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Pyramid power - Which is not unduly obvious, as I am about to explain
Pyramid power
Obscure movie review!

Quite some time ago there was a buzz after seeing the trailer for the French film L'Immortel by director Enki Bilal, based on two graphic novels of a trilogy he drew in the Heavy Metal genre, which I have not read. Since my aunt lives in France, she bought me the DVD for Christmas and I spent some time figuring out how to convert it from PAL to NTSC so I could watch it on North American DVD players.

The result? Enh. It's not a great film, but neither is it horrible. It's definitely interesting, but I think it wanted to do a lot and ultimately failed. It's one of the films contending for the position of being the first full-length movie made where the backgrounds were inserted digitally behind the actors afterwards. In fact most of the actors are digital too. Aside from various extras (and one guy with his head totally covered by scarves) there are only three human actors.

One review I read of the film said that the digital characters had been outsourced to different companies, which resulted in large differences in quality. I don't know if that's the reason (I didn't watch the making-of extras), but it's definitely true quality-wise. The senator and his manipulative aide/overseer are... terrible. It's like a cut-scene from a video game stretched out to inordinate lengths. On the other hand, there's an alien-like bartender and a corrupt medical researcher who are fantastically done, with all sorts of details in their body language and facial expressions.

Oh - I should explain what the film is about. New York, dystopian future. A medical research company called Eugenics basically has a dictatorship over the city. The ancient gods of Egypt have reappeared in a giant flying pyramid. Horus is being kicked out - he loses his immortality in a week, and has come to New York in search of a mysterious woman named Jill.

Jill has white skin, blue hair and can shoot energy bolts from her palms. But her internal biology is all weird and she can't remember who she is. A mysterious alien stranger named John has brought her to Earth, and is giving her pills to turn her human and make her forget her past. John is also responsible for the area of Central Park to be surrounded by a lethal force-field and sub-zero temperatures. Jill is given an income and a place to live by Dr. Elma Turner, a researcher at Eugenics, in exchange for becoming her research specimen.

Jill is apparently a rare kind of being that has the ability to procreate with gods, which is why Horus has come to New York. He posesses the body of a political activist named Nikopol, who was accidentally(?) released from a cryogenic prison a year too soon. Horus rapes Jill at first, and then allows Nikopol more control so that the he can form a relationship with Jill until a successful coupling takes place.

Meanwhile, Eugenics is after Nikopol with the help of the senator and his evil shark-like henchmen. And there's a police inspector named Froebe investigating all the dead bodies. At the end of the film, the gods take Horus away, and a year later Nikopol is released from prison and starts a relationship with Jill again, who is now human and is mother to a new, baby god.

While watching this film, if you try and think of an explanation for why things are taking place, you run up against a brick wall: there simply isn't enough information given. Why is Horus being kicked out of godhood? Dunno. Why did John bring Jill to Earth? Who knows. Why is inspector Froebe even in this film? Aside from a few narrative bits he links together, he performs no major plot tasks and is overall an utterly helpless character who is no better off at the end of the film than at the beginning.

See, let's try to explain Froebe. Froebe is useful because he gives Dr. Elma Turner a lift in his squad car near the end of the film so they can reach the force-field around Central Park, so that Dr. Turner can escort Jill away later. The function of the force field is to give the characters a place to interact without interruption, and... no, none of this makes any sense, unless you say because it's convenient for the plot. The whole film is like that. In fact, the only decent exposition given for anything is that one of the shark henchmen bit off Froebe's nose a few years ago. It's mentioned so many times in such an un-subtle fashion that it's as if it was very important. But it's not. It's completely irrelevent to the film.

Really, what the "plot" of this film boils down to is, I'm sorry to say, a sex/rape fantasy of the director's. If this film is taking itself seriously, then it's a badly-done serious film. If the film is not taking itself seriously... then it's nowhere near being funny. Humour is there, but it is brief and scattered. Compared to The Fifth Element, this film is drab and pretentious.

Pretentious? The characters recite poetry. Yes, poetry. Baudelaire, I believe. In total during the film, there are three recitations of poetry and three explosions. The explosions are drab and minor. Explosions make a film fun. As Richard Bartrop said to me about fun films, "True, some directors try to use story and character to make up for a lack of explosions; some even manage to pull it off."

Story? Doesn't pull it off. Characters? Well, since we aren't given much information about the characters except whatever is convenient for the plot, things don't get too deep. How about the looks of the characters and acting? Well, visually, here are the film's female characters:

Which one of these is the lesbian not like the others, and what's the emphasis? Granted, most of the females in The Fifth Element had a certain chest emphasis too, but that was a science-fiction fantasy comedy, and they're known to have certain values. L'Immortel seems to be taking itself far more seriously to have to resort to cheap tits-and-ass to get attention. You know, I don't think "serious" or "not serious" is what this film is trying to accomplish. "Vanity project" pretty much explains most of its problems and features. For some things, I have no idea if they were trying to be funny, or if they were running out of money, or if they were copying the original graphic novel... I mean, just look at this henchman. It's like a costume from a Power Rangers episode.

