At first glance, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals seems to fall firmly within the recently born “Zack Snyderian” school of filmmaking. Actually, stare at the film for as long as you wish and that assumption is borne out, particularly in comparison to Snyder’s 300. There are the slo-mo/fast-mo fight sequences involving copious sprays of blood. (Immortals is a veritable spray-tacular of spray-plosions.) There are the gorgeous red-and-gold-infused vistas mostly populated by beautiful people. (Sorry, Mickey.) And there’s plenty of sculpted man flesh—not as much as found in 300, but that … was SPARTA!!!, after all.
That doesn’t mean Immortals is a derivative affair, though. If anything, the film is more an example of concurrent generation, of converging styles and technique. Like Snyder, Tarsem’s route to the director’s chair is firmly rooted in commercials. (Each has done work for a host of big dogs—Nike, Coke, etc.) And whereas Snyder’s first film was 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, Tarsem broke through to the big screen in 2000 (The Cell) and had a second under his belt (2006’s The Fall) before Snyder’s 2007 breakthrough adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 comic. Suffice it to say, both directors employ a style replete with techniques and tendencies born from their commercial past, and neither has met a bluescreen he didn’t like.
As one might expect in a film by Tarsem, style repeatedly trumps substance in Immortals, and that doesn’t leave much room for a complicated plot. The pincer-helmed King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), annoyed that the gods failed to answer some past prayers involving his loved ones, is searching for an artifact called the Epirus Bow. With it, he intends to set the imprisoned Titans free from their nightmare of bruxism and, with a little luck, doom the gods in the process. To achieve this goal, he boldly travels from sound stage to sound stage, from bluescreen to bluescreen, a-raping and a-pillaging as he goes. Meanwhile, an incredibly toned and buff Theseus (Henry Cavill) is hanging with his whore of a mother—hey, the grapevine can be harsh—being secretly tutored by a disguised Zeus (who knocked up Theseus’ mom and ruined her reputation in the first place). Soon, Hyperion destroys the young son-of-a-god’s home and family, though it does introduce him to his future wife, Phaedra (Freida Pinto). The gods watch and, occasionally, intervene in spectacular fashion.
If this plot summary makes Immortals sound airy, it should, but Tarsem’s film is not meant to be an in-depth retelling of Greek myth. Nor is it intended to serve as a revelatory character study, though the actors give commendable, earnest efforts. (And Rourke’s performance possesses that certain, genre-proof, something extra that’s been a hallmark of his recent work.) No, in Immortals, Tarsem’s meticulous eye is set firmly on the visuals, and there he does not waiver. In fact, in an era of high-definition, surround sound and 48+ inch television screens in every other home, a film like Immortals is among the most persuasive remaining arguments for going to the movie theater as opposed to staying home. It’s exhilarating in a manner that trumps even the clunkier moments when someone holds a pose or talks for too long. (Theseus’ speech rallying the troops will be coming soon to a hockey arena or football stadium JumboTron near you.)
Inevitably, Immortals will be dismissed by some as insubstantial fare. It’s tempting to say such critics are just missing the point, but in the end, it comes down to dietary needs. Tarsem’s film is a series of marble friezes, briefly released from stasis and granted vivid colors before striking another pose. It’s less a collection of scenes than of tableaux. For some, that’ll feel like empty calories. For others, it’ll prove tasty, indeed.