One of the most underrated films of 2011 is finally released upon the world like so many Titans before it. The Immortals is out on Blu-ray/DVD and can finally take its rightful place in your collection, right between I, Claudius and The Iron Giant -- alphabetically.
Often dismissed, and advertised, as some 300 knockoff, The Immortals seemed to lose out on both the ratings it desired and the art house attention it deserved. Though it’s nowhere on the box, which further proves the mismanagement of this title, this film is directed by Tarsem Singh Dhandwar and is his follow-up to The Fall, a love-letter to cinema that makes the wildly celebrated Hugo look like a blue-tinted 3D email. He also directed R.E.M.’s video for “Losing My Religion,” which I think we can all agree was an immensely influential piece for the medium. All of this is to say, yes, it is in fact from the producers of 300, and it’s also directed by a visionary filmmaker.
As plot summaries will tell you, it’s about Theseus, played by the upcoming Superman Henry Cavill, seeking revenge against the evil King Hyperion, a role seized by the post-Wrestler Mickey Rourke who was severely underutilized in Iron Man 2. To seek vengeance, Theseus must join a ragtag group of friends and find a magical weapon, just like any good mythological story would have it. What makes The Immortals’ take on this basic hero’s arc rich and exceptional is the role of the gods. The entire film, cliché though it might be to say, is a painting. It’s a visual escape of bronze splashed against dull rust, but up on the mountain the gods are gold. They are meant to be “brighter than,” and it’s not just interesting costuming, it’s a decision that informs the narrative.
The conflict of the film revolves around the gods restraining themselves from interfering with the actions of mankind. If they show themselves, the truth of their existence would be unquestionable, and if man knew that Mount Olympus was host to such divinity, then free will would be compromised. Unlike lesser films that use the Olympians like so many stuffy high council members, the Zeus of this world humbly believes in the potential for mankind to decide not to war against each other, as opposed to being told not to by an all-powerful Beings. This, of course, becomes more compelling when the gods’ decision to use restraint is questioned. Best of all, this isn’t just pretense, the film reminds you throughout that its characters are very much in doubt of the existence of Olympians, and that the true believers are in the minority.
Also worth noting are the clever ways the film handles this story’s retelling: the Minotaur is not a man with a bull’s head, but you can see how that rumor would have been started, and the seemingly omnipotent eagle that flies around is not necessarily Zeus. The Immortals also achieves something that many films lately have failed to accomplish: it has a sincerely dangerous villain.
The Immortals is played with sincerity, and the look is immaculate, and more importantly, interesting. The world’s environs take on the qualities of small sets used in a play or an old studio film, to the extent that these scenes seem to be framed as if illustrated tiles in a series. Even the graphic violence is executed with an artist’s eye, so while legs are gashed and bodies slammed by flaming chains or slashed in half by swords, it reads like the stroke of a brush. There is a difference between the gore used to shock in movies and the more expressive use of it in The Immortals. The last I’ll say, because part of the fun of this movie is discovering what it does correctly, is that the action scenes are captured with a fluidity that allows you to take in the choreography, as opposed to trying to catch glimpses in an over-edited montage. It’s a dangerous thing to compare but there is a long fight in a corridor that doesn’t copy but seems to at least take notes from Old Boy -- and that’s saying a lot. Watching these fight scenes make you wonder what it would be like to have this team make a superhero movie, but then you realize that, in a way, you’re already in the middle of one.
Theatrically, this was one of my favorite films of last year, and perhaps the first time that I felt the use of 3D actually enhanced the experience. On the TV some of its breadth is bound to seem smaller, but no less immaculate or worthy of your attention. Dhandwar’s next movie is the Lily Collins Snow White adventure Mirror, Mirror, and I can only imagine what the trailers aren’t revealing.
The presentation of The Immortals on Blu-ray is as good as you’d expect from any current release, and a digital copy is provided on an additional disc. The special features split the difference on quality and quantity and leave you with a fine assortment but not much to watch more than once. That said, do seek them out because some are extremely worthwhile. The fully polished alternate opening and two alternate endings reveal fascinating backstories for the main characters and provide an important reminder for viewers to consider the film’s title when thinking about the larger themes of the story.
The featurette “It’s No Myth” is a soft look at where these mythological adventures come from, while “Caravaggio Meets Fight Club: Tarsem’s Vision” takes an in-depth look at the making-of process. While neither the painter Caravaggio nor the classic film Fight Club seem to be explicitly referenced in this featurette, it’s a unique look into Dhandwar’s set and process. It also reveals the technology used to pre-visualize the extensive CGI elements of the movie on the monitors while they were filming. The final non-trailer/sneak-peak feature on the disc is “Immortals: Gods & Heroes Graphic Novel,” a thoughtful inclusion of the supplemental comic that you can read on your TV...if you stand real close and squint. If there is a zoom option I haven’t found it, so I’m going to defer to being sarcastic about it. It’s too bad, because it would be nice bonus to this exceptional film.