Review first published in S&S Jan 2011
Synopsis: 1228 BCE, Greece. Requiring the divine Epirus Bow for his plans to unleash the Titans from their prison beneath Mount Tartarus and end the remote Gods’ reign, King Hyperion and his fanatical Heraklions devastate Greece to find it. Reared by Zeus (in old man’s guise), faithless peasant Theseus sees his mother murdered by Hyperion, but, together with the Sybelline oracle Phaedra and two others, escapes his Heraklion captors. Although Zeus forbids the other gods to intervene in Theseus’ human choices, Poseidon furtively rescues the hero from a Heraklion attack at sea. Following Phaedra’s vision, Theseus returns home to bury his mother in the ancestral Labyrinth, where he finds the Bow and defeats Hyperion’s pursuing ‘Minotaur’. Phaedra sacrifices her virginity – and her prophetic powers – to Theseus.
Heraklions ambush Theseus and steal the Bow. When two Gods save Theseus’ life, Zeus punishes one with death. Theseus races to the remaining Greeks at the walled city beneath Tartarus, and rejects an offer to join Hyperion. As Hyperion uses the Bow to destroy the city gate and release the Titans, Theseus leads the Greeks against the invading Heraklions. While the Gods descend to fight the Titans, Theseus kills Hyperion. Sole surviving God Zeus brings Tartarus down onto the Titans and Heraklions, and raises Theseus’ body up to Olympus.
Several years later, Acamas, Theseus’ son by Phaedra, looks upon statues of his father’s exploits. As Zeus (in old man’s guise) assures him that Theseus continues fighting evil in the heavens, Acamas has a vision of celestial Titanomachy.
“None of the mortals here should witness us in our immortal form.”
So says Zeus (Luke Evans), his beauty, youth and lustre contrasting with his earlier, greyer disguise as an old man (John Hurt). Nevertheless, we mortal viewers do witness Zeus in both his licit and illicit forms, generating an aesthetic paradox beloved of the ancient themselves – although it remains unclear whether we ever see more than masks in all this mythmaking.
Certainly Immortals is preoccupied with questions of identity and representation. Its events are realised through dynamic action, state-of-the-art CGI and eye-popping (retro-fitted) 3D, but are also reflected and refracted within the film through the more conventionally classical visual media of painted panels, reliefs and statues – one of which, when touched in the final sequence by a boy with visionary powers, is transformed before his (and our) eyes into a different, mobile spectacle of airborne Titanomachy. Here there is more than one way to tell a story – and as righteous hero Theseus (Henry Cavill) and brutal villain Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) clash in the film’s climax, the former declares, “My deeds will go down in history,” to which the latter replies, “I‘m writing your history.” Evidently at stake in this conflict is not just the fate of the Gods and humanity, but also how, and by whom, it is expressed.
The ultimate storytellers and imagecrafters are a pantheon of filmmakers led by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall), who, Zeus-like, appears in the closing credits under two different guises, as both ‘Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’ and plain old ‘Tarsem’. Following a practice already well established amongst ancient artists, Tarsem and writers/brothers Vlas and Charley Parlapanides use mythic names as relatively fixed coordinates in their otherwise flexible narrative form. Hyperion is not the Titan of tradition, but a scarred human king (with an impressively grotesque collection of masks) hell-bent on ending the Gods’ reign and the Greeks’ bloodline. Theseus dies before he can ever reach Athens and become its legendary king. Phaedra (Freida Pinto) is Theseus’ first and only lover, bearing him his only child, rather than a second wife doomed to fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus – and she is a Sybilline (or ‘Sybelline’, as the film spells it) oracle to boot. Some of these changes to conventional myth involve Euhemeristic rationalisations (e.g. the monstrous hybrid Minotaur is here just a well-built executioner in a bull-head mask). Immortals, however, like Clash of the Titans (1981, 2010) but unlike Troy (2004), does not shy away from depicting confrontations between humans and the divine – and, in its most iconoclastic myth-busting moments, even portrays the deaths of Gods themselves.
The result is a postmodern epic action-adventure both familiar and novel. Theseus’ rites of passage may expressly unfold in the thirteenth century B.C.E., but their alien (and extraordinarily beautiful) settings belong less to history or traditional myth than to a febrile imagination. The city siege may evoke Troy, the long-take slo-mo fighting may recall 300 (with which Immortals shares producers), and some enslaved priestesses may borrow a trick from Spartacus to conceal their mistress’ identity – but the colours and lighting have been inspired by the paintings of Caravaggio, Theseus himself seems to be an ass-kicking Christ figure (complete with his own cross to bear, grapplings over faith, and act of self-sacrifice), while the film’s thematic concerns with a fanatical war, dangerous POWs (detained in a Guantánamo-like hellhole), and even a reduced and beleaguered Greece, could have been lifted from today’s headlines. For in Tarsem’s Theseid, the Gods may die, but stories and struggles remain immortal – however much their forms may change.