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Entries in Clash of the Titans [2010] (1)

Sunday
Apr042010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Myth Buster

If you’re a fan of either Greek mythology or the original 1981 film Clash of the Titans, and if you’re planning to see this week’s updated version, you may want to indulge in a fun and challenging mental exercise. Take each beloved character—be they god or be they man—and substitute a different name for them in your head.

For example, Zeus (Liam Neeson), father of the gods, could be called “Fred”. Perseus (Sam Worthington), his half-god/half-human son, might be “Dylan”. By constructing these new identities, you’ll be prepared for the liberties that the film takes in crafting its own particular adventure story. You’re absolutely right in thinking it’s sacrilege to have Perseus’ quest not be about rescuing and falling in love with the beautiful Andromeda (Alexa Davalos); but Dylan is perfectly okay to go on a journey of self-discovery and wind up with his kind-of-sister, Agnes.

I saw the 1981 film when I was about five years old (having seen it only the one time, that qualifies as not really having seen it at all). My only knowledge of it going into the remake was that one of the stars of L.A. Law flew the Pegasus and used Medusa’s severed head to do something important; which is to say that I was ready for a whole new experience and had zero baggage or attachments to shade my perceptions. All I had to go on were the terrible trailers and my own running joke about Sam Worthington’s new status as “It Boy” for shitty blockbusters (he’d shuffled his way through last year’s Terminator: Salvation and Avatar, registering only as a human bicep with a penchant for letting his Australian accent slip too often to qualify as a professional actor).

The film opens with a lovely introduction to the Greek mythos, all narrated over animated constellations. Next, we’re thrust onto a fishing boat, where a family discovers a baby boy inside a trunk that’s come up with their nets. They take in young Perseus, who grows up to be a simple man of the sea.

One day, the family comes upon a battalion of soldiers bringing down a large statue of Zeus. Zeus’ brother, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), lord of the underworld, unleashes a swarm of winged monsters upon the soldiers; Perseus’ ship is sunk during the skirmish, and he is the only one not to drown. Dazed, Perseus is taken to the city of Argos, just in time to watch its queen defy the gods in a celebration of the razed statue. Hades appears again and vows that Argos will fall in a week if its people don’t sacrifice princess Andromeda.

Before leaving, Hades recognizes Perseus and reveals to everyone that he is part god. Perseus then leads a small contingent of warriors on a quest to find a way of defeating Hades before he can summon the Kraken, a monster so huge and unspeakably wretched that it could wipe out everything (presumably, it would start with Andromeda).

The rest of the movie is a series of action set pieces involving witches, overgrown scorpions, the serpent-haired Medusa, and a fallen king who has become Hades human proxy on Earth. It’s essentially the story of Star Wars, run through a Greek myth/fantasy film filter, and I enjoyed it much more than I ever thought I would.

The great thing about this movie is that it feels like a throwback to the adventure movies I grew up watching (it reminded me a lot of Krull); what it has over those movies, though, is an unexpected break from narrative tradition. This is a hero-saves-the-girl story, but Andromeda’s rescue comes about almost as an accidental consequence of Perseus’ real mission—that of destroying the gods and ushering in the age of man. Human prayers, you see, strengthen the gods, and when people get uppity and refuse to pray—or, worse yet, begin to see themselves as masters of their own destiny—their immortal overseers feel the need to shake things up and stay relevant. Perseus is motivated by revenge, not love, and it’s refreshing to watch a main character in a CG action film and not know what he might do next.

This is Sam Worthington’s best role. He’s not iconic in Clash of the Titans—or even particularly memorable—but he’s finally found a role where he doesn’t have to hide his accent, and where the sulking bad-ass thing actually fits the story he’s in. I will say that, after this and Avatar, his next script should not feature a main character who becomes the first person to ride a winged, mysterious beast.

The real stars of the movie are Neeson and Fiennes as the squabbling god brothers. In particular, Neeson appears to relish being the god of the gods (who wouldn’t?). He wears his pride as menacingly as his glistening silver armor, but his eyes betray a “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” tenderness that helped round him out. Fiennes’ character is a scratchy-voiced, manipulative reptile who tries to influence mortals and regain his former strength; and it’s nice to see that he took time out from playing Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series to bring a similar dark swagger to Hades.

If I have a complaint about Clash of the Titans, it’s the special effects; not all of them, just some. The scenes on Mount Olympus are impressive in a way that evokes an early-80s charm, not the garish, overly ornate digital filigree of many modern movies. The same can be said for the scorpions that Perseus and his gang fight and later befriend; I can’t be sure, but it looks like the 3D animators intentionally added some jerkiness to the their movements—perhaps the compositors also amped the green screen look, too—as a call-back to animation Ray Harryhausen’s work on the original movie.

The big trouble area is Medusa. Perhaps the most memorable character from the original, here she is a completely computer-generated concoction; and it’s obvious that director Louis Leterrier didn’t have James Cameron’s wizards working the controls; hell, the interns on Avatar probably could have done a more convincing job. Medusa looks like she sprang from an X-Box game—nicely rendered, I suppose, but not if the intent is to make her look like she belongs in a world of flesh-and-blood characters. Her early moments, when we see only her tail slithering about the catacombs of her lair, are creepy; so the big reveal of her comic book face is a major let-down.

I had a similar problem with the Kraken. When first summoned, we see large tentacles emerging from the ocean floor, overturning ships and destroying the outlying parts of Argos. But when its head pops up out of the water, it looks like a cross between the Cloverfield monster and The Incredible Hulk’s Abomination. The creature is lackluster, but its demise is spectacular, a real triumph of thoughtful animation that could have boosted the weaker parts of the movie.

It’s a great feeling to be surprised by a movie that I thought was going to be a chore. While not a totally fluid or satisfying movie (Perseus is given a girlfriend at the end of the movie, which was more than a little disappointing), Clash of the Titans is an entertaining ride. I appreciate the use of CG spectacle as a means of moving the story forward, rather than just as cheap popcorn thrills; and it doesn’t hurt that there’s a somewhat muddy but interesting nonetheless running philosophical argument about the importance of religion versus man’s need for self-reliance—heady stuff for an April action flick.

You may wonder how I can recommend a movie that veers so far from the source material in spirit and execution. To this, I can only explain my stance on remakes. If one decides to re-do a movie, then the expectation is that the remake be better than the original, or at least have an interesting enough take as to warrant the expenditure of lots of time, money, and effort. I don’t know if the new Clash of the Titans is better or worse than the original, but it is a solid enough fantasy/action film that any negative comparisons to its thirty-year-old predecessor can only be seen as nostalgic nitpicking.

Note: I saw the 2D version of Clash of the Titans, and I suggest you do the same. There aren’t any shots revolutionary enough that you need to drop and extra four dollars on the 3D glasses.