Poor G is putting up with a lot from me in the name of classical reception at the moment – first Castor and Pollux, and now this. I feel I have an academically sound excuse for it, since Immortals looks set to be the third of a franchise trilogy based in the ancient world that the box office is probably going to rely on for the next few years (the other two being the Percy Jackson series and whatever happens to Clash of the Titans, sequel Wrath of the Titans forthcoming next year). While I don’t think it’s ever going to achieve Sunday afternoon/bank holiday cult viewing status, unlike the Harryhausen classical films, it’s part of a tapestry of popular culture that’s informing modern views on what the classical world was like. Or so I said when I argued my case for why we should go and see the film.
From a classical reception point of view, there are some interesting touches. Drawing very much off Dunstan Lowe’s recent paper at the Animating Antiquity conference, I was struck by the narrative of titanomachy that pervades the film; the human antagonist’s chief goal throughout is to release the Titans (echoes of “release the Kraken”, anyone?) and thus bring down the gods. This is a change from the men-as-god’s-playthings narrative or gods-revenging-themselves-on-humans narrative. The film also has an interesting take on how the gods engage with humanity, as Zeus (Luke Evans) is Terribly Keen that no gods should interfere in their godly form in the doings of mortals, going so far as to kill his son Ares (Daniel Sharman) for transgressing this boundary. The re-envisioning of the gods is also quite interesting, as it tries to get away from either the Laurence Olivier in White Toga mode or the Glittering Golden Robes mode (although it can’t quite escape the latter). I was a bit sceptical on Twitter when I saw the screenshots for the gods’ costumes, and I remain heartily scathing about what they had Athena wear, but actually, in context, it works – especially the extravagant headgear. I particularly liked Poseidon’s shell-inspired headpiece (yes, I know the loincloth is dreadful, it looks better when he isn’t standing still). Olympus is also revisioned as a rather decrepid, mouldering villa in the twilight on the side of a lofty mountain – a bit like that in Clash of the Titans 1981 gone to seed.
Another interesting element of the film is the way that it plays with ideas of myth creation. The story is based (loosely, as loosely as you can get, I hasten to add) on the myth of Theseus; the film creates a fight scene between the hero and a man in a bull’s headpiece in a religious labyrinth/catacomb which then explicitly becomes the battle with the minotaur in a commemorative sculpture outside said catacomb at the end of the film. The headpiece, although not a replica of the bull’s head mask found in the labyrinth on Crete, clearly is meant to act as a reference to that artefact. There’s also a nod to the theory that the minotaur was actually inspired by the Phoenician god Baal-Moloch, who was supposedly worshipped by human sacrifice carried out by locking victims inside a bull made out of bronze and heated by a fire, so that the victims inside roasted to death; the man in the bull headgear (the torturer for the evil king) keeps one of these on the go in his place of work. So you have a nod to most of the theories of myth and how it works – granted that a discussion of how ‘real events’ turn into ‘myth’ becomes problematic when you also have the actual gods swanning about the place, but still.
Finally, I found the representation of the virgin oracle (Freida Pinto) interesting, if problematic, especially as I’ve just been teaching on oracles. The oracle and her companions actually speak in subtitled Greek, which is quite exciting (if you’re me). The whole connection between virginity and prophecy is one which the Greeks seem to have had, although the oracle’s choice to sacrifice her ability to prophesy to Theseus’ manliness, in good old soft-porn lighting, had me swearing at the screen (at least they made her consent about as explicit as possible, which was something). However, the film also included three companions to the oracle, decoys if you will; and it was their discussion in the first scene of the film with the oracle about her vision of the release of the Titans that means the film squeaks past the Bechdel Test. Yes, Immortals passes the Bechdel Test. I’m actually deeply shocked, although I have to say it’s a relief after working on the gratingly misogynistic Clash of the Titans (2010). Oh, she’s also called Phaedra, although we only hear her called that once. Which is a shame, but another nod to the ‘real people becoming myth’ thing.
So, that’s the interesting classical reception angle stuff.
Sadly, the rest of the film is dire. It is trying to be a souped-up version of 300 (not surprising, given that the film was trailed as being by “the producers of 300“). King Hyperion (the wonderfully cast Mickey Rourke) is in search of the Epirus Bow, which shoots magic arrows (wot, no Apollo?), so he can release the Titans to bring down the gods. I think he believes the gods don’t care about mortals and thus deserve to suffer as opposed to not believing in the gods full-stop, but his theological stance isn’t particularly well fleshed out. He’s more interested in creating general havoc and mayhem and mutilation, including killing Theseus’ mother (a rather over-the-top narrative touch). He also has his own Greek traitor, Lysander, who plays the parallel role to Ephialtes in 300, who ultimately questions his own change of allegiance to a monstrous, other-ly king – although in Lysander’s case, his reflection is probably prompted by the fact that before Hyperion will let him on-side, he instructs his torturer to submit him to a procedure involving a lump hammer that made every gentleman attending the screening I saw wince in sympathy. Loudly.
The violence, whilst being visually similar to the comic-book vividness and time-warped slowness of 300, is more prevelant, more casual and more gratuitous, ostensibly as a way to restate Hyperion’s general moral degradation, but (I suspect) also to appeal to the teenage male target audience. The characters are two-dimensional, the dialogue whilst not crackingly awful is pretty awful, and the plot feels generally banal. The ultraviolence means you never really get a sense of sympathy for the characters, and there isn’t really any dramatic tension in the plot (although there is the moment of suspense waiting for the perpetration of ultraviolence, which sadly isn’t the same thing).
If it weren’t for the fact that I have a professional interest in the subject material, I would not have gone to see the film. I would suggest that unless you, too, have a professional interest, you steer well clear.