Archive for April 25, 2012

Warning: significant spoilers.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

This evening, at my husband’s suggestion, we rented The Immortals. Given that its trailer is not only terrible, but crafted to give a lingering impression of All Action And No Plot, I only agreed to watch on the condition that it received a score of 5.0 or higher on IMDB. As it currently boasts a 6.2, I acquiesced and settled in for what I anticipated would be a hilarious and offensively trashy action flick with pretensions of mythic grandeur.

Only, as it turns out, no.

To start with – and I’m aware that this is a low bar, despite the staggeringly high number of films that fail it – The Immortals passes the Bechdel test in the first scene. Much more impressively, it does so by means of a conversation between – brace yourselves – four women of colour. All of whom speak and appear in multiple scenes during the course of the movie. All of whom demonstrate agency. All of whom have each other’s backs.

Let that sink in for a moment.

True, only one of them merits a character name: Phaedra (Freida Pinto), the true Sybelline oracle whose identity as such is masked by the presence of the other three. And true, we never see them again after a particularly awful scene around the halfway mark, which ends so ambiguously that we don’t know if they actually live or die. This is a problem, and my single biggest issue with the movie: I want to know what happened to them! But even so, they were there, and they mattered, and with the exception of the last two Matrix films – which were made nearly a decade ago – I can’t think of any other action, SF or fantasy flick that’s come anywhere close to featuring multiple women of colour in meaningful roles since, well, ever. Add to this the two white female characters who also appear, and you have an action movie whose ratio of leading ladies to leading men almost approaches parity.

Next, we have the script, which contrary to every expectation produced by the trailer is actually worthy of the name. Characterisation! Pacing! Originality! Non-cliched dialogue! Or at least, dialogue wherein the cliches are kept to a minimum, spoken by good actors, and frequently interleavened with good lines! Granted, I went in with low expectations and was therefore in the right frame of mind to be surprised and impressed by any sort of quality, but for action movie dialogue? This is definitely at the high end of things – a fact which is helped by the cast. Apart from Freida Pinto, there’s Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke and John Hurt all more than pulling their weight, plus a secondary cast who do the same. This is important in a genre so often afflicted by cliched language: good delivery is frequently the only thing that can redeem it, and in The Immortals, when it crops up, it does.

Then there’s the plot, which is an original take on Greek mythology. Some elements, such as the trapped Titans and the gods sworn to a policy of non-direct interference, are familiar; others, such as the transmutation of the Labyrinth into a temple and the Minotaur into a mask-wearing soldier, are not. What’s important is that the story has internal consistency, solid characterisation, and a refreshing absence of idiot plots. Even the inclusion of the Erebus Bow, a fictional MacGuffin, doesn’t detract from this: the weapon serves a specific purpose – releasing the Titans from Tartarus – but though the villain, Hyperion, wants and searches for it, the heroes, lead by Theseus, never actively quest for it, which spares both plot and pacing a lot of unnecessary baggage.

As for the costumes and setting – both of which look undeniably tacky in the trailer – they’re part of a consistent and deliberately stylised visual aesthetic that actually works in the context of the film. Also: it’s worth noting that the costumes highlight male physicality and beauty at least as much, if not more than, that of their female counterparts. Zeus, Poseidon and the other gods, for instance, show far more skin than Athena; and both men and women alike are decorated with elaborate headdresses. For a film aimed (one assumes) primarily at a male audience, this is both awesome and unusual, and stands in clear contrast to the staunch, robed gods of the recent Titansfilms. The action scenes, too, are gorgeously choreographed, and thanks to good pacing, the film never lags or feels overlong.

