The Immortals ☕ d. Tarsem Singh

This will be brief: I was quite surprised to find that I liked The Immortals. Tarsem Singh mostly made the film’s overtly fabricated aesthetic work in its favor, Henry Cavill was more charismatic than I’d expected, and it’s always nice to see Stephen Dorff be Stephen Dorff. Even more intriguing was how the story foregrounded religious faith and free will. As a Christian, I tend to appreciate when films endorse a quintessentially religious view of the world. At the same time, by explicitly tangling with religious ideas, films that appear to endorse spirituality unambiguously open up an entirely different can of worms. In the case of Immortals, it’s the inseparable link between righteousness and violence. We’re told early on that while the souls of men are immortal, the souls of righteous men are immortal and divine. The ending of the film opens up the possibility that men can be the equal of gods if they are righteous enough. That idea, in itself, is a sticky enough bit of theological provocation. But what troubles me is that the film’s fetishization of bloodshed and brutality inextricably links violent deeds with divine immortality. Though I don’t doubt that Theseus, as portrayed in the film, is a heroic figure, he’s definitely a heroic figure in the ancient Greek tradition: which is to say, he kills eloquently and often. The idea that the righteous faithful must prove their righteousness through acts of war is rather frightening. As much as I enjoyed the film, I recognize that a part of my enjoyment should probably held in suspicion. Even if the bloodshed and brutality is meant to be a metaphor for spiritual warfare, I was left with the impression that the film was infatuated with the awful struggle, which it seemed to confuse the the victory itself. There’s a difference between acknowledging the necessity of good doing battle with evil and celebrating the battle itself. I realize that a movie like Immortals is vying for mythic grandeur, and the old myths tend not to feature nuance, subtlety, and moral introspection as narrative strength (as I said, this film’s moral compass is very much in keeping with the spirit of Greek mythology), so in a way I know that I’m missing the point of the film. But it’s important to remember that even works and acts of faith are open to debate, criticism, and question, however awesome (in the purest sense of the word) they may be. That’s the struggle believers of all stripes must face, but we don’t idolize that struggle. We worship our God; the struggle is the means of worship, not the end itself. Idolizing the struggle valorizes us, not our object of worship. Immortals flips that premise on its head, which could be an intriguing subversion of traditional religious orthodoxy, except that it’s framed in terms of violence. That makes it more Nietzchean than conventionally religious, I suppose, but it also reduces the power of faith to the strength of arms. There’s something disquieting about that reduction, as gloriously as it may be rendered.☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

16 responses to “The Immortals ☕ d. Tarsem Singh

  • David

    I’m glad to see you wrestle with this movie. Tarsem’s The Fall is one of my favorite movies, and I was definitely intrigued when The Immortals came out, what with its Greek mythology subject and the Caravaggioesque visuals. I didn’t see it, though, and the trailers and later reviews disappointed me by suggesting a flat style-over-substance movie enamored with violence (a la 300). As you say, the “fetishization of violence.”

    The other idea — that men can become the equal of “gods” through violence or righteousness — crops up in plenty of other movies, too, like the Clash of the Titans remake (compare it to the original, where the gods remained pretty supreme). In fact, even The Avengers falls prey to this, with Thor and Loki frequently called “gods.” Nevermind that the former are pagan gods and the latter are superheroes, these instances desensitize our culture to the idea of divinity as something Man should defy, and can defy successfully. In the latter film, it’s hard not to grin when Hulk starts flinging Loki around like a ragdoll, but his line “Puny god” (which gets many laughs, as it’s designed to) still reinforces the idea that divinity is something to be scoffed at and overcome by humanity. It becomes quite difficult to view films like these, as a Christian. On the one hand I want to enjoy the adventure and heroism, yet on the other, the stories definitely have underlying messages that try to tear down the idea of God’s omnipotence, sovereignty, and goodness.

