TROUBLE CITY

Immortals

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Someone needs to make a Greco-Roman mythology porno. Yes, I said it, and I'm not taking that statement back. The next filmmaker who tries to adapt the Greek mythology needs to show Hera luring Zeus to bed so that she can screw his brains out while her favorite army defeats his. Alternatively, a film could be made in which a god kidnaps a goddess, rapes her, and then forces her to be his part-time wife. Better yet, some director should depict that one time when a goddess really wanted to win a beauty pageant, so she helped the judge marry someone else's hot wife. Oh, and let's not forget the scene in which Poseidon curses a woman so that she falls in love -- and later has intercourse -- with a bull. Yes, folks. All of these scenes were taken directly from the source texts.

The Greeks and Romans (as well as the Egyptians and the Vikings, for that matter) didn't share the Judeo-Christian belief that their gods were benevolent, omniscient, and endlessly patient parental figures. These gods were impulsive, they were jealous, they were violent, and they were constantly horny. Gods, titans, humans, and a wide variety of spirits and monsters were constantly fighting each other, screwing each other, and/or screwing each other over. Of course, that isn't to say that none of the myths are kid-friendly. Perseus' quest is probably the most famous example of a story that might easily be told in a more wholesome manner, but even that classic was terribly botched -- twice! -- by Clash of the Titans.

By and large, the vast majority of Greek myths just can't be faithfully adapted in a way that's acceptable for all ages. Remember in Hercules how Hera absolutely despised the title character for being one of Zeus' illegitimate children? Yeah, Hera hated Herc so much that she cursed him with a temporary insanity, leading him to kill his wife (Megara, the love interest) and his kids in a fit of blind rage. What, you don't remember that being in a Disney animated film? Well, there you go!

Now, don't get me wrong: I have fond memories of Hercules, just as much as the next guy who grew up watching it. I don't mean to say that the film would have been improved with scenes of marital infidelity and mindless slaughter, I'm just trying to make a point.

These characters and their stories are so powerful that they've been passed down for millennia. Yet by their very nature, these stories are extremely mature. Many filmmakers have tried paying tribute to these tales of war, love, death, and sex, but the medium of cinema has so far been unequal to the task of bringing them to the screen in a worthy manner. Studios have traditionally preferred to play it safe -- now more than ever -- and that approach isn't going to fly with this material. A truly faithful adaptation of the Greco-Roman pantheon would have to be a film with tons of blood and nudity, completely unafraid to embrace a hard R rating.

...Oh hai, Immortals.

At my screening of this film, there were a couple of parents who decided to bring their small children along. THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. The first act alone contains multiple scenes of mutilations bloody enough to make 300 look like... well, this. These soldiers fight like they mean business, and Mickey Rourke wastes zero time establishing his villain as one twisted motherfucker. As for the sex and nudity, that's comprised of a brief topless scene early on, and a short -- though nonetheless steamy -- sex scene at the hour mark. Granted, Freida Pinto used a body double for that particular scene, but let's not hold that against her.

So with that out of the way, let's continue the previous topic of fidelity to the Greek mythology. Though there are characters in this film named Hyperion, Phaedra, and Theseus, none of them bear any resemblance to their mythical counterparts. For example, Theseus doesn't fight a Minotaur, he fights one of Hyperion's goons who just happens to wear a bull-shaped helmet. And yes, that fight happens in a maze, but the labyrinth has absolutely nothing to do with King Minos. In fact, both the maze and the bull helmet could have been removed from the film entirely and absolutely nothing would change.

Put simply, this movie does an absolutely terrible job at adapting the myth of Theseus. It would have been far better if the filmmakers had dropped the pretense and just given these characters some new names. As it is, I spent the entire film pretending that our protagonist was a completely new character who was Theseus in name only.

Speaking of Theseus, I'm glad to say that Henry Cavill does a very solid job as the leading man. Yes, he's a totally stock hero and his development is about as straightforward as you'd expect, but this is a tribute to the canon that practically invented the Hero's Journey, so I'm willing to let that slide. Moreover, Cavill delivers a warrior with great charisma and wonderful fighting prowess. He truly sells a character worthy to be considered the gods' mortal champion. As the movie's star, Cavill carried the film admirably. Furthermore, any lingering doubts I might have had about this just came to a very abrupt end.

