Immortals (2011): Of gods and man (of steel)
Not far behind the seemingly infinite lineup of movies based on superheroes, you’ll find a shorter lineup of movies packed with scantily clad musclemen, exotic women in veils, and exceptionally pretty white people in shiny golden duds. This is the mythology-inspired sword and sandals movie genre, newly invigorated in the wake of Zack Snyder’s 300, and it’s not that far removed from its cape-and-tights cousin.
Average Joe aspiring to greatness? Supporting cast of established powerful people with an interest in Joe’s success? Mirror image Average Joe who took the wrong path and is now baaaaddd to the bone? Check, check, and check! Occasionally, the superhero movie stream crosses the mythology-based stream, and then we have to endure the Thor movies, but this is a review of Immortals, thank god(s), so we can focus firmly on director Tarsem Singh’s effort towards creating his own epic.
We begin in a small Greek village that’s home to he-man Theseus (and providing more evidence of parallels between superhero films and ancient epics, he’s played by future Superman Henry Cavill). Theseus was born to a raped mother and is shunned by the village, except for an old man (John Hurt) who’s secretly the god Zeus (Luke Evans, soon to appear as Dracula) in disguise. The old man has been training Theseus in the ways of combat since he was a small boy, readying him for the day he’ll endure the typical hero’s journey-type tragedy which will set him upon having his vengeance in this life or the next. (Spoiler alert: it’s this life.)
Before that can happen, we receive the usual clunky voiceover exposition on how the prevailing godly situation came to be, which is Greek mythology generously bent to the director’s whim, as tends to be the Hollywood standard. Suffice to say that years ago, one set of powerful beings won a massive heavenly ruck, declared themselves gods, and imprisoned the losers (now known as the Titans) in a gilded cage beneath a mountain. Dick move, but hey, to the victors go the spoils.
More relevant to the movie’s immediate protagonist is the fact that a mortal king named Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) walks the earth, still royally pissed off that his people were wiped out by the war. He’s searching for the Epirus Bow, a weapon lost during the epic battle and with the power to do some serious damage.
As Hyperion hatches his plan, Theseus is busy causing trouble with the Athenian army, who have deemed him unworthy of joining up due to his bastard lineage. He scuffles with Lysander (Joseph Morgan), a treacherous officer who’s quickly booted out of the army for this and other unseemly actions.
Lysander soon goes worming his way into Hyperion’s ranks, offering his services, but first he gets subjected to the most brutal, (pre)medieval vasectomy you’ll ever see, courtesy of a mallet. And Hyperion justifies this psychotic act with the impressively casual “the world does not need any more cowards.”
The paths of Theseus and Hyperion cross early on, as the latter’s armies massacre our hero’s humble village, including the brutal throat-slitting of his mother Aethra (Anne Day-Jones). Theseus is forced to helplessly watch her die as Hyperion (dressed for the occasion in an odd jackal helmet) mutters, “Witness hell.” The gods look down upon the proceedings and marvel at the fortitude of mortal Theseus, while Zeus explains that “the only thing he fears is not protecting those he loves most.” Revenge mission? Check!
Theseus is imprisoned by Hyperion, which is where this movie’s traveling fellowship soon comes together. The group includes Phaedra (Freida Pinto), AKA the “Virgin Oracle” (place your bets now on how long she’ll retain that title once she meets Theseus) who has prophetic visions that help the quest, as well as a few slaves, among them the thief Stavros (Steven Dorff) who becomes the underwhelming sidekick of Theseus. Once they escape, their quest is to find the bow and head to Mount Tartarus to warn the remaining mortals that Hyperion’s legions are on their way.
One of Phaedra’s visions leads them to the Epirus Bow, which is also being sought, on Hyperion’s order, by his indisputably badass henchman known as the Minotaur (Robert Maillet).Theseus has a royal rumble with the bull-helmeted hard man and just about comes out on top, albeit poisoned by his opponent’s weaponry and barely able to save his colleagues from certain death with the bow. In nursing him back to full health, Phaedra predictably falls in love with the hero, gives him some tender loving care, and in doing so loses her gift/curse of seeing the future.
