Oh, Tarsem, that one-name wonder. Tarsem blew the doors off with his first film, the 2000 thriller The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez of all people. He brought his music video past and introduced the film world to his visually striking signature style. While you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d call The Cell a great film, you’d be just as hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t give at least some credit to the visuals. The Cell presents the inside of a killer’s mind with incredible flair. It is nightmarish and enveloping, and when Tarsem decided to write and direct his next feature, we knew what to expect. The Fall certainly lived up to those expectations, pairing Tarsem’s skill in painting visual portraits with a compelling story. So there are certainly more expectations going into Tarsem’s third feature film, this weekend’s Immortals.
Immortals is a good old-fashioned story about Greek mythology. It focuses on Theseus, a name most remember for an event that occurs near the end of the film. If you know, it won’t hurt your enjoyment at all, but if you don’t, there’s no sense in spoiling it. For the film’s story, all you need to know is that Theseus (Henry Cavill) is a warrior. He and his mother are from the lower class and are often teased, she for being a whore, he for being a bastard. Theseus is a loving son who would do anything to protect his mother. But when the evil King Hyperion and his vast army head towards their small village, they must leave or be killed. Unfortunately, they do not make it out in time. Despite his best efforts, Theseus is captured and can do nothing but watch as Hyperion kills his mother.
There’s plenty more, including some trapped Titans, the Gods of Mount Olympus, and the Epirus Bow, a weapon that can free the Titans and wreak havoc on humanity. It’s overly convoluted and often times makes little sense. Perhaps my favorite example of this is near the beginning, when Zeus has to stop the other Gods from getting involved in the Hyperion situation down on Earth. He reminds them that, apparently, they’re prevented by law from involving themselves in human affairs in their God form unless the Titans are freed in which case all bets are off. He drives this point home by stating that the penalty for breaking that law will be death. Death. That’s the punishment, in a movie entitled Immortals. I know Zeus is awesome and all, but I was unaware that a God could die. This is one of the those threads at which it’s just best not to pull.
As mentioned previously, Tarsem is best known for his visual style. And while Immortals is very pretty to look at, it’s hard not to make comparisons to 300. Zack Snyder is another director with a distinct visual style, but it’s also distinctly different from that of Tarsem. However, 300 was such a highly stylized film with such a deep cultural impact, that it’s just difficult to see a film with Greeks jumping in slow-motion with blood and swords flying and not think of 300. That said, Tarsem still achieves some nice wow moments. Sadly, they are sprinkled through a film with an awful lot of talking. Most of the action is back-loaded in the third act and, while we do get some nice shots before then, it’s disappointing that there weren’t more action sequences in the first 90 minutes or so. Instead, Tarsem gets bogged down trying to tell a complex and at times confusing story that should have been trimmed down and streamlined. This was never Oscar material. This is a film that is all about the action and should have focused on that to a greater extent. As is, it often grinds to a boring halt.
On a technical level, the film is quite sound. It’s clearly well-shot, with frames looking like paintings ready made to hang on your wall. The 3D is done properly so as not to cause eye strain, though the effect itself is used to only small advantage. It’s a bit underwhelming. The acting is perfectly adequate and the sound is stellar. The problems lie in the plot and the storytelling.
Ultimately, Immortals is fairly enjoyable despite its flaws. Tarsem’s talent for putting striking images on screen has clearly not wavered in the 5 years since his last feature. The film is brought down by a bloated story conveyed poorly and paced too slowly. The film gives the bulk of screen time to exposition when it should have simplified the story to better serve the action sequences. Thankfully, the action is very cool when it does arrive, going a long way towards making up for the parts that were a chore to sit through. There’s enough that works about the film to keep me interested and excited about what Tarsem does next.
The Upside: Strong visuals and action sequences keep the ship from sinking.
The Downside: The story bites off more than it can chew and slows the film down.
On the Side: This was the first time I’ve seen Tarsem credited on-screen with his full name, Tarsem Dhandwar Singh.