    • jubilare

      I think it depends on perspective. I have your reaction, David, when a film or book tries to bring the sovereignty of God down and limit Him in order to make Him something that can be comprehended, or even defeated. That shows either a fundamental lack of understanding of what “God” means, or else a determined attitude of denial (if I didn’t love Him, I’d be in denial too, because the concept of God is terrifying).
      But there is, as I am sure you agree, a fundamental difference between God and the gods. Whatever powers and principalities may be at work in the universe, the “gods” are limited creatures even in their own mythologies. Baldur is killed, Zeus can be tricked, ect. ect. I had no problem with Avengers because, while they frequently called Thor and his ilk “gods,” they represented them as powerful aliens, and at one point Cpt. America gives his opinion in the belief that there is only one God, and those clowns are not Him. Without that difference of opinion in the film, I might have been more annoyed. As it was, “puny god” actually seemed a very right statement to me because Loki and the Asgardians are pathetic “gods” compared to what the word should mean.
      Of course many people won’t see or acknowledge the difference between “gods” and “God,” rulership and Sovereignty, and I think that may be where you are coming from. For me, though, I am not usually annoyed at the acknowledgement of the limits of powerful beings so long as those powerful beings are not represented as the highest power in existence. Hopefully that makes sense. I haven’t had my tea.

  • mjschneider

    The good news, David, is that Immortals isn’t really a flat, style-over-substance film! It’s the substance that gives me pause, after all. Jubilare is right about the specifics of old mythology, in which the gods were a lot more human than the Judeo-Christian God. But the way that they are thematically deployed in Immortals seems to suggest that this is what gods (or God, or Supreme Beings) are, and that they are something to which humankind can and should aspire. This leaves open two interpretive possibilities. Either the film acknowledges an authentic, higher spiritual reality populated by beings who are more or less just advanced humans (in which case their godhood is awesome, but not incomprehensibly vast, a la our Judeo-Christian God); or the gods are metaphors for the Nietzschean ideal, in which case they aren’t really “gods” at all, and there’s no spiritual content whatsoever. Neither interpretation is strictly compatible with orthodox Christianity, and that would be fine, except that both interpretations (as I see it) link godhood with the valorization of violent struggle. I don’t see that particular facet as compatible with my religious beliefs at all, because it can lead to a narcissistic humanism.

    To be fair, and to re-emphasize an important point, I think that this viewpoint is perfectly in keeping with the ancient Greek myths. That kind of fidelity — and the skill to evoke it successfully — is something we don’t see too much anymore. Yet the film seems to posit that ancient viewpoint as being directly relevant to contemporary spiritual concerns. The uncritical acceptance — and promotion — of it as a baseline is both admirable and troubling. I don’t think anyone set out to tear down God’s sovereignty and goodness in particular, but that is the net result of the assumptions and attitudes evident in the film.

    • David

      Aye, that’s more what I was getting at. It’s the effects on our culture that concern me most. I spent the better part of my 4 years as an undergrad studying ancient history and mythology, so I’m well aware of how the pagan gods are usually little more than humans with immortality and supernatural powers. I do, however, think there is a difference between works produced in a genuinely pagan world that had no knowledge of Christ and works produced in a culture that does have access to the gospel and does not actually believe in the pagan gods. Our culture tends to treat all ideas of divinity as fantasy, and so unless a movie like The Immortals goes out of its way to contrast pagan godliness with an eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, holy, and singular God, the effect it will have on audiences will be to conflate the two in their minds, and to encourage the application of its ideas of irreverence and violence (as you’ve broken down) to all ideas of divinity.

      As for The Avengers, Jubilare is right, of course Loki is puny and pathetic compared to any idea of real divinity, and Hulk is right to express disgust for his arrogance and evil. My concern is for the effect a movie like this has on the sentiments and thought-processes of its audiences. Loki and Thor are the closest the movie presents to actual gods. Captain America is portrayed positively, as is his belief, but there is no indication that his belief is anything more than some personal ethical values stemming from the predominant culture of the 1940s. He is not shown to be a true Christian devoted to Christ; he is a Christian by culture only, and is allowed only a single one-liner to express even that, while Loki and Thor are repeatedly called gods and revered with awe by non-super onlookers. We, as Christians who have the Holy Spirit and know our Bible, can watch these movies and understand the nuances and find ways to reinforce our faith instead of letting it be undermined, if we’re careful, but I don’t think most moviegoers can or even want to to do this, even many Christian ones. But they’ll be influenced nonetheless.

      Caveat: I really, really incredibly enjoyed The Avengers, but those little bits about beating up the gods kept niggling at me.

      Hmm…Matt, you’re actually making me more interested in seeing The Immortals, now! But I do hope that Tarsem will someday find again the magic he captured in The Fall.

