In the history of adult-themed comic books, the space between R Crumb's Sixties underground hippie comix and Alan Moore's Eighties psycho-superheroes belongs to the French comic magazine Metal Hurlant (Screaming Metal). From its debut in 1975, Metal Hurlant gave us artists like Moebius, Bilal, and my own favourite: Philippe Druillet. Multi-leveled future cities often featured, as did down-at-heel Gallic heroes. A badly translated American version, sadly called Heavy Metal, followed in 1977. In 1981 the Heavy Metal film simplified the stories, and lost the beauty of the art.
A year later, Blade Runner borrowed Metal Hurlant's best visuals, and linked them to a strong Philip K Dick storyline. The heart seemed to go out of the magazine after this, and a slow decline ended when the French version ceased publication in 1987. (A new version began in 2002). The American Heavy Metal magazine continued, but after 1984, it changed format; it now favoured American, Spanish and English artists, many of whom seemingly more inspired by soft porn and actual heavy metal album covers, than by anything in science fiction. Meanwhile, films like Judge Dredd, The Fifth Element, A.I. and Minority Report all made use of Metal Hurlant derived images.
Hurlant artist Enki Bilal has now moved into film, with Immortel being his second effort. Many of the images here are very strong, and highly thrilling. But they're so similar to the kind of thing that Metal Hurlant published, that they now look derivative of the films that followed, all towering skyscrapers and flying cars. Even so, Bilal does manage to use them in a strong and different way, such as a startling view of the future city through the tilting cockpit of a helicopter.
Immortel's story, from three graphic novels (The Nikopol Trilogy), is intriguing. In 2095, a giant pyramid appears over New York. Inside, the ancient Egyptian god Horus is told he has one day on Earth, before his destruction. He takes over the body of the rebel leader Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann), who has been cryogenically imprisoned, but accidentally released. Together, they chase beautiful blue-skinned amnesiac Jill (Linda Hardy), whose weird powers are being investigated by Doctor Elam Turner (Charlotte Rampling). Meanwhile, a Detective investigates a string of murders Horus committed earlier, while trying to find a suitable host body.
I haven't read the source graphic novel, so can't comment on how similar the film is. However, while the mix of ancient Egypt and future New York is compelling, the story quickly becomes very annoying. The opening scene, in which Horus emerges from the pyramid, and destroys two police helicopters, is superb. Except he has no reason to destroy them, and there is no follow up by the authorities. No one else even approaches the pyramid until the end of the film. Nikopol is supposedly a great leader, but he spends most of the film a patsy, dominated by Horus. Holographic graffiti supporting Nikopol is seen throughout, but we never find out who is responsible. The blue girl Jill is too similar to Leeloo in the Fifth Element, and her rape by Horus is unnecessary.
Like Ghost in the Shell, there's too much confusing dialogue. Immortel actually sounds like the American Heavy Metal translations used to read: literal and clumsy. The tone is somehow both pretentious and stupid. A sonorous voice-over tells us, "Even the gods fear death", but the mood is instantly blown as a Cockney cop yells "'Ere, it's a naked guy! Wiv a bird's 'ed." Other then Rampling, the actors seem to be French speakers who are reciting their lines by rote, with no understanding of what they mean.
