Mosaic / Reviews / November 16, 2011

Spectacle rescues Immortals

The most obvious reference point for “Immortals,” and one you’ve probably thought of when seeing the trailer, is Zach Snyder’s “300.” It’s an apt comparison.

Both films take the already violent, MTV world of Greek mythology and inject it with an extra gallon of testosterone and slow motion. They share a graphic novel aesthetic that favors fluid, beautifully composed shots over muddled shaky-cam. Their storylines are equally absurd and over-the-top in all the areas it counts.

Is “Immortals” derivative of “300”? A little. Did I enjoy it regardless? You bet.

In a break from “300,” “Immortals” deals strictly with Greek mythology. It depicts a Greece stripped of all recognizable landmarks. We hear talk of Athens, Crete and Sparta, but never see the city-states. There are only endless stretches of rock and desert, interspersed with cliffside towns, magnificent temples and the stratosphere-skirting Mount Olympus.

There are gods in this world — Zeus (Luke Evans), Athena (Isabel Lucas) and all the rest — but they hide amongst the mortals, training the most capable to be righteous warriors. Zeus, for example, has handpicked peasant bastard-child Theseus (Henry Cavill) to train personally.

Theseus has no idea the old man teaching him basic spear combat is the ruler of the gods, nor does he realize he will lead humanity against the Titans and their bull-masked commander, the terrifying King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), while still finding time to deflower the virgin oracle Phaedra (Frieda Pinto).

If you have the slightest knowledge of Greek mythology: you’ll recognize the source material immediately as the story of Theseus and the Titanomachy. “Immortals” takes many liberties with its basis, however, altering characters, motivations and chronology to suit its hyperactive whim, crossing the original myth with “300,” “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings” and some hints of Tarantino and Rodriguez.

Although there’s complexity to the formula of “gods select hero to defeat evil,” with questions raised about faith versus atheism and the self-interest of gods, it remains the goofy action flick you expect. “Immortals” embraces its mish-mash of a plot, including all the elements more timid films would shy away from: the gold-clothed gods with winged helmets and laurels; the Epirus Bow, which shoots beams of arrow-shaped light and Hyperion’s masked, raspy-voiced army, a perfect fit for its leader. Sheer bravado goes a long way and it helps propel “Immortals” in its slowest moments.

It also benefits from a surprisingly traditional, accessible narrative that honors the breadth of Greek mythology without trying to modernize or deconstruct it. Although there’s plenty of gore, whether it be exploding heads, slit throats, severed tongues or crushed testicles, the narrative doesn’t linger on these exploitative moments. It accepts them as a gruesome facet of mythology and keeps the action moving.

And what action! The fight scenes here, deftly choreographed and stunningly shot, herald back to a time when filmmakers didn’t convey a scene’s intensity through sloppy camerawork.

Director Tarsem Singh, more than anything else, knows how to deliver spectacle. One observes the fights in “Immortals” and pinpoints specific, awe-inspiring moments, instead of just overarching chaos. Even at its most frenetic, when hundreds of soldiers are clashing blades in a tight hallway, we know where our eyes should go. Singh gives us cues, in the form of clear, overhead shots, single takes and careful juxtaposition of slow and fast motion.

If “Immortals” has a fatal flaw, it’s the movie length. Two hours is simply not feasible for even one chapter in Greek legend. The film strains against its commercial limits, and certain plot threads are formed only to lead nowhere.

Phaedra foresees, in one vision, Theseus joining Hyperion’s rank, and she warns that losing her virginity would also mean the loss of her clairvoyance. Neither conflict amounts to anything. A subplot about elitist soldier Lysander (Joseph Morgan), who defects to Hyperion’s ranks and seems to develop as Theseus’s evil alter ego, ends anticlimactically. An extra half-hour is all the film would need to resolve these threads cleanly and effectively.

It might not be art-house action like “Drive,” but “Immortals” is cinematic escapism in its purest form, a technical treat and satisfying trip through the SparkNotes edition of Greek classics. If you can see it in 2-D, even better. The film relies on vivid colors like gold, red and light blue, which lose their potency when viewed through the darkened lens of 3-D glasses.

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