Immortals - Robert Mailet and Henry Cavill
The Minotaur (Robert Mailet) battles the Greek warrior Theseus (Henry Cavill) in an elaborate burial labyrinth © 2011 War of the Gods

Immortals is one of the most beautifully art directed sword-and-sandal B movies ever made, but its story is more miss than myth. With a screenplay and performances nowhere near as interesting as its look, this gory adventure featuring the warrior Theseus of ancient Greece plays like a hyper-violent yet strangely ho-hum 300 rehash.

The stunning locations (both actual and CGI), imaginative sets and creative costumes are hallmarks of visionary director Tarsem Dhandwar Singh, whose two earlier features The Cell and The Fall are similarly striking. Among the unforgettable visuals here are a gold-and-marble Olympus perched high above the clouds, a stark white temple in a featureless salt desert, an elaborate MC Escher-style burial labyrinth, an imposing block-construction monastery and a massive fortress wall stretched like a dam between two mountains.

Theseus is played with bygone cinematic fantasy-hero nobility by the manly but not ridiculously overmuscled Henry Cavill (to be seen next year as Zack Snyder’s rebooted Superman). This throwback Theseus wouldn’t look out of place in Ray Harryhausen’s myth-based adventure classics from the middle of last century. Even Cavill’s haircut has the strangely anachronistic look of a 1950s contract player who walked onto this set the same day he wrapped a present-day drama without bothering to get a new ‘do.

Immortals - Henry Cavill
Theseus (Henry Cavill) makes a killing © 2011 War of the Gods

His nemesis is the disfigured and sadistically savage King Hyperion, played with very believable brutality by Mickey Rourke. Hyperion seeks the legendary Bow of Epirus, which generates arrows so powerful they can free imprisoned supernatural warriors known as the Titans. That prospect worries Greek deities including the alluring Athena (Isabel Lucas), the impetuous Poseidon (Kellan Lutz) and the defiant Apollo (Corey Sevier), who want to help Theseus thwart Hyperion’s plan. But almighty Zeus (played by Luke Evans as the young god and by John Hurt when disguised as an old man) forbids divine intervention.

Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is appealingly exotic as the oracle Phaedra, who decides her sacred virginity is overrated after a little quality time with Theseus. The freed Hyperion prisoner Stavros (Stephen Dorff) has a good answer when faced with whether to join Theseus on his impossible quest or oppose him: “Personally, I’d rather fight with a madman than against him.”

The well-choreographed violence is often shockingly graphic and convincingly realistic. Torsos are impaled, limbs are severed, and smashed heads explode in slo-mo bursts of blood. The most sickeningly impressive killing involves a heavy length of chain that bisects a Titan from head to crotch.

Rourke perfectly portrays Hyperion’s coldly vicious cruelty, inspired by the deaths of his wife and child. Seeking vengeance against the gods who let them die, he is both tragic and frightening without ever appearing sympathetic or — worse — slipping into camp.

While the screenplay by first-time feature writers Vlas and Charley Parlapanides never quite takes off, there’s an interesting bit where a member of a Hellenic council argues that Greek gods are merely metaphors — right before some of those metaphors show up for a showdown that shakes a mountain to the ground. Also, although a version of the Minotaur appears here, the character and situation differ from the classic Theseus myth.

A final scene foretells that “war is coming to the heavens,” which sounds like an interesting set-up for a sequel. If that celestial smackdown gets a green light, here’s hoping its story is as good as its set design.

[Rating: 3 stars]

Immortals opens in theaters Friday November 11, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.