    • mjschneider

      I haven’t seen Avengers yet, so I can’t comment myself on how that film handles the god angle. I liked the Thor movie quite a bit, and though it had some fun with the idea of the Asgardians being “gods,” it went out of its way to emphasize that they really aren’t gods as we think of them, but highly advanced aliens. This was sort of disappointing, but I got over it quickly enough on account of I was enjoying myself too much. :) I look forward to following up on your comments on that movie once I’ve seen it on DVD.

      Your point about our culture regarding genuine divinity as a fantasy is a good one. Though I am a Christian, I really appreciate it when a genuinely religious movie from any faith treats its subject earnestly. One of the drawbacks of comparative mythology is that ancient “myths” are often treated as though they were mere stories to the people who believed them in times past. The way that our contemporary culture draws a distinct line between “myths” (such as those of the ancient Greeks and Romans) and “religions” is usually condescending. I’ve noticed a trend among believers of most stripes (including the religiously atheist) to regard virtually every belief system but their own as “mythical.” I think the trend toward sucking the divinity out of any “mythical” system is somehow connected to this, but I’m not sure how. Immortals comes very close to re-injecting the divine into the mythical, but ultimately fails — or, rather, I guess it’s not a failure from the perspective of the filmmakers, but it’s a failure to me, since I’m someone who enjoys sharing a religious experience with his filmmakers, even if the filmmakers practice a different religion. Not that I’m drawing an equivalence between all religious beliefs, and not that I’m worshipping (you might say) at another religion’s altar, but I respect the guts and skill it takes to present a religious aesthetic experience successfully, and I like to celebrate it when and where I can.

  • jubilare

    David,
    The niggling is understandable. As I was reading your comment, though, I could not shake this one train of thought. Here is hoping that I can express the thought, because it is simple on the surface and complex underneath and I am very sleepy…

    It is a literal wonder that anyone becomes or remains a Chrisitian in this world. Only God’s working, the tireless Trinity, makes it possible. Our human actions have consequences and effects, and I do not wish to say otherwise. However, what happens to me, and others of my faith, is often that we become so obsessed about human things that are wrong or dangerous, that we lose sight of Who is in charge and forget to rest in Him. When that happens, we do more harm than good in our opposition of the world. All this to say that maybe the belittling of the “gods” or the glorification of violence in fiction have some bad effects, but it is also beyond doubt that, for some, God uses such things as tools to bring them to His side. I’m reminded of what I have learned of Chesterton’s conversion. The detractors of Christianity were the very ones who pushed him towards it.
    Now, I am all for opposing human arrogance, foolishness and cruelty, but more and more it seems to me that there’s a right way and a wrong way for such opposition. To oppose them under the authority of God without losing sight of Him, and without allowing anger to overcome love being the right way, and allowing the trespasses themselves to pull our eyes away from God being the wrong and dangerous way.

    Not that either of you chaps are going about opposition the wrong way. I’m probably more guilty of it than either of you, but the thought seems relevant to the conversation on some level. …now… WHERE IS MY COFFEE!

    • mjschneider

      I hope that nobody here is saying that God can’t work through various means — including means that are, by their nature, antithetical to his will. It’s certainly a relevant thought. My hope is that a film like this would provoke good discussion among those sensitive to theological themes, even if the film itself is apparently not in alignment with any sort of religious orthodoxy (apart from existentialism, I guess). Even if the prevailing winds in our culture turned directly against God or anything resembling religious belief, that wouldn’t negate or mitigate his power to work faith or his will. At the same time, I think it’s fair to point out and try to understand the nature of beliefs that run parallel to, divergent from, or against the tenets that Christian believers share. We should be cautious, as you say, not to get mired in everything that’s wrong — if those things would pull our gaze away from heaven. Yet analyzing and discussing them with passion and care from the standpoint of faith can be affirming to us and, hopefully, beneficial to those who don’t share our assumptions and premises.

  • jubilare

    You didn’t tell me where to find my coffee! Now I need more. More coffee.
    I agree that discussion is a good thing. It isn’t discussion that I would warn my fellow Christians about, but rather the tendency towards extreme reactions to “non-Christian” things. There are some ideas worth opposing vehemently, like domestic violence, slavery, “ethnic cleansing” etc. Then there are times when people foam at the mouth over Harry Potter. It seems to me that, if one has issues with themes in HP, that the right way of dealing with it is discussion, not a book-burning.

    • jubilare

      Um, that may have sounded harsher than I intended. I repeat that I do not consider either of you to be book-burners. I merely intend to put forward my thoughts on something I see in the Christian community more than I would like, which is a kind of cultural xenophobia. We are called to not be of the world, but I think we sometimes go about being “unworldly” in a very worldly way.

