Coming into the Immortals panel this morning, all I knew of the film were the giant cardboard stand-ins that have been popping up in multiplexes for the last few months, advertising that lots of obnoxiously attractive men were now actually being sold to us as gods. Oh, also, that it’s the third feature from Tarsem, the iconoclastic “visionary” responsible for the gorgeous and almost-great The Fall and that Jennifer Lopez movie where Vincent D’Onofrio suspended himself from a basement ceiling from hooks dug into the skin on his back (there may have been other stuff in that flick, but it’s tough to recall).
By the time the panel was over we had seen roughly seven minutes of footage, and we left satisfied with a much more comprehensive understanding as to what Immortals is all about. Here are five things we learned about Tarsem’s latest trick, and why we think it’s poised to best the rash of recent sword and sandal epics that have inspired its creation.
1. Tarsem cannot be tamed.
When you hire a guy like Tarsem to helm your film, it’s not your film anymore. Tarsem only has two features under his belt, but his singular and excessive visual stylings have made it clear that he’s an auteur with an unyielding style. He’s not the guy a studio hires to wrangle a cast and deliver a blockbuster on time and on budget, he’s the guy a studio hires to deliver a unique experience as the suits cut him a check and take a backseat. The sizzle reel made it abundantly clear that Tarsem has refused to compromise, and everything from the ornate costumes to a massive tidal wave that makes a perfect contrast with the land it swallows has his signature all over it.
2. This is the only God of War movie you’ll ever need
The sequence we were shown in full featured Luke Evans beamed down into a cave and engaging in a bloody melee with a posse of vaguely inhuman savages (these guys looked as if they were ripped directly out of the best Julie Taymor film never made). Evans grumbles that “None of you will leave this place,” and the carnage begins. The battle is fluidly choreographed with a giddy disrespect for physics — it’s the time-warping mayhem of God of War brought to life (this isn’t speed-ramping of the Zack Snyder variety).
3. Immortals has a lot of pretty faces, and most of them will get mangled beyond recognition
There is no PG-13 cut of this film. The sequence we saw made it abundantly clear that this was designed to capture the 300 crowd in every which way, including an unrelenting mess of gore and the geysers of unabashedly CG blood that come with it. Limbs are hacked off, heads detach from their bodies and shoot into the air like a liter of soda that’s just been introduced to a new pack of Mentos. Anyone who goes to see this thing for the pretty imagery and the prettier people is in for a rude awakening — and not just because Mickey Rourke shows up.
A lot of the carnage is presented with stylized CG that suits Tarsem’s heightened aesthetic, but the filmmaker was wise enough to fear losing the heft and visceral quality of the combat responsible for the splotches of digital blood. He filmed the fight sequences three times: Once with the actors going through the motions, once without them, and a final time in which he worked from a composite of practical and digital materials. The logistics will likely remain a bit vague until the DVD explores them further next year, but the results are already clear. The fights don’t have the bruising tactile feel of those from Soderbergh’s Haywire (for example), but they’re also a far cry from the weightless battles of 300. They exist in a riveting middle ground that straddles the divide between Clash of the Titans and the bone-breaking madness of the Shaw Brothers — it’s a tricky balance that the film might be unable to maintain, but Tarsem is certainly the guy to make it work.
4. Tarsem is aware that 3D is a gimmick, but it’s one that works for him for now
Every panel for a movie presented in 3D invariably involves a tense moment or two in which the filmmakers have to defend the gimmick. When the time came for his turn, Tarsem explained his use of the format better (certainly more candidly) than most. He rationalized with a sigh that “3D pictures of a 2D surface… this stuff is going to date very badly. You’re going to look back at it as if it’s as ancient as hieroglyphics. That being said, I think it has an aesthetic that is very valid, kind of like the paintings of Giotto [di Bondone, an early artist from the Italian Renaissance who pioneered a number of techniques related to perspective]. You make aesthetic calls, it works right now. It will probably date. Such is life.” Tarsem is convinced that 3D is a natural fit for his unique brand of filmmaking, and the footage supported his claim. The depth of his frames is pleasantly exploited, and the gimmick — while unnecessary — does allow Tarsem’s imagery to be that much more intense.
5. Immortals may be hyper-violent, but it’s ultimately just Tarsem’s way of showing his mother how much he loves her
Tarsem was quick to dispel the idea that Immortals is rooted in a serious concern for theology, explaining: “I’ve been an atheist since I was 9 years-old, but recently my mom said ‘How do you think you are as successful as you are if it wasn’t for my praying?’ So I wanted to make a movie where a guy like me died and went to heaven and God was like, ‘You schmuck. You don’t deserve anything, but you got it because that woman did all that praying.’”