Immortals: A Few Steps From Brilliant

Tarsem Singh is an interesting movie maker.  In some respects he could almost be considered a genius but in many, many others he is very flawed.  I doubt that anyone would argue that The Cell or Mirror Mirror are pillars of cinematic achievement.  He is, however, supremely talented at creating striking and vibrant images through set design, costuming, and, in particular, cinematography.  Even his worst films have some sort of visual appeal despite their overall lack of value.

(Okay, maybe more fascination than appeal for Mirror Mirror.) 

When he focuses on his strengths he can produce beautiful and wondrous works.  The Fall used the main plot as little more than a springboard for the surreal, fantastical tales of Roy Walker thus allowing Tarsem to exercise his strengths and is, therefore, leagues better than his other projects.  Immortals had the potential to do the same and, in fact, surpass it as his best work but it ultimately falls short due to several missteps.

It was evident from the beginning of the film that we would not be treated Tarsem’s usual use of a rich, bright pallet which was quite unfortunate.  Not only would it have been a more realistic representation of the use of colour in the ancient world but one can almost feel how uncomfortable he is with the washed out look he ended up using.  I feel as though he would have had more success, even if it was still outside of his comfort zone, if he had stuck to the traditional movie representation of ancient Greece, I.E. all white marble and everything clean and tidy.

(Painting pillars and statues?  Pffft, that’s for suckers.)

He instead ends up borrowing Zack Snyder’s aesthetic from 300.  I do not know if this was his own choice or if it was due to pressure from the producers as it is still the most successful movie based on ancient Greece in recent memory and, in fact, shared producers as Immortals.  A commonality that the commercials were all too eager to point out.  This advertising does make sense though.  Aside from the general look of the film it uses some similar techniques such as highly recognizable variable speed fight scenes, a penchant for ultra violence, and a general disregard for the actual history and mythology.

That last similarity, although, could have been a great strength.  It is clear from the outset that Tarsem has little interest in remaining faithful to the tales, or even characters, of the myths.  Rather, as so much of western culture has been build on Greco-Roman foundations, he simply uses our preconceptions to subtly inform our ideas of the characters.  The plot itself does not have to be strong and the character do not have to be deep for this is meant to be a feast for the eyes, a visual epic.  Where the movie fall apart, however, is not the plotting or the character development but the writing itself.

The basic premise is the King Hyperion of the Heraklion is trying to find the Epirus bow, a fabled weapon, the only thing capable of killing the Gods and Titans.  He is searching for it in order to free the Titans from mount Tartarus in order to disrupt the Olympians’ rule.  This because his family died despite his pleas to the Gods.  This is all set up quite well at the start of the film followed by the introduction of our main protagonist, Theseus.  He does not care about authority and simply does what he views to be right.  He is about as typical as one can get for a Hollywood hero.  He meets then Phaedra and Stavros both of whom are too lifted right out of stock character 101.

The plot progresses exactly how one would expect but we are not here for the plot so I do not hold its simplicity against the movie.  What I do choose to hold against the movie is when it violates its own internal consistency.  If the Epirus bow is the only thing capable of killing gods then why, by the second act, have they started to, apparently successfully, kill each other?  Why does Zeus insist on not interfering with humanity for the sake of instilling belief?  After all, does this not make Hyperion’s quest, though in no way his actions, justified?  Every step of the way the Olympians moral ground is eroded until one is left uncaring about what happens.  The only character I was interested in by the end was Stavros simply because I am a sucker for the jerk with a heart of gold trope.

(I may not be into men, but maybe I could overlook that.)

I was left wondering if the movie would have been better by flattening its characters and plot even further and making itself a dialogue-less film.  Wondering if it would have worked better if it were simply communicated through visuals.  In fact many scenes would not have required much to be changed for this to work and they indeed tended to be the better ones.  The parts of the movie that required larger amounts of conversation tended to drag and either struggled or failed to hold my interest.  By painting the story with broader swaths it could have focused on the artistry of the image.

In many ways it is a movie that is held back by trying to be something it is not.  It tries to be constructed more like a typical Hollywood movie; understandable as no one wants to spend a lot of money on a project that may not appeal to its target demographic.  It tries to match one of the more popular action movie aesthetics; understandable as Tarsem had not made a film in this genre before.  It tries to not be an art house movie; understandable as they do not have any sort of box office draw.  What it is at its heart, and what it could and should have been on its surface, is a vehicle for bloody and enthusiastic larger than life conflicts played out with a unique visual style borrowing heavily from the style of classical and neoclassical art.

(There was a much better illustration of this concept, when Theseus tries to save his mother but I couldn’t find the right still.)

