The brutal and bloodthirsty King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and his Heraklion army are rampaging across Greece in search of the long lost Bow of Epirus. With the invincible Bow, the king will be able to overthrow the Gods of Olympus and become the undisputed master of his world. As village after village is obliterated, a stonemason named Theseus (Henry Cavill) vows to avenge the death of his mother in one of Hyperion’s raids. When Theseus meets the Sybelline Oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto), her disturbing visions of the young man’s future convince her that he is the key to stopping the destruction. With her help, Theseus assembles a small band of followers and embraces his destiny in a final desperate battle for the future of humanity.
There is no more anachronistic film genre than the swords-and-sandals epic. The 'gladiator movie’ offered spectacle on a grand scale, to 1950s-era Hollywood, when studios decided that bigger was most definitely better. The genre became a bit of a laughing stock when '80s action heroes revisited it (think Conan the Barbarian and its endless imitators), then got a shot in the arm when Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott played it straight for Gladiator.
But not even that film’s Oscar glory and box office success could fully resuscitate the hoary genre nor dispel its inherent campiness; Zack Snyder’s divisive 300 hit big with the gamer crowd for its stylish new spin, but most critics went 'Huh?"; Brad Pitt’s star-power helped the otherwise blah Troy; Alexander tanked. The less said about the most recent entry, the lamentable remake of Clash of the Titans, the better.
But Tarsem Singh may be onto something with Immortals; the Indian-born filmmaker’s third film is the first to allow him a budget (reportedly around $90million) to up-size his idiosyncratic visual style (The Cell, 2000; The Fall, 2006). Singh has constructed a mythological landscape that supports his OTT flourishes and a narrative that combines Earth with the heavens of Greek mythology; he successfully conveys all the weighty importance such a duality should represent.
Our hero is Theseus, played by an ultra-buffed Henry Cavill (who, on the evidence here, should fill out the blue spandex as 'Superman’ just fine). Having survived a genocidal wave that took away all that he cared for, and hooked up with both an Oracle (Freida Pinto) and smart-mouth sidekick (Stephen Dorff, inexplicably), Theseus is chosen by omniscient deity Zeus (Luke Evans, who has ditched the grey-beard in favour of six-pack abs and gold ornamentation) to be the mortal warrior to fight the murderous King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). It is Hyperion’s anarchic intent to unleash the malevolent Titans, imprisoned in the bowels of Mount Tartaros. Such a cataclysmic event would destroy both mankind and threaten the reign of Zeus and his pantheon of Gods, among them Athena (Isabel Lucas), Poseidon (Kellan Lutz) and Aries (Daniel Sharman).
Singh grinds through the perfunctory plotting and wincing dialogue with a workman-like focus; it is plainly evident he did not take this gig to redefine the art of structuring narrative. The director is on board to fill an immense canvas with astounding images. And, even in this filmic age when the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films make the spectacular seem effortlessly achievable, Singh fulfils the brief – astonishingly so, and his Immortals sets a new benchmark in design artistry.
The fight sequences that manifest when the Gods descend to the mortal plane are particularly impressive. Singh brings a general ease to the awe-inspiring hand-to-hand combat between ethereal warriors, with fast/slow jumpcuts and crunching sound design; it makes for very exciting, truly epic cinema. His use of 3D is at the high end of the technology’s application (the film is a hybrid mix of 3D-acquired and converted images, with image quality far superior to recent slapdash, headache-inducing efforts); he rarely draws attention to it, treating it as just another production tool to implement when it best suits his story.
Yes, of course, the whole thing is stupendously silly and did inspire the occasional giggly outburst amongst the preview crowd, but surely films with men in tunics wielding magical bows aren’t meant to be taken that seriously (I never really understood the fuss over Gladiator). Your critic is torn between the responsibilities of the role (dutifully, I would warn cynics away) and the giddiness of a moviegoer who just had a great time at the pictures. Perhaps the best approach is to suggest that if you have been avoiding this genre since you saw Marc Singer in 1983’s The Beastmaster, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals marks the right time to revisit it.