Immortals. The more satisfying is to compare it to its two most obvious antecedents, 300 and Clash of the Titans, and think to oneself, "Holy balls! That was made by a filmmaker who doesn't fumble about like a goddamn rodeo clown! GENIUS!" The other way is to compare it to actual good movies - say, the actual good movies made by Immortals director Tarsem Singh, The Cell and The Fall - and to wonder if screenwriter brothers Charley & Vlas Parlapanides were as actively bored by their own screenplay as seems to have been the case.
Somewhere around 1200 BCE - the film gives an unexpectedly and unusually precise date, but I am afraid I have forgotten it - Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), King of the Heraklion people of Crete, sets himself to warring with the gods of Olympus, looking for the legendary Epirus Bow so that he can release the Titans, ancient enemies of the gods. Along the way, he attacks a village where there lives a young man named Theseus (Henry Cavill), a lowly bastard and peasant, who despite being trained as a great swordsman by a mysterious old man (John Hurt) is treated with disdain by the local soldiery, primarily the haughty, smug Lysander (Joseph Morgan). After Hyperion's army destroys the village, Lysander turns traitor, while Theseus, prodded by the virginal Oracle Phaedra (Frieda Pinto) escapes from Hyperion's slave mine with the wily thief Stavros (Stephen Dorff), and sets himself to finding the Epirus Bow first. Along the way, he learns that the old man was actually Zeus (Luke Evans) in disguise, rejuvenating the faith of the young agnostic hero.
It is not, maybe, the greatest of Immortals's flaws that is makes such a gruesome hash of Greek mythology, but let's not pretend that it's not there. Even 300, for all its aesthetic depravities, at least managed to do a good job of recounting the Battle of Thermopylae in something basically like the form it has come down through legend.There is the nugget of a great idea hiding deep down inside the film, and that is that the Minotaur is here represented as a man wearing a huge barbed-wire bull mask, the Labyrinth as a catacomb designed to be tricky to escape from to discourage grave-robbing and desecration; it is possible to combine that with Theseus's lack of faith and imagine a different, much better Immortals that fancies itself as the "real" events that inspired the myths. As it is, in a movie that includes a half-dozen god throughout its running time, the presence of a revisionist Minotaur is just kind of odd, though not terribly distracting in light of the reams and reams of bullshit making up the rest of the plot.
As to what is the greatest of the movie's flaws, it's hard to choose from so many candidates. The awful, irritating, shallow characters would certainly qualify; thanks to the flat writing coupled with the dead-eyed performances of the almost-uniformly pretty, young, white cast (they're all curiously miscast, but worst-in-show honors go to Kellan Lutz as the ocean god Poseidon), Immortals is filled top-to-bottom with hugely uninteresting, unconvincing people (it's surely no accident that the only compelling individuals are the ones played by Rourke and Hurt). Trevor Morris's score is the worst kind of thunderous, "Feel how serious and epic everything is!" musical boilerplate. The diabolically conventional hero's quest narrative, in which medieval tropes are soldered onto a Greek framework and tarted up with Christological ending, creeps forward so slowly (there's only about an hour of actual plot in the 110-minute movie) that its blandness is called into the sharpest relief.
And this is where Tarsem Singh comes in. For, even if Immortals has one of the worst screenplays of 2011 - I don't think that's too much of an exaggeration - Immortals is also one of the better-looking films of 2011, and if it weren't quite so dependent upon the gold-washed color palette that has come to mean "this is the Ancient World" in so many movies (it was codified in its present, exaggerated state by 300, but I think it was probably kicked off by Gladiator), it would be right up there with the very best of the best. For that is what Tarsem does: he makes gorgeous tableaux of fantasy objects, spiked with brilliant flourishes of color, and in Immortals he gets to use buckets of CGI and the best 3-D that studio money can buy, and both of those are a great fit for what he does: the CGI because it frees him from the last tattered vestiges of physical reality that kept The Cell and The Fall from going completely nuts, and the 3-D because of the attention it draws to the shape and texture of the sets, which are gorgeous (the Titan's prison is one of the best movie locations of the year), and Eiko Ishioka's costumes, which are gorgeous and enthusiastically unconventional (the Heraklion's armor), except when they are silly, as in the spiky gold wireframe bits that are stuck on all of the gods.
Now, The Cell and The Fall are not burdened by terribly good screenplays themselves, but the difference is that they're not singularly bad, which is not true of Immortals; and moreover, they manage in their way to justify the director's overstuffed visions, for both explicitly take place in the realm of imagination. Immortals is in the "real" world, which to a certain degree hamstrings Singh's ability to invent things with the abandon of The Fall in particular. Even so, it's one of the most snazzily over-designed movies of the year, and worthy of some measure of respect on that account; at the very least, if you watched it without sound, it would be one of the most eye-catching things you could hope to see, and spectacle should not be dismissed out of hand. Unfortunately, movies are not meant to be seen with the sound off, and when Immortals gets to blathering and mangling its plot and its characters, not all the beauty in the whole world can save it. One learns to take the good with the bad in movies, but rarely does any film marry such excitingly original good with such miserable, soul-scraping bad, and on that count Immortals is clearly a middling failure, even though nothing about it could possibly be called "mediocre".