Saturday, November 12, 2011

Movie Review: Immortals

Directed by Tarsem Singh. 2011.

Spoilers within!

But first, a vocabulary lesson brought to you by the letter I.

pas·tiche [pa-steesh, pah-]

1. a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.

2. an incongruous combination of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.

Origin: 1700–10; < French < Italian, pasticcio

The question is, I suppose, how incongruous. The image to the right ought to suggest the cornucopia of styles and tropes Immortals constitutes. This is not a fault by nature, but the relentless similarities distract, startle, annoy, and eventually tire. Let us first just list the obvious relationships to recent movies or uses of modern trends:
  1. the big wall/gate from The Two Towers
  2. the population retreating to a more defensible location a la The Two Towers
  3. the disfigured betrayer a la 300 & The Two Towers
  4. "man must stand alone" a la The Two Towers
  5. massive computer-generated armies a la Lord of the Rings
  6. angry bad guy with limitless army, a la Hero or The Mummy Returns
  7. animal helmets and scenes of gruesome violence a la torture-horror genre
These cliches and others make the film feel filled instead of rich. I would hazard the guess that the cliches result from the "If they liked it once they'll love it twice" mentality of producers. Worse, though, the similarities draw us into the present, a debilitating flaw for an aspiring epic of Greek mythology. 

And then there the general film tropes:
  1. reluctant hero
  2. destroyed village/murdered family a la Conan
  3. wise tutor
  4. pretty(!) love interest
  5. maguffin
  6. end of the world scenario
These cheap ploys are forgivable if the plot stitches them together with great skill. Does it? Sort of. The "hero quest" thread and the "finding his faith" thread sort of work. Maybe. Let us look at he hero quest.

At the start Theseus does not want to fight and refuses to join the local militia, yet he is apparently skilled in battle. Why might this be? Then his village and mother are killed. So he wants revenge. This makes sense, right? But his tutor counseled him in "living rightly." Does revenge seem quite so "right?" Even if we want to infer that the eye-for-an-eye treatment would be just, Theseus never says so. In fact he says he wants revenge. Maybe Theseus wants to defend others from this ruthless man? Well, contra the advice of his tutor, Theseus explicitly says he does not want to do this because they spurn him and his mother (his mother was raped and he is a bastard.) It is not like there is any subplot in which some villagers who once hated Theseus learn to respect him and Theseus learns to trust others. So when Theseus fights Hyperion at the end, he's only fighting for revenge as far as we can tell. Also, when Theseus rallies the troops at the end, spouting off a whole slew of values that they should fight for, we can only ask, "where  have these values been all along for?" He never mentions liberty or property or progeny or anything else before. Yes, these ideas are mentioned by Hyperion, but first, Theseus doesn't know that and second, Theseus still isn't living those values. So that's a big mess. I can't tell whether the missing sense is on the cutting room floor or whether the writers wrote themselves into a corner, but there it is. 


Now let us look at the "finding the faith" thread. I admit this had great potential. You see, neither Theseus nor Hyperion believe in the gods. Theseus because he and his mother suffer and Hyperion because his family was killed by disease. Thus Hyperion wants to wipe out all life and Theseus. . . well that's where the similarity ends and the problems begin. You see Zeus announces that the gods cannot interfere in mortal affairs. Why? Who knows. Unfortunately we need some answer for the plot and we don't  get one. Thus even if the gods revealed themselves to Hyperion, do you think that he would be satisfied? Yes he might "find his faith" and then what? Hey you know what, maybe the writers could have thought of this

Now Theseus does find his faith. How? One of the gods flies down right in front of him and blasts someone to smithereens. Well it wouldn't take Demosthenes to convince him that the gods exist after that, would it? And then Zeus, after obliterating that god for violating Olympus' non-interference clause, promises it'll never happen again. How can he promise that? What's he going to do? Logically he can only promise that if it does happen again Zeus will be back to blast that guy too. So the gods won't interfere, just because they're not supposed to, but if they do Zeus'll blast them. Sounds great! I'll bet Theseus couldn't wait to get those offerings cracklin'.

"Just sign on the dotted line and then we won't simply not help you,
 but I'll personally dematerialize anyone who tries to do so."

