Billed by some as an artistic visionary’s riposte to the pompous, FX-driven, mythology-derived sludge that the CGI-riddled, post-The Lord of the Rings fantasy cinema has given rise to, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals proves rather that it’s extremely easy to be considered an artistic visionary by modern Hollywood, and how nice it is to be feted by the worshippers of anything resembling a crossover between early ‘90s alt-music culture and contemporary cinema, such as currently infest many critical rags. Immortals is one of the worst films I’ve ever managed to watch through to its conclusion: derivative, formless, witless, and downright excruciating in its lack of any coherent sense of drama and mythological meaning, Singh’s work here reveals that his sensibility has not deepened in the slightest since he made a name for himself directing music videos that showed off how many underground and foreign films he’d seen. Instead, he settles for caking his tiresome saga in a hyper-fluorescent MTV style that has to gall to filch imagery from the likes of Fellini’s Satyricon (1973), Sergei Paradjanov’s Sayat Nova (1968), Cocteau’s Orpheus (1949), and other doyens of the dreamily esoteric, to give a facile impression that this is something more than a completely by-rote script cobbled together by the most cynical of Hollywood hacks, and that Singh has created something actually arty and interesting.
For one thing, in spite of the great difference in stylistic repertoire, this is close to being exactly the same film as Marcus Nispel’s dreadful remake of Conan the Barbarian, released only a couple of months earlier. Story is reduced to an essentialist conflict in which a buff hero, clearly a hero precisely because he is buff, is enraged when a parent is slaughtered by a gruff and growly super-villain, defends an anointed female sought by said gruff and growly villain, as a thin pretext for soporific action scenes and, in this case, perfunctory mythological revisionism. With the Clash of the Titans series having already cordoned off the tales of Perseus as their cynically corrupted stomping ground, Immortals borrows from the tales of Theseus, once in legend the unifying king of Attica, slayer of the Minotaur, and perhaps the biggest man-slut of classical Greece. Singh and screenwriters Charley and Vlas Parlapanides however feel no need to really delve into those tales: instead, they largely ignore them, and offer instead the usual tale of a prole hero ennobled by divine mission. Here Theseus (Henry Cavill) is raised by his single mother Aethra (Anne Day-Jones) in a fishing village, watched over by an old man (John Hurt), actually the human guise of Zeus (Luke Evans), but Zeus is maintaining a hands-off approach to humanity in the hope Theseus will prove the necessary leader of the Hellenics, the citizens of a vaguely described, persecuted ethnic enclave. Theseus’ opportunity comes when King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, making an even bigger ass of himself than he did back in his supposedly lesser days of Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, 1991) goes on a genocidal rampage, apparently after his family died in something or other, and he begins accumulating an army of spayed, masked thugs to kill indiscriminately, whilst he tries to track down a magical bow. Said bow was invented for killing Titans, but Hyperion wants to free the Titans from their underground prison where Zeus stashed them after the last heavenly war, in the hope they’ll take on the Gods in an apocalyptic auto-da-fe. After Theseus’ mother is murdered, and he’s victimised by a snotty Hellenic officer, Lysander (Joseph Morgan), Theseus is captured and enslaved, which puts him on a collision course with seer Phaedra (Freida Pinto), also taken captive by Hyperion, who needs her to find the magic bow.
Singh’s supposedly stylish, original approach is to hurl tropes of a dozen disparate cultures and eras holus-bolus at the screen, without any actual care for what meaning or context can be derived from this, as if all this is an excuse to jerk off hipsters with tattooed lower backs who wait tables in cafés where world music vibes play endlessly over loudspeakers. Whilst such a cut-up approach, tethered to imagery inspired by past-masters of oneiric cinema, would be justified if any sense of spiritual and intellectual depth was apparent, and if Singh displayed an actual gift for unmooring the viewer from literalism, the result here is inane and leaden. Phaedra and the other three members of her vaguely Sapphic cabal of seers are glimpsed swathed in pseudo-Bedouin robes and rocking in incantatory moves like members of a suburban Shakti clique. Stupid costumes that blend apparel copied from ancient frescos with ‘80s fashion spread chic proliferate, like the clunky golden armour the gods wear. Panoramas and buildings are reduced to Dali-esque, stylised and geometric arrangements, to increase the sense of this being some kind of abstract, universalist vision of the mythical past. But peering beneath this glitzy wallpaper, it’s impossible to not notice how constantly plagiaristic the concepts are, particularly from The Lord of the Rings series, like Hyperion taking over Phaedra’s temple and having his soldiers dig out underneath it, a la Sarumon’s tower in The Fellowship of the Ring, the wall which the Hellenics hide behind and which Hyperion penetrates is out of The Two Towers, and the collapsing mountain over the Titan prison is pure The Return of the King. At other points, Chan-wook Park is mercilessly referenced in laterally-moving fight sequences, and that last shot of Avatar with eyes snapping open in close-up gets another work-out.
