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Review: 'Immortals' has dazzle but no heft

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 10:20 AM EST, Fri November 11, 2011
Actor Henry Cavill joins other stars in the new film
Actor Henry Cavill joins other stars in the new film "Immortals."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The film stars Henry Cavill who will also be the "Man of Steel"
  • John Hurt and Luke Evans share the role of Zeus, king of the gods
  • The movie offers the usual special effects, but reviewer says it's "visually blah"

(CNN) -- Greece may be in an economic mess these days, but the ancient gods are back in vogue, at least in Hollywood, where the success of "300" and "Percy Jackson" novelist Rick Riordan has not gone unnoticed.

Combine that with today's computer-generated visuals, which allow you to conjure up armies of extras at the press of a button, and "Immortals" virtually writes itself. (In fact the dour, humorless screenplay is credited to Charley and Vias Parlapanides.)

Less "300 2" than "300 3D," "Immortals" is a sledgehammer action spectacle interspersed with bouts of enervating pseudo-philosophical discourse and moments of fine visual embellishment.

Rising star Henry Cavill ("The Tudors" and Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel") is Theseus, a Hellenic commoner who never knew his father, but who has found a kindly mentor in a wise old man who schools him in sword fighting, ethics and such.

What Theseus doesn't know is that the old guy (played by John Hurt on Earth and Luke Evans when mortal eyes aren't peeking) is actually Zeus, the king of the gods, who has been grooming the lad to lead the Hellenics against the onslaught of the blood-thirsty Hyperion (Mickey Rourke). If Hyperion gets his mitts on the Bow of Epirus (archery's answer to a ballistic missile), he'll free the Titans and all hell will break loose.

Why doesn't Zeus intervene directly? Apparently that's against the divine rules, though the Olympians aren't above bending them whenever Hyperion seems on the verge of a decisive blow. Wearing scrummy gold outfits that wouldn't look out of place in a Vegas toga party, the gods are the Hellenics' pinch-hitters supreme.

Director Tarsem Singh ("The Fall," "The Cell") is a fabulist; more than anything, he wants his images to shine. And they do, in places. A vision of celestials locked in permanent heavenly combat -- inspired by the Sistine Chapel -- is simply breathtaking. (It's virtually the last thing we see in the movie, but before you shout "spoiler," it's also the poster image.) The costume and design are often out of this world.

And yet the movie's landscape is a disappointingly barren digital domain, the same gray cliffs, deserts and seas familiar from "300" and so many game-worlds.

It's not just that this is visually blah (though it is), it's also as inherently artificial and airless as any studio movie of the 1930s or 40s. When Singh's camera catches a sun-flare at morning or dusk, it's supposed to imbue the shot with a sense of reality. But because that sunbeam is patently just another digital effect, it actually accomplishes the opposite: it falsifies the actors' environment and reminds us this isn't really happening. (I counted the trick three times.)

To my eyes, the 3D only makes the movie look phonier; the actors often seem to exist in a different visual plane to their surroundings. They might as well be performing in front of cardboard flats.

Still, in Rourke, Cavill, Evans, Stephen Dorff (as Theseus' sidekick Stavros), and Frieda Pinto (as the so-called "Virgin Oracle"), Tarsem has cast actors strong or pretty enough to hold us through the movie's turgid breast-beating, grisly violence and numbskull plotting.

There aren't many flicks that Mickey Rourke can't perk up, and here he's adorned in the full enchilada, even more scars than nature intended, a shimmering silver face mask, and a bonnet that seems to have been modeled on a Venus flytrap. Another (this is a heck of a mad-hatter's movie) has horns like a lobster claw -- or a jackass.

In short, the plumage is eye-catching but the meat doesn't have much flavor. The stuff of legend it ain't.

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