Immortals, interpreted

Tarsem's newest film, Immortals, opens Friday, and already I'm wondering how this film will be misinterpreted.

The single-named director first made his bones in advertising, a medium where often, astonishing imagery - birds perched on an invisible wire, giant umbrellas hovering over cities - are used to push a cynically simple message: buy our product. In 2000, he directed his first feature, The Cell, a thriller written by Mark Protosevich.

But in 2006, Tarsem took that gift for creating astonishing imagery and broke away from the biz to make his own movie, written by himself, on his own dime. 

That film, The Fall, is among my personal favorites. It's also a film upon which critics were almost evenly divided. Everyone agreed it was visually gorgeous, but those who disliked it mostly said the same thing: there was no message. As Richard Roeper put it:"It really adds up to a whole lot of nothing."

Empty beauty? Hardly.The Fall amounts to a passionate argument - in fact, the only possible argument - against suicide. It tells the story of an injured stuntman in 1920s California who tells a fantastical story to a little girl in the same hospital. What most synopses miss is that the injured stuntman is trying to trick the child into helping him die.

That twist changes everything that follows; those gorgeous fantasy visuals contain a story as urgent, as serious, as Peter Jackson's in Heavenly Creatures or Guillermo del Toro's in Pan's Labyrinth. "It's my story too," the little girl pleads with the stuntman: the only argument anyone can make against someone else's self-destruction. 

Interestingly, Tarsem's first film, The Cell, makes exactly the opposite argument, in a similar story. The movie was marketed as a girl-meets-serial-killer flick (I'm sure the elevator pitch was "Silence of the Lambs, on really good acid"). Here too, there's a female character - Jennifer Lopez - entering into a man's fantastic private universe, as Lopez uses some best-unexplained tech to navigate the subconcious of a murderer. She tries to heal him. In this version, though, the man is unredeemed or unredeemable; his story ends by her hands. 

Both movies appear to fall into comfortable genre categories at first glance; both transcend them. And taken together, they add up to an old question: To be, or not to be?

Tarsem didn't write his third film But the fact that it's called Immortals makes me wonder if he's come up with an answer.

When I first saw the trailer, which sells the fim as a 300esque sword-and-sandal disembowelment festival, I thought: No one is going to know what to make of this film. They'll go expecting to see Troy, and it'll turn out to be something completely different. I trust the director enough to expect that it will be something worth watching.


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