Okay, it’s like this: If Samwise Gamgee, after returning home from the War of the Ring, had a prophetic dream about the far-in-his-future Fourth Age of Man — including what we now know as the mythology of ancient Greece — and decided to write some fan fiction about it, and then Vogue magazine’s most outré photographers did a huge photo spread based on that, that could begin to explain how Immortals came into existence.
Or else this is what eternal — and eternally bored — gods do to fill the time: they spin insane stories through luscious images of nearly naked beautiful people fighting and fucking.
Wait, there’s more: It’s not a bad thing that this happened.
Immortals is pretty much completely bonkers, and that is its secret and its glory. It’s sort of about mad King Hyperion played by a mumbling Mickey Rourke (The Expendables, Iron Man 2) who tends to go into battle wearing a spectacularly Maurice Sendak helmet, and he’s after a magical bow of the gods with which he could, dare we say it, rule the world, and which the gods have rather foolishly left lying around where mortals can get at it. So Theseus, who’s kind of a warrior Jesus — not the actual biological son of Zeus (Luke Evans: The Three Musketeers), king of the gods, but certainly favored by him and definitely needed by Zeus in order to maintain the hold of the gods on mortals — gets the magical bow, which almost instantly falls into Hyperion’s meaty paws. But Theseus isn’t just Jesus: he’s also Superman, because he is played by Henry Cavill (Stardust, Tristan & Isolde), who will be starring in Man of Steel in 2013. So he’s like two inhuman superheroes in one, and Hyperion better look out.
But Immortals isn’t about what it’s about. Director Tarsem Singh’s two previous films — the brutal, magical The Fall and the reprehensible The Cell — are lurid fantasias of the psyche… and now, here, in an attempt to go mainstream, Singh trims away the psyche stuff and just goes wild with the lurid fantasia. What’s important here isn’t what’s going on but how what is going on is presented. It’s not style over substance: the style is substantial; it is the meat of the meal here. And it is hugely intriguing.
I never got emotionally caught up the characters, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Singh’s impressionism, which is by turns twisted, as if the sweat and toil of mortals were reflected in their harsh, dim world
and blindingly elegant: you almost want to avert your gaze from his Mount Olympus, which is surely how literally dazzling a realm of gods would be.
This is a bizarre, sinister children’s picture book for grownups transposed to the big screen.
Not that there isn’t some fascinating stuff happening in the story, too. What happens to the “virgin oracle” (Freida Pinto: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Miral) isn’t what I was dreading — though I can think of a more subversive way her tale could have played out. In an unexpected reversal, the men are generally way more naked than the women are (and yes, there’s more than one female character!), and men’s bodies are deployed way more often as design elements and objects of aesthetic beauty than women’s are. And it’s fun to see the known bits of Greek mythology sneak up on us in unanticipated ways: all of a sudden in one scene, there’s a minotaur and a maze outta nowhere… except they’re not really outta nowhere, we just didn’t know they were there.
There’s a lot of cheek to Immortals, but what makes it weirdly captivating is how nimble it is, particularly in contrast to how leaden other recent attempts to do something similar have been. (I’m looking at you, awful Clash of the Titans remake.) It genuinely feels like the flight of dark fancy it is aiming to be.