    • David

      No worries, Jubilare, it didn’t sound like you were accusing us! The crux of the matter for all three of us is, I think, what Matt just said: “…too many let their fear of the world trump their fear of the Lord.” Christians must maintain that tender balance of being in the world and not afraid of the world, while still being not of the world or enamored with it. We have to draw the line somewhere. To a degree, that line will be different for different people, and no matter how wisely or foolishly we draw it, God will take care of us. Certain types of movies or books I must refuse to see, no matter how artistic it is, because I know Christ would not approve. “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” Why? Because my fear is of the Lord, not of the content itself.

      Well, I’m glad to have this coffee-philosophy discussion with you fine people. *sips at his heavily sugared mug* Cheers!

  • mjschneider

    I don’t think you said anything harsh, jubilare! I think it’s very worthwhile to beware of cultural xenophobia. The distinction you’re drawing is between (Christian) people who are willing to engage in a dialogue about cultural matters and those who are only willing to denigrate, demonize, and disdain anything they can’t or won’t understand. A lot of those latter people identify as Christian, but too many let their fear of the world trump their fear of the Lord. And that’s two entirely different kinds of fear.

    Oh, and here’s your espresso. :) *offers drink*

    • jubilare

      “A lot of those latter people identify as Christian, but too many let their fear of the world trump their fear of the Lord. And that’s two entirely different kinds of fear.”

      Well and wisely said.

      Oh, caffeine! Thanks! Coffee party!

      @ David: Oh good. I worry about miscommunications, you know.
      “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” is exactly the point. Well-quoted. In addition to that, as you say, what may be beneficial to me, may not be beneficial to my brother or sister in Christ, which is a fact that can easily be forgotten. My standard example for that is a glass of wine to an alcoholic versus the same to a non-alcoholic. A lot of time we, as Christians, seem to get into trouble when we assume that the line God has set for us is the exact same as the line set for others of our faith, or (even more dangerous) we assume that non-believers ought to be forced to heed the same lines.
      Again, I sound like I am a relativist, which is not true. I do believe in moral absolutes, but I also believe that human perspective is sharply limited. We ultimately have to trust God to show us the way, which means seeking Him and using the Word to help separate the voice of God from the voices of the World. We are, and should be, accountable to our brothers and sisters, but God has to be our ultimate authority.

      To bring this back to what we were originally discussing, I think it is useful to talk about the effect trends, such as the mocking of divinity, or equating violence with divinity, have on people and our culture. Part of that discussion ought to be the fact that the obvious effects will never be the only effects, and what may be bad for some people, may open a necessary dialogue for others. It’s a complicated issue, to my mind.

      On a personal note, I was so out of it this morning that I placed the coffee filter where the carafe belongs. Luckily, I realized my mistake and rectified it. … … yeah.

    • David

      @Anne: Aye. You also echo what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 when he follows “‘Everything is permissible’ – but not everything is beneficial” with “Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others,” and in verses 31-32, “So whatever you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God.”

      And again, in Romans 14:13-15: “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way….If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.”

      Of course, Paul shortly later says something that often forces me to reassess how I use my entertainment time and my views on art: “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” Which is followed by “everything that does not come from faith is sin,” an oddly comforting verse to me, because of how in its implications it echoes the above verses from 1 Corinthians.

      I find it important to not look down upon other believers who may be more sensitive to certain things in art than I am. Even as I greatly dislike profanity and cold violence in movies, I may tolerate them for a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth or Children of Men, where I find real value in the stories themselves. But another believer may opt to forego those movies because of the content, and I fully support them if they do so, especially if they do so out of faith. I myself still refuse to see movies that seem too steeped in harsher profanity or sexuality or nudity, no matter how great they otherwise may be, because I sense that such things will indeed hurt me in a way that some fine storytelling cannot compensate me for. Even while I agree it is generally not a good idea to judge a movie (or book, or other form of art) without seeing it, I still think there are movies I can legitimately refuse to see because of what I’ve learned of their content, and what I know about myself and what pleases or displeases the Lord in my life. Another believer may choose to see those movies that I reject, and while I may disagree with their choices and worry somewhat about them becoming desensitized to sin, as I know from personal experience that it does happen, I still try not to judge them, and rather pray that they are making their choices in faith even as I make mine. Similarly, I hope they would respect the choices I make in faith and likewise pray for me.