Alas, poor Freida Pinto doesn't fare nearly as well. In 2009, Pinto made her grand debut winning hearts all over the world in Slumdog Millionaire. In 2010, she made a Woody Allen film and a foreign movie, both of which were roundly panned and ignored by audiences. In 2011, she got two high-profile roles -- one in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and one here -- both of which are completely useless. Seriously, Freida, find a new agent. You're better than this.

In this movie, Freida plays an oracle with frequent visions of the future. We're told at the outset that this character is important because she knows where the film's MacGuffin is, except that the MacGuffin is later discovered through absolutely no work on her part. Even worse is that after that point, Phaedra gives up her prescience (in what's admittedly a very well-delivered character beat), making her completely worthless in the film's back half. Hell, she disappears from the climax entirely, without even the courtesy of serving as a hostage for the villain. FAIL.

Speaking of actors who are way too good for their roles, Stephen McHattie puts in a brief appearance. He plays the totally thankless and pointless role of a royal idiot who does everything wrong. Getting far more screen time -- hell if I know why -- is Stephen Dorff, here portraying a character who exists only to provide comic relief and to die at the end. I'm glad to say that Stavros isn't one of those insulting or annoying comic reliefs I've seen, but that doesn't make him any less unfunny or worthless.

And on the positive side, Mickey Rourke. I absolutely hate the fact that Rourke has developed such a reputation for being an egotistical prick who's impossible to work with, because he really needs to get work more often. Hyperion is a completely stock villain who does nothing but glower and threaten through most of the movie. His motivation is weaker than toilet paper, mentioned only once in passing and never again. This is an antagonist who needs an incredibly strong performance if he's going to be any kind of a credible threat, and Rourke fucking delivers. It's one thing to chew scenery, but Rourke is chewing scenery with teeth that he personally filed into points (figuratively speaking, of course). In his physical presence, in his emotions, and in his growling voice, Rourke imbues Hyperion with a horribly insane brutality. Wonderfully done.

Now that we're done talking about the mortals, let's talk about the gods. To start with, they all appear to be in their mid-30s or younger, and this marks the first time that I've seen Zeus depicted as anything but an older man with a beard. For my part, I'm okay with this. The gods are supposed to be ageless and eternally youthful, so I can see the logic in casting them as beautiful twentysomethings. Plus, John Hurt appears to play Zeus disguised in mortal form, so there's that.

For me, the real worry was that the lower age would mean less gravitas. This would be especially fatal for Zeus, whose character demands a tremendous amount of authority. Laurence Olivier had it. Liam Neeson had it. Rip Torn's rumbling basso voice was brimming over with it. Luke Evans... not so much. He never had any hope of reaching his predecessors' heights, though he certainly doesn't humiliate himself, and he certainly brings the rage where it's needed. It also helps that Evans apparently decided to emulate John Hurt's performance, which was definitely the smart thing to do.

Next up is Athena. I went into this film prepared to pay very close attention to its depiction of Athena, as she's long been my favorite of the Greek pantheon. Not only was Athena the favorite child of Zeus, but also the virginal goddess of wisdom, the patron deity of Greece's capitol, and the guardian of all the finest heroes in Greek mythology. She's beauty, brains, and muscle, all rolled into one and multiplied to the power of God. And who was tapped to play her? The Pretender chick from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I was ready to tear Isabel Lucas' performance to ribbons, until she actually showed up onscreen. And then I saw her. I didn't see Isabel Lucas, mind you, but Athena herself. Granted, I imagined the grey-eyed goddess to be a couple years older and with a bit more muscle, but Lucas otherwise looked exactly as I had always pictured Athena. I could actually see this character hovering just over the shoulders of Odysseus and Achilles, rewarding their worship and love with protection and guidance. Maybe I'm alone in this, but I couldn't help falling in love with Lucas in this role.

As for the others... eh, they're okay. Kellan Lutz is probably a bit too young and pretty to play Poseidon, but he was suitably hot-tempered and the guy can twirl a trident like nobody's business. Ares is in a similar position, except he dies before the film can make proper use out of him.

