The camera pans over a wide swath of land, a dry desert punctuated by a thick spear jutting from the ground. It’s a mountain, brown and weathered like the land. The camera moves inside, where the walls are arcing upwards, seemingly forever, tinted a sharp cobalt blue. At the center of this mountain is a gold cage, pristine but heavily shackled, and inside are gnarled, dark-skinned boogeymen. They are stacked four by four and do not move, their teeth clasped around thick golden rods jutting from the sides of the cage. Emerging, a masked man, clasping a glowing rod which he aims, a glowing arrow forming, floating in space before he fires towards the cage. It bursts open. The Titans have been released.
So begins the visually dynamic “Immortals,” a re-telling of the legend of Theseus. “Immortals” is mostly a ground-level tale of a fantastical Greek adventure, though those same Titans loom large over the proceedings. It’s a difficult gamble, knowing there are world-ending forces like the Gods and the Titans afoot as we follow Theseus as a lowly peasant. It’s also a gambit the recent similarly-themed “Clash of the Titans” ignored, a suggestion that deism is a concept more sacred in Tarsem Singh’s 3D fantasy epic. It’s an idea, if not a particularly loaded one, but thoughtful enough to already place the film in the sandal fantasy pantheon above both the newer “Clash” and the politically-problematic “300.”
After this dreamlike beginning, which we learn is a vision of the future, we settle into the story of peasant boy Theseus. This young-ish strapping lad, played by future “Superman” Henry Cavill, doesn’t know that he’s being watched from above. An elderly local (John Hurt, in his sleep) is, in actuality, the mighty Zeus in human form. Long ago, Zeus made a deal that the Gods would never return to the Earthly plane as long as the Titans were imprisoned, but he sees something in the kid. Chosen one, lucky one, ring-bearer, what have you.
Fortunately, Zeus will need a warrior, as he can only sit back while Our Villain, King Hyperion, wages war across the lands. Hyperion, another Big Bad Nihilist, wants to conquer, and to do so, he’ll need to resurrect the Titans. Doing so requires finding the Epirus Bow, a magic weapon that conjures up arrows in thin air, not unlike the staff cradled in Lucio Fulci’s “Conquest.” Theseus is Zeus’ best player, essentially, but he may be putting him into the game a bit too late, hampering him with the loss of his caring mother and Theseus’ subsequent slave status, a by-product of Hyperion’s increasingly-powerful reign.
It’s a race for the bow, as Hyperion makes a move for the legendary weapon, unaware that Theseus employs a bewitching oracle named Phaedra (the lovely Freida Pinto). And by bewitching, she’s clearly the most gorgeous tomorrow-seer in any of these types of movies. Whatever direction she gives Theseus is overshadowed by the sight of her bare bottom in 3D. In a film loaded with CGI, it’s the one effect that calls the most attention to itself. There is also a plucky sidekick slave named Stavros (Stephen Dorff), but he shares most of his scenes with Pinto and are you looking at anything else?
Naturally, the story leans heavily on the very likelihood that the Gods will break their promise and descend upon Earth to assist the hapless humans. They stand and watch from the clouds, represented as a classy, cozy promenade, clad in gold as they fret, reluctant to allow Hyperion’s slaughter to continue. And when they do, it’s nothing to sneeze about. One God’s arrival prompts a slow motion action sequence where he moves at regular speed, single blows turning the heads of villains into a Gallagher concert. The action beats where the Gods are unleashed play not unlike the magic-meets-gore approach of the “Mortal Kombat” videogames. Blood is not spared as bodies are severed, blown up, and dismantled with comic ease.
As our shirtless hero, Cavill is notably upstaged by the staggeringly overwhelming set design and effects. He is part of a new wave of cinema heroes, fitting alongside Sam Worthington, good looking actors with limited expression who effortlessly blend into excessively CG-backgrounds. As far as onscreen heroes, this Superman reminds most of Mr. Fantastic, or rather Ioan Gruffudd, the milquetoast thesp that brought him to life. Sadly, he’s matched with Mickey Rourke, who plays Hyperion as laconic, laid-back. In the long history of movies where Mickey Rourke has barely shown up, this might be his most bored performance.
It’s difficult to blame them, given the script, from Charley and Vlas Parlapanides. Not a single cliché of the genre is left unexplored, and most of the themes are strictly grade-school, the type you’d find by plugging “sword and sandal,” “gods” and loincloth” into a search engine. A mixed blessing, because it renders most dialogue scenes absolute murder to get though. The scenes between Zeus and his fellow gods is a glaring example, with the handsome Luke Evans using hoary dialogue to win over his much younger underlings despite the fact that Evans may be only a handful of years older than any of them.
But when our characters take up the sword, duck and cover. As far as 3D action pictures, no film has looked as captivating as “Immortals”. Surfaces pop, startle, sneak in from the corner of the frame. Visually, you could mute the film’s dialogue and come away with the immensely satisfying experience of a never-boring art installation. Skulls and innards flying at you in three visual dimensions, a feast for the eyes that is constantly producing surprising visuals, from the shimmering Epirus Bow to the otherworldly gold chain mail sported by the Gods. When it comes to at least one of the senses, “Immortals” will stun you in ways you may never forget. [C+]