The next leg of the journey takes the travelers to Phaedra’s temple, where she finds her fellow virgins steaming away in a particularly unpleasant torture sauna, which turns out to be the setup for an ambush. In the ensuing carnage, Hyperion’s forces steal back the bow, and the gods are finally forced to intervene on the mortals’ behalf. Or at least a couple of them do.
Ares (Daniel Sharman) suddenly descends in a flurry of previously muted special effects that heralds the arrival of all-powerful deities. He saves the day, but is summarily judged and killed via fiery whip by Zeus, who had warned the other gods not to intercede in the affairs of mortals. Athena (Isabel Lucas) also helped, but is inexplicably spared, as Zeus returns with her to the heavens, shortly after warning Theseus that he will receive no more divine intervention, and must prove himself worthy first.
This challenge sets the scene for the final showdown at Mount Tartarus, where city elders scoff at Theseus’ warnings, assuring him that their defenses are sound, and that the gods and Titans are mere fairy tales. Their brilliant plan is to negotiate with the utterly unhinged Hyperion, whose armies are now massing at the gate. But Hyperion has the legendary Epirus Bow, and the supposedly invincible wall of Mount Tartarus proves to about as impenetrable as Phaedra’s virginity, and it falls on the first shot.
Theseus has his “told you so” moment, but is quickly forced to rally the troops himself to defend the city’s entrance. Blood and guts fly everywhere as Hyperion casually marches through it all and walks to the inner sanctum of the mountain, where he successfully unleashes the Titans.
Seeing all the bloodshed—and presumably satisfied that Theseus is now walking the walk as well as he talks the talk—Zeus and the remaining gods descend to offer their not insignificant help. The full effects budget clearly kicks in here, as deities battle Titans, Theseus goes head-to-head with Lysander and then Hyperion, and everything around them continues to crumble.
The end game sees most of the gods killed (guess they weren’t so “immortal” after all), with Theseus finally avenging his mother’s death by reminding Hyperion of his “Witness hell!” taunt before dispatching him. Eventually, Zeus presses the self-destruct button on Mount Tartarus before ascending back to heaven with Theseus, who’s now officially part of the god squad.
Fast forward to many years later, and what Phaedra lost in purity she’s gained in progeny, as we meet Acamas, the son of Theseus. The same wise old man tells the boy of his father’s exploits, clearly setting up Immortals II in the process. We then get a vision of Theseus fighting in a future heavenly war against the Titans, leaving the only question as to where they’re going to find more good guy gods to replenish their dwindling ranks.
For all the overblown theatrics and amped up mythology, Immortals is an unexpectedly worthy watch. Its most notable achievement is in its visuals, where Singh gives us plenty of dramatic architecture, striking costumes, and beautiful landscapes. He also skillfully represents (im)mortal combat through the use of slow-motion photography, which calls to mind some of Zack Snyder’s tricks in 300, but is much more intresting here, as the gods gleefully destroy their enemies before they even have a chance to react. Meanwhile, fights like Theseus battling the Minotaur have all the grounded, brutal, sweaty bloodletting that one could ask for.
That said, the plot is inevitably sketchy and the adherence to mythology questionable. There aren’t really any standout performances here either, although Mickey Rourke brings his maniacal qualities to the depraved Hyperion, and Cavill’s Theseus is solid enough to root for, if not particularly inspiring. What’s missing overall is any sense of fun. Immortals is relentlessly heavy-handed, and stays on one ultra-serious note throughout. Thankfully, there are plenty of action scenes to bring respite from all the self-important dialogue about good and evil and the nature of men’s souls.
For all the negatives, there’s plenty to keep you engaged here, and anyone watching a big-budget blockbuster about mythological superhumans probably isn’t coming for the depth of storytelling anyway. Check your knowledge of Greek legends at the door and you’ll find Immortals is a gory, glorious feast of atmospheric visuals and violence.