The story lacks anything like interesting development, the characterisations are so thin it’s a wonder they don’t speak in comic book speech bubbles, and whatever validity Singh wanted to bring in evoking a sense of the past through artifice is constantly deferred in favour of shameless pandering to the 300 crowd in the series of amazingly unexciting action scenes. Singh sneaks in fashionable cruelty and hints of his familiar S&M peccadilloes to give this stuff an illusion of being more adult that the otherwise sub-adolescent plotting and conceptual depth would indicate. The captive Titans are all hanging, biting on gags, and Singh proffers a variation on the infamous Roman torture device of a steel elephant, here a bull as per Hyperion’s symbolic fondness for the beast, within which people are locked and slowly roasted. Singh ghoulishly hints at victims inside, until he can’t resist having the other three members of Phaedra’s cabal prove to be held within at one point. Testicles are crushed with hammers, faces scarred, and other acts of sundry cruelty flit by. In the final rumble of Gods and Titans, their whirling weapons cleave each other into hunks and digital muscles and intestines fly about in super-saturated pixelated hues, apparently completely oblivious to the contradiction of such anatomical precision in creatures that are beyond the familiarly corporeal, and just flying along on a slipstream of way-cool gore. Worse, there’s no actual conceptual depth to back up Singh’s pretences: the tension between human and deistic world-views is trucked in from every other modern fantasy film, Hyperion is a boringly obsessive and one-note villain, and whilst Cavill’s undeniable athleticism and hints of charisma, which hopefully will bear fruit when he plays Superman, endows Theseus wit superficial attractiveness as a protagonist, he’s finally even less compelling in terms of deed, speech, and gesture than the denuded Perseus Sam Worthington finished up playing. Stephen Dorff is momentarily diverting as Stavros, the compulsory sidekick of less elevated moral fibre that Theseus and Phaedra pick up, but he can’t make you forget that his role came out of the bottom of a cereal box.
By the time we get to Theseus’ inevitable rousing speech, so clichéd by now you can practically make up the dialogue beforehand and it would surely sound close enough, I was sunk deep into my chair groaning in pain at the desultory lack of real imagination on show here. There are potentially interesting but largely senseless and isolated concepts throughout, as in a subplot of how Zeus tries to keep his fellow gods from intervening on Theseus’ behalf; when Ares (Daniel Sharman) does so, Zeus kills him with a lash of his fiery whip. Flourishes that suggest a demythologising approach to the mythical matters at hand – the Minotaur is here simply one of Hyperion’s heavies with a barbed bull mask on; the labyrinth is the Hellenics’ twisty burial chamber – are rendered pointless and self-contradicting when gods are romping around in disco outfits, and worse yet, reveals that far from elucidating some surrealist-derived, psychologically-informed take on the Greek myths, Singh’s window dressing is actually painfully ignorant of the symbolic meaning and potential of the material. Flickers of inspiration throughout Immortals offer a minatory charge and hint at the film Singh perhaps thought he was making, in images like Phaedra reviving Theseus by dribbling water from her mouth into his, their conversing when he’s caked in oil and she’s spotless, and the image of a grief-stricken Zeus holding his daughter Athena (Isobel Lucas), slain in combat by the Titans, disapparating amidst crumbling stones and the massed blue meanies. But these images, like most of the film via Brendan Galvan’s photography, seem better suited as background illustrations for a decent video game, or stills in a fashion photographer’s portfolio. There are exactly two substantial moments in the film: the first comes when Phaedra seduces Theseus, longing for some manly lovin’ and a respite from her painful burden of prophecy, stripping down (at least, Pinto’s body double strips down) and hopping into bed with the weight inherent in the first sexual act heightened by the awareness here of its spiritual repercussions. Once fucked, however, Phaedra is rendered instantly irrelevant to the drama as the usual macho matters rise to the fore; the only clear memory I have of her in the second half is of Theseus ordering her to hide as she cowers behind a door. Whatever this movie is, it sure as shit ain't Racine. The second moment is in the finale as Theseus and Hyperion battle to the death, Theseus slowly driving his knife into his enemy whilst rhetorically taunting him. Both of these scenes are intimately carnal reckonings. The rest just proves that if there’s anything worse than empty bombast, it’s pretentious empty bombast.