Worst of all are the CGI characters. Some of the actors are people, but a random few are CGI. The CGI gods and aliens are acceptable, but the ones that are supposed to be human aren't in any way convincing. The scenes with three CGI characters talking together are useless: about as interesting as watching shop window dummies. The climax is completely confusing, mostly because Bilal doesn't seem to know what is actually in the forbidden zone of Central Park. The finale is presented as shocking, but Horus' goal is simple and pretty much obvious from the start. A curiosity, Immortel would have been amazing in 1981. In 2005, it still has its moments, mostly due to Bilal's intense visual sense. But the highlights don't add up to a great deal of screen time, and overall, Immortel is lukewarm. 7/10
In 2095 the omnipresent Eugenics Corporation holds sway over a class-ridden society structured around race (human and alien) and genetics. Eugenics is experimenting on the inhabitants of New York City, experiments that have created genetic mutations who live (literally) in the lower levels of a social underclass. The Corporation also has a dangerous influence on the political landscape. Into this future world, a floating pyramid suddenly appears in the sky - it inhabitants are Annubis, Bastet and Horus, the Egyptian gods. Horus is being judged by his peers and his immortality is challenged. Horus intends to use the visit to Earth to save the life of political prisoner (and dissident icon) Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) - who stood against the work of the Eugenics Corporation and has been incarcerated in a cryogenic suspension prison for many years. Taking over Nikopol's body, Horus escapes the authorities and seeks out and mates with Jill a beautiful young woman named Jill Bioskop (Linda Hardy) with a hidden ability. His aim: for his actions to unseat the dictatorship, break the social class structure and genetic prejudices and, perhaps, steer mankind back onto a better future. But even with the support of a network of unseen supporters known as "The Spirit of Nikopol", Nikopol/Horus has his work cut out as the all-powerful Eugenics relentlessly track him down. However, if Horus succeeds he might also redeem himself in the eyes of his peers and retain his immortality.
At least that's my take on Enki Bilal's sprawling, astonishing, epic.
French comic book writer/artist and occasional director Enki Bilal obviously has a rich imagination. On the evidence of his Tykho Moon, however, I'd marked him down as interesting but little more. Eight years on and the stunning Immortel hits our screens. Or does it? The gloomy news is that this has done mediocre box office in France and at the time of writing (September 2004) has yet to be picked up by a UK or US distributor. It has received some frankly inexplicable bad press, driven it seems as much by stories of its troubled production - which in my view have resulted in a far more rewarding film than the one that was supposed to me made. (Originally intended to be purely CGI, when costs spiralled the decision was made to shoot some characters as live action and place them into the computer generated world and the remainder of the CG characters.) For this is one SF film that has that rare combination: style and substance.
It is possible to dismiss much of it as pretentious. Surely, any film that has dialogue in French, Japanese, English and Egyptian has got to be pretentious hasn't it? But the lofty tone is likely due as much to the fact that this is a two hour film based upon Bilal's own epic graphic novel series. Go into this expecting The Fifth Element and your brain cells will fry. The plot does make sense, you simply need to pay attention. Intellectually, this has more in common with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky than Steven Spielberg. Without the benefit of having read the source graphic novels, the plot summary above is very much my take on what we see. But there's a lot to suggest that beyond the richly realised world in which all this takes place, there is a much bigger plot than superficially meets the eye. Immortel is very much in the tradition of films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2001: A Space Odyssey where an external higher power is brought in to intervene in the development of the human race so that it can be placed on a more positive path or taken onto a higher plane of existence.
It is easy to knock Immortel as portentous, almost indulgent, it's certainly a bit of a mess and some of the CGI characters are undoubtedly a bit sub-standard. But Immortel has something in spades that many genre films woefully lack: ambition, intelligence and vision. This is the most visually arresting film I've seen since Blade Runner. It's simply beautiful to behold, a breathtaking artistic achievement. Having also seen Bilal's Tykho Moon I'm beginning to understand where he's coming from. He is a visionary, an artist, and clearly not overly concerned with commercial success (future potential investors take note!). Perhaps his ambition occasionally outstrips his talent (certainly the case with Tykho Moon). But the last thing critics should do in this age of predictable, braindead, mainstream fodder is try and do down anyone taking a stand against such mediocrity. If there's one thing that Immortel defiantly isn't that's mediocre. One of the best films of 2004 without a doubt. I can't wait to get my hands on a feature-packed DVD and re-immerse myself in Bilal's amazing world. 8/10
Rob Dyer (September 2004)
Day the Earth Stood Still, The
Fifth Element, The
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Metal Hurlant comic
2001: A Space Odyssey
For comparing blue screen techniques, see also:
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Trivia: industrial outfit VNV Nation (a favourite of DSO Audio) used clips from Immortel during their 2004 US tour.
A-Z of Film Reviews