What really grabbed me, though, was the visible sexism. I don’t mean the film was sexist – I mean it showed sexism. Given how cross I’ve been recently about stories that posit sexism without sexists, it felt huge to watch an action film actually tackle the issue. As a villain, Hyperion is genuinely menacing, not only because of the barbarity of his actions, but because of his open, evident misogyny. When the traitor Lysander goes over to his side, Hyperion boasts about how his seed is one of his greatest weapons, as it means the children of his enemies will bear his stamp for future generations. He even punishes Lysander’s cowardice at changing sides by effectively castrating him, thereby denying him the legacy of children. When Athena reports on Hyperion’s conquest, she mentions (though we never see it happen) the care he takes in personally killing pregnant women, the better to wipe out his enemies as a race. And when he has the captive priestesses before him, he threatens them with ‘unpleasantness specific to [their] gender’ – effectively using rape, or the prospect of it, as a weapon.

Crucially, though, sexism isn’t only a weapon of the enemy. The first time we see her at prayer, Theseus’s mother is being called a whore by her own people, an insult levied at her multiple times. We know from these exchanges that Theseus is a bastard, and his lightning-quick defense of his mother at these times perfectly justifies his contextually unique respect for women. It’s not until late in the film that we learn his mother was raped by some of the villagers, after which no one would marry her. The impact of this inclusion hit me powerfully: so, so often in stories about bastard male heroes, their fathers are either gods or men who, whether through early death or familial intervention, were forbidden to marry the woman in question. To make Theseus a child of rape – and more, to reveal this fact only later in the piece – made all the insults his mother endured more poignant, and perfectly highlighted how victim-blaming works in sexist cultures. Even Stavros, Theseus’s ally, makes crude remarks about Phaedra, propositions her, and then remarks on the lack of difference between a whore and high priestess – and when that happens, Theseus is once again quick to react.

Phaedra’s sexual agency is also important. As per tradition, her oracular powers are tied to her virginity, which is usually code for the woman to be romantically reluctant while the male hero seduces her. In this story, however, it’s Phaedra who seduces Theseus: he holds back, unspeaking, while she states aloud that she doesn’t want or need her visions – she wants to be free to experience the pleasures of her own flesh. And crucially, the narrative never rebukes her for this: she is never called useless or chastised for having lost the gift of prophecy, and just as importantly, the final scenes show her young son to have inherited her gift, breaking the stereotype of prophecy as a purely female magic.

That being said, The Immortals isn’t without feminist problems. As per the perennially unfortunate logic of women in refrigerators, Theseus is initially motivated by Hyperion’s murder of his mother, and though Phaedra and her priestesses all demonstrate agency – her three offsiders kill seven of Hyperion’s best men to help her escape, then staunchly refuse to betray her whereabouts despite their captor’s rape threats – the fact that we never find out what happens to them is a lingering sore point. Or, more specifically: Hyperion tortures them, and they still seem to be alive when Theseus and Phaedra arrive, but the last we see or hear is Phaedra weeping over them. As this could realistically be at either the extent of their injuries or their sudden, awful deaths, we’re left hanging as to their end fate – which, as stated at the outset, is my single biggest complaint about the movie.

At the same time, though, it’s noteworthy that the script allows for the visible, unsexualised, unglamourised suffering of its female characters on an equal level with its men. Very often in narrative (as I’ve previously mentioned), there’s a tendency to bestow gender-specific plot armor on women, so that tacitly, the audience is meant to take comfort from the clearly nonsensical and falsely chivalrous idea that a certain type of terrible thing just can’t happen to girls. But The Immortals doesn’t pull punches when it comes to Hyperion’s actions, regardless of who they affect; which is why he succeeds so thoroughly – and believably – as a villain.

In short, then, The Immortals surprised me in just about every respect. It passes the Bechdel test. It has multiple women of colour, one of whom is the film’s leading lady. It openly deals with sexism. It has a decent script, solid characterisation, good acting, fluid pacing, original costuming and very pretty action scenes, and for a bonus is directed by an MOC, Tarsem Singh. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s making an intelligent effort in areas that I care about, and managed to do so in a way that made of an engaging, watchable film. So don’t be deterred by the terrible trailer, like I first was – give it a try!