Despair and Die, Mere Mortals, Your Gods Have Fallen!
The marketing team for Immortals unjustly presented it as a companion piece to 300 (2006); Tarsem Singh’s Greek visual epic contains far deeper layers of substance than Zack Snyder’s mindless gore-fest. It’s the second of 2011’s two R-rated blockbusters (the first being Conan the Barbarian), and thankfully, it makes good use of its big budget to achieve a highly artistic Greek epic.
The acting isn’t great, but suitable. Henry Caville proves he can lead an epic adventure film as Theseus, a peasant chosen by Zeus (Luke Evans and John Hurt, when in his human form) to lead all of men. They face an unprecedented Hyperion army that aspires to release the Titans and thereby destroy the gods, led by a sadistic Mickey Rourke, who is clearly enjoying himself.
Tarsem Singh’s unique, highly colorful visual style finds a comfortable home within the Greek mythology, and his narrative execution is top-notch. His cinematography dazzles the audience, reiterating several motifs from his two earlier films, The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). His fatalistic themes are just as pungent the third time around as he continues to explore the devastation of human mortality.
Singh utilizes an inventive slow-motion technique that technically violates the physical rules of realism, injecting surrealism into a formal realist narrative. Certain objects or characters will move at a slowed speed, while everything else will flow at an exponentially slower pace.
During The Fall’s opening credits, he employs this slow-motion trickery. The essential members of the scene’s action (like the train and the man directing it) are slowed to three or four times their actual speed, while the rest (like the business man) are nearly static, their movements playing at least ten times slower than real time.
Singh’s implementation of slow-motion is far more substantial than Zack Snyder’s. It isn’t excessive, like in 300, where it serves little purpose but to force audiences to admire the lingering gore effects. Immortals only slows down time when it suits the narrative. When the gods engage in battle, Singh depicts them moving slightly slower than real-time, while their enemies are comparatively sluggish. This allows the story to demonstrate the unmatched speed of the gods, who are unchallenged by mere mortals.
Excessive blood? Nah. Prior to Ares’ (Daniel Sharman) skull-splattering rampage, Immortals’ gore effects were relatively tame, which adds to this scene’s shock factor. Plus, the exploding heads help define the gods’ inhuman strength.
The mise-en-scène of Singh’s work is often characterized by a juxtaposition of two or three distinct colors, their high contrast sometimes giving the image a surreal quality.
The Cell: A truck traverses the threshold of a liminal road separating life—represented by lush, green vegetation—and death—represented by a yellow field of dead crops.
The Cell: The serial killer Carl (Vincent D’Onofrio) sits upon his throne, assuming the role of his dream’s omnipotent ruler. Singh’s films each incorporate a ruthless tyrant who torments the powerless hero(ine), lending to the theme of despair.
The Fall: The director’s many epic locales are often introduced with a wide establishing shot that emphasizes the contrasting shades.
The Fall: The color juxtaposition often includes a disparity in brightness.
Immortals: A heaven-and-hell visual liminality is constructed from the bright, golden bars’ pronounced presence amongst the black shadows of Tartarus.
Immortals: Phaedra’s (Freida Pinto) red cloak accentuates the white of the pearly walls. The high contrast compliments the unlikely oasis’ dream-like quality.
The director’s settings are often compartmentalized, adding complexity to his otherworldly lairs. First off, he implements a cube of torment.
The cube of torment is first seen in The Cell, where Carl imprisons his victims.
The symmetrical cube returns in Immortals, imprisoning the chaos-spreading Titans.
An additional compartment of torture, Immortals’ brazen bull exhales the off-screen wails of its trapped, charred victims.
Singh will sometimes position us within a compartment, inducing spectatorial claustrophobia.
The beginning of a tracking shot.
We are sucked into a Lynchean dark tunnel, unsettled by our uncertainty.
We see that the dark tunnel led through a warning bell. Our realization is highly gratifying, thanks to the appeal of Singh’s symmetrical visual trickery.
An uncomfortable spectatorial alignment where his camera threatens to bury us with Theseus’ mother.
A maze-like architecture often represents the labyrinthine uncertainty of the director’s surreal worlds.
A complex system of compartments are foregrounded after an encounter with Poseidon in Immortals.
To despair, in the classical sense of the word, means to abandon all hope in humanity and deny God’s saving grace. Singh explored the concept of hopeless, impending death with The Fall’s Roy Walker, a jilted lover who finds hope only in the prospect of achieving suicide. The Cell dealt with the victimized child, powerless to mitigate his father’s abuse and redeemed only through death. Immortals involves the gods’ abandonment of humanity. They stand apart in their heavenly realm, unable and unwilling to intervene with the murderous force of Hyperions that is consuming all of Earth below them.
The Fall: A chandelier of mutilated corpses swings above our heroic warriors who have arrived too late, unable to save their brethren from torture and death.
The Cell: Dammit, Catherine! Why couldn’t you have woken up before Peter’s (Vince Vaughn) intestine is wrapped around a spiked skewer?
However, unlike The Fall, which implemented a somber, nihilistic tone when dealing with Roy’s suicidal despair, Immortals savors each moment leading up to the death of an innocent. Singh must have known how his film would attract a bloodthirsty crowd, as the script is dripping with sadism.
Whenever a defenseless victim is about to be murdered, the score becomes anticipatory, building an orchestral crescendo that climaxes with the victim’s death and end of the scene. It’s an effective camp device that signals urgency during the rising action.
“It’s not to late to end this madness,” the priest (Mark Margolis) pleads with the Hyperion king, “salvation can be yours if you wish it.” But the king has despaired and abandoned God after his family’s death. He then “enlightens” the priest on his blasphemous intentions.
Lysander (Joseph Morgan) betrays two fellow soldiers, cutting them down before they can arm themselves. He then hovers over his injured victim for several seconds, allowing the music to swell before beheading him.
When King Hyperion terminates Lysander’s posterity, Singh lets his audience cringe for several seconds as we anticipate the emasculating blow.
A recurring motif in his films involves a woman’s body garbed in red garments. Thematically, it serves to exemplify the coping process of a loved one’s death—the requisite embalming procedure. The veiled, blood-red cadaver is a mystery that can only be solved by being put to rest in the Earth.
Immortals: “You must bury your mother,” Phaedra tells Theseus. Her burial ends up being cathartic and revealing, as it is not until she is buried that the gods reveal the location of the legendary Epirus Bow to him.
The film falters toward the end with a problematic climax. Prior to the disappointing final battle, Theseus encourages the men with a competent but cliché speech, made all the less effective by an absent emotional pull that the film attempts to convince the audience of. It’s unreasonable to assume that a greatly outnumbered army would unanimously follow an unknown peasant. Repetition settles in during the skirmish with the gods and the Titans (who are suppose to be really big, right?); why didn’t Zeus collapse the cave before all his fellow gods were massacred?
These are only minor complaints, though, since the film is driven more by theme rather than plot. Immortals is an epic clash of gods that examines the power of religion and the blissful healthiness of faith. Tarsem Singh’s worlds are ironically dark indeed, but a light somehow lingers at the end of his fatalistic tunnels.
Rating: 3½ out of 5 stars