Cronos married his sister Rhea and devoured all their sons, except for Zeus, who killed him. That primal family dispute kicked off Greek mythology, with fables so full of vivid violence — the beheadings, bestiality and baby-drownings, to mention just the “B” crimes — that an ancient Athenian father might be reluctant to relate them as bedtime stories for the young. (“Not now, Euripedes. When you’re older.”) The tales make for far more ripping yarns than the Old Testament put together; and since no one today believes in their historical or religious validity, moviemakers can put them on screen full-throttle, and hold the piety.
The one upmarket requirement for mythological movies is that they add a tincture of rhetorical elevation to the dominant earthy elements. Recall the muscular platitudes spoken by that beefcake Barrymore, Steve Reeves, in the Italian Hercules epics of the late ’50s and early ’60s; or the stentorian verbiage upstaged by Ray Harryhausen’s magnificent stop-motion monsters, Talos and Hydra, in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts. In Harryhausen’s final flirtation with mythology, the 1981 Clash of the Titans, no less than Laurence Olivier plays Zeus, swanning through the misty temples of Olympus. So this weekend’s 3-D contribution to the genre, the great-looking but brain-dead Immortals, begins with a lofty epigram from Socrates: “All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are [immortal and] divine.” John Hurt is also here with his honeyed diction, lending gravity to some of the sillier dialogue.
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No need, though, to consult your musty copies of Bulfinch’s Mythology or Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. In this take on the adventures of the god-man Theseus (Henry Cavill) and the virgin oracle Phaedra (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Freida Pinto), later Theseus’ wife, director Tarsem Singh and screenwriters Charley and Vlas Parlapanides turn quickly to the business of bloodletting. “From the producers of 300,” read the ads for the star-deprived movie; and Immortals would disappoint its fan base if, as in the Zack Snyder hit, plenty of Greek dudes weren’t ground up and served as souvlaki. Theseus commences slashing as soon as a soldier spots him and his mom Aethra and refers to them as “this bastard and his whore mother.” (Aethra had slept with two gods, Aegeus and Poseidon, on the same night, which would make her a prostitute of the most exalted order.) Phaedra and her oracle attendants, clothed in head-to-toe burkas, endure reels of soldierly harassment; but when the virgin queen needs to escape, her handmaiden prove wondrously efficient in the use of cutlery.
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The chief perpetrator of regal sadism is Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). In the original tales, Hyperion was, like Theseus, the miscengenated son of a god and a woman, and became the insurgent leader of the Heracleans, vowing to overthrow the deity dynasty that spawned him. In another story he’d be the hero and Theseus, fighting on Zeus’ side, would be the counterrevolutionary villain, with the Epirus bow, the movie’s mythological MacGuffin, going to the rebel winner. But here he’s just all meanie, which affords Rourke the chance to dish out as much punishment as he took in The Wrestler. Never was Hyperion so hyper: he sets a priest on fire, gouges a messenger’s eyes, decapitates one fellow and castrates another with the remorseless stroke of a hammer. A full-service sadist, Hyperion provides verbal preludes to the torture; he’s the barker as well as the biter. “Witness pain,” he warns Theseus, and promises Phaedra that “You will experience discomfort unique to your gender.”
Hyperion might be alluding to the squeamishness of the traditional female audience, for the movie is a feast for guys only: a Grand Theft Mytho video game in 3-D, apotheosizing the exploits of men who are their own gods, weapons and sex objects. Not since 300 have so many well-sculpted men run around topless; watching Immortals is like walking into the shower room at the Greenwich Village Equinox. Cavill, who was a finalist to play James Bond (Daniel Craig got the job), Batman (Christian Bale), Twilight‘s Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Superman (Brandon Routh), and will finally play the reporter from Krypton in Snyder’s Man of Steel, flexes his biceps more vigorously than his acting instrument. Zeus, Luke Evans (Aramis in the latest version of The Three Musketeers), and the movie’s other Olympians are a generation or two younger than Olivier and his veteran colleagues in the 1981 Clash. Their smooth chests, puffed up like soufflés, are the male equivalent of the bosoms sported by babes in the soft-core sex films that air late at night on Cinemax, between the Joel Stein funny-interview segments. (Heterosexuals must make do with the brief, stately consummation of the Theseus-Phaedra romance.)
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Violence, check; sex, check. What else? An intoxicating visualization of mythical Greece. Born in India, schooled in Pasadena, Tarsem (he goes by his first name) directed music videos (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”) before moving to features with the sado-JLo film The Cell. His next film, The Fall, had an oneiric, rhapsodic urgency; Roger Ebert called it “one of the most extraordinary films I’ve ever seen.” Immortals isn’t in that class, but it boasts beguiling geometric patterns, swirling combat and a final slo-mo battle in a tunnel that plays like a close-up scrimmage of NFL mastodons and has some of the grit and grandeur of the Battle of Shrewsbury in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. The pity is that Tarsem’s intelligence doesn’t connect his cinematic eye to his narrative mind. The director’s visual gift is like a brilliant retina, detached.
For all its lustrous crimson escapism, Immortals offers a few fortuitous contemporary metaphors. It’s a tribute to a time when Greeks dominated the world instead of being in hock to it. The Heraclean Bull, inside whose metal gut Phaedra’s virgins are burned alive, triggers thoughts of the Wall Street bull and its protesters in nearby Zuccotti Park, shivering instead of roasting. And when one of Hyperion’s misdeeds cues the line, “How can you stomach bearing witness to such atrocity?”, an image of Joe Paterno, the graven, craven Penn State coach, may rise unbidden and unavoidable. A leader of young men who allowed a colleague to defile and virtually devour young boys: this tale of majestic horror could be a dark chapter from the apocrypha of classical mythology.