‘Immortals’ offers sumptuous style over stale substance

Bill Thomas, Assistant News Editor

In the critical process, it’s easy to forget that cinema is first and foremost a visual art form. The temptation to disregard a film entirely because of narrative shortcomings is both powerful and prevalent. That’s not to say that story, or acting for that matter, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Such things are certainly crucial. At the end of the day, however, it’s a motion picture’s imagery which should maintain paramount importance.

Take “Immortals,” for instance.

The plot is flimsy and generic: Mickey Rourke plays Hyperion, a sadistic warlord on a hate-fueled quest to find a long-lost mystical artifact capable of unleashing the Titans, an ancient race of immortals who pose a threat to not only the entire human race, but the gods of Olympus as well. Despite the danger, the Olympians are sworn to never interfere in the affairs of mortal men. Thus, the only hope for god and humankind alike rests in the hands of courageous peasant Theseus, played by Henry Cavill.

Too often, “Immortals” feels derivative and directionless, lost between its MacGuffin plot device, stale moralizing about the importance of faith and an adherence to modern audience-dictated fantasy-action film tropes which demand the picture peak with an unnecessary, out-of-place, post-“Lord of the Rings” battle sequence.

The acting is all-over-the-place: Rourke is as effortlessly engaging as ever, but soon-to-be-Superman Cavill is a poor sparring partner, a wooden hero if ever there was one. The gods in particular are utterly without gravitas, Luke Evans’ portrayal of Zeus here proving just as leaden as his turn as Aramis in “The Three Musketeers.”

In the supporting cast, Stephen Dorff is good but miscast in a superfluous sidekick role. His presence, as well as that of the admittedly talented Joseph Morgan as a traitorous soldier, is ultimately pointless. Meanwhile, all-too-brief appearances by John Hurt and Stephen McHattie give the film a much-needed boost whenever they pop up, which isn’t enough.

All that said, though, “Immortals” still has one very big thing going for it: director Tarsem Singh.

Yes, the script is clunky and unrefined. Sure, the acting is uneven. But “Immortals” flourishes as a piece of visually sumptuous eye-candy thanks to Singh, the same visionary auteur behind similarly flawed but dazzlingly beautiful films like “The Cell” and “The Fall.” When “Immortals” fully focuses on Singh’s imagery, such as in the climactic showdown between the Titans and the Olympians, the screen crackles with visceral intensity and mind-blowing avant-garde artistry.

Alas, no man is an island. Singh’s imitation of Renaissance painting styles is inspired and affecting, but he also seems to integrate influence from ancient Greek theater, a choice which, while intriguing, has the unfortunate side-effect of giving the movie a stagey feel, making “Immortals” look cheaper and less epic than any project with $80 million to throw around should.

Quibbles aside, Singh may have failed to create another “300” or “Clash of the Titans”-esque cash cow, but “Immortals” succeeds as something else entirely; maybe less accomplished but markedly more mesmerizing.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5