There is no other 2011 movie that I’m more anxious to watch than Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, a new retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Titans. Singh is one of the most visually innovative directors working today but in eleven years this will be his third movie. His refusal to compromise his vision has made him an abnormality in Hollywood. His last movie, The Fall, came out in 2006 and was self-financed; it was the most beautiful movie of that year and no one saw it; it barely had distribution and didn’t make a huge profit. But it has created a following. When I saw this movie I thought two things: 1) I couldn’t wait to watch his next movie; and 2) he couldn’t possible surpass himself.
Well, regarding the second one it turns out he already did, with his 2000 debut The Cell, a movie that is hard to categorise because it mixes horror, science fiction, mystery, fantasy and drama in one single coherent and fascinating story. But for simplicity’s sake let’s call it a horror movie.
Serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) becomes comatose shortly after kidnapping a new victim. The police know, from Stargher’s modus operandi, that if she isn’t found soon she will drown inside an unbreakable glass cell that fills with water (Stargher kindly films the slow death and sends tapes to the cops). So it’s up to FBI Agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughn in a fine performance before his conversion into a mediocre comedy actor) to ask Dr. Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) for help. You see, Catherine has helped develop a method that allows people to enter the minds of comatose patients to see if she can wake them up. Of course no one wants Stargher to wake up – they just want clues that can lead them to the final victim.
The only problem is that Stargher’s psyche has fragmented into three personalities: his abused childhood self, the adult Carl, and a demonic god-like creature that rules supreme over his fantasy mental landscape.
I think this premise is good in itself and screenwriter Mark Protosevich deserves congratulations for it. It has a sense of urgency: a life is at stake, the clock is ticking, and the tension keeps us on the edge of our seats anxious to see how they’re going to beat Stargher’s omnipotent god personality and find out what they came looking for.
But the visuals are the main attraction. When the movie takes place in the real world, it’s nothing special to look at. But when it gets inside a mind (Stargher’s isn’t the only one that’s visited) it’s a parade of classic art-inspired sets, beautiful landscapes, otherworldly costumes (courtesy of Eiko Ishioka, the costume designer of Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable Dracula), and architecture that mixes the ordinary with the fantastic. Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum, British artist Damien Hirst, and H.R. Giger (of Alien fame) are just some of the artists referenced by Singh in this vast display of artistic erudition. If you’re an art fan, you’ll have as much fun enjoying the story as you’ll have spotting the references, although it’s not necessary to know them to appreciate the movie. It’s just an extra for people who like to dissect movies.
Although the movie is gorgeous to look at, even when it’s horrifying (and when it gets inside Stargher’s mind the movie may reach uncomfortable levels of misogynistic and bondage imagery for some viewers), Singh also has a good grip on narrative. The first minutes show him deftly developing three different narratives – Catherine, Novak, and Stargher – and slowly making them run into each other until they become integrated.
The movie, unexpectedly, also has strong humanist themes running through it. Catherine is a psychiatrist trying to cure comatose patients. We first see her inside a boy’s mind trying to help him wake up. Catherine is all love and altruism. When she enters Stargher’s mind she feels sorry for him even though he’s a serial killer. Although most viewers would like to see Stargher meet a horrible end, Catherine tries to save him from his tormenting demonic ruler so he can have some peace at last. Catherine believes in forgiveness and it’s no wonder Christian symbolism is another big part of the movie’s imagery.
The movie also takes time to show how Stargher developed his hatred for women and doesn’t spare us the abuses he endured during childhood at the hands of his brutal father. Modern movies love absolute, mysterious evil – Anton Chigurh, The Joker, etc. – because it’s cooler (and simpler to portray?) but the people who study and capture serial killers (people who know real evil, not Hollywood mass-consumption evil) will be the first to say that human monsters are made. So The Cell was quite refreshing and intellectual in this regard too.
D’Onofrio steals the show whereas Lopez demonstrates once again that with a good screenplay she can give efficient performances (I’ve always liked her tough cop roles in Money Train and Out of Sight), and Vaughn was quite a surprise in an intense dramatic role. Add to their performances a suspenseful story, then make art direction, make-up, costume design and cinematography integral characters of the story, and you have a mesmerising horror thriller that disturbs as much as it moves.
Tarsem Singh’s debut announced a brave new voice in Hollywood, a voice that audiences have barely heard yet but that carries greatness. Let’s hope that with Immortals Singh finally receive his due.
Director: Tarsem Singh
Screenplay: Mark Protosevich
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Weber, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dean Norris, Dylan Baker
Runtime: 107 min