There are quite a few books, games, and other media that have been inspired by the story of Theseus and the labyrinth, most notably, perhaps, the Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. The Minotaur has also been a common creature in modern fantasy since at least the early days of Dungeons and Dragons, and the Tauren from the WarCraft video games were clearly inspired by the monster from Theseus’ story.
There aren’t many films about Theseus. 2011’s Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh, features the Greek hero, but the plot deviates quite remarkably from the original story (to the point where, once again, I have to wonder why the creators didn’t just forego the use of some Greek elements in favour of making it a straight-up fantasy movie). Nevertheless, it is an interesting film, and that alone is perhaps sufficient to discuss it here.
The movie opens with a shot of the cubical prison of the Titans. The little portholes in the walls make it look like a Roman columbarium. Inside, the Titans (thankfully not depicted as giants) are locked away and forced to bite down on metal (golden?) bars. A man appears and shoots an arrow into the cage, which unleashes light that rushes up, toward a domed ceiling with oculus that was clearly based on the Pantheon in Rome. This turns out to be a nightmare experienced by Phaedra (Freida Pinto), an Oracle.
Phaedra then explains the basic plot of the movie to her female companions. The man she saw was a king of Iraklion called Hyperion (played by Mickey Rourke and not to be confused by the Greek sun god, himself a Titan in actual Greek mythology!), who seeks the ‘Epirus Bow’ (a fantasy MacGuffin) to unleash the Titans from their prison and rule over mankind.
We next hear the voice of John Hurt (who plays Zeus in the form of an old man) detailing this movie’s version of the Titanomachy, the epic battle between the Olympians and the Titans. A title card tells us that the story is set in the thirteenth century BC (a clarification that makes no sense as the movie doesn’t even attempt to depict Bronze Age Greece – why include this at all?). Hyperion and his army marches to a temple – lit using candles! – to restate his goal of unleashing the Titans and ending the reign of the gods.
Zeus has been watching a hero, Theseus (played by a very muscular Henry Cavill), who is destined to save mankind from Hyperion. He and his mother, Aethra (Anne Day Jones), are treated as outcasts on account that Aethra never could satisfactorily explain who fathered her child. An army appears to evacuate Theseus’ village as Hyperion’s army is on its way and they will stand no chance against it. There is a scuffle and Theseus is asked to join the army, but he refuses (naturally; the plot is nothing if not predictable).
Zeus explains to Athena (Isabel Lucas) that Theseus is the only human who can lead an army against Hyperion, ‘but it must be his choice.’ The rest of the plot unfolds after this more or less as expected. Theseus faces the necessary opposition as he slowly transforms into a leader, but ultimately the free Greeks follow him into battle. There is the perfunctory pre-battle speech delivered by Theseus before all-out combat is unleashed. The action sequences are fairly short, well choreographed and interesting. The final confrontation sees Theseus pitted against Hyperion inside a collapsing mountain, and the resolution of the story – with the apotheosis of Theseus – provides a satisfactory ending.
There are a number of interesting touches. Hyperion roasts people alive inside a bronze bull, a method of torture used by the tyrant Phalaris of Acragas (Sicily), as per Diodorus Siculus. Theseus is also the one to retrieve the Epirus Bow from inside the sanctuary in his village, where he has to fight Hyperion’s chief warrior, a giant of a man equipped with a helmet in the form of a stylized bull’s head. Theseus eventually beheads him. Finally, the statue at the very end, showing how Theseus killed the Minotaur (now a human figure with the actual head of a bull), is clearly inspired by the statue made by Étienne-Jules Ramey (1796–1852), rather than an ancient depiction of the Minotaur! If you ever visit Paris, you’ll find the statue in the Jardin des Tuileries.
The movie looks great. The producers behind 300 also produced Immortals and it shows: crisp digital effects are combined with live action shot on sound stages, and the whole affair has a bronze or golden sheen, with desaturated colours; red and blue serve as highlights. Set design tends to be sparse and the costumes are wholly fantastical, but also rather simple in design. No attempt is made to model sets, armour, or other equipment after historical examples. The movie as a whole looks more like a stage play, with a number of distinct and generally rather Spartan-looking sets.
I’ve seen the movie a few times and, unlike Clash of the Titans (1981), watching it isn’t a chore. But I’m not sure if it’s actually a good movie, and am even less sure about whether or not I should recommend it. Taken for what it is – an action movie vaguely inspired by ancient Greek mythology – it’s enjoyable, more so for its visuals than its plot or performances, though Mickey Rourke’s monotone, menacing, and also slightly bored King Hyperion is strangely hypnotic, and I like how the gods are depicted in this, too. So, if any of the above seemed even slightly interesting to you, give this movie a go if you haven’t seen it already.