Maybe if circumstances were different, Hyperion might’ve been a better king. A nicer king. A veritable Mr. Rogers of a king, singing songs of love and happiness while zipping up his royal sweater. But any possibility of Hyperion moonlighting as a children’s television show host died when his family died. He had prayed fervently for them to be spared, petitioning his pantheon of Grecian gods for mercy. But when the gods didn’t intervene and his fam traipsed off to Hades, Hyperion grew bitter. He blamed the gods for the deaths and swore to exact revenge.
Wreaking vengeance against the gods is tricky, though. It’s not like mere mortals can just post insults on Zeus’ Facebook page or egg the windows of Mount Olympus. For his vendetta to be successful, Hyperion must first find the mythical Epirus Bow, which he’ll then use to free the Titans (the gods’ immortal enemies) from their prison in Mount Tatarus. And the best way to find said bow, Hyperion seems to think, is to slaughter and rape and pillage and burn everyone and everything he sees, leaving his bloody, unmistakable mark across the land—a Greece stain, if you will.
The gods look down on the carnage from their lofty perch, barred by some cosmic law from interfering. But that doesn’t mean they’re entirely aloof to humanity’s plight. Zeus, king of the gods, has been mentoring a nice little mortal named Theseus—though it’d seem that no matter how chiseled he is or how masculine his chin cleft looks, he’s still going to be out of his league when it comes to facing down Hyperion.
No matter, Zeus says. “If we expect them to have faith in us, we must have faith in them.”
The ancient Greeks loved their heroes, and Theseus—based on the mythical founder of Athens—is outlandishly heroic. I’ve already mentioned the muscles and the chin cleft, but there’s more: There’s courage and honor and a great deal of derring-do.
Zeus, disguised as an old man, does what he can to give the fledgling hero a bit of integrity. Being a warrior isn’t all about just swinging a sword, he tells him, “It’s finding good reason to draw your sword in the first place.” He also says, “It’s not living as such that’s important, Theseus. It’s living rightly.”
And so Theseus does—at least by the standards of this Grecian fantasy world. He cares for his mother. He fights bravely and for a worthy cause (that is, keeping Hyperion from slaughtering pretty much everyone in the world). He never shirks what must be done, taking the bull—or, as the case may be, the Minotaur—by the horns.
The film begins with a quote from Socrates: “All men’s souls are immortal. But the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine.” And, as it turns out, Immortals is chockfull of spiritual ideas and beings. Gods abound from the Classical pantheon: Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Ares and a bevy of more petty deities get screen time. And the Titans are godlike beings too. In fact, we’re told that the gods get to call themselves gods only because they beat the Titans during a previous war.
But to say that Immortals is based on Greek mythology is a little like crafting a Bourne-style spy thriller set in Egypt, throwing in a secret agent named Moses and insisting that it’s based on the Book of Exodus. Clearly the filmmakers aren’t trying to convert anyone to classic paganism here.
Still, these gods are still more than superhero plot devices. They form the basis for the film’s central theme: the power of faith. And while this is certainly no “Christian” movie, we should remember that Western Civilization has a long history of co-opting Greek myths to discuss broader, and even Christian, themes.
The land of Immortals bears, at least tonally, some resemblance to our own. There are those who believe in the gods and those who don’t. One character says he stopped believing when, as a little boy, he prayed for a horse and it didn’t come. A haughty politician tells Theseus that the gods are merely metaphors. The film hints that it’s this lack of faith that keeps the country powerless to stop Hyperion: The evil king, says the traitor Lysander, at least fights for a belief—something bigger than himself.
Of course, Hyperion’s “belief” is that the gods are bad and should be killed. Like a pumped-up and super-buff version of Richard Dawkins, Hyperion hates faith—though he uses supernatural means to attack it. He longs to be immortal, but for him, immortality can only be achieved by impregnating the world’s women while killing anyone else’s offspring. As he defiles a temple, a priest tells him, “Salvation can be yours if you let it.” Hyperion responds by setting the man on fire. And in his climactic battle with Theseus, he hisses to the hero, “Die with your gods!”
Theseus, though. has only recently become a believer. “Your gods are children’s stories,” he tells his mother early on. “My spear is not.” When a priestess saves Theseus’ life, he marvels as to why someone would rescue a stranger. “Only a faithless man could ask such a question,” the priestess responds. She later encourages Theseus to bury his mother through the rites of her faith. And it’s telling, I think, that it’s in honoring his mother’s belief system (even though he doesn’t share it) that he finds the magic Epirus Bow. It’s a suggestion, perhaps, that faith gives us the tools we need to battle and conquer evil.
