Greek mythology is confusing. It can be dizzying trying to trace the lineage and exploits of just one of the gods, demigods, or half-mortal bastards of the gods.
So what do writers Charley and Vlas Parlapanides do? For “Immortals” they create a brand new mythology for Theseus, the legendary founder and first king of Athens—one that bears no resemblance to the old myths, but confuses just as much. Olympians make an appearance, but it’s tough to tell which deities they are, except for Zeus (the main man) and Neptune (the trident’s a dead giveaway). Would it have hurt the writers to throw in a name here and there, or more recognizable signifiers? Likewise, we know that Hyperion is the bad guy leading one army, but we’re not quite sure who the soldiers and leaders are on the other side—the ones whom the peasant Theseus (Henry Cavill) will eventually lead.
Adding to the confusion? At least one-fifth of the sequences in this 2011 mythic adventure—from the producers of “300”—are shrouded in shadow or darkness, lit only by scattered torches. You hear a sword being unsheathed, you know there’s action, but you can barely see the outline of bodies in some scenes, while in others it’s a complete blackout. It’s almost as if the major special effects sequences in this film—like the incredible looking tidal wave that Neptune launches—cost so much that, to compensate, director Tarsem Singh (“Mirror Mirror”) opted to go low light so he could also go low-budget. There’s no need for lavish costumes or sets when you can’t see, right?
Fans of graphic novels will enjoy the overall look of the film, though, because the visual design could have been lifted from the pages of a dark, apocalyptic fantasy. Mountains rise like imposing matte paintings, and a golden-brown palette stands in sharp contrast to scenes in which blacks dominate. There’s almost a Middle Kingdom look to it at times—so much so that you have to remind yourself that it’s the all-powerful Epirus Bow that Hyperion seeks, and not the last ring.
But if you know anything at all about mythology, it will hurt, rather than help. “Immortals” includes the Minotaur that Theseus killed, but in a completely different context . . . and far from Crete. Hyperion appears as a power-hungry king who comes from peasant origins, not the Titan god he was in Greek mythology. There’s a reference to the War of the Titans, but these “immortals” are killed as easily as mortals, while, if memory serves, even the children of Cronus (who ate all of them) didn’t die—they were still alive inside him. Early films about Greek mythology avoided or deemphasized the violence between the gods in order to avoid the kind of confusion that we get when a film shows “immortals” dying right and left. Even an epigraph from Socrates (which we also get in voiceover at the end) doesn’t help: “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.” So why are immortals dying again? And what exactly does “immortal” mean? I keep hearing Mandy Patinkin’s character saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
About the time that Italy was producing Spaghetti Westerns they were also cranking out movies featuring Hercules and other Greek myths, and “Immortals” has that kind of feel. We know that Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is a scar-faced evil king who’s bent on world conquest, which for him means basically raping and pillaging and enslaving the next town. But there’s a bow that was lost during the War of the Titans, a kind of stringed Doomsday Machine that can bring about the end of mankind, we’re told, and so of course Hyperion wants it. But he also wants to release the Titans, who have been imprisoned in a mountain, so they can wreak havoc on the Olympians again. Why? Because he prayed when his wife and children were sick and suffering, and the gods never answered or helped. Every character, it seems, has a similar story of why they think the gods are “children’s stories,” but the most unintentionally comical comes from a friend of Theseus, who, with straight face, says he prayed for a horse when he was little and didn’t get one. So he thinks the gods don’t exist. A PONY? Really? Not only does that make the script seem superficial, but it also adds to a growing list of anachronistic phrases and hairstyles that just don’t speak “ancient world” to me.
There are virgin oracles who seem perfectly fine with losing their virginity, despite all the build-up about cosmic balance and stuff like that. But frankly, this film can’t figure out what direction it wants to go. When Hyperion torches a priest, he delivers a punning line worthy of James Bond: “Let me enlighten you, priest.” Another time he snarls and says, “Witness this” and seems far more maniacal. Then again, can you really take a guy seriously whose helmet looks as if the top is a crab claw and the sides a Venus flytrap? Somewhere in the darkness there lies an answer, you keep thinking, but instead of answers we get a long, long, LONG battle scene near the film’s end with the kind of bloodletting that substitutes for real tension and conflict these days. Style and substance are not the same thing. “Immortal” tries so hard for one, that the other gets slain in the process.
I never saw this in theaters, so I’m afraid I can’t say how much of the overly (and annoyingly) dark scenes are deliberate, and how much they were altered by the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. When we’re not feeling our way in total darkness, the video quality is actually superb. There’s just enough filmic grain to give it texture and a solid amount of detail, whether the scene sports a golden-brown wash or is shot in bright daylight. The tidal wave is particularly impressive, looking both ancient and ominous in a 21st century digital sort of way. “Immortals” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The audio is extremely dynamic and mixed so that you get the loud and boisterous effects, but not at the expense of dialogue or more subtle effects. The bass really ramps up for battle scenes and disasters, but the rear effects speakers are actually pretty active throughout the film. The clashing of metal swords is especially bright and lifelike, and when we get a battle we get the sounds of battle all around the viewing area. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with French Dolby Digital 5.1 also an option and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
“Immortals” is D-Box compatible and comes with a Digital Copy (on a second disc). But after that, there’s not much in the way of bonus features. The longest is a 21-minute making-of feature that offers Singh talking about his take on the Theseus myth (and a bow that doesn’t appear at all), discussion of the special effects and stunt work, and a few words about the Trevor Morris score.
I have to say that I appreciate that there was no commentary track. The only other bonus features is a very superficial summary of Greek mythology (6 min.) featuring classical scholars, a short comic book that’s been scanned and digitalized so it’s there on the screen (but impossible to read), a trailer, eight deleted scenes that average a minute each, and three more extensive alternate scenes: a 12-minute opening that shows even little Theseus showing how he doesn’t believe in the gods (another “pony” moment wisely snipped), an ending duel between Hyperion and Theseus that goes on even longer than the already-long version in the film, and a different demise for one of them.
“Immortals” is being billed as the year’s first “must-own” Blu-ray/DVD, but I beg to differ. I wouldn’t even call it a “must-rent.” Fans of mythic adventure may want to see for themselves, but the storytelling is too disjointed for it to measure up to a film like “300” or “Troy.”