There are two wars onscreen in “Immortals”: one between armies fighting for control of ancient Greece, and one between a director with an unconventional visual style and the narrative demands of a conventional action blockbuster. The “Greece” of “Immortals” — and you kind of have to put it in quotes because it bears so little physical resemblance to the real geographic location that goes by that name — is an insanely beautiful and insanely impractical landscape of deserts and mountains and homes carved out of the sheer walls of seaside cliffs. It looks nothing like any other film about ancient mythology. The plot is a different story: it looks like every movie about ancient mythology, a generic quest undertaken with generic archetypes who have generic problems that are resolved in generic ways. It makes for a strange film, dazzling and dull all at once.
It seems silly to even try to summarize the plot when the film itself barely does, but what the heck. Evil King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) believes the secret to winning his war with the Greeks is to unleash the Titans, fallen gods who were defeated by Zeus and the rest of his family and imprisoned inside Mount Tartarus. In order to do that, Hyperion needs the fabled Bow of Epirus, a weapon of incredible power. In order to get that, Hyperion needs to consult the virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), who’s looking for the Bow herself in the company of a Greek peasant named Theseus (Henry Cavill), who wants revenge against Hyperion for slaughtering his mother.
That about does it. No reason is ever given for the war between Hyperion and the Greeks. Nor do we learn what Hyperion thinks he’ll gain from unleashing the Titans (not to spoil anything, but whatever he hoped would happen, doesn’t happen). Really, no reason is given for anything in the movie. The Greek landscape is gorgeous and totally ridiculous. The people live in this super-cool looking and totally implausible system of cliff-wall cave houses. They have no agriculture and no economy. All they do is train to fight and fight. What do they eat? Where do they grow their crops if they live inside mountains? If Hyperion doesn’t get them, I imagine starvation will.
None of it makes a lick of sense when you think about it; director Tarsem Singh is simply counting on you to not think it because he’s throwing so much eye candy at you that your brain doesn’t have time to simultaneously process all the pretty imagery and the imagery’s total lack of cohesion. For the most part, he’s right. This movie is incredibly fun to look at, and that’s even with a thin film of 3D glasses muting Tarsem’s sumptuous color palette. The fights, many of which are strikingly staged inside very cramped quarters, are clear and crisp, and the way Tarsem delineates between man and god by filming their respective battles at different speeds — real time for man, slow-motion for gods — is very clever. Though it doesn’t get used very much, the Bow of Epirus is one badass movie weapon and another really memorable looking element of the film. If there was a projector malfunction at your screening of “Immortals” and the sound died, you’d still get your money’s worth — though you would miss out on the pleasure of hearing Rourke menacingly grumble “A man’s seed can be his most dangerous weapon.” What does that even mean?!?
Ultimately, I’m not sure that Tarsem is even half as interested in any of the characters as he is with what they’re wearing and where they’re standing. The only memorable parts about the lead characters are their physical attributes: Cavill’s chiseled pecs, Pinto’s naked rear, Rourke’s goofy bunny rabbit helmet. Theseus and Phaedra accrue a whole bunch of helpers and assistants in their search for Epirus’ Bow but the film hardly even introduces them; I know Stephen Dorff’s character was a thief, but who was that other bald guy? And how did the silent monk from Rourke’s camp wind up with them? Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that “Immortals” looks like it’s set inside a dream and so we’re meant to assume that everything within the film operates along the rules of dream logic. That’s fair, if a tad unsatisfying. Still, the film is handsome enough to recommend on the strength of the visuals alone, which is basically what I’m doing.