The James Clayton Column: all hail the screen gods

A screening of Tarsem Singh’s Immortals inspires James to write a paean to other gods of the big-screen…

Gods, in my humble opinion, are great. I’m willing to put my hand on my heart and then – in scenes resembling my favourite moments of Alien and The Thing – rip open my chest to put said heart on my sleeve and admit that I’m a huge fan of gods.

It’s just a shame for the Thuggee cult that I wasn’t cast as Willie Scott in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. Kali would have received my sacrificed organs and cinemagoers would have got to savour even more delicious nastiness in the darkest Indy flick. I’m cool with giving up body parts for the greater cosmological good and for the audience’s entertainment, and reckon Willie should reconsider her priorities, both as a stage performer and a human being. What’s the point of existing if you’re not pleasing others, and what’s the point of having a heart if you’re not going to give it away?

Should celestial beings demand it, then, I’d happily answer, call in Mola Ram and his Thuggee followers and share my dissected ventricles with deities. The way I see it, I have a pleasant, cordial relationship with these enigmatic celestials, and I respect them, not in a god-fearing way but in a “I like you as an amorphous concept and will make reverential signs at your shrine and forfeit my organs to you if you’re desperate” way.

This isn’t a very fashionable position to hold in the 21st Century Western world. It’s not really been a fashionable view since musical missionaries routed out pagan worship in the Dark Ages in scenes resembling Sister Act with swords. (Don’t believe blasphemously inaccurate films like, say, Kingdom Of Heaven – the spread of monotheistic faith and crusades for the one Christian God always came with funky soul gospel hymns and impressions of Whoopi Goldberg.)

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Returning to the present day, we now also find the solo God of Abrahamic religions having to fight for the limelight thanks to the popularity of atheism, the mass apathy of the enlightened information age and the competition of false idols like, erm, Justin Bieber.

It’s okay, by the way, to be an atheist or worship Justin Bieber. Everyone’s free to believe or disbelieve whatever they wish. Just know that Bieber has no ichor running through his veins, isn’t really the immaculate spawn of a primeval titan, and will never communicate with fans through burning bush spectacles. In truth, he’s simply a PR stunt pop machine robot and I’m personally more taken by icons like Thor and Zeus who sound out rumbling thunder rather than tweeny bop muzak.

This explains why, when scanning over the year’s cinematic releases list, I was more excited about Thor and Immortals and totally disinterested in Never Say Never (which is Bieber’s musical prequel to Never Say Never Again, as far as I’m aware.)

Spirited into the cinema by the allure of the divine, I took my seat for both movies, cried out “Come to me oh ye great Gods!” and the universe answered and brought them forth. Thor and Immortals are very different films – one a Marvel Comics adaptation mixing Norse legend and sci-fi, the other an artistic and beautifully gruesome excursion through Greek mythology – but they present their deities in similar, shiny fashion. We get the supreme figures armoured up in silver and gold, going to war against respective Frost Giants and Titans in sublime style, battling like beings not of this world.

This is how it should be – gods or demigods should radiate from the screen like righteous forces of super-nature. The manifest greater beings of mythology and theology should be extraordinarily awesome when represented in the movies, and should strike the viewer like something spectacular from incredible, exceptional realms beyond our mortal mundanity. After all, we’re dealing with metaphysical entities not constrained by Earth’s laws of physics, logic and reason here.Film as a medium allows the means and scope to deliver this, and provides moviemakers with opportunities to conjure up larger-than-life characters that transcend human limits.

For me, the tragedy of old sword-and-sandal flicks is that this doesn’t really happen. The monsters are excellent, the adventures exhilarating and the tales themselves timeless. The movies last as kitschy classics with peculiar powers to stir the souls of fantasy film fans regardless of how dated they look or cheaply they were made. Nevertheless, they’re often lacking when it comes to presenting the pantheons of gods who form the core of the lore they’re built on.

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Off the top of my head, I recall young Arnie in Hercules In New York and the original Clash Of The Titans, and feel underwhelmed by the lack of awe in their depictions of the Mount Olympus pantheon. Zeus is a thundering king of the skies seething with stark primordial strength and, frankly, an elderly Laurence Olivier dressed in a dusty toga and shot in perpetual soft focus doesn’t cut it. The same is true of the Rip Torn-voiced cuddly father figure of Disney’s Hercules – seeing the stormy supernatural rapist terror of ancient Greek religion turned into an animated big softy is a baffling experience.

Great leaps forward in filmmaking technology, however, ensure that Olympians and Asgardians get the cinematic treatment they deserve in contemporary works. Modern day filmmakers are more attuned to higher production values and make the ineffable effable with the blockbuster magic touch and advanced special effects.

This means that, come the remake of Clash Of The Titans, we’ve got a worthier portrayal of Zeus almighty. Liam Neeson is all fulgurous anger in celestial silver armour and makes the classic “Release the Kraken!” command with the proper dramatic authority. Thor followed up in style with a golden eyepatched Odin (Anthony Hopkins in glorious form) and a sleek vision of a metallic space age Asgard, brilliantly imagined for screen as an otherwordly cityscape beyond the stars.

Back to Zeus and his fellow Hellenic gods, I got such a huge kick from Immortals in the sequences where the divinities make supersonic descents down to Earth to kick back at the brutal Titans with wraithlike ethereal martial artistry, sweeping swish golden hammers and flaming whips of righteous wrath. I looked upon the furious young face of Luke Evans’ Zeus and felt an elevated sense of spiritual wonder.

I’d love to see more gods appearing in movies so I can enjoy more of these heart-warming moments. I need them – since Mola Ram cut open my chest, the draughts running through my insides have been dreadful.

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James’ previous column can be found here.

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