One of our foremost visual fabulists, Tarsem Singh hasn’t made a feature film in more than half a decade.
Indeed, since his last movie—2015’s sci-fi parable Self/Less, with Ryan Reynolds and Ben Kingsley—the director, known professionally as Tarsem, has been more acclaimed for his work in music videos and commercials. (Earlier this year, his superb Super Bowl spot for Toyota, filmed entirely in water, condensed the life story of Paralympian Jessica Long into 60 seconds of unreasonably stirring imagery.)
Meanwhile, Tarsem’s most staggering achievements in cinema increasingly run the risk of fading from memory, especially 2006’s The Fall, which has gone out of circulation and remains unavailable to rent or stream (at least legally, and in the U.S.; should neither of those caveats concern you, I highly suggest seeing it). Luck would have it that many consider The Fall to be Tarsem’s masterpiece; it starred Lee Pace as an injured stuntman recuperating in a L.A.-area hospital circa 1920. A reverse Scheherazade of sorts, he regaled a child with tales of fantastic adventure, ones increasingly colored by his own darkening headspace. As a film about storytelling and its subjective nature, The Fall gave Tarsem the freedom to indulge his fairy-tale-driven visual ingenuity in full, with results so sumptuously rich they boggled the senses.
“We see things that cannot exist, but our eyes do not lie,” Roger Ebert wrote of The Fall. Such is Tarsem’s power to convince us of the truth in what he shows us, regardless of its reality. Yet The Fall was not Tarsem’s sole triumph, and his following feature—2011’s Immortals—was perhaps even more undersung despite exemplifying the director’s substantive, singularly romantic style.
Arriving as the dust kicked up by 300’s chariots was still settling in Hollywood, this swords-and-sandals epic shared producers with Zack Snyder’s 2006 graphic novel adaptation and thus couldn’t sidestep the comparisons. Immortals, like 300, was orgiastic about its violence, with characters opening their enemies’ throats the way most of us open love letters, and Tarsem staged its retelling of Greek myth with the same creative liberty Snyder applied to Greek history.
Immortals loosely retells the Theseus myth: Henry Cavill stars as the mortal chosen by Zeus (Luke Evans, amusingly self-serious) to battle King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, channeling late-career Brando to such a degree he delivers many of his lines while snacking). Long before the time of man, you see, generations of gods warred in the heavens. The younger Olympians proved victorious and came to reign over all of creation, while the defeated Titans were imprisoned beneath Mount Tartarus. Seeking revenge against the Olympians, Hyperion sets out to retrieve the Epirus Bow, a powerful weapon that would allow him to free the Titans. Standing his way is Theseus, who seeks revenge for the cruel slaying of his mother. Meanwhile, the gods consider intervening from on high, with Zeus maintaining that humanity must be left to fight its own battles.
Leading a blockbuster for the first time, Cavill was cast shortly before he won the coveted role of Superman in Snyder’s similarly revisionist Man of Steel, and he certainly supplies the greased abs and decorous charisma necessary to play a peasant on the precipice of heroism. His chemistry with the “virgin oracle” Phaedra (Freida Pinto), however obligatory, also generates surprising heat; that the pair go to bed at the first available opportunity feels like a couldn’t-resist beat from scribes Vlas and Charley Parlapanides, who write no other kind. Their screenplay is still the weakest element of the film, though its narrative generalities perhaps freed Tarsem up to innovate visually.
And that’s really the reason to watch Immortals. Tarsem was drawn to the idea of half-contemporizing Greek mythology by restaging it in the visual style of Renaissance paintings; he explained the aesthetic as “Caravaggio meets Fight Club,” a balance that makes more sense in practice than in theory. It’s certainly the case that Caravaggio’s naturalistic baroque style is palpable across Immortals, which emulates the painter’s dramatic contrasting of light and dark in battle sequences staged like religious tableaux: Immaculately composed, adorned with gradual eruptions of colorful gore, yet often partially obscured in thick, fluid shadow.
