Not since “300” has so much Greek flesh been bared in service of such gratuitous carnage. As that beefcake battle epic did before, “Immortals” challenges auds to follow its bastardized version of Hellenic history amid a sea of chiseled abs, grizzled faces and digital set extensions. Rather than cribbing from comics, however, director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar joins a long line of artists who loosely referenced Greek mythology to create stunning visual interpretations. Absent a compelling narrative, the spectacle alone may be enough to survive opening weekend, only to see returns for this style-over-substance exercise wither over the following weeks.
“Immortals'” fate lies not with the gods, but with fanboys, who have no doubt heard of Theseus (played by “Man of Steel”-in-the-making Henry Cavill). They may even recall that Theseus slew the Minotaur. Any further familiarity with Greek mythology will merely get in the way of this slow-building, hyperstylized pastiche, which draws upon the helmer’s many influences, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the gold-toned vistas of Pasolini’s “Arabian Nights,” with room for rich multiculti costumes (simultaneously Greek, Indian and Orc-like) and Hong Kong fight choreography in the same frame.
The script by Parlapanides brothers Charles and Vlas tells the story of how Theseus — demoted from Athenian king to cliff-dwelling peasant — achieved immortality via a sort of heroic martyrdom, living on (through song and overwrought Hollywood blockbusters), while vengeful Hyperion (a snarling, spitting Mickey Rourke) found a loophole through which he could rob the gods of their immortality by unleashing Titans capable of killing the otherwise invincible beings. Rather than singing of self-inflicted ruin, here the concept of tragedy relies on the notion that auds will feel sadness when witnessing the death of sympathetic and/or perfectly sculpted characters.
Actors don’t come much more divinely formed than Cavill — he of cleft chin and abs, who evidently shaves his chest more frequently than he does his cheeks. Charismatic enough to hold our attention against the film’s breathtaking backdrops, Cavill plays Theseus as an almost messianic figure, hand-picked by the gods to redeem the human race. Zeus himself (Luke Evans, looking rather chiseled) coaches the Hellenic hero, though he does so disguised as an elderly man (John Hurt), so as not to blow his cover.
Though Hyperion’s beef is with the gods, Zeus forbids his children from interfering in the affairs of men, forcing the likes of Athena (Isabel Lucas), Aries (Daniel Sharman) and Poseidon (Kellan Lutz) to watch half-naked from on high while Hyperion hunts for the Epirus Bow — a weapon with the power to slay immortals. Should any of the gods disobey and come to Theseus’ aid, Zeus vows to kill them. When it comes to “Immortals'” shaky grasp of its own title, perhaps “The Princess Bride’s” Inigo Montoya put it best: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The pic’s mythological basis serves only insofar as it allows Tarsem to create a series of iconic tableaux vivants, treating each shot as if it were an elaborate painting. With few exceptions — the most engaging of which is Theseus’ run-in with a bull-headed thug in the labyrinth — adjacent shots seldom work together to sustain dramatic energy. Instead, auds are meant to marvel at the impressive composition of every frame, significantly enhanced by Tarsem’s savvy use of depth in stereoscopic 3D.
Although one is never less than aware of the film’s greenscreen format, credit is due the many effects houses whose richly textured work creates a unified world in which such silliness may take itself seriously, right down to the virtual lens flares. None is more earnest than Rourke, whose larger-than-life persona makes him a formidable villain, even without the nightmarish armor he wears into battle or the deafeningly intense chorus of horns and chanting supplied by composer Trevor Morris.
Considering the director’s previous attempt at more humanistic storytelling, “The Fall,” struggled to reach even a cult following, the extreme brutality of “Immortals” may well have been a concession to popular tastes. Yet such an unsavory mix of body worship and sadistic ultra-violence breeds confusion, as when the pic manipulates auds to fear that virginal Phaedra (an objectified Freida Pinto) may be gang-raped by Hyperion’s soldiers one moment, only to show her willfully submitting to Theseus a short time later. Navigating the film’s mounting erotic bloodlust proves tedious, until the show-stopping final battle between gods and Titans in one chamber, Theseus and Hyperion in another, at which point logic melts away completely and the pic’s raison d’etre emerges — namely, to justify staging a fight scene for the ages.