'Immortals' and the Problem With Modern Greek-Myth Movies

The chart-topping new Mickey Rourke film is the latest to use the ancient Athenian pantheon as mere window dressing for a conventional tale—in this case, a Christian one.

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There was once hope for Immortals, the critical bomb that's the No. 1 film in the country right now. First, director Tarsem Singh made an effort to distance his film from its stylistic predecessor, the boneheaded and ethically questionable 300. Then there was the heavily advertised presence of the Gods and hints of all the drama which makes Greek mythology so juicy: sex, deceit, revenge, and egotism on the divine scale, all coupled with extreme violence (it would actually make an incredible reality TV series).

Singh does embrace these things, but only as far as the wardrobe is concerned. Sadly (or perhaps totally, completely, unsurprisingly) Immortals joins a long line of Hellenically inspired movies that have failed to take proper advantage of their source material. Some have tried earnestly, like Brad Pitt's 2004 epic, Troy, which handicapped itself by subtracting the Gods from the Trojan War myth, along with Achilles' possibly homosexual relationship with Patroclus (what's not to like about a gay epic action hero?). Another studious effort was last year's Clash of the Titans, which was too enamored with its overdriven action sequences to tell a good story. Others simply use the myths as window dressing on otherwise conventional tales, like The Lightning Thief's Greek Gods-version of the ever-cloying "Surprise! Your parents are actually Gods/Wizards/ British Royalty" trope. Maybe it's because a full embrace of Greek drama would have to include everyone's favorite subjects of pan-sexuality, incest, bestiality, and rape, that we have yet to see a solid and textually faithful adaptation.

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At its heart, Immortals may even be more conservative in its execution than the rest of the recent crop of Athenian deity flicks, subverting the entire mythology in such a way as to align it more closely with Judeo-Christian theology. Though they once actively interfered in the affairs of men, Tarsem Singh's Gods have withdrawn up into Olympus. They're now forbidden by Zeus (Luke Evans, moving up in the pantheon after playing Apollo in Clash of the Titans) to directly influence events on Earth, his justification being, "How can they have faith in us if we don't have faith in them?" So, much like they tell you in Church/Synagogue, there were at one point miracles happening left and right, but now, even though those things absolutely positively totally happened, they're now just "metaphors" to guide us in daily life.

The Gods will return, however, in the event of a cataclysmic error of man. Like, say, the release of the Titans (stand-in for the Apocalypse) via the magical Epirus Bow, essentially a weapon of mass destruction that's fallen into the hands of a faithless madman. The madman in question is King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), who has lost his family to plague. Now angry at the Gods for not saving his family, Hyperion is raping, burning, and pillaging his way across Greece in search of the bow, with which he'll free the Titans and create hell on earth.

There to stop him is Theseus (Henry Cavill), a simple peasant living with his mother and learning swordplay from a wisecracking old man (John Hurt). Life is good until Hyperion shows up with his army to test Theseus's faith by murdering his mother in front of him. Of course, Theseus eventually regains his belief in the Gods, (which is pretty easy when one of them flies down and saves you by popping a man's head like a water balloon in front of your face), and fulfills his divine mission to mercilessly slaughter the "heathen" bad guys. It turns out, you see, that the old man who trained Theseus as a boy was actually Zeus in disguise, secretly guiding him towards his destiny. Mysterious ways.

Faith actually turns out to be a pretty good indicator for whether or not a character will be killed. Aside from the hordes of "heathens"—a term whose repeated use is kind of baffling given that everyone seems to acknowledge the existence of the Gods or at least worships them in a kind of reform, high-holidays-only sort of way—there are the Greek politicians. The King, after refusing to acknowledge the possibility of the "Free the Titans" scenario (i.e: The Apocalypse), insists on trying to negotiate with the heathens. He gets decapitated for his efforts.

Suffice to say that the end of the movie closely resembles a very popular religious text, in which the central character dies saving mankind and is brought up to dwell in heaven or its equivalent. Will the hero return at the hour of man's demise (like when a "great, fiery red, seven-headed dragon drags a third of the stars of heaven with his tail, and throws them to the earth," Revelations 12:3-4)? They certainly imply that he will. If not in reality, then in the sequel.