So yesterday I saw Immortals. I didn’t know much about it going in, as evidenced by the fact that I thought it was a sequel to 300. I mean, c’mon, they’re both action movies set around a war in ancient Greece involving some dudes named The Immortals. But no, totally unrelated. Anyway, I had some thoughts.
Obviously some stuff is off-limits in a review of this kind of movie — you can’t complain about the dialogue or the unnecessarily gory violence or whatever. But what I can complain about are the hats. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that the greek gods feature prominently in the movie, and the director has taken the rather unusual choice of depicting them all as early twenty-something* white people wearing hats that look exactly like the prop person took a bicycle rack and spray-painted it gold and stuck it on their head. And all their hats are different (because otherwise the gods would be identical due to the aforementioned uniformity of casting), which means that the prop person had to find a half-dozen radically different bicycle racks. And it’s not just the gods — the priestesses of the Oracle have these crazy Fifth Element hats, the priests have their own goofy toppers, and the main bad guy has this sort of face mask with inward-pointing teeth thing that makes it look like he would cut himself severely if he sneezed.
*Even Zeus, which makes the scenes where he is talking to Athena (who, needless to say, they cast as if she were Aphrodite) extra-weird, a situation is not helped by the one distinguishing feature they did decide to give the father of the gods, a child-molester mustache.
So similarly, I don’t think I can complain that the gods seem to have the power of Matrix-style slow-time-face-kicking (actually, isn’t that how they worked in Olympos?), but it does seem fair to complain that they don’t seem to have any other powers. Like, in the big fight at the end, you might assume Zeus was going to start shooting lightning bolts at people. But no, his strategy is to pick up a chain lying on the ground and hit people with it. Similarly, Poseidon doesn’t go all Squirtle on them or even go somewhere else in his portfolio and, I dunno, summon killer horses — he just uses his trident to stab people. Poseidon does have the only instance of Relevant Use of Domain in the movie where he creates a big wave, but he does it by flying into the water at high speed, not by waving his hand, which is how it seems to usually work.
I think the deal here is that the writers wrote themselves into a corner when they were putting together the basics of the story. Like, the overall driver for this story is this king had his family killed and swore vengeance against the gods and raises an army to burn down the world. This is a great premise for a greek mythology story (so great that I’m pretty sure it is based on an existing myth, although I can’t dig up who — in the movie I believe they call him King Hyperion, but that doesn’t seem to be the guy in question). Anyway, the problem is this is a standard-issue action movie, which means they need a likeable protagonist who is either a scrappy farm boy all grown up, or a grizzled veteran who has been out of the phalanx for years but then Socrates pulls him back in for one last score. They go for the former and call the guy Theseus.
So, ok, this means on the one hand you have King Hyperion and on the other you have Theseus and the entire greek pantheon. Even if you give Hyperion a big army it doesn’t really seem fair. There are various ways you can deal with this situation, but they all boil down to needing to tone down the gods and make them less interesting to keep the focus on Theseus versus Hyperion. Which is crazy, right? On the one hand, they were like “let’s put the greek gods as active characters in this movie and let them kick ass”, and on the other, they said “but all that ass-kicking can’t accomplish anything because that would detract from Theseus’s accomplishments”. Anyway, the movie’s solution is to have Zeus say that there’s an important existing rule that the gods can’t interfere with the affairs of mortals until the titans (ie, the bad guy gods) are freed.
Now, the Lensman series, which I love, has a similar rule of non-interference for the Arisians and for similar reasons story-wise. The difference is, in the Lensman series there is an existing plan: the Arisians don’t have the upper hand over their enemies, they have a stalemate, and they know that if they can hold off their enemies long enough for the mortals to accomplish stuff, then the Arisians win. Furthermore, the Arisians can’t die if the mortals fuck up, they just get banished to another dimension. By contrast, in this movie the greek gods have the upper hand (their enemies are all imprisoned), the mortals are unlikely to win the day without their assistance, and if the mortals screw up, the gods will die. So there’s much less incentive here for the gods to push a non-interference policy, but they do it anyway. Incidentally, this movie does the war-action-movie thing where one of the good guy mortals, King Dumbass, says “hey, I bet the enemy actually just wants to be friends, we should try diplomacy instead of just fighting them”, and as evidence for the fact that diplomacy sucks and fighting rules, he is slaughtered like a loser as he bleats for mercy. But if you look at the policy of the gods, it’s basically the same thing — Zeus pushes for staying out of war even when it’s the obviously correct and lives-saving thing to do, with the result that it’s a big mess later on when they do have to come down. I think this might be another case where Greek Tragedy and Action Movie are colliding: it’s totally reasonable in a tragedy to stick to your word of noninterference even when that ultimately destroys you, whereas in an action movie, if you have an rule not to use guns, that just exists to make it more badass when you do eventually pull them out.
Now, I think you could probably have pulled out a reasonable plot from these two genres, it’s just that this isn’t it. Like, one idea is you take the gods out of the movie entirely, and have the world-premise be that they don’t exist (you can keep stuff like the divination of the oracles, since the truth of that is ambiguous). Then the most sensible thing is you keep the tragic structure but leave Hyperion as the protagonist, and the action part is that you actually show his rise to power (he has a side-comment in the movie about how he was born a peasant, which of course has no real point whatsoever outside the scene in which it’s mentioned), how he fights his way to the top and to take on the gods themselves but it still doesn’t bring back his family, and his quest for vengeance ultimately destroys him. You can leave in all the stuff the characters talk about whether or not you should have faith in the gods, and also the weird thing where Theseus doesn’t fight a minotaur in the labyrinth, he fights a dude wearing a bull helmet in the maze of a burial crypt. You’d need some other long-term objective for Hyperion if you’re writing out the gods (and speaking of which, it’s weird that Hyperion doesn’t just deny faith in the gods but deny their existence, but he does believe in the magic bow that will let out the ancient enemies of the gods), but he can probably just be trying to conquer all of Greece and have it work out ok. I see they’re doing a movie of Coriolanus soon, which will probably be another take on this.
Alternately, you can ramp up the involvement of the gods. All the stuff they talk in the movie about how humans just have to have faith in the gods who do bad things for inexplicable reasons and don’t respond to prayers is basically a repackaged take on Christian mythology, not Greek. Greek religious belief is the gods do jerky things because they’re pissed off, and they do those jerky things all the time. So if you’re going to do an action movie involving the Greek gods, you should copy the Trojan war model and have half the gods supporting one side and half the gods supporting the other and Zeus in the middle shouting at everyone to keep it down or he’s turning this pantheon right now. Then it’s totally fine to have Theseus and the gods vs Hyperion, because it’s Hyperion and the other gods, and the divine battles can be ongoing through the movie instead of jammed in at the end. You even get the tragedy, though this time the hubris belongs to the gods — they don’t think they can be harmed by mortals until it’s too late and everything’s fucked up.
So yeah, I think you could have made a good movie with this premise but I don’t think this one was it. One quick closing note: the Han Solo sidekick-protagonist (you can tell he is the Han Solo guy because he is rude to the female lead, although not actually in an attractive way) is explicitly identified as a thief (despite not doing any thief-type activities at any point), and then there’s the priest of the oracle, and the oracle herself (a mystic diviner type), all led by expert warrior Theseus — which means you have the prototypical D&D adventuring party. This explains everything!