Sunday, January 29, 2012

MA$$ACRE: Immortals (2011)

Tarsem Singh is one of the filmmakers that I've kept a close eye on ever since I was caught off-guard by The Cell back in 2000. Despite the fact that his output thus far has only consisted of a handful of films, he's been able to construct a distinct visual style that favors meticulous composition and generally awe-inspiring imagery. This keen attention to detail might seem better suited to the arthouse, but Tarsem isn't afraid to tackle stories rooted in reputedly lowbrow genres. In The Cell, he was able to elevate an otherwise unremarkable serial-killer on the loose police procedural to a surreal exploration into the subconscious mind. Without a doubt, his visuals were the defining factor of that film, and worked perfectly to establish a hellish and disturbing tone that would have otherwise remained absent. His second film, The Fall, also boasted beautiful visuals - this time the result of years of location scouting, which allowed him to almost entirely free himself from CGI. I was looking forward to Immortals since first hearing that it would mark Tarsem's attempt to take on Greek mythology. Early trailers seemed somewhat lackluster though, and the reaction upon release seemed to be mostly... eh. Despite the flaring of my fanboy instincts, I was reluctant to risk the full price of a ticket on this one. Now that it's hit the dollar theater though - bring it on.

From the opening montage, it's clear that Tarsem is playing fast and loose with the traditional tales of Greek mythology. Here we're told that the titans and the gods were once on par with each other, and after a long war, the gods successfully imprisoned the (evil) titans. Of course, nothing truly evil stays locked up for long, and Mickey Rourke steps in as Hyperion (who in the original mythology was a titan himself, but here is just a bitter human). Bitter at the gods for a life of misfortune, Hyperion seeks to unleash the titans with the fabled  Epirus bow and then go stomp on some gods. Theseus (Henry Cavill) is just a farm boy whose town is caught in the wrath of Hyperion's ruthless quest for the bow. When he accidentally stumbles upon it himself, he's forced to enter a game of cat and mouse with Hyperion while the gods watch from heaven, occasionally meddling in the chase when it suits their whims.

It's relatively apparent from early on in the film that this material is hindered by its script. It's relentlessly talky in the first half, and filled with the same kind of overblown and essentially meaningless dialogue that serves only to move our heros from point A to point B. Thesus is essentially a non-character. He's a hero placeholder to drive the story along, utterly without personality traits other than say, bravery or something. The foils do little to flesh him out, and are there only so that dialogue can flow. Rourke as Hyperion is one exception, but largely because in a pulpy movie without acting, overacting seems like a blessing.

Tarsem's strength is his visuals, so it's unfortunate that the characters won't shut up long enough for you to absorb them. The costume design isn't quite as outlandish as in The Fall, but does hit some high points with the oddly revealing burqa-esqe costumes of the Oracles and Hyperion's scorpion-claw helmet. The villains look appropriately evil and inhuman, buried underneath sinister masks - until they open their mouths and start talking. Again, these things destroy the mood that the imagery is trying to establish. As a result, the super-stylized visuals feel somewhat forced - and the abundant CGI doesn't always help.

The exceptions are the scenes involving the gods on Mount Olympus, which are shot in a hazy sort of unreality. In soft focus and with an unnatural illumination that seems to come from within, they almost appear to have walked out of a painting. And when they start fighting - wow. The battle sequences are the best parts of this film. Some might compare their use of slow-motion to 300, but I thought these were much more carefully edited. The slo-mo isn't used as punctuation for kill shots here, but as a weird sort of god-power; whenever a god hits a bad guy, the enemy immediately slows down so that they can be decapitated, sliced in half, pummeled to a pulp, or otherwise obliterated. It might not be the most judicious use of CGI, but I was willing to embrace it during the battles.

While all of this makes for some pretty scenes, there's no unifying vision behind the art direction here. The main flaw in this film seems to be a lack of separation between the supernatural and the mundane. Tarsem's previous films all relegated the truly spectacular imagery to scenes taking place in dream worlds, stories, or the mind. The real world served as a grounding mechanism that ended up increasing the sense of unreality when we left it. The logical extension of that to this film would be to save the fancy visuals for the realm of the gods and keep the scenes in the human world relatively restrained, so that when the two worlds collide the effect would be that much more dramatic. Instead, there's very little distinction between the realm of the gods and the realm of man. The gods do have a sense of unreality about them, present mainly in their battle scenes, but the introduction of "weirdness" throughout the whole film undermines this somewhat.

While I enjoyed this film, I can't deny the fact that it's incredibly faulty. The drag of the first half is only barely made up for by the explosive violence of the second half, and the film is never able to shed the trappings of its unremarkable dialogue or the uneven visual style. For any other director, this might be considered a failed experiment. Tarsem was unusual in that he sprung onto the scene with his style apparently completely formed, so here it feels as if he's diluted it somewhat. I'd speculate about where he intends to go in the future, but I don't need to. His next film is the Julia Roberts fairytale rehash Mirror Mirror, which looks to be truly atrocious. Hopefully this doesn't signify a trend for Tarsem, because there'd be nothing sadder than seeing his talent pissed away on family films and soulless big-budget action epics.

6 / 10 = Worth a look

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