Tarsem Singh is an interesting movie maker. In some respects he could almost be considered a genius but in many, many others he is very flawed. I doubt that anyone would argue that The Cell or Mirror Mirror are pillars of cinematic achievement. He is, however, supremely talented at creating striking and vibrant images through set design, costuming, and, in particular, cinematography. Even his worst films have some sort of visual appeal despite their overall lack of value.
When he focuses on his strengths he can produce beautiful and wondrous works. The Fall used the main plot as little more than a springboard for the surreal, fantastical tales of Roy Walker thus allowing Tarsem to exercise his strengths and is, therefore, leagues better than his other projects. Immortals had the potential to do the same and, in fact, surpass it as his best work but it ultimately falls short due to several missteps.
It was evident from the beginning of the film that we would not be treated Tarsem’s usual use of a rich, bright pallet which was quite unfortunate. Not only would it have been a more realistic representation of the use of colour in the ancient world but one can almost feel how uncomfortable he is with the washed out look he ended up using. I feel as though he would have had more success, even if it was still outside of his comfort zone, if he had stuck to the traditional movie representation of ancient Greece, I.E. all white marble and everything clean and tidy.
He instead ends up borrowing Zack Snyder’s aesthetic from 300. I do not know if this was his own choice or if it was due to pressure from the producers as it is still the most successful movie based on ancient Greece in recent memory and, in fact, shared producers as Immortals. A commonality that the commercials were all too eager to point out. This advertising does make sense though. Aside from the general look of the film it uses some similar techniques such as highly recognizable variable speed fight scenes, a penchant for ultra violence, and a general disregard for the actual history and mythology.
That last similarity, although, could have been a great strength. It is clear from the outset that Tarsem has little interest in remaining faithful to the tales, or even characters, of the myths. Rather, as so much of western culture has been build on Greco-Roman foundations, he simply uses our preconceptions to subtly inform our ideas of the characters. The plot itself does not have to be strong and the character do not have to be deep for this is meant to be a feast for the eyes, a visual epic. Where the movie fall apart, however, is not the plotting or the character development but the writing itself.
The basic premise is the King Hyperion of the Heraklion is trying to find the Epirus bow, a fabled weapon, the only thing capable of killing the Gods and Titans. He is searching for it in order to free the Titans from mount Tartarus in order to disrupt the Olympians’ rule. This because his family died despite his pleas to the Gods. This is all set up quite well at the start of the film followed by the introduction of our main protagonist, Theseus. He does not care about authority and simply does what he views to be right. He is about as typical as one can get for a Hollywood hero. He meets then Phaedra and Stavros both of whom are too lifted right out of stock character 101.
The plot progresses exactly how one would expect but we are not here for the plot so I do not hold its simplicity against the movie. What I do choose to hold against the movie is when it violates its own internal consistency. If the Epirus bow is the only thing capable of killing gods then why, by the second act, have they started to, apparently successfully, kill each other? Why does Zeus insist on not interfering with humanity for the sake of instilling belief? After all, does this not make Hyperion’s quest, though in no way his actions, justified? Every step of the way the Olympians moral ground is eroded until one is left uncaring about what happens. The only character I was interested in by the end was Stavros simply because I am a sucker for the jerk with a heart of gold trope.
I was left wondering if the movie would have been better by flattening its characters and plot even further and making itself a dialogue-less film. Wondering if it would have worked better if it were simply communicated through visuals. In fact many scenes would not have required much to be changed for this to work and they indeed tended to be the better ones. The parts of the movie that required larger amounts of conversation tended to drag and either struggled or failed to hold my interest. By painting the story with broader swaths it could have focused on the artistry of the image.
In many ways it is a movie that is held back by trying to be something it is not. It tries to be constructed more like a typical Hollywood movie; understandable as no one wants to spend a lot of money on a project that may not appeal to its target demographic. It tries to match one of the more popular action movie aesthetics; understandable as Tarsem had not made a film in this genre before. It tries to not be an art house movie; understandable as they do not have any sort of box office draw. What it is at its heart, and what it could and should have been on its surface, is a vehicle for bloody and enthusiastic larger than life conflicts played out with a unique visual style borrowing heavily from the style of classical and neoclassical art.
In the end Tarsem’s Immortals is a few steps from brilliance. If it had stayed true to what it feels it wants to be it would have been a much better movie and an even less successful one.
Side note: I feel that there are an untold number of gender issues with this movie but that would be a whole different review unto itself.
Next week: Clash of the Titans (2010 version)