Immortals is one of Hollywood’s most successful attempt at turning ancient Greek myth into an action movie in recent memory. Maybe that’s not saying much, when the other competitors are movies like Troy or even worse, Clash of the Titans, but it’s worth noting that Immortals succeeds where other movies with bigger budgets and bigger names have failed. Maybe it’s the very fact that this one was, without a Brad Pitt to topline and push for a bigger budget, made on a smaller scale that gives it so much life.
You may not even notice the smaller scale of the story, as clashing armies are confined to fighting in hallways and most of the sets seem to be just one or two rooms. If you don’t notice it’s because director Tarsem Singh ekes every last bit of life out of every, single frame. Immortals may not ever really feel big, a drawback in what should be a big battle film about clashing gods, but it feels incredibly detailed. Detailed enough that in the end, it’s mostly satisfying.
The story though is kind of clunky. There’s this guy named Hyperion who’s out to release the old gods, in the hopes that they’ll leap out of their cage and destroy the new gods. Hyperion is played by Mickey Rourke, who’s performance seems like some wonderfully bizarre barbarian riff on the freakish madness of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, from Apocalypse Now. Then there’s Theseus (Henry Cavill), the bastard son of a rape victim who’s been secretly tutored by the god Zeus, and is now bent on stopping whatever it is that Hyperion’s up to. This results in a few daring escapes, a half-hearted fight with a Minotaur in an even more half-hearted labyrinth, and eventually an all out, eye-popping, visually stunning battle between Gods.
Oh my, those Gods. Whenever Theseus or any of the humans pick up a sword it’s a grungy, dirty, bloody affair. Men fight in a way that’s viciously violent and filled with grime and ichor. But when the Gods show up to dish out vengeance, as they do two or three times throughout the film, it’s all impossible flashing gold armor and incredible slow-motion effects in which war hammers are used to shred skulls and Poseidon kills at least half a dozen Titans with a super-Triton. Immortals is worth seeing just for the battle prowess of Zeus and his cronies but the rest, well that looks pretty good too.
Singh consistently creates a visual palette unlike anything else being done on in theaters right now. Immortals ends up being sort of like 300 meets The Matrix in its best moments. Even the 3D is eye-popping, the way Singh manipulates the format to create depth in even the darkest lighting or shines a ray of sunlight out over the crowd is something to behold.
It’s just a shame the story is only sort of alright and that most of the heroes never seem to develop beyond the girl and the two shirtless guys. Mickey Rourke’s villain is the only one with a real personality, and it’s a big one, so big that the others only seem more dirty and lifeless by comparison.
And there’s still that question of scale. Immortals never actually ends up feeling so much like an epic as it does a guy who hangs out on a couple of cliffsides and then wanders around some hallways for a couple of hours stabbing people. They’re the coolest hallways you’ve ever seen, and the stabbing’s pretty great too, but in the end they’re still just a bunch of guys in hallways with knives.
Immortals is a tantalizing feast of visual energy and brutal battles. The movie’s biggest flaw is that seems like there should be so much more. More to the story, more to the journey, more to the size of this adventure. It never quite feels epic, but maybe that compromise is what holds it together. While other entries in the sword and sandal genre have tried to go big and ended up falling apart, Immortals stays small and entertains.