      Does that make sense? I’m afraid I may be instigating another bunny trail in this discussion, which wasn’t my original intent. (My original intent was just to say “Yes!” to Anne/Jubilare and provide supportive Scripture.) Still, it seems apt, in this discussion of various cultural attitudes toward God and art, to bring up the virtue of Christian love. +)

    • David

      Wordy as I am, I’m not sure I adequately finished my discussion. The point about not putting a stumbling block in another believer’s way is important; if, per my example about, say, Children of Men, a believer who didn’t want to see it for some reason they have out of faith was at my house for a movie night, I wouldn’t show them Children of Men, even if the other people present voted for it. That would not be showing love to my brother (or sister, as it may be). So even a piece of art that I feel I can experience and benefit from due to my faith I will abstain from if any situation where it could hurt or make uncomfortable a fellow believer. At least, such is what I should do. I pray that the Lord hold me to it!

  • jubilare

    You’ve made your point well, David, and I agree. The scriptures you quote are very clear in their wisdom regarding our treatment of each other. Like you, I have personal lines for things I know do me harm and which I do not expose myself to willingly, but I try not to judge others for greater or less sensitivity than I have. Even so, I also worry about some things taken in by people I know, as I am sure they worry about me. Our perspective is so limited compared to God’s.

    George MacDonald (he was bound to come up in my argument eventually ;) ) made an interesting point in The Princess and Curdie that echoes some of the points made in Romans.

    Queen Irene: Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.

    Curdie: But, please, ma’am–I don’t mean to be rude or to contradict you… but if a body was never to do anything but what he knew to be good, he would have to live half his time doing nothing.

    Queen Irene: There you are much mistaken… How little you must have thought! Why, you don’t seem even to know the good of the things you are constantly doing. Now don’t mistake me. I don’t mean you are good for doing them. It is a good thing to eat your breakfast, but you don’t fancy it’s very good of you to do it. The thing is good, not you…

    The passage goes on until Irene helps Curdie to realize that he “…was doing the wrong of never wanting or trying to be better. And now I see that I have been letting things go as they would for a long time. Whatever came into my head I did, and whatever didn’t come into my head I didn’t do. I never sent anything away, and never looked out for anything to come.”

    I think that is where things not done in faith become sin, often without us realizing it. The ultimate nature of God’s Creation is good, but with the fall and the subsequent twisting of our nature, we have to allow ourselves to be constantly cleansed or even things that are good may do us harm. The intrinsic good of God and His creation bleed through in human art and endeavor even without the benefit of faith, though our fallen nature comes through as well. Faith seems to help us take in the good and abandon the evil.

  • mjschneider

    Even while I agree it is generally not a good idea to judge a movie (or book, or other form of art) without seeing it, I still think there are movies I can legitimately refuse to see because of what I’ve learned of their content, and what I know about myself and what pleases or displeases the Lord in my life. Another believer may choose to see those movies that I reject, and while I may disagree with their choices and worry somewhat about them becoming desensitized to sin, as I know from personal experience that it does happen, I still try not to judge them, and rather pray that they are making their choices in faith even as I make mine. Similarly, I hope they would respect the choices I make in faith and likewise pray for me.

    I think that’s wise and fair. This may be a bunny trail, but it’s one that comes up frequently. The thing that bothers me is that even you understands that what would be a stumbling block for you may not be a stumbling block for others, I have talked with many who will simply identify one aspect of a movie (like violence) as a stumbling block, period, and condemn both the film and those who would “approve” of its aesthetic use. I find that to be egregiously stupid and presumptuous. Like you, I would never try to force something that might hurt a fellow believer on him/her, but I often find that even if I do them the courtesy of not judging them for not wishing to tackle their personal stumbling block, they don’t return that courtesy. Mind you, I make a distinction between something hurtful and something uncomfortable. I don’t think that going without discomfort is something to which anyone has a right; I’d never want to hurt someone by pressing them to watch a film, but I have no problem challenging them to explain why, exactly, it’s worthy of their condemnation. I’d challenge anyone who indulges in the, as jubilare’s MacDonald quote puts it, “wrong of never wanting or trying to be better.” Of course, I’d first have to make the case that it would be better, and that’s fair; but if that case can be made, I think it’s fair to ask that it be rebutted before others pass judgment on its inappropriateness or its nature as a universal stumbling block.

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