Now just one more thing. Actually several more things. If the gods don't interfere, then why are they so secretive? Also, if they don't interfere, why pray to them? Why honor them? Just for thanks I suppose but thanks for what? Did they make man? In one Greek creation myth, yes, but this goes unmentioned in the film. This could not be inferred and had to be said. But if they're not going to do anything for you then you can't ask for help. And if they won't hurt you either, then there is no one to appease. So believing in them is basically just whatever you happen to believe as a creation myth and has no real bearing on anything. So Theseus doesn't find his faith so much as learn a history lesson. Translation: this thread is a mess too. 

A few miscellaneous problems:
  1. Where did Hyperion's army come from? Who are these people? Who equipped them?
  2. Where are all the Greeks? 
  3. Where's that wall and why can't Hyperion go around it?
  4. Why are the gods forbidden to interfere in man's affairs, but permitted to do so "indirectly?"
  5. If he didn't believe in the gods, why is Hyperion so certain the Titans exist?
  6. Why does everything have to look like Lord of the Rings?
I'm not going to discuss accuracy according to the myths, but a few points perturbed me:
  1. Why is it set in 1200BC, the approximate time of the Trojan War?
  2. Why can't they just call them "Hellenes" and the land "Hellas?"
  3. Why does the oracle's gift transcend the place and function like a superpower?
  4. Why did they have to call him Hyperion?
  5. Why are gods dying?
  6. Where's Zeus' thunderbolt?
  7. Why are the Titans human-sized zombies?
Lastly, some of the minor characters aren't clearly introduced or differentiated on screen. Likewise the locations are often unclear. I would understand if someone were confused about either. 

So let me explain what I think happened. The producers of 300 wanted to cash in on its success. Clash of   the Titans came out afterwards, though, so they got Tarsem Singh to direct to make it look different from both Clash and 300. On the one hand they wanted big battles between armies and on the other they wanted superhero-style fighting. They couldn't re-create either 300 or Clash so they combined them.  Hence the hodgepodge. 

What do I like? I like the gods. I like how they look like slick and youthful as opposed to the old, regal, aristocratic look they used to sport. They've shaken off the prettified Victorian crust and lost those gentle Renaissance postures in exchange for vivacity and awesome, unpredictable force. They look like the upstarts who would have provoked the Titans and started a war with them. I like their brushed-gold armor, unique to each god. I like that they rule from atop Olympus, looking down and I like that their presence among the mortals feels out of the ordinary. John Hurt was splendid. I liked the Greek in the beginning dialogue.

There was potential in the theme of "immortality." Maybe Theseus wouldn't find his faith, but would attain immortality through fame for his good deeds whereas belief in the gods would dwindle because they did not act to do good. Right? Well. . . Theseus does find his faith (sort of, as we said) and does do good, and is remembered, but they make him a god anyway. Well that ruins, oh I don't know, the title, that's all. It's called Immortals not Divinities anyway, the becoming-a-god part is unnecessary. See how that Socrates quote really doesn't work here? And now as a god presumably he subject to the "no-interference" rule, no? 

Again, the gods looked good, the introduction set an appropriate tone, and there were ideas at play. Unfortunately the script was a mess and the visuals were surprisingly conventional except for one shot of Freida Pinto's derriere which in all of cinema is probably the shot with a keister covering the highest percentage of the frame. The stock bits by their nature weren't interesting enough to be noteworthy and simply carried out their utilitarian roles in the story. Oh, and Mickey Rourke was just plain annoying as Hyperion. He was always threatening people, grumbling, brooding, and adding awkward pauses to his speechifying. It seems fairly obvious Rourke was trying to do here what he thought he was prevented from doing with his character in Iron Man 2. He was also always crunching and fumbling with these strange food chips, though he never appeared to be eating them. I guess this was supposed to be a masculine gesture, though I'm not sure.

Overall, it's hard to call Immortals a success.

What Could Have Been

I usually resist the urge to correct movies and suggest how they might have better succeeded because I appreciate how difficult it is to envision the final product. In this case, though,
the script beyond a doubt was not sufficiently thought out. They committed the cardinal sins of not asking, "Why is the character doing this?" and "Why is this important?" Also, given the richness of the source material, such lack is particularly egregious. That being the case, I offer a few scenarios, not corrections of what was but rather different premises that would have made more sense of the action.

