Tuesday, November 15, 2011

300 LIGHT OR SUPERMAN SCREEN TEST? IMMORTALS Visually Stunning Though Dramatically Generic (Minor Spoilers)

To say Sin City and 300 were visual game changers in film would be a major understatement. Their CGI was specifically tailored to reflect the films' comic book (yes, "comic book", not "graphic novel") origins, giving them an otherworldly feel that is somewhat divorced from reality. Film is an escapist medium and that pioneering CGI did much to reinforce that state of unreality.  Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell), follows that trend.  It is visually stunning and perhaps one of the better representations of motion art in recent memory. Many scenes are shot as though they were paintings come to life.  Rich tones of luminescent gold and vibrant crimson red dominate the film, with darkest marble and dark blue hues supplied in contrast, especially to show the difference between the divine (the Greek Gods) and the secular (humanity). However, this approach works both for and against the film. Instead of a war of gods, we are presented with a superhero comic book film dressed in mythological attire. 

Evil Hyperion (a somewhat out of place Mickey Rourke), a ruler with a grudge against the Green Pantheon, seeks the Epirus Bow, a mythical weapon powerful enough to free their nemesi the Titans from the bowels of Mount Tartarus in order to bring about the Gods' destruction. The Gods are forbidden to interfere (though it is never explained why) unless and until the Titans are freed, so Zeus (Luke Evans), in mortal guise (John Hurt, doing his best Obi-Wan impression), prepares Theseus (Henry Cavill) to lead the world of men for the upcoming battle. With the aid of virgin Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and thief Starvos (Stephen Dorff), Theseus races to obtain the bow before Hyperion.

The film moves along at a furious pace with little by way of dead spots or unnecessary exposition. While this makes for flowing narrative it unfortunately sacrifices character development. Any emotional attachment seems cursory, the closest semblance to same comes in Theseus relationship with his mother (Anne-Day Jones), but it is in short supply. Even the requisite love scene between Theseus and Phaedra comes off as perfunctory. The score by Trevor Morris helps move the story along but the only thing it seems to inspire is foreboding, even in the quiet scenes. However, it is virtually indistinguishable from any other generic score, almost sounding like a Tyler Bates riff.

But then, this isn't an Ivory Merchant film production. What it sacrifices in emotional heft it makes up for in stunning visuals, combining CGI and actual set pieces. I've often said that slow motion bullet time is overused and overrated as a device, but at least here Singh uses it creatively by juxtaposing the fighting styles of the Gods/Titans with those of the human forces. The mortal fight scenes are gritty brutality whereas the Gods/Titans battles are stylized, CGI ballets. Kudos go to the fight choreographer as well as the sound master. The viewer is made to feel every blow viscerally with or without 3D (the version I saw was without) and there are very few films in recent memory that invoke that response.

Unfortunately, the Gods give us no reason to root for their survival. The Greek Pantheon were never presented as saints in literature so arguably they run true to form here. And according to Hyperion's  backstory he is justified in his actions against them to a degree. Perhaps if Singh had chosen to make the Gods more sympathetic by explaining why their proverbial hands were tied in human matters or at least show remorse for their inability to prevent tragedies the story would be more satisfying. However, it is a missed opportunity. If it weren't for the fact that Hyperion is a thoroughly unlikable character, they sympathies could have gone either way.  Also, it doesn't help that the entire Panthenon (and the majority of humanity in the film for that matter) look as though they've just come out of a session at LA Fitness or Bally's. Yes, they are Gods and the humans live in a brutal landscape that would engender various degrees of fitness. Yes, if one was Immortal and had the power to do so their desire for physical perfection would be a foregone conclusion.  Oddly, the actors do not project that feeling. They don't have the comfortable ease or ambivilance at their physical perfection. Instead, they strut and pose; especially the Gods, who don't quite carry of the fantastical garments that adorn them (Poseidon's "Princess Leia" helmet being the most humorously egregious).

Currently, Cavill is "Clark Kent/Superman" in the currently shooting Superman: The Man of Steel which is set for release in 2013. While it may be a tad inappropriate, it cannot be helped to consider Immortals as a hint of what Cavill will bring to the role. With his square jaw and being clad in a cloak worn in similar fashion as the Man of Steel, Cavill brings an old fashioned heroic earnestness to his portrayal. However, given the subject matter there is very little in the way of humor to his performance. He shows promise, but at times his performance here is one note rage; something which may be attributed to the direction. A speech that should have been rousing falls somewhat short, for example. Cavill tries with the material at hand but is inconsistent in terms of his success.

As Hyperion, Mickey Rourke seems lost half the time while on the other half he is appropriately menacing. But on the whole he seems bored with the whole thing. There is no real character here; just Rourke doing his patented tough guy shtick transplanted in a mythological setting. The only time he truly comes alive is when he is engaged with Theseus. He may be there for just for the paycheck, but when it really matters he delivers the goods and earns every penny.

In the end, Immortals is pretty to look at but it takes itself way too seriously. Even the recent remake of Clash of the Titans had moments of humor to offset what passed for the drama. If you're into a celebration of carnage with copious amounts of throat slitting and blood letting in better than technicolor, then this movie should satisfy. In terms of gripping drama and character development, you might be better off waiting for The Muppets.


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