The answer is, fortunately, a good one. The film borrows loosely from the first two books (and discards the third completely) to create a story that is as curiously touching and human as it is fanciful and bizarre. It also does something few SF movies do at all: it assumes its audience is intelligent and curious, and more than a little accultured. This is in itself risky and laudable, especially when every SF movie that comes down the pike these days seems to be doomed to become either a Will Smith or Tom Cruise vehicle.
Immortal is set in New York City, a hundred years in the future. Monuments like the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge still stand (albeit looking more than a little weatherbeaten), and while the cars fly around they’re modeled more after Studebakers than Saturns. Most of the populace is in desperately poor health, and a grim conglomerate named Eugenics has set out on a self-appointed program of genetic sanitation. The one man who resisted Eugenics, Nikopol, is now on ice — quite literally — and the only traces left of his rebellious spirit are in t he form of the occasional bit of free- standing digital gr affiti.
There is another mystery: a giant pyramid floating over the city, impervious to messages or attack. Inside are no less than the gods of ancient Egypt themselves, including Horus (voice by Thomas M. Pollard), who has been convicted of crimes against his fellow gods, and now has one week left to say goodbye to the very species he helped germinate. Horus sets out into the city to find a body to occupy for that time, and winds up earning the enmity of the police when the various bodies he tries on for size all end up committing the gross incompetence of dying.
One of the people caught in Eugenics’s dragnets is a strange young woman named Jill Bioskop (Linda Hardy), who turns the head of seasoned Eugenics doctor Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling). “How many meals do you have a day?” she asks Jill, and gets the nonplussed answer: “Two a week.” Jill also has no papers, and no memory, so Turner sets her up in a hotel room in exchange for more information about her oddball physique. Jill is also visited periodically by a stranger swathed in black who speaks gentle words to her about fulfilling her destiny as a true human being, instead of the not-fully-human creature she is now. But she’s unsure how to do that, and it’s not as if you can simply exhort someone to evolve.
Horus eventually finds a host — Nikopol himself (Thomas Kretschmann), liberated from his cryogenic prison. Unfortunately, he loses a leg in the process, but Horus cheerfully crafts him a new one — from an iron rail. The prosthesis also acts like a leash: Whenever Horus relinquishes control of Nikopol, he no longer has the strength to drag the leg around without ripping it clean off. When Horus does take over, however, Nikopol can leap between buildings and make soft landings after plummeting thirty stories. Such power doesn’t make Nikopol feel any less used, or angry, or out of place — how would you feel if you woke up after decades to find out you were being used by an alien god as his earthly incarnation?
There are other dimensions to the story, like the troubled career of New York City Mayor Allgood (Joe Sheridan), and his viperlike assistant Liang (Corinne Jaber). They’re not happy about the “serial killer” (i.e., Horus) leaving dead bodies all over the city, but they’re even less happy about Nikopol suddenly out-and-about, too. Nikopol knows many things that could spell the end of Allgood’s career, so to silence him for good the Mayor and his cronies make use of an Eugenically-cloned alien to hunt him down — a tentacled behemoth somewhere between a bloodhound, a hammerhead shark, and Giger’s Alien.
There’s enough plot to make one’s head spin, but Immortal does two things that keep it not only watchable but compelling. For one, Bilal and his crew created a highly idiosyncratic look for the movie — yes, a “graphic novel come to life,” but the way they did it is unusual. There were few standing sets; most of the backdrops were done digitally and matted in, in much the same vein as the similarly ambitious Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Casshern. One of the advantages of having c heap, commodity computer power is that films like this can be done on dime-store budgets, and while they don’t look photorealistically convincing, they look striking, and that’s actually more important.
Immortal creates a look that may not be completely realistic,
but it suits the movie and has a beauty of its own.
Many of the characters themselves are also CGI: Horus himself, Allgood, the police and various supporting characters. Some of this CGI isn’t that great (it’s closer to the cut scenes in a video game than a feature film), but it has a psychological effect I found interesting. It makes us feel more immediate empathy for the characters portrayed by “real” actors — namely, Jill and Nikopol. One of the problems I had with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, for instance, was that everyone looked equally mannequin-esque and expressionless; Immortal cleverly detours around that problem by assuming that the people who don’t need to look like that shouldn’t have to.
The other thing that drew me into Immortal was, as I mentioned, how it assumes its audience is smart. Nikopol, for instance: When he’s first thawed out, he recites stanzas from The Flowers of Evil. It’s a detail most viewers are not going to get, but it humanizes him in an unexpected way; it’s nice to know the guy you’re rooting for is not only moral but thoughtful. He hates Horus from the inside out — not only for using his body, but for putting him in the bad position of having to explain to Jill why he seduces her, rapes her, and then conveniently can’t remember anything about it. Jill, likewise, isn’t sure if she should fear Nikopol for being schizoid; there are hints she sees how she handles him as a test for how she handles being human, period.
The CGI characters have the unique side effect of throwing our sympathy all the more with the real human ones.
I have a quote from the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen that I like to invoke when I try to sum up how I feel about a movie: “I demand two things of a composer: invention, and that he astonish me.” I was delighted by Immortal’s technical innovations, and pleasantly surprised by how the story got to me on a human level, too.