But first … the Story:
Set in New York City in 2095, Immortal tells the tale of Earth being visited by ancient Egyptian gods who are, in reality, immortal aliens responsible for the construction of the all planets in the universe. Having cast judgment on Horus, the god responsible for the creation of Earth, the gods have given him seven days to reclaim his immortality by mating with a rare species that occasionally pops up around the universe. This rare female species is a universal anomaly, one whose presence cannot be predicted, and who sports the rare ability of being the only females in the universe who can mate with immortals.
But before Horus can mate the woman, he must find her. Before he can find her, however, he must find a host body through which he can spread his seed.
And he finds his host body in the form of Nikopol, a cryogenically frozen revolutionary whose Cultural Revolution has had a lasting impact in the thirty years since he’s been frozen.
Once he’s found a body to possess, Horus searches out, and eventually finds, his target. From there, the story devolves into a love triangle—of sorts—between Horus, Jill, the blue-haired woman with whom he plans to mate, and Nikopol, who falls in love with Jill.
Immortal is adapted from the Nikopol Trilogy, a series of graphic novels written and illustrated by director Enki Bilal, a well known French graphic novelist. Bilal’s vision of the future owes a great deal to Moebius—the work he’s done alone and with Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Billed as a “groundbreaking step into the future of film-making,” Immortal offers little by way of coherence (more on this later) and banks everything on its visual effects (see: the following 500 + words).
Then … the Rant:
When Jurassic Park officially kicked off the digital revolution in 1993, it enabled a generation of filmmakers to unleash their imaginations and project images they’d cultivated behind their eyes to screens—both large and small—across the world in a way never before possible. And while computer generated effects have proven awe-inspiring—Jurassic Park, A Very Long Engagement, and the amazing character model and animation that created Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies—most CG-fare tends to dance in the realm of high-end video game cut scenes—for examples just turn your television to the Sci-Fi Channel.
In a little over a decade, filmmakers have already forgotten the power of CG and employ it merely because they have the technology at their disposal—see any movie, including the Star Wars prequels, that employ CG to create character models that could easily have been played by real actors. The carnal rule that most modern filmmakers seem to have forgotten is that all cinematic techniques—from lighting gels to CG—should be used to augment a story, not to tell it.
Recently, as effects techniques evolve and grow more complex and photorealistic, filmmakers have come to rely on visual effects more than they have in the past. Why travel to the Peruvian Jungle or a desert in South Africa when we can recreate those locations in a computer in Northern California? The answer is simple: visual effects should only be employed when circumstances and human limitations prevent the physical implementation of these ideas. The power CG effects have on people wane when they become such commonplace—and obvious—techniques that seven-year-old children can differentiate between CG and reality.
Visual effects should work like a finely tuned magic trick: the audiences should be misdirected and manipulated while the illusion is taking place. A good example of this is the Balducci Levitation, a trick made famous by David Blaine. This trick’s true power comes not in the illusion, which is performed while onlookers are focusing on something other than the raised feet and body, but in what the spectators think they’re seeing. If Blaine were to approach someone and say, ‘hey, watch, look at my feet,’ the illusion would be destroyed. And that is exactly what most modern filmmakers are doing. By developing scenes and images so blatantly CG, they’re winking at the camera, sticking their thumbs in the air, jabbing them into their chests, and saying, ‘look what we can do.’
Recently, filmmakers have experimented with integrating human actors into wholly CG environments—most famously in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and, to a lesser extent, the last Star Wars movie—a concept that has produced mixed results at best. At worst, it produces laughable imagery in which the actors are so out of place that their onscreen appearances become the equivalent of superimposing full color images into black and white backgrounds. This technique proves more jarring when the CG environments only account for roughly 50% of the locations. In this case, the contrast between real sets and locations and CG sets and locations prove a disappointing distraction—one that pulls the audiences’ attention away from the story and has them exploring the lame CG backgrounds.
And this brings us, finally, to Enki Bilal’s Immortal, a film that epitomizes the concept of overusing computer effects.
And … Finally … the Review:
On the surface, Bilal has created a rich world, a slightly surrealistic future society that basks in its comic book aesthetics. Superficially, it is equal parts Blade Runner, The 5th Element, and Heavy Metal. The imagination is rich, although highly derivative; from flying cars to supernatural creatures, there’s really nothing here that we haven’t seen before—both in presentation or execution. If one were inclined to dig below the surface, however, one would find a dense, convoluted story that has more in common with video game cut scenes than films—or even graphic novels, from which this story based.
The characters are cloaked with common themes—loneliness, confusion, determination, etc.—and through these themes they are presented as flesh and blood creatures. But there is no development here, no evolution. These characters end the story exactly as they begin it, with—and Jill is the only exception here—nothing gained or nothing lost.
