Let’s pretend like Tarsem Singh didn’t make Immortals

Because it’s kind of depressing that he did. Tarsem (I’m not being cheeky and over familiar, he’s referred to as “Tarsem”, not “Singh”) has directed two movies prior to ImmortalsThe Cell in 2000 and The Fall in 2006. The Fall is one of the most gloriously weird movies I’ve ever seen and I took an interest in Tarsem from that point on. I’m not one of his insane fanboys (who propelled the appalling Immortals to a $32 million opening weekend), but as a photographer his work appeals to me. His bright colors and surrealist imagery creates an incomparable palette for him to work from. However, Tarsem has never been what I would call a storyteller. He’s a visuals man, cobbling together stories from fantastical visions.

At Comic Con back in July, Tarsem made some comments that he doesn’t care about good scripts or stories. I’m really glad that he cleared that up because otherwise I’d be worried that he would be embarrassed by Immortals, as it is a spectacularly bad story coming from an even worse script. But thankfully, he’s relieved my mind of that particular concern. Instead I’m worried that he’s embarrassed by Immortals’ lacking visuals, which do not live up to his usual insane and beautiful standards. His signature bright colors are missing, leaving instead a dull, dank color scheme reminiscent of 300 (as are many things in this movie), occasionally leavened by bits of gold or scarlet. There were only two sequences that I thought fully represented Tarsem unchained—the scene at the very end depicting the gods fighting in the heavens and a scene at a watering hole that featured four women dressed in elaborate scarlet robes, wearing varying mod lampshades on their heads, set against a white stone and blue sky backdrop. It was an arresting scene, visually, but the plot stuff happening during it was so lame I wanted to scratch my eyes out.

Immortals is about Theseus, the Athenian hero who defeated the Minotaur and seduced Ariadne, among other things. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology, as I am, please shut your brain off before seeing Immortals. Beyond some names, it has nothing to do with the Theseus depicted in Aristophanes and Plutarch, and you’ll want to throw things at the screen every time they blatantly disregard interesting mythology in favor of cliché storytelling tropes. Theseus is one of the great heroes in the ancient mythological canon and it’s really too bad that the movie didn’t use more of his actual story, instead of inventing a considerably stupider and more boring version for film. Though, to be fair, the way the movie depicts his battle with the Minotaur is actually quite clever.

We first see Theseus, played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill (who is really growing on me), as a peasant in the village of Kolpos. He hangs out with an old man (John Hurt, whose late career seems to have devolved into playing crazy old coots) who councils him with sage wisdom and taught him how to sword fight. Theseus has no standing in his village because his mother was raped and no one claimed him so he’s a peasanty bastard, despite his strapping good looks and warrior-savant abilities with a spear that would have guaranteed him a place in the local militia, at least. Also, Immortals completely disregards that Poseidon had a hand in begetting Theseus, so when Poseidon (Twilight’s Kellan Lutz, being Kellan Lutzy) dives in to save Theseus at one point the moment has absolutely zero emotional impact.

A warning is sounded that King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, phoning it in), who has run mad with power, is coming to Kolpos and everyone must flee. The village empties except for Theseus and his fellow peasants, who must wait an extra day for escort from the village. Theseus proceeds to take out a garrison of men in order to secure military aid for his people, and instead of saying, “You there, you’re coming with us,” the general agrees to leave a few guys behind. Unfortunately, one of the guys left behind turns traitor, murders the other guards and flees. When Hyperion shows up the next day, he predictably slaughters everyone, including Theseus’s mother.

While all this is happening, Hyperion has also besieged the Sybelline temple, home of the “virgin oracle” (except the Sybils were prophets who delivered their prophecies in a state of sexual frenzy, so the idea of a virgin Sybil is ludicrous but whatever) Phaedra (Freida Pinto, once again well served by lighting but underserved by scripting). Phaedra and Theseus hook up and flee together, bent on finding the Epirus Bow—the only thing that can kill an immortal—before Hyperion can get it and use it to free the Titans, the enemies of the gods. Theseus gets it first but Hyperion ends up with it and frees the Titans and the gods come to earth to fight them and there’s a lot of CGI blood flying around.

My central problem with Immortals is that it was visually disappointing. I wasn’t expecting great storytelling because Tarsem isn’t a great storyteller, but I did expect more from him visually. Tarsem + Greek mythology (should) = AWESOME, but instead it was Tarsem + Greek mythology = Boring sand colored mess. My secondary problem was that the mythology was so butchered. There is so much to work with in ancient Greek mythology, and so many myths, Theseus included, have multiple versions to choose from, so I’m fine with taking some creative license and picking and choosing what you’re using. But dropping ALL of it in favor of a hackneyed Dickensian tale is just obnoxious. These stories have survived for THOUSANDS of years because they’re GOOD. You don’t have to mess with them too much.

But at least Theseus has some stuff to do. The gods are completely useless. Zeus (Luke Evans, Tamara Drewe) stalks around with his scowly face on, Poseidon says little and wears a distractingly absurd hat, and Athena (Isabel Lucas, Transformers 2) has withered away to near-skeletal proportions and I was concerned about her every time she came on screen. There’s never any real reason given why Zeus dictates that the gods can’t interfere with human matters, but they can’t, so all they do is stand around, looking down. When the gods finally fight the Titans things get more engaging but the sequence is too short to make up for the previous two hours of inertia.

On the subject of Henry Cavill, a veteran of The Tudors and costume fare such as Star Dust and Tristan & Isolde, I will give him big ups for carrying this steaming pile of a movie. Cavill is an engaging leading man, possessing both the physicality to convince me that he can cut people’s heads off and charisma to spare. He’s not quite my cuppa, especially as hugely bulked up as he’s gotten in the last couple years, but I do like watching him. I buy him more than say, Chris Pine, whose weird, taped-on lips freak me out and make me think they’re going to fall off at any moment and he’ll chase me around with a gaping maw where his mouth should be. I don’t worry about that with Cavill, whose boyish (oddly elfin, even) features are firmly attached at all times to his face. He’s imminently watchable and I’ve heard from people who worked on the Illinois set of Man of Steel that he’s a really nice guy, which makes me root for him.

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4 Responses to “Let’s pretend like Tarsem Singh didn’t make Immortals”

  1. It’s probably one of the best-looking films of the whole year (yet, I still haven’t seen Tree of Life) and the action is awesome and in-you-face which is something I always like. The story dragged on a bit and I couldn’t help but think that if the writing was a tweaked a little better, this would have definitely been a very solid film. Instead it was just fun and pretty to look at. Good review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

  2. I would like to obtain a copy of the image of the four women at the watering hole. THAT was The Moment of the movie – startling and arrestingly, hauntingly beautiful – took my breath away. Any idea where I can obtain one or more still images from that scene? Thank you.

    • I’ve never seen stills from the scene (and I was looking for some for the post), but there are places that sell licensed movie images. You could try googling “movie still for sale”.

  3. [...] The Cell) is known for his stunning visuals, which I have greatly admired in the past, and after the surprisingly dingy Immortals, he’s back on form with Mirror Mirror. The colors are bright and acid trippy, the costumes are [...]

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