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August 27th, 2005 (03:25 pm)

© 2005 D. Gordon

So I saw Enki Bilal's Immortel last Thursday, and I can't get it out of my head. It's one of those movies which are clearly flawed, but you keep replaying scenes (both literally and mentally), seeing how the pieces fit together - and finding, despite the blemishes, that the thing actually does work.

The basic plot follows three characters over the course of a week in New York of 2095. Because of unspecified crimes, Horus of Hierakonopolis (yes, that Horus) has seven days left of existence. Nikopol, a political prisoner who's been in a cryogenic prison for thirty years, is released through an accident; in the aftermath, his and Horus's paths cross. And Jill Bioskop is a mysterious figure with no past and a power that only Horus is aware of - and fully plans to exploit. There are several subplots which push the story along, but the main action is between these three characters.

There is a kernel of genius in this basic setup and how it plays out. The three main characters are forced into situations not of their own choosing, and over which they have almost no control. Horus is faced with extinction; his instinct is to pursue the last remaining way to remain immortal. Jill, through her mentor? guide? John, is being forced to become a human woman. Her interaction with Horus and Nikopol is almost tangential - although still fated (and I'm somewhat convinced that John exploited this as part of his plans for Jill). And Nikopol seems fated... well, his fate isn't as clear as the others'; it seems more that his body makes him one of the few beings appropriate for what Horus needs - making him the male equivalent of Jill. Once Nikopol figures out what that need is, his political background fighting for nonhuman rights makes him best suited to act as a sort of champion for Jill. All this is fate, folks. And it leads to a lot of musings on the role of fate in the universe.

I don't want to give the idea that there isn't any hope, because that is very much the second major theme in this movie. There's hope that the nightmare of the cycle of fate will end. Nikopol has hope that his prison sentence will end and he can start over with Jill and a clean slate. Jill has hope that this path that John put her on - being a human woman - will work out positively. Horus had the hope that his mission was successfully completed in his last days. Horus also looks to have gained a little human compassion through his interactions with the other two. And there is the hope that the black world present during most of the movie is a little better in the end.

* * * * * * * * * *

But there are definite problems with the film. This movie shares the distinction (with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sin City, and Casshern[1]) of being the full first blue or green screen movie. That means what you think it does: lots of CGI (all backgrounds are CGI). But the CGI is really uneven, ranging from brilliance to Pong; and sometimes it's just plain distracting. It's a bad sign when you're past the first few scenes and still watching the CGI instead of the movie. One theory that I've heard, but which I (and a lot of others) missed when I watched the movie, was that the CGI was directly linked to the type of character. The "corrupted," prosthetic-enhanced humans of 2095 are artificial, with the worst offenders in the worst-quality CGI; the gods are done in a different, less creative CGI, almost as though their presence can't be described in human terms. Interesting theory, and it looks to hold fairly consistently, but if it's true, it failed really, really badly.

The second problem is that Bilal is terrible at characterizations. There isn't a need to know every single motivation behind every single character; but we need enough basic information to get a sense of how Bilal's universe operates. The three main characters do provide some of that, but the other characters do not. It would be nice to know more about the Eugenics company, how deeply they control the Senator and his assistant / keeper Lily Liang, who the police investigators tasked with tracking down Nikopol and Jill are and how much they actually buy into what they're doing. They help move the story forward, but end up being more than extras but otherwise almost throwaway characters.

The third problem is the way the story's told. It's easy to miss a lot of points that look minor but aren't. Note something as easy as the car trip from the bar to the hotel that Jill and Horus/Nikopol take: it's a study in foreshadowing and foreboding, while a distorted, schmaltzy love song plays on the radio, setting up the feeling that what's about to happen, where this is heading, is totally, completely wrong. It gets under your skin, it makes you want to scream at them to stop the car, stop the story; but you, like Jill and Nikopol, are a victim of fate and can only watch the train wreck happening. Another key element: Jill's references to "human woman," with both John and Nikopol, keep cropping up. She visits a science museum. She studies the exhibits on the human body as though they're actual lessons. But these things are subtle and underplayed to the point of being easy to miss. Jill's blue tears, usual state of confusion, and bad vision are obvious; but the other markers are so obscure, especially if you have no prior exposure to Bilal, that you'll never catch them the first time.

A lot of these problems might be because Bilal is a graphic novelist much more than a filmmaker. The movie itself, when you think about it and look at the shot composition, really plays like a comic book reads. I haven't been able to find his other two movies, but I did find a copy of the Nikopol Trilogy, which was the basis of the movie.

Reading the graphic novel helps - somewhat. There's more backstory, and the general state of the world is scoped out. But this is a different story from the movie; in fact, Bilal's taken one minor plot point and resculpted it into Immortel. And many of the actions in the movie are the same as the book, but the motivations definitely are not. While I don't think a truer transfer of the original story would have worked as a movie, the version that Bilal did put together is still too steeped in the graphic novel tradition to completely make it as a movie.

* * * * * * * * * *

So, the upshot - it's an interesting, ambitious movie with an imaginative story, some true flashes of brilliance, and a lot of potential. But it doesn't meet the standard it set for itself.

I'm not sure if this will make any sort of general release in the US; I saw it on DVD, I've heard of random showings (and I'd love to see it on the big screen), but in the current political climate, the storyline might not work. But with this example, if I do get to see this or other films by Bilal, I'd be really inclined to check them out. And you should be, too.

[1] I've seen Casshern, but that's another review for another day.