Dashing across the screen in all its bloody, gilded glory, the awesome and beautiful Immortals marks an all-win scenario. It affords art lovers a busy and clamorous actioner they can relish, gives boyish battle fans a splatterific fix that’s actually of value, offers Tarsem Singh the budget to widen his already broad imagination, and allows producers to refresh the ever-burgeoning violent epic, transcending its banality thanks to Tarsem’s singularly bold yet blockbuster-friendly vision. Turns out Tarsem is the man you call when there are no more new ways to employ bullet time, when CG “agent” programs no longer wow in their abilities to convey the breadth of an army, when fast cutting is finally recognized as an impact-diminisher in slick fight scenes, and when a dreadful swords-and-sandals script is picked up, but destined for oblivion in the wrong hands. Adding protein powder to the cocktail of drugs that seems to drive his directorial style, the fairy-tale-inspired Tarsem (The Cell, The Fall) takes this greased-abs property down his own florid path of self-interest, leaving in the dust the gross clichés and mythological revisions of screenwriting brothers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides, and far exceeding the lightning-strikes-twice results sought by 300 producers Gianni Nunnari and Mark Canton. It’s conceivable that Tarsem’s collaborators sat dumbstruck when finally viewing the finished cut.
What was there to start with was a flavorless, Clash of the Titans-style tale that reimagines Theseus (soon-to-be Superman Henry Cavill) as a ripped peasant and prime candidate for zero-to-hero honors. Secretly watched over by the gods since birth (John Hurt plays his Plato-like guardian who’s in fact Zeus in disguise), Theseus’s rage and destiny are initiated when his mother’s throat is slit by war-happy King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) during one of many village pillages. He joins the army, becomes its star, and slices and dices his way to the third act. To describe the plot of Immortals is to make the film sound even worse than it looks in the trailer, which goes to great lengths to assure you Zack Snyder was highly involved. Though his film isn’t immune to familiar macho hogwash (“Fight for immortality!” Theseus eventually declares), Tarsem brings much more than Snyder’s giant green-screen gimmick, pouring vivid inspiration into every available nook, and seizing every opportunity to make the movie look its best. A seamless blend of ones and zeros and hands-on, homespun craftsmanship, Immortals spares no ornate oddity, filling a virtual cave with exotic prisoners from Julie Taymor’s nightmares, and dressing its soldiers in accessories that seem drawn from a collection of fetishistic Persian artifacts.
The influences and wild ingenuities of Tarsem’s designs surpass mere dressing to enliven and enrich the ceaseless bloodletting, making it the first action-intensive film in recent memory without a single tedious fight sequence. He gifts Rourke’s Hyperion with Egyptian-inspired jackal headgear that becomes a hellish motif of evil, models the movements of his chiseled heroes after the work of Caravaggio, and offers a stunning penultimate shot that looks as if it were peeled from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. No detail is left unconsidered. In one scene, Theseus, within the central chamber of a labyrinth for the dead, faces off against a minotaur in barbed wire armor atop an Escher-esque staircase littered with rose petals. In another, descended gods are captured in what registers as novel slow-motion photography, and their golden helmets gleam as they reduce enemies to halves and quarters that gradually, even gracefully, emit gallons of blood (a note of caution to those put off by the sleek gore in Drive). He lets his ambitions truly fly free within the premonitions of the oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), who, to boot, is clad in the extravagant threads of famed costume designer Eiko Ishioka.
However indulgent, Tarsem brings art museums to the movies, thrillingly injecting popular fantasy with acute senses of the classic and the avant garde. And here he simultaneously succeeds in delivering a bloodlust-sating hard-hitter that’s somehow still gritty as hell (more than anyone in Leonidas’s army, the soldiers are rendered rock stars by the end, and with the cameras actually holding on fighters, brawls truly do pack considerable punch). Barring the useless and predictably hideous post-converted 3D (you need to see past the resulting darkness to truly savor the film’s beauty), much of Immortals feels like the next step forward in stylized action spectacles, and not just because of all the divine-sounding tech advances listed in the press notes (“Finger of God Lighting,” the “Moses System,” and the “God Speed Effect” are all included). This is a film exceptionally attuned to fundamentals of art and design, the mad and meticulous implementation of which hoists it well above a superficial and gruesome realization of a lousy screenplay. For style junkies, it’s something of a gift from the gods.