Saturday, December 17, 2011

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011)

Superhero salad

Consider poor Theseus. His divine father bequeathed on him godlike strength, but not godlike immunity to life's sorrows; his human father abandoned him to be raised by his mother. He's required to travel to Athens, encountering many dangers along the way, to claim his birthright; when he arrives his stepmother tries to kill him.

Theseus' father commits suicide; his best friend is captured by the Furies. He's considered one of Athens' greatest heroes, but no one would ever mistaken his life for a bowl of cherries. 

For whatever reason Theseus hasn't enjoyed the name recall of, say, Hercules; his life's story hasn't been adopted into half a dozen sword-and-sandal epics, nor has it been turned into a Disney movie musical. He is mostly remembered for his adventure against the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature that lives in a labyrinth--wouldn't be surprised to learn that people are readier to remember the Minotaur than they are his name. He hovers in that Underworld of dimly regarded mythological figures--not quite familiar, not quite forgotten. 

Now he gets the exclusive multimillion dollar Hollywood 3D production treatment--only it isn't what it used to be. 3D has lost some of its luster, ever since the sequels to both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda franchises failed at the boxoffice. This production was obviously meant to cash in on the success of Clash of the Titans, not to mention the larger-than-life bloodbaths found in 300, but some of the bloom has faded from action-fantasy as well (Conan the Barbarian, anyone?). Knowing all this, I walked into the theater expecting to find a second-rate Clash; instead I found an intensely violent, exuberantly stylish comic-book action movie.

Tarsem Singh for much of his not-very-prolific career has been something of an eye-catcher. His The Cell (2000) I didn't much like--it dwelt too much on a cliché of a story, the hunt for a serial killer and his hidden victim--but it did feature said killer's more exotic fantasies, some of which involved hermetically sealed junk and desiccated corpses in the spirit of Jan Svankmajer (a master at conveying physical corruption). His The Fall (2006) was an altogether warmer, more winning project, the attempt by a disabled stuntman and his child friend to weave a fantasy of a story; Singh envisioned slow-motion action in a swirl of colors, set against an electric blue sky, largely desert landscapes, and ravishing Islamic architecture.

Immortals is a step forward and upwards--not a serial-killer hunt, nor an exercise in willed storytelling, but a retelling of the life of Theseus, one of the great Greek mythological heroes. Characterization is minimal--you barely know these people--but their expressions, their gestures, their voice delivery are consistently intense, outsized, intricate. They may be shallow, barely sketched-out people, but they're vividly, memorably so.

Like Louis Leterrier with his Clash of the Titans Singh makes heavy use of digital effects; unlike Leterrier Singh has formidable imagemaking abilities, and an awesome sense of drama--he'll frame tiny figures against a vast set, crawling across a polished floor like so many ants, or throw vivid colors across electric-blue sky and desolate land, against which he parades a procession of outrageous Eiko Ishioka costumes.

Like, say, Zack Snyder Singh likes to make extensive use of slow motion in his action sequences. Unlike Snyder, Singh has a genuine sensibility, one that draws inspiration from more eclectic sources (for The Cell Singh possibly viewed the works of Jan Svankmajer; for this film he's quoted as saying he's trying to emulate Michelangelo Caravaggio). Snyder's sources of inspiration? For 300 obviously Frank Miller (a good draftsman, but his historically distorted view of Thermopylae (not to mention racist and homophobic view of the Persians) plays out on a monotonous color palette--red on black on red on black...); for Watchmen it's pretty much Dave Gibbons (whose closely detailed realism is effective, not exactly inspired--you can't help but suspect the intricate camera moves found in the comics were closely scripted by writer Alan Moore).

Singh's basic approach to the material may be questionable (a comic-book look at Greek mythology?) but the man does know how to wield a camera, and to cut the resulting footage together in a rhythm designed to elicit awe, exuberance, a sense of majesty. Comic book? Well--yes, but consider: mythology was the Greeks' (and for that matter the rest of Western civilization's) way of telling elemental stories of lust, vengeance, ambition, pathos; they were colorful, dramatic, easy to comprehend. The gods were the ancient Greeks' equivalent of the superhero; like superheroes they maintained some kind of secret identity, showing themselves only in times of great crisis, and only to people who have proven themselves worthy. Like superheroes they (and their progeny) represented the Grecian virtues, Theseus in particular: bravery, loyalty, integrity, ingenuity in the face of impossible odds.

Immortals is short on humanity, long on the human body in all its speed, power, grace; watching this makes you almost want to go hurl a javelin, or run a really long course, or do something Olympian. If the gods had to pick an artist to do their 'graphic novel,' they could have done worse, much, much worse.



First published in Businessworld  12.8.11

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