One of the things I always loved when I was in grade school was the English sections on mythology. I was a monster kid, after all, and I read the two books my parents had provided me on mythology to tatters, looking for stories with monsters. I got quite the education in the bargain, even if the reason I loved Herakles above all the other Greek heroes was because he fought the most monsters. But I also responded to a good story, and one of the stories that royally hooked me was the one about Theseus and the Minotaur. The early parts of the Theseus myth are a kind of ur-E. C. Comics collection of stories, in which Theseus takes on various villains in poetically just ways (Procrustes, the stretcher, is my favorite: if guests in his house were too short for his bed, he'd stretch them. Theseus was too tall for it, so you can guess his intentions. Theseus turns the tables on him). But as I got to know the full myth in later English classes, I really began to appreciate the Greeks and their knack for creating heroes that were recognizably flawed. Theseus, it turns out, is a bit of an asshole. Flush with victory, he forgets to change the black sails on his ship to alert his father that he's successful and his dad flings himself into the sea. King Minos's daughter, Ariadne, helps him navigate the labyrinth only be marooned on an island with her kid sister for her troubles. There's a reason that Theseus isn't a major hero when it comes to movies based on the Greek myths. He's a right bastard. Which is why I was interested to see Tarsem Singh's Immortals (2011), in spite of all the horrifically bad reviews. It puts Theseus front and center. How, I wondered, were they going to pull that off. Certainly, Tarsem is an arty enough director to buck conventional wisdom and make the character heroic but unlikeable. Maybe having a prick for a hero is what garnered all the hate.
I should have known better.
How did they do it? They discarded the myth entirely. Well, maybe not entirely. There's a labyrinth, true, and there's a bull-headed monster of a sort, but that's not grand enough for this movie and it rushes through this in maybe five minutes of film. This is a film that wants spectacle, it wants gods and titans battling each other. Frankly, they picked the wrong myth for that. The story they've picked is a stock quest narrative, in which Theseus is recast not as the bastard son of the king of Athens, but as a bastard slave who rises up with the help of the gods. The big bad in this movie is King Hyperion, who is seeking the Bow of Epirus, a weapon he plans to use to free the titans from their prison in Mount Tartarus. His ultimate aim is to destroy the gods themselves and make himself immortal. Theseus must find the bow first.
The gods in this movie, it must be said, are morons. Well, Zeus is a moron, anyway. He lets everything get out of hand by forbidding the other gods from interfering and by the time he stirs to act, he has a war on his hands that he could have avoided. Mind you, the gods in the myths are pretty dim sometimes, too, but not like this. I'm getting ahead of myself, though.
This is a movie that's built on Hollywood cliches rather than mythic stories. The hero needs motivation? It fridges his mother. It needs a connection between the villain and hero? It provides a prophesy where Theseus embraces Hyperion ("don't you get it?" I can hear the Joker telling Batman, "I'm you! You made me!" Yeah, whatever.). Need a really bad bad guy? Have him mad for destroying the human race for no describable reason beyond his own ego. This is a remarkably bad piece of writing.
Tarsem is a visual stylist, though. So perhaps the movie makes up for its narrative deficiencies with stunning visuals. This, too, is not the case, unless you count Henry Cavill's abs as stunning visuals (I'm willing to be convinced on this point). For the most part, the visuals in Immortals come to the screen at second hand. They use the same color palette, the same formal tricks (slow motion, CGI splatter), the same kind of abstracted virtual sets, and the same reliance on scrolling tableaux as one finds in Zach Snynder's 300, of which this movie is a shameless rip-off. Like 300, this film reminds me of flipping through my older brother's collection of heavy metal records when was a teenager, the ones with the Frazetta covers? Yeah. And about as meaningful an aesthetic experience, too. Immortals is yet another film that seems to draw the visual inspiration for its action scenes from comics. The big fight at the end takes place in a confined corridor and scrolls horizontally like it's following the path of comics panels.
If this film is worth seeing, it's for the glory that is a mostly unclothed Henry Cavill and his magic abdomen. I hate to think that that was all airbrush and CGI, because I want to think that some wonders of the world are real. Frieda Pinto is not to be outdone in her lone callipygian nude scene, though, nor are the actors who are saddled with the roles of the gods themselves, who seem to have been cast for a certain amount of androgyny. So there's that, but I don't know that any of this counterbalances the singularly weird performance given by Mickey Rourke as Hyperion. Its not dissimilar to Brando's performance in Apocalypse Now. Like that performance, it's burdened with faux profundities delivered in a hissing mumble that further obscures whatever motivations his character might have been given by the script.
The thing I resent most about this movie, though, is the fact that it obviously has access to state of the art special effects--that scene where Poseidon creates a tsunami is actually pretty cool--but it manifestly refuses to give the audience any mythological monsters. The Minotaur? Just a guy in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome-style fetish get-up. The titans? They seem like the running zombies of Dawn of the Dead. This, more than anything, seems like vast resources misapplied wholesale.