Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)Coming across like a mythological hybrid of its official source material and GLADIATOR, the remake extracts the essence of the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS and updates it for the new millennium, enhancing not only the special effects but also the story. Some of the simple, innocent charm of the original is lost in translation, but the benefits are more than ample compensation. The new CLASH strives for greater depth and complexity, and even though it does not fully succeed, the serious approach enhances the entertainment, which is wrapped up in an action-packed scenario that seldom succumbs to the pitfalls of its own higher ambitions. The result is a satisfying adventure movie that manages to strum a few emotional and thematic chords as well.

Almost all the familiar characters are here:* Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus (Sam Worthington), Andromeda ( Alexa Davalos), Calibos (Jason Flemyng), the Stygian Witches, the giant scorpions, Medusa, Pegasus, the Kraken, along with new ones such as Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Io (Gemma Atherton). However,the elements have been reconfigured in an effort to maintain a more mature and sophisticated tone.

This CLASH OF THE TITANS announces its intentions most clearly in a brief throw-away moment when Perseus (Sam Worthington) finds a mechanical owl while prepping for his epic journey. We in the audience recognize it as a replica of the comic relief sidekick that marred the second half of the original CLASH. Its significance eludes the new Perseus, who asks innocently, “What’s this?” A comrade replies disdainfully, “Just leave it.” Thankfully, that is the last time we see the metalic fowl, freeing this CLASH from the antics that morphing the 1981 film from Greek mythology into a kiddie fairy tale. Instead, we get an action-opus aimed at slightly older boys – teens and young adults, who prefer their heros tough, strong, and slightly cynical.

If there is a weakness to this boy’s adventure approach, it is that the female roles are slightly down-graded, with Andromeda pushed mostly off-screen. The script attempts to compensate by inserting Io, a woman cursed with immortality after offending the gods (apparently a variation on the legend of the Immortal Roman or the Wandering Jew). Unfortunately, Io is less of a character than a plot-device, her ageless status qualifying her as an expert on just about everything, allowing her to act as a mouth-piece for exposition. Strangely, Io is ignorant of the one essential piece of information that Perseus needs (how to kill the monstrous Kraken). Presumably, this is just a weak writer’s device, in order to retain Perseus’s quest to find the Stygian Witches, three cannibalistic old crones who will reveal the necessary tactic.

The script occasionally succumbs to its episodic nature, which is reminiscent of a videogame (strange since the original CLASH was made before videogames had quite such a big influence on films). Perseus must go to the witches to get a piece of information, which leads him to Medusa, whom he must defeat in order to use her head against the Kraken, but only after overcoming Calibos. After a strong opening that involves the viewer in Perseus’s plight, the linear narrative eventually bogs down in the middle.

Fortunately, the story revives for a rousing ending, and many of the screenplay’s innovations represent improvements upon the old CLASH OF THE TITANS. For example, the scorpion battle now takes place before – rather than after - the confrontation with Medusa; the scene always felt like an anti-climax in the original.

There is also a worthwhile attempt to inject small touches of characterization into the supporting cast, most notably the soldiers who accompany Perseus on his quest; unlike the mostly faceless extras who die in the Ray Harryhausen production (with little or no emotional impact), each of these characters gets at least a moment to make a small impression. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make their deaths register.

Ralph Fiennes as Hades

Ralph Fiennes as Hades

The script is aided by some strong casting. Postlethwaite especially shines in a brief role; as Perseu’s adoptive father, he makes you understand Perseus’s defiance of the gods even better than Worthington does. Worthington himself is solid as an action hero, but he doesn’t quite have the charisma to portray a demi-god: when he insists on acting as a human, you don’t feel he is denying another part of himself; he is simply stating what is visible to us. Mads Mikkelson (CASINO ROYALE) makes a memorable impression as Draco, initially skeptical of Perseus, and Liam Neeson cuts a fine figure as Zeus, by turns angry and forgiving (as Freud said, God is the ultimate father figure). But the stand-out performance comes from Fiennes as Hades: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, he is not only threatening but insinuating; resentful of his devious treatment by Zeus, he even engenders a small amount of empathy.

The character relationships have been reconfigured in an effort to tighten up the plot threads and to develop the thematic undertones. For example, the mis-shapen Calibos is no longer a suiter of Andromeda but the former King Acrisius, struck down by the gods for casting his wife and her child, Perseus, son of Zeus, into the ocean, from which the boy is rescued by fishermen Spyros (Peter Postlethwait).

In effect, Perseus is given three father figures: a god (Zeus), a mortal (Spyros), and a mortal who has been touched by gods (Calibos). The only fully sympathetic one is Spyros, and his death at the hands of Hades (collateral damage when Zeus decides to humble arrogant humanity) fuels Perseus’ desire to challenge the dictates of the gods. The irony, of course, is that Perseus’s only chance of succeeding is that he is himself a demi-god, who receives an occasional bit of divine intervention on his behalf; although allegedly acting of his own free will, he becomes a weapon in the fued between Zeus and Hades, and eventually has to reconcile himself to his own personal God, the Father.

