Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brawl of the Gods

They just don't make sword and sorcery epics like this.

Well, to be fair, they've never really made sword and sorcery films like this in the past, period. 3D epics are a relatively new thing in this day and age, beginning with 2010's remake of Clash of the Titans, and continuing this year with the Conan the Barbarian and now Immortals. It was this newest title that drew me to the theater quite recently, the latest release amid a season in which very few films have done much to stand out from a sea of mediocrity. Trying to solve that problem with gore, sex, and the face of the upcoming Superman reboot, Immortals had the potential to fall somewhere between the huge strides that the similarly-violent 300 made in 2006 and the crater left from the Conan sequel. In other words, it really could have gone anywhere. I personally was interested in seeing how this title would translate to 3D, and whether British lead Henry Cavill would prove able to lead a major motion picture two years before Man of Steel hits the big screen. I hadn't heard any good things heading in, but that's hardly a new concept, and I wanted to judge for myself whether this title would deserve remembrance years from now.

Robin Hood and her merry men, no doubt.
In the ancient past, a war amongst immortal beings was waged, with the two sides discovering that they could indeed kill their formerly invincible foes. When all was said and done, the victors christened themselves Gods and reigned high on Mt. Olympus. The vanquished were resigned to imprisonment in Mt. Tartatus, called Titans. Now the evil King of Crete, Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), seeks the fabled Epirus Bow, a weapon designed to release the Titans from their imprisonment and set them loose upon the world. The only people standing in his way are Theseus (Cavill), a bastard low-born guided by the gods, the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), and their mishmash of followers, all of whom would follow Theseus to the ends of the Earth.

That's not a face you ever want to look up to
Any student of ancient mythology of course will see that the plot of the film is loosely based on the Titanomachy, or the war between the Olympians and the Titans, and the myths of Theseus and the Minotaur. As in last year's Clash, however, that only means that the names were kept intact while the story was made more suitable for mass consumption. Actually, I thought that director Tarsem Singh did a good job with interpreting the myths presented in this storyline. Many people, Theseus and Hyperion included, have no faith in the gods due to them having not answered their prayers even in their darkest moments. This is a theme that is relevant even today, and is the reason so many people call themselves Atheist or Agnostic. The Gods don't interfere because Zeus (Luke Evans) wants to have faith in the humans as many of them do in the Gods. Beyond that, the Minotaur is not a mythological creature, but a giant warrior wearing a mask in the shape of a bull's head. While there are still several almost mystical elements involved in the story (the Gods and Titans themselves, Phaedra's premonitions, and the Epirus Bow's magic arrows chief among them), it's impressive that Singh binds them with a certain amount of realistic interpretation of mythology at the same time.

Real bad-asses don't wear helmets
Probably where Immortals excels the most is in the visual and action departments. Even without 3D (and this is another film that doesn't really benefit from 3D implementation) the distant visuals are as beautiful and meticulously designed as any big-budget film I've seen in the past decade. It would be easy to write it all off as computer generated, but it's extremely difficult to tell the difference, and there is no doubting the effectiveness it has in setting the tone of the story. Singh's previous efforts (The Cell, The Fall) have been largely visual-based, and he knows how to set a film so that you are ensnared by the what you see while following the tale. The action is also surprisingly compelling, as Singh rarely falls in the trap of filming so close as to obscure what is happening in front of you. Often the camera is set on a rail and follows Theseus as he fights dozens of enemies in a realistic, awe-inspiring sequences. It's refreshing to see action done in this manner, and while special effects can mask a number of things (body doubles, gore, etc), that it is so different from what other films offer is really what makes all the difference.

She may not be the best actress, but mama mia!
The acting would have probably been better, but the script as it is didn't leave a lot of room for silly things like "exposition" or "character development" when creating so much eye candy. Henry Cavill is at least interesting as the film's lead, finding himself perhaps on the same page Sam Worthington found himself last year. Theseus is a warrior first, orator second, and as such Cavill will be better remembered after Immortals for his rippling six pack rather than the flexibility of his tongue (get your minds out of the gutter). Still, it took Worthington a full year and The Debt to prove he could really act, and maybe Cavill just needs that time to build a resume before he can be relegated to action roles. Freida Pinto once again is better than some, worse than others, and it's really her looks that secure the multitude of roles that she has landed of late. But as any veteran actress will tell you, beauty fades (and plastic surgery isn't always for the better), so unless she ups her game the big roles WILL dry up. She does show potential, so hopefully experience will get her to the level where she should be. Mickey Rourke is certainly effective in the role of evil overlord, but in all honesty he doesn't stretch very far from his comfort zone. It's obvious that the part was written with him in mind, as he never gets a moment like the one in last year's The Expendables in which he reminds us that he really is a good actor. Stephen Dorff could have stood out, but in the end we all realize that he's the witty sidekick who will doubtlessly die heroically in the end. And he's not even that good at the witty part.

One of these things is not like the others...
Possibly most disappointing is that the Gods, arguably the most central figures in this film, are barely covered as characters throughout the course of the film. Luke Evans tells the others what to do a lot, so that makes him Zeus, and we know that Isabel Lucas is Athena because someone calls her that once, but the others are never actually named and we can only guess as to their identities. Kellan Lutz MIGHT be Posiedon, since he carries around a trident, but we're not really sure. And who knows who any of the other immortals really are. It's a shame since the finale sees a raging battle between Gods and Titans that  is amazing but in which it would have been great to be able to keep score. But since they mostly look alike, the effort to introduce them as actual characters is completely lost.

"Man of Steel" is of course a euphemism
Still, when what you're expecting is an action-packed pseudo-myth with mood, violence and gore-a-plenty, it's hard to argue with what the film doesn't additionally give you. While it may not be the best movie of 2011 (or even close), Immortals is at its best an exciting, go-anywhere story that feels as epic as it seeks to be. If you're into the genre, don't wait until DVD; the visuals alone make it worth seeing on the big screen, even if you (wisely) forgo the entire 3D routine.

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