Tarsem Singh Dhandwar, known sometimes as Tarsem Singh or merely Tarsem or maybe just T one day, certainly has an affinity for pretty, shiny things. His third and shiniest film to date, the plodding, silly, wake-me-when-it's-over Greek mythology pic Immortals has its fair share of impressive images. Well, more than its fair share, really. Every shot seems to be wrought of battle-tested metal and every little detail is so sharply defined that even the specks of dirt in this world appear beautiful. And then there are the Gods, who glisten with golden outfits that are astonishingly elaborate. Even the bloody violence is stylized enough to be more balletic than brutal. It's all incredibly attractive and optically immaculate, so why does it sort of stink?
Well, with so much to look at, Tarsem is hoping we don't notice how painfully empty his picture is. This isn't just style over substance, but rather style horrifically murdering substance in broad daylight. Style is gouging out substance's eyeballs and chopping its head off just to ensure that the pesky substance doesn't sneak its way back into the frame. Substance, consider yourself vanquished. If you haven't got the message with Tarsem's last two movies, this should finally make it crystal clear. He doesn't like you, he doesn't want you, and style is fulfilling his needs just fine without you moping around. Thanks anyways. Be gone with you!
Be gone with me too, I guess. I'm not asking for much, really. I just want those scenes where people talk and stand around between all the flashy, sexy action to not be completely boring. I want a hero to root for or at least not actively dislike. And I want some plot progression that doesn't feel entirely mechanical. Okay, maybe I am asking for a lot. Especially from a guy like Tarsem. It is the telling of the story that trips him up and his shortcomings are never more apparent than when he fails to make this mish-mash of Greek mythology remotely interesting.
Every character is silly and often a bit stupid. And the plot couldn't be any less inspired, even though a simple summary might suggest otherwise. Basically, there's King Hyperion (a growling Mickey Rourke), who's a total bastard (we know this because he puts his thumbs in a person's eyes, lights a monk on fire, and orders a henchman to hammer a guy's testicles) obsessed with finding the mythical, magical Bow of Epirus, which he will use to release the imprisoned wackos known as Titans (they were immortals who ended up on the losing end of a fight, while the winners became Gods) and then just ruin everything I guess.
Good plan, really. Nothing can go wrong there. Not at all. Enter Theseus (future big-screen Superman Henry Cavill), a bone-headed dude with about as many brain cells as abs (well, to be fair, he does have a lot of abs). Theseus may be dumb, but he sure can swing a sword and toss a spear. And he's a poor peasant, which is pretty much Greek for underdog, so him being the hero makes as much sense as anything else in the movie. With nothing to lose and a big, meaty grudge against Hyperion guiding his way, Theseus heads for the heavily fortified walls that guard Mount Tartarus, the current home of the Titans.
Along the way, he has a run-in with the Mr. Dressup version of the Minotaur (okay, he's still intimidating, but it feels a bit cheap and silly to reduce the Minotaur to a guy in a helmet) and locates the Epirus Bow. Well, that pretty much settles it. Our hero has a magical weapon that seemingly never runs out of arrows and can blow through thick stone walls in a single shot. Done deal, right? Well, maybe for most heroes. But Theseus is an idiot, so when he sees the opportunity for a fight with Hyperion's men shortly after finding the bow, he runs into battle with... a spear? I mean, I know he loves his spears and all, but he has a magical bow! Of course, within seconds, Theseus is knocked down, the bow falls from its sheath on his back, and the bad guys take it happily.
It's a maddeningly moronic turn of events, because it's basically an excuse to give the movie a third act. Hyperion gets the bow and a whole lot of hell has to break loose before Theseus can make up for his mistakes. Really should have held on to that bow, dude. And so goes the narrative of Immortals, trudging along with only one intention: to get to the next action sequence. And those sequences are very impressive and surprisingly gory. The actual editing in these sequences is very crisp and the action is smoothly captured. Cavill does look good with his spear or sword or bow or whatever and Tarsem puts that vibrant visual imagination to memorable work when limbs starting flying, especially whenever the Gods show up to wreak bloody havoc.
But Tarsem's strengths and weaknesses are ever entwined and his failure as a storyteller ultimately undermines his success as a fantastic visual artist. Since he insists on tackling such simple a-to-b narratives, his movies seem destined to stumble out of the gate as he ignores the intricacies of plot and character in favour of pretty pictures. The cast of Immortals is worthless in Tarsem's hands, with Rourke and Cavill taking dull approaches to their plastic action figure roles and Frieda Pinto having to get by as the seemingly obligatory Beautiful Woman with Nothing to Do™.
It all adds up to empty spectacle. Tarsem's abilities are as fascinating as his deficiencies. His visual imagination is so rich and intriguing, but his grasp of narrative is so sloppy and slippery. Watching the magical arrow from the Epirus Bow blow apart a gargantuan chunk of stone wall is certainly an exciting visual effect, but it doesn't count for much when I honestly have no emotional investment in the plight of the person firing the arrow or the soldiers on the other side of that wall. Who knew immortality could be such a bore? Tarsem's movie makes no attempt to remedy its flaws and it ends up all a little too stupid in the end, much like its protagonist. Theseus sure looks great, but he's a total imbecile. He's got the physique, though. His abs may be thick, but my patience wears thin.