rule against interference” is a terrible answer to the problem of theodicy. The positive use of violent defense also comes up with little more than a dull college student’s late-night ramblings to back it up. The laughable leader of the Hellenes comes off as a bad caricature of an anti-war left-winger, and it’s more than a little disturbing that this is the image of pacifism that the movie’s predominantly young audience is being encouraged to adopt.
On top of these failed pretensions, writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides heap a preposterous and all-too-convenient story. Time after time I was confounded by the characters’ actions, sometimes even by the thousands. Minds change in a heartbeat, and never with any real justification. The military action is random and disorganized, and again inexplicable. The script is just one giant mess, designed to give plenty of opportunities for actors to look gritty while mouthing this purple prose.
But going to a movie by Tarsem for the story is missing the point in a deep way; the man is a stunning visual director, and here he does not disappoint. And best of all he manages to make 3D not terrible, although it’s still not quite worth the surcharge. For one thing, almost nothing projects beyond the plane of the screen, which eliminates the risk of ugly cutoff. For another, the image is usually very bright for this sort of action film, which helps offset the darkening effect of the polarized glasses. And the best examples of the 3D effects are actually not in any of the action sequences; they’re in slow or still shots, and very close to their subjects. One notable example is so tight on a character’s eye that you can see the depth effects make her individual eyelashes stand out.
Besides the 3D effects, Tarsem’s use of color is as strong as ever, with red and blue splashes over a dusty golden backdrop. His framings and perspectives are always inventive, and the resulting images are striking, even if their content is lackluster at best. Is that enough to make up for the script’s shortcomings? That’s a tough call.
Worth It: yes on visuals; no on everything else.
Bechdel Test: fail.