Set-up I:

  1. Theseus is a disbeliever, but he tries to survive by himself.
  2. Hyperion believes in the gods, but hates that they do not help him. He wants to release the Titans to punish them.
Theseus may or may not find his faith, but he achieves the "immortality" of being remembered for something, any kind of excellence (arete) would suffice. In contrast, the following lines of Zeus from Homer could have been put into the mouth of either Theseus' tutor or Zeus to characterize Hyperion's fatal flaw:
How foolish men are! How unjustly they blame the gods! It is their lot to suffer, but because of their own folly they bring upon themselves sufferings over and above what is fated for them. And then they blame the gods.
I would jettison the prefatory quote from Socrates which is somewhat ham-fisted and does not seem to complement the story. As it is used, are we to interpret that the reward for goodness is becoming a god? The idea of excellence (arete) is entirely more appropriate than Socrates' saying, which prompts a more philosophical discourse the film cannot accommodate without even more revision.

Set-up II:

  1. Theseus is the man of piety.
  2. Hyperion is a man of arrogance.
This situation could include the gods as major potential players in the affairs of men could take two directions. On the one hand it could tend toward a Job-esque trial for Theseus. On the other it could work in the myth of the ages of man and portray Theseus' age a secular one. Hyperion could be written as the logical, war-like result of this lack of religiosity and/or piety. Perhaps Theseus has to persuade the others to be pious or maybe his piety saves the day at the end. In the later case the film could conclude with the same image (of the Titanomachy, it's most original one) it does now, only here it would be significant.

Set-up III:

  1. Hyperion hates that the gods interfere in the lives of men and wants to unleash the Titans to punish them.
  2. Theseus tries to stop him.
This set-up could re-institute the notion that either Zeus or Prometheus created man and could thus explain Theseus' piety. This situation would have much potential for weaving in the myth of the ages of man and some of the actual Titans.


Immortals lacks the simplicity, novelty, and clarity of purpose that made 300 noteworthy. Too it lacks the charm of the original Clash of the Titans and the sword-and-sandals epics it succeeded. Lastly, it lacks the plot and structure to make any significant statement. Immortals opens with a very Hellenic feel but the tone soon dissipates. The action is competent but I had quickly seen my fill of computer-generated armies and slow-motion smack-downs. Overall, there is enough to keep you involved as you watch, but once you realize that things don't quite come together, Immortals is pretty flat.


I looked at a few summaries after writing this review and they seem to suggest Hyperion intended to destroy the gods, in which case he obviously believed in them. I seem to remember him saying he didn't believe in them in the scene when he sets the priest on fire. I guess by "not believe in them" he meant that that they might as well not exist, but if that is so the scene was written and played all wrong. That said, other characters like Theseus and that idiotic political leader at the end clearly didn't believe in the gods: then why did they believe in the Titans? Who did they think put them there? What did they think Hyperion was doing? Who did they think made the bow, which they were pretty sure existed? 

Why did Hyperion think the bow would let him defeat all 12 Olympian gods, including Zeus himself? And the Titans too. (Or did he think the Titans would follow him? If so, why?) And all of mankind! The bow is pretty awesome but still it's just a bow. One guy had it for a minute and quickly got overwhelmed. Also, I'm pretty sure Zeus could sidestep an arrow. Also, if Hyperion thought the Titans would defeat the Olympians, then he must have thought the bow would let him rule the Titans. Well if the bow would let him rule the Titans and the Titans defeated the Olympians then why not just use the bow to defeat the Olympians? 

I admit, though, that if Hyperion were out to get the gods from the get-go then his character would make more sense. His actions, though, would as we just saw make less sense. It also makes his showdown with Theseus make less sense since Theseus is not really fighting for the gods but for revenge. Even after some gods appear to him, why would Theseus fight for them if they neither created him nor would help him? 

There was also mention of Hyperion wanting to pass on his image and to do this he was sterilizing the men. What? What is this? What's going on? Just looking at various summaries and even the different trailers (which try to have it both ways), it's pretty clear no one knows what's going on here and I'm done trying to figure it out. 

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