True drama could have been wrought from the central element of this story, with Horus invading Nikopol’s psyche and exploiting his body to rape Jill. But it is only addressed superficially. There is no depth to this drama. We do not know who these characters are, nor do we care to know them. They are merely vessels through which epic landscapes and “groundbreaking” visual effects can be generated.
Characters are key to telling a successful story. If you, as storyteller, can create believable characters that the audiences relate to, or invest themselves in, than the story, even if it is not completely successful, will be affected positively. Audiences will scream, laugh, worry, scoot to the edges of their seats; not because the scene manages to convey a moody or frightening atmosphere, but because the characters that we care about are in jeopardy.
A movie that does not concern itself with creating characters that we would want to invest our emotions in, then that movie, no matter how groundbreaking, has failed. And Immortal, for all its bells and whistles, for all the visuals that are fantastic, simply does not work by virtue of the fact that there is nothing in this movie for audiences to care about. Who is Horus? Why is he steadfast in procreating? Simply because he is immortal? That’s not good enough. And what about Nikopol? A legendary revolutionary, he displays none of the facets of the legendary Nikopol that is so adored by the inhabitants of this world. He is lonely and vaguely torn by the fact that Horus has taken over his body, decimated his free will, and using him to rape Jill, whom he has developed a crush on. This could be ripe material, and if placed in more competent hands, it would have created a tense, dark drama set in a wild future. But we are given nothing. These characters are as foreign to us at the end of the film as they were when we first popped the DVD into our players.
But, hey, the effects are cool … sort of.
Immortal takes place almost entirely in CG environments. While some of the models are spectacular—the models of the buildings, skyscrapers, and cars are damn near photorealistic—most of the effects is this movie are obviously CG, and when real actors are thrown into the mix it produces a jarring effect that immediately yanks the moviegoer from the experience of slipping into this world. Instead, we find ourselves raising our eyebrows, asking ourselves why they would do this or that in the computer and not employ real actors or sets.
As for the actors, the vast majority of the characters in this movie are CG enhanced. Most of the characters are full 3D models while others are CG heads rotoscoped onto bodies of real actors. In both cases, the effects aren’t convincing enough to transport us to other realms. The models of the full CG characters are laughable in this context. Had they been developed for a video game, it would have been a remarkable achievement, but considering that they are supposed to be living creatures that share the space with real actors, they simply aren’t realistic enough to convince us that they’re anything other than high-res models.
The decision to replace actors with CG characters is a baffling one. There are entire subplots featuring CG characters and environments, and when the film cuts from a scene between Jill and Nikopol in their apartment—real actors on a real set—to a scene between the Mayor and his flunkies—badly modeled CG characters in CG environments—it produces an effect similar to jumping from a horizontal position to a prone position, or from leaping from a body of water into the sand: it skews your equilibrium. Whenever the film cuts from real actors to scenes featuring CG actors, it feels as though we are turning the channel from a movie to Cartoon Network. The transitions do not work, they cannot work, because the visual effects simply are not convincing enough.
Seeing how Immortal features little more three real, living, breathing actors, Bilal and crew should have nixed the actors and made a full-on animated feature. Under those circumstances, and with a tweaked script, this may truly have become a groundbreaking step in filmmaking. But as it stands, Immortal is a confusing film that seems to have arbitrarily chosen which characters were to be played by real actors and which characters were to be computer generated.
And speaking of confusion …
This story, and the world in which it takes place, is a phantasmagoric series of scenes and run-on sentences, so to speak. No real information is given about this world. We are immersed in it without explanation. Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t want my stories spoon-fed to me, but I would like to be thrown a bone every once in a while. An impenetrable film isn’t an intelligent film. It is art for arts sake, something created by a filmmaker for the sole enjoyment of that filmmaker. Bilal seems to have made this movie with the assumption that everyone who watches it has read his graphic novels, which is an epic folly considering that his graphic novels aren’t well known in most English speaking countries—where his film, shot entirely in English, is marketed.
In the end, this is a film that wanted to be loved but failed to give a reason why it should be loved. Set in a cool, albeit familiar, world, it had a good premise. Watching the film does provide a unique experience. One is enthralled by the story, wondering where it’s going, wanting to know who these characters are and how they could possibly respond to these strange circumstances, but instead of filling the audience in on every relevant piece of information, Bilal and crew chose to hurry past the quiet moments in favor of racing to the nearest plot point—or getting to the closest scene in which eye-candy can be displayed. That is simply not how movies should be made. There’s nothing wrong with taking ones time in developing a story and characters; it is how things should be done. Save the gloss for music videos, television commercials, and video games.
Ultimately, Immortal is a film more concerned with how it presents its story than with the story it’s presenting, and that, whether you’re making a mainstream film or an indie film, will never entice people and inspire them to want to watch movies over again.
But it can teach us a valuable lesson:
Just because everyone has access to visual effects technology doesn’t mean that everyone should use/I> that technology.