In the end Tarsem’s Immortals is a few steps from brilliance.  If it had stayed true to what it feels it wants to be it would have been a much better movie and an even less successful one.

Side note:  I feel that there are an untold number of gender issues with this movie but that would be a whole different review unto itself.

Next week:  Clash of the Titans (2010 version)

Hymn To Dionysus

Oh wine stained god; patron of theater with thyrsus at ready
You who leads us, conducts us across all those stages so holy
For you, oh! for you is this sung in a meter so steady

For your tragedy, dire events, heroes all while lowly
Those tales showing humanities’ horrors and terrible spirit
For it I sing; ringing my voice out, even and slowly

For your comedy, far worse, all for we think not to fear it
We taste only the saccharine coating that hides an unloved truth
For it I sing; moving however the muses do steer it

For your masks as they cover the face of advanced age and too youth
Those that painfully crack and reveal all the flesh, soft, beneath skin
For them I sing; seeing we cover all ugly and uncouth

Yours in the pact of society, covering all our ill sin
You do free our true way of being thus making us heady
For you I sing; you who reveals all the truth of all we’ve been

Building The World VIIII

Of how a Titan did fall
And his self righteous gall
Of how man did descend
Thus bringing his end
Of our predestined fight
Which well proved my might
Of his theft of our fire
That bastard, that liar
-Oh Halcyon Muses nine-
For your version I simply haven’t the time
As him I know you’ll always support
You’ll never betray your friend and cohort
For he gave you your purpose, your men
Father, even, can’t compete then
So will I sing of how him I did chain
He who deserved that horror and pain

Ever So Sound Is Prometheus Bound

Once again then by one our ranks grew
But bastard Prometheus, he still wasn’t through

My choice with Cybele he decided to use
To clearly show all that I’d always abuse

For still did he glower at what I had done
How on that day I had still won

For for his deceit at that first sacrifice
I decided to man to not to be nice

Fire from them I elected to keep
‘Twas this action the titan did reap

He thought it was cruel, though it unfair
Thought it certain that I did not care

He could not see how I balance returned
Could not see ’twas for what I had yearned

They could not on their own butcher a beast
Eat up its flesh and claim holy feast

But still they could beg holy rites
And we could bless them with wondrous sites

So free were they to always eat meat
But only, if too, we were given our seat

But he wished to provide them with all that he could
To his creations – he wished to be good

So up on Olympos, up in the sky
He enacted his plan, devious, sly

As all of us gods went along on our way
By our great fire did Prometheus stay

For all gods’ honour it perpetually burned
From it, others, flames’ use had learned

So pretending to laze, there he did wait
He need be alone for his traitorous fate

A tube of fennel he finally then took
When none were around – none were to look

He captured the fire in that odious plant
For while I see most, that’s one place I can’t

So under my watch he defied me once more
And for any help he’d never implore

As he knew what later was going to come
He reveled and gloried in the work that he’d done

For fire was spreading throughout all of man
And all was right with his ultimate plan

So without a doubt his secret was out
Thus unabashed he did freely me flout

For of gold were those men now no more
And us gods they’d no longer adore

So to Earth I then did descend
To meet Prometheus who’d his actions defend

That bastard was there – waiting for me
Content that he had further man freed

He did not even speak – he’d prepared for the fight
Braced himself against my power and might

And though he was a Titan with strength most extreme
My true extent he just couldn’t gleme

‘Twas no sort of sport, no kind contest
To all who saw I was clearly the best

Soon Prometheus, the Titan, was still
Soon Prometheus would submit to my will

I grabbed the hair on the back of his head
And dragged him behind as a weight made of lead

In Kaukasos I then drove a spike
And fastened him there, tight as I like

But further pain I wished to deliver
Thus had a bird feast ‘pon his liver

For silver had he turned those men all of gold
And to this crime I must to him hold

Thus on the mount – there I him left
Of Hope thinking he was fully bereft

But this he used as still further proof
That I was unfit – that I was aloof

“Grandmother!” he cried loudly to Earth
“Do you see now how he doesn’t have worth?

“He’s chained me for helping them that I made
For giving assistance that he cruelly forbade

“And before with Cybele, you know what he’s done
They’d couldn’t be both, she could be only one

“But the first was the most grievous of all
What he did when the Titans did fall

“He punished them all, whatever they’d done
Even his mother who’d protected her son

“And as I know love’s true in your heart
This surely must tear you apart”

Then mountains upheaved and valleys did crack
For she had set me onto this track

For without help from both Earth and Sky
Along with my siblings I was destined to die

So one more did join in his plot
The greatest of allies that he could ever have got