[11 November 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“The evil that once was has reemerged.” Immortals begins badly. John Hurt provides the voice-over, at once portentous and ridiculous, explaining how Greek gods once roamed the earth, then left it to men and beasts, and oh yes, laid down a law for themselves, that they could never interfere with what men were doing to each other or “the lands.” But laws mean little to these gods, the immortals once “considered incapable of death,” at least until they “discover they can kill each other.” Likewise, they discover they can’t not interfere with men.
Here, that interference takes a vaguely erotic form (in Greek mythology, gods raped and had other sorts of sex with humans regularly, disguised as swans, mists, falcons, and even same-sex partners), as the gods watch earth from atop Olympus, decked out in shimmery gowns and golden headdresses. The gods pick favorites and observe them with a certain lustfulness, their eyes lighting up as bodies are penetrated and blood spurts. Zeus (Luke Evans) and his daughter Athena (Isabel Lucas)—the one who sprang full-grown and armored from his skull, a famously painful origin this film omits—are especially interested in the business of Theseus (Henry Cavill), the devoted son of Aethra (Anne Day-Jones). This is the kid, they hope, who will lead humans to defeat the mad King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke).
Immortals leaves out a bit of backstory, for instance, the fact that Theseus is fathered by both the human Aegeus and the god Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), instead leaving him (and his mother) to be battered by cruel gossip, namely that she’s a “whore.” This inspires the son to fight bullies and name-callers; luckily, he’s been trained since he was a boy by an Old Man (Hurt), so he’s more than ready to beat down the Spartan Lysander (Joseph Morgan), and also earn the admiration of the general Helios (Peter Stebbings).
Alas, this threesome’s especial complications are cut short when Hyperion shows up. While seeking the Epirus Bow, which allows the bearer to fire off non-stop, bright blue-lit arrows that always hit their targets, he stops by Theseus’ village just long enough to earn his enmity for life (granted, Hyperion’s life will be short, once this plot point is set in motion). Forced to leave home, Theseus takes up with a motley crew, including the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a nameless and tongueless monk (Greg Byrk), and a jaunty sidekick named Stavros (Stephen Dorff). While the film works hard to reinforce the guys’ competition over the girl—through their longing looks and Stavros’ lecherous innuendo—it’s clear enough they share a certain unresolved intimacy of their own. With matching abs and arrogance, these guys strut about the artful landscape, finding the bow, losing the bow, and finding the bow again.
Amid all the business about the bow, the boys are also concerned with legacies and saving humanity from Hyperion’s destructiveness, which he plans to enact by releasing a horrific force—not the Kraken, but the Titans, a squad of mighty god-ish warriors who begin the film inside a box, their jaws literally locked around poles to hold them in place. It’s a stunning first image that quickly gives way to narrative nonsense (a turn that’s particularly disappointing if you’ve heard director Tarsem Singh’s supposed first pitch for the film: “Caravaggio meets the school of Fight Club”).
Immortals doesn’t appear to have much on its mind beyond a few gorgeous still images: the battle scenes are many, speed-ramped and slow-motioned, and accompanied by pounding percussion. They’re also repetitive (I lost count of the beheadings and head-splatterings around 10 or 11). Theseus is surely game, as he’s again and again slammed against walls or stabbed below his belt, and he and Stavros develop an earnest mutual appreciation, heading again and again into fights where they’re hopelessly outnumbered. If these mythic Greek warriors don’t anticipate Hyperion’s deviousness and traps as well you might, they don’t back down. They’re doomed to explosive, gooey chaos, they know it, and they don’t put up much resistance.
That the gods are as clueless as the puny people they observe is, of course, part of Greek mythology’s terrific appeal. Here, as much as Zeus and Athena and Aries (Daniel Sharman) might imagine themselves all-powerful and wise, they’re really just willful and selfish. As they debate over whether to intervene, they also seem baffled by how stupid men are, not recognizing what you see: they’re only as able and intelligent as the men who have made them up.
Immortals doesn’t quite make this point. Instead, it celebrates the brutish adventures of both men and gods, with sex ever twisted up with violence: Hyperion slams one sycophant’s crotch with a hammer, Theseus deflowers the willing virgin (her bloody dress an emblem of her lingering thrill the next morning), and Zeus looks sincerely wounded as he sees what horrors his laws have wrought. Only Hyperion (or maybe it’s Rourke) seems quite aware of how silly it all is, from his helmets with horns and teeth to his monstrous acts of violence. Following one, he pauses to check his fingernails: it’s a campy, welcome bit. And then the percussion begins pounding all over again.