A wanton melange of skewed Greek history and fractured mythology, “Immortals” plays like a cross between “Clash of the Titans” and “Gotterdammerung,” with nods to “300” along the way. As in his previous pictures, “The Cell” and “The Fall,” Tarsem Singh takes enormous pains to fashion images that blend richness and strangeness. Unfortunately, he gives much less attention to narrative coherence, and lacks the wit that can make such utter hokum exuberant fun. You might wind up being impressed by all the visual opulence on display, but the absence of humor gives the picture a grim, fatalistic tone that’s ultimately depressing. It’s the action movie equivalent of one of those spectacular Broadway musicals where you come out humming the sets because the music is so banal.
The script mixes together the stories of Olympian gods and warring men. In the thirteenth century BC, brutal conqueror King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, delivering every hackneyed line with a quiet snarl) is leading a huge army of ruthless Heracleans against the so-called ‘Hellenics.’ He also bears a grudge against the deities headed by Zeus (Luke Evans), who loll about in the clouds looking down on terrestrial events. His plan is to destroy them by unleashing the titans, a race of glowering CGI warriors the gods had earlier defeated and imprisoned in Mount Tartarus. But to do so he must get his hands on the magical bow of Epirus, a sort of mystical ancient bazooka that shoots ethereal arrows that can not only take out men at long distances but explode through walls of rock, too.
The Hellenics evacuate their mountainside villages to take a stand behind a massive wall, fortuitously located for climactic reasons beside that very Tartarus, and the man who becomes their hero is Theseus (handsome, muscled Henry Cavill)—here not the Athenian prince of legend but a simple peasant whose sainted mother is killed by Hyperion himself. The fatherless Theseus has been instructed in combat and idealism by none other than Zeus, who in the guise of an old man (John Hurt) has brought him up to become mankind’s potential savior. But Theseus will need the help of loyal supporters to aid him along the way to his final face-off with the king: Stavros (Stephen Dorff), a cocky thief who breaks the ‘ancient’ mood with his modern cheekiness, and especially Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a luscious-looking prophetess whom Hyperion believes is the key to finding the bow but who throws in her lot (and in one sequence with some carefully-choreographed nudity, everything else she possesses) with Theseus, rescuing him after he’s been captured and staying with him through thick and skin.
You’d imagine that Zeus and his glamorous young children would intervene at once on Theseus’ side, but for some reason it would be against his ‘law’ for them to do so (though that seems a law conveniently broken every time it’s necessary for the youth’s survival, as when Poseidon, played by Kellan Lutz, acts to save him at one point). That leaves our hero to deal one-on-one, for example, with a sort-of minotaur he encounters and beheads after a ferocious battle. But it all winds up at Tartarus, where the Olympians show up to deal with the titans Hyperion has released while Theseus finally confronts his mother’s killer mano-a-mano.
This macho malarkey is the sort of stuff that would have made Charles Schneer salivate back in the day, but he and his cohorts—like Ray Harryhausen—would have added a sense of humor to the mix, which isn’t Singh’s forte. True, Dorff gets to toss off a few laugh lines, but they’re of the adolescent type aimed at the target teen-boy audience. Of the rest only Hurt seems to be in on the joke, occasionally flashing a sardonic smile to indicate he knows what kind of movie this is. Rourke plies his customary brand of world-weary gruffness , though his grizzled appearance is more suggestive of a hobo man in armor than an ancient warrior. As for Cavill and Pinto, they provide what’s demanded of them—a bronzed torso and jutting jaw in the one case and a sweet smile and graceful form in the other—and that seems all the director wanted, or we’re supposed to need. The gods all exhibit similarly well-toned physiques, though except for Isabel Lucas as Athena they’re pretty hard to tell apart.
“Immortals” isn’t about acting or history or even mythology anyway. It’s about Singh’s fascination with crafting amazing images, and he certainly does that here, using his physically awesome cast, ridiculous but eye-catching costumes, CGI-generated creatures and settings and towering landscapes to fashion compositions that have the appearance of ersatz art. The carefully-calibrated combination of skin and violence, with beautiful bodies gleaming alongside spurts of blood and gore splashing into our faces via the 3D format (much better used here than in the muddily retrofitted “Clash of the Titans”), admittedly takes on an almost fetishistic feel. But it’s impossible not to be impressed by some of the more outlandishly stylized compositions, which with their rich golds and reds take on the look of baroque frescoes. Whether the visual extravagance is enough to make up for the dramatic deficiencies and narrative messiness is another matter.
Speaking of incoherence, since even the gods and titans are subject to slaughter in the final battle, it really seems that the movie’s title needs to be put in “air quotes.” It makes you wonder whether Theseus’ transformation into a god means all that much—especially since a postscript indicates that another war brewing in the heavens will lead to still more mayhem. Who’s going to fight in it is beyond me—we’re shown swarms of combatants, among whom only Theseus is recognizable—but the only reason for the melee is one last canvas on which Singh can paint another of his eye-popping freeze-frames, a riot of color and artifice. All very impressive, if also very silly.