don’t be turned off by raccoon mario: a very half-hearted case for immortals

I’m sure a lot of people saw the trailer for Immortals and dismissed it as a sword-and-sandals deal that would be about the joy of spearing your enemy and not much else, but this one is significantly more artistically ambitious than the average Conan movie. I like that Immortals takes risks, even when it results in costumes like this, which I think of as “Edgy Raccoon Mario”:

It’s easy to take shots at this movie, but actually the willingness to embrace unique visuals pays off in some beautiful moments. The single best part from this perspective is probably the climatic battle between Zeus’s cohort of gods and their nemeses, the Titans. (Titans, like all creepy things, stoop a lot for reasons that are unclear.) It begins when Zeus and the other four Olympian gods arrive on earth by dropping in as clouds of gold dust — very heavy gold dust, apparently, because they come in at a fast rate — and they materialize upon hitting the ground. Each landing makes a sound like a metal door being clanged shut, as if they were iron statues dropped to earth, and the camera even shudders a little bit, as if being shaken by the impact. It’s a great effect.

Once they land, Zeus proclaims something — does it matter what, really? — and then hurtles his hammer toward the camera, through a bunch of Titans milling around. The hammer comes closer, closer, then freezes in mid-air, and the camera pulls back slightly while the hammer is stuck there. This all happens in literally the blink of an eye.

This doesn’t make sense for a second, but then we cut to see that the hammer has stuck itself in a wall of rock. This means the camera had been taking the perspective of the wall in the previous shot, when the hammer got frozen “in” the camera’s eye. That’s awesome anyway, and it’s even a little more awesome because it’s just awesome that Zeus can throw a hammer so that it is embedded in stone even if it intercepts the stone parallel to its long axis … if you see what I mean? It’s hard to explain without drawing a diagram, really.

The rest of the fight is that rarest of cinematic battles, the one that is both graceful and convincingly brutal. One of a few reasons that I can’t do it justice with screen shots is its clever use of slo-mo: As each of the Titans is injured, he goes into slo-mo while the golden Olympians keep moving at regular speed. It’s a great look and it seems like a fresh take on the slo-mo action sequences that have become de rigueur since The Matrix.

The god-on-Titan battle is one of the best examples of the movie’s occasional success at feeling operatic. (Or, at least, what I imagine “operatic” to feel like, since I’ve never been.) It’s not easy to make combat feel this light and flowing, and the only other filmmakers that I can think of that can pull this off are Zhang Yimou (I’m thinking of the sleeve-throwing scene from House of Flying Daggers) and the Wachowskis (to a lesser extent) with the incredible stairway melee from The Matrix Reloaded. Immortals isn’t as good as those movies, though, because it doesn’t induce the operatic emotions that Zhang and the Wachowskis make a part of their package.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Immortals isn’t very moving, but I think it has something to do with a slack script. The main tension in the film seems to be whether Theseus is going to put himself in mortal danger for what he believes in, but we already pretty much know he is from the very beginning; it’s never suggested that he has to wrestle with the idea much. He starts out stubborn and valiant and ends that way. In the meantime, there are a lot of other minor points that seem to be resolved about as quickly as they are introduced. Should he bury his mother, even though he doesn’t believe in her gods? Yes. Should he switch allegiances and join forces with the most evil guy in the world? Question answered as soon as it is asked. Is he going to find the MacGuffin, in this case a powerful bow that looks like the kind of thing Apple would design if they were into archery? Yes, duh. And is he going to lose it when a wolf runs away with it? Okay, that was kind of surprising.

There’s also a lot of misused time with the gods, who seem like they ought to fit into the story but who might as well have been written out entirely. Theseus can prove his mettle on his own, so why drag in Zeus and friends, who spend most of the movie wanting really badly to be part of the action, only to be held back by contrived-seeming reasons?

I have one more niggling detail about the gods I just can’t get over: All of the gods, including top-dog Zeus, are played by people under 40. I know Zeus is immortal and never ages, but can you just give us this one? The least they could do was slap a white beard on the actor playing him, especially if his primary function in the group is Obstinate Father. I mean, we don’t need a Liam Neeson here, but maybe a Sean Bean would do, or really anybody who is visibly older than the other gods. As it is, it looks like one generic young hardbody was inexplicably given the authority to boss around the other generic young hardbodies.

Anyway, I guess if I have to settle for some beautiful pictures, I will, but I wish there had been some deeper sentiment or philosophy evoked by this movie. It just wasn’t meant to be.

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