Sunday, November 13, 2011

Almighty Tarsem: IMMORTALS

Tarsem Singh burst onto the feature filmmaking scene with the 2000 serial-killer phantasmagoria The Cell, which followed Jennifer Lopez on an investigation into the mind of a serial killer. It is a wild and striking film, if a whiff derivative on a plot level. Eight years later, his self-financed masterpiece The Fall, a dizzying film with a mannered yet improvisatory and sumptuous fantasy told by an injured stunt man to a young girl who is in the same hospital. It’s a singular work of imagination, overwhelmingly heartfelt and impressive to behold. These two films marked Tarsem as a filmmaker to watch.

His latest, Immortals, is a bombastic film that uses Greek myth as inspiration, thundering forth with the brute force of legend and myth. It doesn’t feature characters; it features types. It doesn’t feature mere swordplay and togas; it creates deliriously gorgeous tableaus of crushingly beautiful visions that manage to skirt the edge of camp and arrive at somewhere closer to a particularly busy and gory perfume commercial. It’s a film that is consistently visually alive, yet can’t escape the inert forces of its genre that threaten to drag it into monotony.

The plot involves evil King Hyperion (an impenetrably mumbling Mickey Rourke) who wishes to find a legendary bow that was long ago lost during the conflict in the heavens that resulted in the Gods locking the Titans away in a gold cage in the dark rocky depths of Mount Tartarus. Hyperion’s army rages across the land, slaughtering and pillaging its way towards his ultimate goal of freeing the Titans and unleashing chaos on the land he could then easily conquer with this magical weapon. He kidnaps a group of oracles, among them the one true psychic (Freida Pinto) who will be able to find the bow, and continues towards the small cliff-side village where Theseus (Henry Cavill) lives.

This village is evacuating, but the peasants are left behind. Theseus objects but is left behind anyways. So, he is there when Hyperion shows up to kill as many as he can. Theseus fights back but is unable to prevent his mother’s death. Distraught, Theseus is captured and ends up in the same group of prisoners as the oracles. Under the cover of darkness, a thief (Stephen Dorff) helps Theseus and the psychic escape and head off to find the bow before Hyperion can, in hopes of using it against him and saving the world.

Tarsem employs a mix of CGI and practical sets to create a kind of magical middle ground between the glistening flesh and blood, the rippling muscles and smooth skin of the human actors and the arresting, colorful landscapes. At key moments, movements slow, sometimes accompanied with a warping or fading of the sound, so that we can more appreciate the gravity of the situations or the fluidity of the movements. Sumptuous in color, but dull in mood, these humans have little to say, but much gravity in their voices with which to say it.

Above it all, lounging in their marble castle in the clouds, are the Gods. They’ve told themselves that they wouldn’t interfere with the humans for some reason or other. Though a smirking old man (John Hurt), Theseus’s mentor, is revealed to be a divine proxy, and therefore seems to ignore the Gods’ own laws. But anyways, Zeus (Luke Evans), Aries (Daniel Sharman), Athena (Isabel Lucas), and Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), who are smoother and cleaner than their human subjects, brood about and occasionally zip down on shiny gold beams of light to offer help to our heroes.

This all sounds like a lot of fun, and it often is, especially in Tarsem’s most brilliant moments of mind-bogglingly beautiful spectacle or mind-bogglingly brutal gore. It’s a film that plays best when we’re only required to sit there in awe of the strength of the images, through its intensity of action and its warm, ornate, computer-embellished sets. Though the look of the film is tremendous across the board, my favorite aspect has to be the way the characters look.

The costumes designed by Eiko Ishioka are luscious and memorable. Tight togas and elaborate headgear fit nicely on the Gods while the good mortal men are all leather and armor and the good mortal women all flowing robes with low necklines, when not in red bedazzled burqas. The villains wear ferocious animalistic masks and helmets. My favorite of all the costumes is a close call between the tall, shining spikes on Aries’s hat and the dark Venus fly trap helmet that appears to be this close to chomping down on Rourke’s face as he glowers menacingly towards anyone who gets in his line of vision.

Where the film falls flat is when it feels the need to get some storytelling out of the way in order to move us from spectacular image to spectacular image. (Still, it’s far better than other recent loosely Greek-myth-based nonsense like the Clash of the Titans remake and 300, since at least it has some honest spectacle to give us.) The script by Charley and Vlas Parlapanides is awfully belabored at its start, slack and shapeless as it sets up conflict and introduces characters. Theseus has to suffer through an introductory why-don’t-you-find-a-nice-girl? scene of maternal worry that I feel I’ve seen in too many movies of this type. By the time the villain is made appropriately hiss-worthy and the heroes have assembled, the pace picks up and the clunky talky bits don’t clog up the way with quite the same frequency, though it still has trouble sustaining tension in any of the subplots.

This is a movie about poses and shouts, glamour and gore. It’s about the bludgeoning power of myth. There’s no time for subtlety or emotional engagement. If it had pushed itself into further abstraction, relying solely on the power of its striking imagery, it could have really been great. This is a terrific, expressionistic silent film nearly ruined by the need to succumb to contemporary narrative convention, setting up storytelling expectations it has no desire whatsoever to fulfill. It should be a primal story of epic stakes, but it underwhelms, especially when compared to the style. It still may be worth seeing, but without Tarsem’s visual sense, this movie wouldn’t be worth considering.

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