Screening Log #50: Immortals (2011)

Written by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides
Directed by Tarsem Singh
Starring Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, and Frieda Pinto




There is a balance to be struck in how a narrative may unfold itself in film. Some directors take a visual approach, favoring strategies that lean more on striking images and scenes to unfold their stories than expository or interesting dialogue. Some films are more suited to be told through clever word play and conversations than dramatic tableaus and complicated shots. In any case, to my mind a film should strive to balance its visual acuity with the content of the story it seeks to tell. A film may be unsuccessful in achieving this sort of equilibrium between word and image and be potentially rescued from its own faults by a surfeit of one element; a visually bland film may be bolstered by a sharp script and a bland story can be invigorated by sumptuous visuals.

Tarsem Singh is a director whose films most often fall into the latter category. His newest film, Immortals, is no exception. A hybrid amalgamation of several Greek mythological stories, the film follows peasant Theseus, Henry Cavill, as he rises from his Hellenic gutter to oppose the would-be despot, and hopeful eradicator of humanity, King Hyperion, Mickey Rourke. Hyperion has scoured the country looking for the Epirus Bow, a relic that will allow him to unleash the Titans who are imprisoned under Mount Tartarus after losing their war with Zeus and the Gods of Olympus. During  his maraud, Hyperion attacks Theseus’ village, killing his mother in front of him and sending him to work in a salt mine, I guess presuming matricide to be a naturally effective motivator and definitely not the sort of act that would spur someone on a murderous path of revenge.

Theseus escapes from the salt mine, obviously, absconding with a monk, a thief, and Phaedra, Frieda Pinto, a virgin oracle whose own mother, one can only assume, was a big fan of Plato. The quartet manage to avoid walking into a bar to set up any obvious jokes and set out to avenge Theseus’ mother’s death and fulfill the prophesy seen by Phaedra. They are beset by Hyperion’s guards, aided obliquely by  the head-poppingly violent Olympic Gods, despite Zeus’ strict warnings against this sort of activity. Hyperion obtains the bow, leading to a climax that contrasts the brutally gorgeous combat of the Olympians as they fight the Titans with the slow and cumbersome battle between Theseus and Hyperion separated from the war that rages around them.

If my summary of the plot seems a little – ok, maybe more than a little – cheeky, it is because the plot is thin, predictable, and secondary to the visuals presented. There is a tendency in this genre of action film especially to lean on the mythic nature of the plot to generate some sense of narrative gravitas. In the hands of most directors this results in a limp film, relying on CGI action set pieces and gravity borrowed from the weight of time behind its mythologies (ok, I’m looking at you, 300 and Clash of the Titans remake). Tarsem, however, has a particular visual aesthetic and sense of scale that manages to articulate this mythological gravity in an adequate manner; his shots are wide, his use of rich colour – reds and golds in costumes, the darkest oil blacks and the shades of the sky – reinforces the narrative and the paucity of its drama. As in his film The Fall, Tarsem is able to hang remarkable images from the skeletal limbs of a plot so familiar that it barely registers with the viewer.

Tarsem uses the screen like a baroque painting; his use of chiaroscuro in an opulently rich palette laid over his typically geometrically striking compositions, renders what should be a boringly predictable film interesting, even, at times, visually thrilling. Perhaps it is only possible for his visions to fully bloom when they are afforded ample enough real estate at the cost of narrative complexity; too much exposition or dialogue would detract from the canvas of time on which he can flourish his painterly sensibilities.

One Response to “Screening Log #50: Immortals (2011)”
  1. I like what you guys are up too. This kind of clever work and coverage!

    Keep up the fantastic works guys I’ve you guys to my own blogroll.

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