One of the odder features is that the film is spoken in English. Yes, it's a French film done in English. It's meant to be watched with French subtitles for French audiences. The actor who plays Nikopol, Thomas Kretschmann, is a good physical actor and seems well-chosen. But the problem is that English is not his native language, and the cadence of his sentences and hence his delivery is all wrong. It's a shame.

Jill? Despite being able to shoot emergy bolts and having a massive attitude problem, she's a victim throughout the entire film. Becoming a guinea pig, being raped, having her memory taken away, John making all her major decisions for her. She's played by Linda Hardy. Her English is excellent. Her acting is terrible. This is her attempt to break into acting. There's potential, but she's got a long way to go. My understanding is that she was Miss France in 1992 and has spent at least seven years working as a fashion model. If you see this film, watch how she walks. She's strutting the runway.

Charlotte Rampling, who plays Dr. Elma Turner, is a good actress. But she's given terrible lines. Everything she says is either a sexual suggestion or an anti-male insult. Another big shame. Most of the dialogue during the film is awful. Not as bad as in Star Wars Episode Two, but it sounds stilted like it's out of a comic book. (Which it is.) One media does not naturally translate into another. In some scenes I could literally imagine the word balloons.

Hrm, what else... where's the source of conflict? Horus is a god! You can't defeat him! Nikopol and everyone is powerless against him - he forces them to do what he wants. There's no opponent of similar degree to be pitted against him. And Nikopol is the only one who knows Horus is there... Eugenics certainly isn't aware of him. So is the enemy... the dystopian society? Eugenics? A race against time? Horus? it's unclear, and that makes things even more pretentious and disappointing.

Did I like anything about this film? Yes! The visuals. The visuals are really good. Bleak, blue, artistic. And it's an interesting film for what it was trying to do without really pulling it off. It's worth a watch once if this sort of thing interersts you. Seriously, it's not bad, merely disappointing yet fascinating at the same time. The kind of film that might show up at 1 a.m. on TV that you'd stay up and watch.

If, however, you'd rather skip this film, then I would suggest instead The Fifth Element (except for Chris Tucker's part, which almost singlehandedly ruins the second half), and the original animated film Heavy Metal. I think they're both what L'Immortel could have been.

In closing, here's another review which I largely found myself in agreement with.

5 comments or Leave a comment
zrath From: zrath Date: March 17th, 2005 11:12 am (UTC) (Link)

Okay, yeah, the story is a mess and you're not given enough information.
I had skimmed through the original graphic novel, so I had a rudimentary understanding of
what the set-up was, though I still don't know why Horus was being kicked out of godhoodness.
Anubis, Horus and Bastet were supposed to look like that. In the book, they look like
living statues, which I think is kind of neat and reminds me of Jean Cocteau's
"La Belle Et La Bete" (Beauty And The Beast).
The movie is definitely a vanity project...

And, hey, I LIKED Chris Tucker in Fifth Element!

boinggoat From: boinggoat Date: March 18th, 2005 10:23 am (UTC) (Link)
I don't recall living statues in Belle et la Bete...of course, my copy is a really horrible VHS dub. I dind't know anyone but huge perverts like me would ever have it.

And as far as Chris Tucker goes...I'm with Dronon. I can't stand any of those identical black comics. I don't even know how many there are...they all sound alike!
dronon From: dronon Date: March 18th, 2005 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Enh. I'm not a big fan of Chris Tucker as an actor. Having to watch him in The Fifth Element, for me anyway, is a lot like fingernails on a chalkboard. I appreciate the character he's playing and the humour of that character (Bzzzzz!) - I just think he takes it way overboard, but your mileage may vary. :) I also have a big problem when people talk in such a way to be near-incomprehensible. It's took a lot of re-watchings of the film until I could understand what the heck he was actually saying.

The third Harry Potter movie has a similar problem, in the shack at the end. The drama and tension speeds up considerably, and suddenly all the characters start giving rather important exposition (especially if you haven't read the books) - but they're slurring and spitting and mashing all their words together as well as trying to talk really fast. I enjoyed the rest of the film! Although I wish the werewolf hadn't looked so lanky.
porsupah From: porsupah Date: March 19th, 2005 11:22 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'll be interested to see if the trilogy does in fact complete, given its middling performance at the box office. (Similarly with Tamala 2010)

Hm. Maybe it's time for another viewing of The Fifth Element.. definitely amongst my favorite films. Not for the story, but its exquisite visuals, and the thought that obviously went into the settings.

And yes, I absolutely loved Ruby Rod's entrance. ^_^

(My, that doesn't sound right..)
l337_0n1 From: l337_0n1 Date: March 17th, 2005 12:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
A couple of days ago I watched a feature length anime titled 'A Tree of Palme'. My reaction to it is similar to the reaction you had to thsi film. 'A Tree of Palme' is beautiful to look at, but its very, very slow moving, and incredibly disjointed. The "story" hops around with no warning, and there are what seem to be random flashbacks.
5 comments or Leave a comment