If this sounds a bit theological for an action pic, we should remember that the ghost of the idea exists in the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS, in which mortal heroes were able to triumph as much in spite of as because of the gods, human courage serving as a marked contrast to the petty infighting of the inhabitants atop Mount Olympus. This echo of a theme underlying Wagner’s Ring operas even led to the film’s own suggestion of a “Twilight of the Gods,” with a closing narration suggesting that the legend of Perseus’s deeds would outlast the gods themselves, turning the hero into the true immortal.

The new CLASH OF THE TITANS infuses this idea throughout the narrative, beginning with Spyros’s refusal to thank the gods (whose whims have led to nothing but hardship for him and his family), leading eventually to Perseus’s full-scale defiance. The anti-religious tone is at once engaging and amusing – it’s obviously safe to spit in the eyes of the Greek pantheon without risking too much back-lash from conservative Christians, even though the screenplay is obviously the one as a stand-in for the other. (Perseus, son of a god, is at one point referred to as “our savior,” and his life as a fisherman reminds us of the occupation of the New Testament apostles, who Jesus made “fishers of men”).

Ultimately, the film backs off from its apparent intentions, settling for a more moderate, less radical thematic statement. Zeus, who is initially angered by Perseus’s defiance, has an off-screen change of heart (presumably motivated by the need by a combination of paternal love and a need to defeat Hades) and lends a helping hand to his would-be mortal son, appearing to him initially as a cloaked figure, rather as Wotan appears to Siegfried in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. The scene in the opera represented the end of the authority of the gods, as Seigfried shatters Wotan’s staff; in CLASH, on the other hand, Perseus learns to accept the help of his heavenly father, even as that father admits his own mistakes and encourages his son to be “better” than the gods have been.

The message may ultimately be a bit muddled (one wonders if this is the result of rewrites to tone down possibly controversial elements), but it’s strong enough to give a sense that CLASH OF THE TITANS is about something more than a monster battle every ten minutes – even while the film serves up all the special effects action that any monster-loving kid could ever want.

The computer-generated effects display a dynamism missing from Harryhausen’s old stop-motion work – which, fine as it was, tended to be staged in proscenium arch style, with the camera at a safe distance. Here, the viewer is right up in the action, nose to nose with mythological beasts that may lack some of the personality of Harryhausen’s unique creations but offer instead greater speed and agility.

The action and special effects are “enhanced” by 3D this time around, but at least in the Real 3D process, the enhancement is minimal. There is some small sense of depth to the image, but the effect is hardly immersive. For example, the flying scenes with Perseus riding the winged horse Pegasus are nicely handled but lack the visceral thrill of similar 3D scenes in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and little would be lost by watching the film in 2D.

For the most part, even hard-core Harryhausen fans should be pleased by the new approach. Pegasus, seen less often, displays more power, the stead canter of the original replaced with speed and agility. The Kraken, especially, is a big improvement, conveying immense size and raw power of an apocalyptic nature that far exceeds the original beastie (who never quite lived up to his build-up in the ‘81 flick). It’s also amusing to see the harpies from Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS show up here and there – a nice nod from the filmmakers, indicating that they are knowledgeable fans of the retired special effects artist, not just paid hacks cashing in on a pre-existing property.

The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon

The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon

The one exception, perhaps, is Medusa. The gorgon’s scene is now augmented with sinister, mocking laughter that adds an extra shivery layer of fear, and her snake-like appearance is obviously inspired by Harryhausen’s design. The problem is that the filmmakers lack the wisdom to know that just because you can do something different with computer-generated imagery, doesn’t mean you shoulddo it. The 1981 Medusa is a perfect example when the limitations of stop-motion were actually perfectly appropriate for achieving the desired effect; her  scene is a model of slowly building suspense. The new Medusa is a super-charged serpent that moves with the speed of a champion thoroughbred hopped-up on amphetimines, hurling her body over chasms in a gravity-defying manner that simply screems “CGI!” She is not quite as bad as the snake in ANACONDA, but the problem is similar, the lack of inertia reminding us that we are not watching something real, not even watching something stylized; we are simply watching something digital.

The original CLASH OF THE TITANS was a bit of an auteur piece – uniquely, not from a director but from a special effects supervisor. The film as a whole is imbued with Harryhausen’s personality, for better or worse, making it an artistic statement that should be read as the culmination of a long and fruitful career (it was Harryhausen’s swan song in cinema). The remake is more of a studio effort, with various craftsmen brought onto to exploit a pre-existing property. Fortunately, love of the original shines through powerfully enough to render this new CLASH as something more than a soulless exercise in mass-market filmmaking.

If the original was somewhat schizophrenic (suspended somewhere between spectacular epic and kiddie fantasy), so is the remake (talking out of both sides of the mouth regarding whether we are better off with or without the gods). Neither is perfect, but both have their own kind of integrity, pitching themselves toward their intended audience with satisfyingly entertaining results. The new CLASH OF THE TITANS aims higher than the original, and even if it does not fully ascend to the intended Olympian heights, it does manage to reach the clouds.

The Kraken rears its ugly head

The Kraken rears its ugly head

CLASH OF THE TITANS(April 2, 2010). Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 film written by Beverly Cross. Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason FLemyng, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Mads Mikkelsen, Liam Cunningham, Vincent Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, Elizabeth McGovern.

FOOTNOTE:

  • Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, and a giant vulture are nowhere to be scene in this CLASH OF THE TITANS.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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