Interesting, too, are the images we sometimes see: Theseus at one point carries a wooden beam across his shoulders, recalling the Passion of Jesus. And Zeus, in a last-ditch effort to crush the Titans, turns into a Sampson-like character: In the midst of battle he grasps a pair of golden chains hooked to the feet of gigantic statues and pulls—bringing the mountain down on his adversaries.
Decidedly devoid of Judeo-Christian overtones are these things: Priestesses engage in mystical ceremonies and divine the future. A metal bull—a torture device used by Hyperion, in which victims are placed and cooked over a fire—recalls reputed sacrificial practices to the Phoenician god Moloch.
Hyperion spends much of the story searching for a priestess named Phaedra, an oracle who can see the future so long as she remains a virgin. She travels with three other women, and all of them dress to accentuate their cleavage and curves. One man quips, “I wouldn’t mind knowing them all for a night.”
Phaedra ends up confessing to Theseus that her visions are more of a curse than a blessing, and so, after kissing him, she lets her robe drop. We see the woman naked from the back and the side. And we see sexual motions as she and Theseus set about banishing her “gift.”
As mentioned, Hyperion hopes to impregnate pretty much every woman in Greece by way of either seduction or rape. In one case he’s with a woman whose bare leg is moving sensually. (The rest of her is hidden by a wall.)
Naked male statues get screen time, as do the bare breasts of a woman pretending to be a statue.
Immortals comes to us from the same producers who brought the world 300. And to say it’s a wee bit violent is to say that the outer reaches of space are a wee bit chilly. The gore here is incredibly extreme—the carnage often shown lovingly in slow motion. And if I were to detail all of it here, I’d need to be immortal just to type it all up; you’d need to be immortal to read it.
A summation, then: People, gods and Titans are sliced, stabbed and skewered to death, thanks to the myriad swords, spears, bows, chains, flaming whips, clubs and mysterious lethal devices that seem to be always at the ready. If the battles are mortal-on-mortal, audiences often see blades running through bodies (graphically entering and exiting flesh) or “routine” beheadings (with heads sometimes sailing through the air in slo-mo). If gods and Titans are at work, bodies are sliced in half (both through the waist and lengthwise, revealing the organs inside), blasted to bits of gore or utterly vaporized. Heads are crunched like watermelons. Limbs fly around like dandelion seeds. Throats are cut—including Theseus’ mother’s. Often, victims are sliced to ribbons before finally succumbing to death.
That metal bull I mentioned earlier is designed to bellow when the folks inside moan and scream. A trio of women Theseus and Co. rescue from the bull suffer from horrific burns. A man threatens to kill himself, then uses sheers to cut off his own tongue. (Blood pours from his mouth.) Hyperion carves brutal gashes in a man’s face before having his victim’s testicles crushed by a sledgehammer. One of Hyperion’s biggest lackeys wears a bull-like mask of barbed wire. Theseus beats the man-beast to death with a hammer, then cuts off his head. A man is immolated. A boatful of soldiers is crushed against a cliff. We’re told that when Hyperion comes across any woman bearing a child, he “sees personally to their slaughter.” We learn that Theseus was the product of his mother being gang-raped. Women are shown with bruises and cuts all over their faces. Hyperion threatens them with “discomfort unique to your gender.”
One (grammatically correct) use of “b‑‑tard” and one reference to witnessing “hell” on earth.
Liquor is quickly quaffed.
One of Theseus’ cohorts brags about being a thief: After praying for a horse and not receiving one from the gods, he says that he went ahead and took one himself.
“Simply put, I’ve never seen anything like the violence in Immortals,” writes John Wigler on mtv.com’s “Splash Page.” “It’s some of the most beautiful violence I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen.”
Beautiful violence. I’ll let you think about that for a minute.
The violence is unremitting. Without the over-the-top, stylistic brain-bashing in play here, this would be practically an old-fashioned Ray Harryhausen movie … which studios believe no one really wants to see anymore. Why not? Well, because Harryhausen didn’t infuse his films with enough violence, of course.
Enough beautiful violence, that is.
The audience sitting around me applauded the film lustily at its conclusion. And I heard all manner of colorful profanity as members tried to describe this violent beauty, sometimes with an 8- or 10-year-old in tow. More than once I heard video game metaphors employed, with Mortal Kombat coming up as a popular comparison point. And in that I can relate. There’s something inherently unreal in Immortals’ carnage, something so stylized as to break altogether from the physical world and into a realm of gory watercolor.
Do heads, when they’re crushed, really explode like sodden firecrackers? Do limbs, when they’re cut off, twirl in the air like pinwheels? Did the brazen bull of Moloch truly bellow and wail so poignantly with the sound of its burning, dying children?
I don’t know. I don’t want to know. But perhaps there are those who will go into this movie believing it to be so. Perhaps there will be those who will come to believe it afterwards. Beautiful violence, they will think to themselves. It really is beautiful violence.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.