Immortals offers a panoply of imagery both vivid and nightmarish. Consider a sequence in which Theseus navigates an Escher-esque staircase littered with rose petals, entering a sepulchral, darkly glimmering shrine to do battle with a man in a horned barbed-wire mask. A savvy reworking of the hero’s famed battle with the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, it opts for challenging images over coherent ones, including that of two human eyes glaring out from behind a thicketed mess of metal spikes.
Tarsem cites Andrei Tarkovsky as a major influence on his expressive storytelling. Like the legendary Russian filmmaker, Tarsem has been conspicuously fascinated by tableaux vivant (French for “living pictures”) since his early years. Essentially filmed recreations of paintings, often with actors posed in evocative static compositions, tableaux vivant can be profoundly haunting and expressive. Tarsem’s feature debut, psychological horror The Cell, is awash in them, as a serial killer fills his hellish mindscape with perverse diorama in which he arranges agonized victims. (Only Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal has come close to catching the grotesque surrealism of such sequences.)
Immortals makes ample use of tableaux vivant, and it’s ambitious about this image-making. In the opening dream sequence, ashen and Indian-inspired Titans are seen imprisoned beneath a mountain in a cubical cage, golden rods installed across its length and held between its occupants’ teeth as they stare silently forward, eyes wide with pain. Transfixing in its horror and unnatural stillness, the composition is broken as a masked man aims a glowing bow and launches an arrow toward the prison, causing it to burst open. The finale of the film is equally arresting: A fresco of slow-motion carnage in which god and titans clash violently in the sky, reminiscent of both Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and the neoclassical painter Francisco Bayeu y Subías’ “Olympus.”
Unlike the peripatetic filming approach Tarsem took for The Fall, for which he traveled around the globe for years in search of locations that could do justice to the splendid vision in his mind’s eye, Tarsem realized the landscapes of Greece in 1228 B.C. against a green screen, employing a small army of effects houses to create its sprawling vistas. And yet, unlike Snyder’s ultra-stylized 300, Immortals never feels cartoonish; the fore- and middle grounds of his frames have a strikingly organic texture—closer to the ‘80s Clash of the Titans than its slick, insipid reboot—that anchors the spectacle.
Practical sets on large stages, from a village carved into a cliff face to a gleaming white marble quarry, allow Tarsem to keep the story grounded in a gritty realism while positioning light sources far from the action; the ultimate effect is that of gods pointing down from the heavens, light flowing from their fingertips in rays of divine illumination. Though directly evocative of Caravaggio, such expressive choices along with the virtual matte paintings seen as backgrounds throughout display a fluency with the work of English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, especially his turbulent seascapes.
Bodies in motion, meanwhile, are filmed in an aesthetically maximal manner that alternates between speed-ramping and slow-motion, to dramatic effect. Gods fly through scenes at hyperspeed, while mortals in their presence move at such a comparative crawl they appear frozen in place. In a sequence where Ares (Daniel Sharman) drops down into a temple to save Theseus from an ambush, the god of war tears through mortal soldiers with a grace so effortless it feels almost glib. But when Zeus descends a moment later, punishing Ares for interfering in human affairs by killing him with a flame whip, it’s one slow-flowing image, returning the characters to the center of a restaged Renaissance tableau. Fighting between mortals, meanwhile, happens at a furious clip, though Immortals avoids the fast cutting that defined so many action films at the time—allowing us to visually identify what in his balletic compositions to fixate upon and worship, as well as what to consider more transitional, active and fleeting.
And though the action can move with immediate and jarring force—especially when one man is swinging his blade down across another man’s neck, which is often—the grand tableaux this bloodletting is staged within creates a continual feeling of apotheosis. Entire battles are canonized before their outcome is decided, as if to make the waging of them a holy pursuit in of itself. “Fight for immortality!” Theseus declares before the blood-soaked finale, but the statuesque figure he cuts while issuing this rallying cry makes it clear that this much is a foregone conclusion. Given his relative disinterest in such facile chest-beating throughout the rest of Immortals, Tarsem seems to intend the big hero speech to scan more ironically than Gerard Butler’s delivery of a similar line in 300.
