When it comes to The Fall, either you’ve never heard of it or you love it. The Fall director Tarsem went globe-trotting for two years seeking out vibrant, other-wordly buildings, locations, and natural environments to tell his children’s story without the crutch of CGI. Even his tryst with Hollywood in 2000, The Cell, is a disturbing psychological horror film thanks to the director’s aesthetic. Recent Tarsem converts are salivating for his latest, Immortals, which returns Tarsem to Hollywood filmmaking with the Greek-gods-centered epic Immortals. They’ll have to grab a napkin though, ’cause Immortals only underscores Tarsem’s weaknesses as a director – he needs better scripts and narrative substance to back up all that style.
As per the traditional hero’s journey, lowly-bastard-who-happens-to-have-scrappy-fighting skills Theseus is compelled to stop the evil King Hyperion. Driven mad with grief that the gods would not hear his prayers, Hyperion seeks the Bow of Epirius, which will free the god-killing Titans. Theseus and his band of misfits (some fighters and an oracle) attempt to stop Hyperion from releasing the
Krakens Titans, but not without a little literal deus ex machina.
Immortals has two considerable strengths: Mickey Rourke as King Hyperion, and Tarsem’s stunning visual aesthetic. Rourke’s Hyperion is a mash-up of previous Rourke roles, blending the brutish, R-rated violent tendencies of Sin City‘s Marv with the sinister griminess of Iron Man 2‘s Whiplash. When Rourke says to four female oracles, “You will experience pain specific to your gender” you want to fling the slime from your flesh.
Tarsem’s amazing crew of production and costume designers put the fantastic in this fantasy epic. More Grimm’s fairytale than a Spartacus sword and sandals picture, Tarsem’s first shots and slow camera movements across beautifully decked out sets and actors is like a potent visual perfume – you’ll be hard pressed not to swoon.
What starts great, however, limps to the finish line.
Henry Cavill as Theseus, though not given a lot to work with, merely fulfills the “looking good” requirement, never coming close to the acting virtuosity of his nemesis, Mr. Rourke. His motivations are never as crystallized as Hyperion’s, leading to lackluster character development: Theseus’ love connection with oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) serves merely to offset the heavy homosexual overtones and is about as heartfelt as a drunk dialed booty call. His journey from zero to hero is barely held together by the forced theme of immorality, culminating in a poorly setup “speech to the troops before the insane battle” scene.
Immortals repeats the same mistakes of 300, failing to build effective tension and momentum. Instead, it’s derailed by spectacles of bodily destruction in the form of literal god-mode moments of head-popping whack-a-mole carnage that seems more apt for Hobo with a Shotgun than a film taking itself so seriously. Cavill gets to show off his action chops in a small fight scene at the beginning, but it’s all for naught, as it simply teases at what could have been as the fights get grander and goofier with CGI enhancements.
One would think that almost ten years after The Matrix Reloaded made audiences roll their eyes in exasperation as fight scenes devolved into Hollywood versions of Dragon Ball Z battles, filmmakers would learn how to pace their action so they don’t get stuck trying to outdo the undoable. All glitter and gloss, Tarsem’s visuals and 300-like slow-mo fight scenes with complimentary tracking shots foreclose any possibility of emotional connection.
All of which contrasts to this year’s previous artiste meets Hollywood picture, Drive. Unlike Immortals, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn’s poetic eye for visuals enhance the emotions on screen and its graphic action never becomes laughable; instead, it actually says something about the character. Further, Drive at least has enough self-awareness to complicate the narrative of the white male hero instead of Immortals‘ glorification of the re-assertment of white male patriarchy.
Given the three films we’ve seen from Tarsem since 2000, it’s obvious that the man and his crew are visual wizards, creating unforgettable imagery few can challenge. As with the works of Guillermo del Toro, when you see a film by Tarsem, you know it’s a Tarsem picture. Unlike del Toro however, Tarsem is not a great storyteller. All of his films, even the much-lauded The Fall, lack an emotional core to equal the pulsing aesthetics.
Tarsem’s bigger budget only magnifies his shortcomings as a story teller. Just like with people, being pretty doesn’t make up for being pretty dumb.