Yes, gods can apparently die in this movie. On the one hand, I can see how this fits with the Greco-Roman depiction of their gods as fallible and flawed beings. On the other hand, I don't recall any gods or titans who actually died in the original canon. In fact, the pantheon  seemed more fond of cruel and elaborate punishments as opposed to outright deaths (see: Prometheus). Furthermore, the eventual war between gods and titans -- both of which are now mortal -- means that both sides are now in need of cannon fodder characters who can die without any consequences. Seeing that concept applied to the Olympians doesn't sit right with me, for some reason. Plus, if the titans in this movie can be killed, then that begs the question of why they were imprisoned to begin with, as opposed to being slaughtered outright.

Still, at least the gods are nicely stylish in their presentation. I was particularly fond of how the gods use their capes to create illusions and disguises, as opposed to the mist and hypnosis used by the gods of antiquity. As for the combat, the gods have a peculiar style of fighting, in which they're sped up and everything else is slowed down. It isn't exactly the next "bullet-time," but it is a refreshingly new and appropriately powerful take on the speed-ramping made so popular by 300. I just have one nitpick, though it's a big one: Zeus' choice of weapon. He seems to generally prefer using chains that are lying around, and I'll grant that it looks great. However, Zeus already has a very recognizable weapon -- one that's practically synonymous with his character -- that he never uses in this film. It's absolutely inexcusable to me that Poseidon should be granted his trident, but Zeus is deprived of his thunderbolts. Shameful.

On the subject of the visuals, all of Tarsem Singh's previously established strengths are on full display here. The costumes, set designs, and effects all look marvelous and they're all brought to the screen with a staggering amount of creativity. This flair extends to the gore and the fight choreography, which naturally makes for some jaw-dropping action scenes. Really, I only have three major nitpicks with regard to the art design: 1. Hyperion's horned helmet bears an uncomfortable similarity to Max from Where the Wild Things Are, 2. Ares' helmet looks just plain stupid, and 3. There were a couple of shots in which armor clearly folded as if it was made of rubber.

However, where this movie really fails (as I'm sure you've guessed by now) is in the script. Given this genre and story material, I'm willing to cut the movie a lot of slack in regard to its predictable plotting and hokey dialogue. I can even forgive the gods' convenient appearances out of nowhere to save the heroes' asses when all hope seems lost, because that's just what gods do. What I can't forgive, however, are the comically huge plot holes or the moments of transparently lazy storytelling. I'll give you an example.

Problem: The gods could just smite Hyperion where he stands and end the movie instantly. Solution: Zeus cites a law stating that gods can't interfere in mortal affairs. My reaction: Horseshit.

Either to father children, to further an agenda, or just for the heck of it, the Greek gods were constantly meddling in mortal affairs. It doesn't even make sense in the context of the movie, since oracles play such a huge part in the narrative. Where are the oracles getting their visions from, if not from the gods (Speaking of which, where's Apollo in this picture? He was supposed to be the patron of soothsayers.)? I mean, it'd be one thing if Zeus forbid heavenly involvement for the sake of proving a point, as he does late in the second act. That would actually make sense. But making an arbitrary rule out of it just reeks of laziness.

This brings me to another facet of the screenplay: The gods/mortals theme. Such issues as faith and the value of prayer play a very prominent role throughout the film. The treatment is quite similar to that of the Clash of the Titans remake, and only marginally more successful. I'm giving this movie the benefit over its predecessor, as this movie addresses the matter in terms that are far more balanced and a hair less blunt.

When all is said and done, Immortals is one of the rare times when excess of style more than makes up for lack of substance. It's not a perfect movie by any means, but the performances, the visuals, and the ruthlessly mature action make up for a lot of the screenplay's failings. It also helps that this movie has an awesome hero, a badass villain, two massive armies, and creatures capable of killing gods. Good and evil are both very powerful, and their clashes are incredibly enjoyable to watch. The stakes are thus extremely high, which is certainly worth a lot. Also, the filmmakers clearly put a ton of ambition and effort into the end result, and it really shows.

Even though it's clearly in need of a few more screenplay polishes, the film more or less accomplishes what it set out to do, and I can recommend it for that much.