Tarsem’s gambit with Immortals is to materialize these hyperreal subjects and sequences, infusing the archetypal with the realistic. If the film resembles a painting come to life, populated by characters so physically idealized as to appear sculpted in bronze but free of the alloy’s usual rigidity—nearing literalization when Athena (Isabel Lucas) reveals herself to Zeus, peeling away from her hiding place as a granite statue to ripple gorgeously into being—this is by design. (To this end, Immortals was post-converted into stereoscopic 3-D, adding to the sense of existing compositions that suddenly explode off the screen.)
Tarsem worked with three different directors of photography on his first three features, allowing for little confusion as to the particular, auteurist nature of his visual sensibility. That he chose to reteam with Immortals cinematographer Brendan Galvin on the two more mainstream films he’d make next—the Snow White retelling Mirror Mirror and Self/Less—speaks to a certain surrender on this front, or at least a satisfaction with the visibility of his own creative DNA as a filmmaker.
To that point, Immortals is also mandatory viewing as the penultimate project by costume designer Eiko Ishioka, who died in 2012. (Previously an Oscar-winner for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, she was nominated again, posthumously, for her equally dazzling work on Mirror Mirror). Eerie, operatic, sensual and extravagant, Ishioka’s designs electrify and enrich the style in this spectacle to such a degree it elevates Immortals into a museum-ready art installation. Hyperion’s Egyptian-inspired headpiece, for example, splits the difference between a jackal’s pointed ears and a crab’s fearsome pincers, its gleaming horns undeniably Satanic in nature and needle-like teeth suggesting a subterranean creature’s open maw. Ares’ golden helmet, meanwhile, is ridged by sword blades like a gladiator’s mohawk, and all the gods are adorned in elegantly gilded armor that openly, vainly implies their divine status.
In hindsight, Immortals feels like a turning point for Tarsem, an auteur whose formal stylings had previously been in many ways about resisting assimilation into the mainstream. A sizable box-office hit upon release, grossing over $226 million against a $75 million budget, Immortals proved that Tarsem could deliver a legitimate blockbuster without compromising his artistic vision.
It’s fascinating to consider Tarsem in relation to two of his college classmates: Michael Bay and, again, Snyder. All three collaborated on school projects, with Tarsem once playing a Nazi in one of Snyder’s films and a camel salesman in one of Bay’s, and they’ve each succeeded in Hollywood, albeit to varying degrees. Whereas Bay’s chosen techniques are symphonically loud, explosive and excessively audiovisual, more inspired by monster truck rallies than art museums, both Snyder and Tarsem have veered closer to post-classicism in their work—stylizing archetypes, placing the sacred alongside the profane.
But while 300 is hamstrung by its central green-screen gimmick, which makes all its CG tableaux appear fetishistic and hideously empty, Immortals draws a powerful sense of immersion from the elaborate sets Singh built before its computerized backgrounds. Considered a decade later, Immortals sits comfortably alongside Snyder’s similarly maximal superhero spectacles like Man of Steel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, through which he has aggressively pursued the same kind of painterly, post-classical pop-art Tarsem harnessed back then. Snyder finally gets there in his director’s cut of Justice League, an epic poem of gods living among men and shouldering the burdens that accompany their divinity, but he’s still no Tarsem.
A decade later, Immortals still feels sublime. This particular kind of auteurist exercise so triumphs in executing its mad vision that it stands as something of a gold standard for other visual stylists, especially those circling a broader mainstream they fear will stamp them out. Immortals doesn’t just retain Tarsem’s awe-inspiring vision, it enshrines his sensibility alongside that of Caravaggio and the other Renaissance painters it so idolizes, allowing for that rare mythological epic that feels historic even as it glides, surges and swirls across the screen, a legend in action, reinforced yet reborn.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.