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Clash of the Titans (2010)

DIRECTOR: Louis Letterier

CAST:

Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Mads Mikkelsen, Jason Flemyng, Liam Cunningham, Hans Matheson, Nicholas Hoult, Pete Postlethwaite

REVIEW:

I don’t look back on the original Clash of the Titans through rose-tinted nostalgic glasses. I probably watched it a hundred times when I was a kid, and thought it was great, but in hindsight, it’s campy and hokey, with laughably wooden acting, led by a poofy-haired Harry Hamlin and Laurence Olivier on autopilot, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was state-of-the-art in its heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s but compared to 1977’s Star Wars made the 1981 Titans look significantly older than it was.  While unnecessary remakes abound in Hollywood, this is the kind of movie that could actually benefit from a remake with better acting and updated visual effects. I’m also a sucker for Greek mythology. The epic stories pitting heroes against bizarre supernatural monsters while the capricious gods looked on, moving the mortals around like pieces on a chessboard, were like the comic books of their day. The Greeks were the first to grant their gods both human appearances and human weaknesses, with the male gods, especially Zeus, notoriously lusting after mortal women, and his brothers and sisters tormenting our heroes, wiping out entire cities, transforming people into monsters left and right…it’s wild and entertaining stuff.

So I don’t demand too much to be entertained by a movie featuring Greek mythology, and Clash of the Titans 2.0 is mildly entertaining in a big, dumb, loud, flashy sort of way, but it’s unfortunately just about as campy and unintentionally goofy as the original it takes obvious- and some misjudged- steps to set itself apart from.

After a brief bit of documentary-style exposition narrated by Gemma Arterton (who will serve this purpose for the rest of the movie) summarizing the Titans’ overthrow by their children Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, who depend on the worship of mortals for their immortality, a coffin containing a baby and his dead mother is fished out of the sea by fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite) and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), who raise the child as their own. Many years later, the city of Argos declares war on the gods. The King and Queen of Argos (Vincent Regan, Polly Walker) declare an Era of Man, that the gods need them, not the other way around, and that their daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is more beautiful than Aphrodite. Argos’ defiance angers Zeus (Liam Neeson), king of the gods, who gives his brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) permission to terrorize them into returning to their proper fear and worship. Hades demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the behemoth sea monster the Kraken in ten days, or Argos will be destroyed. A quest to find a way to defeat the Kraken is launched, led by grown-up Perseus (Sam Worthington), whose simple life ended when his adoptive family became collateral damage of Hades’ attack. Seeking revenge against the gods, Perseus also rejects Zeus’ offers of a magical sword, vowing to ‘do this as a man’, although he does gain two supernatural allies, a Djinn, a warrior wood-man (that’s about all the explanation you’re gonna get), and the immortal Io (Gemma Arterton), his guardian angel of sorts, who has watched over him all his life. Io proves a convenient wealth of mythical knowledge, and confirms to Perseus that he is in fact the son of Zeus, who tricked the wife of the rebellious King Acrisius (Jason Flemyng) into having sex with him in the form of her husband, upon which the enraged Acrisius casts both his wife and the infant Perseus (apparently gods’ kids grow fast) into the sea. For this Acrisius was punished with a strike from Zeus’ lightning bolt, leaving him the hideously disfigured Calibos. Perseus’ quest leads to the Stygian witches, hags who share a single eye that can see fate, and steer Perseus to Medusa, a half-woman half-snake monster who turns anyone who meets her gaze to stone and may be the only weapon that can destroy the Kraken. But along the way, Perseus and his band will tangle with giant scorpions and Calibos, now a lackey of Hades sent to follow them and thwart their mission.

While it’s called a remake, Clash of the Titans is really more of a ‘reimagining’. 2010 hits the majority of the basic points of 1981, albeit usually tweaked: Perseus and his men fight giant scorpions, Perseus rides Pegasus (although its color has been randomly changed from white to black), Cassiopeia insults the gods, leading to Andromeda’s demanded sacrifice, and the showdowns with Medusa and the Kraken play out basically the same. Calibos is included, although with a different back-story and reduced importance. There’s even a fleeting cameo by Bubo, the original’s mechanical owl, but it’s uncertain what older viewers with fond memories of Bubo will think of this, as his cameo is more of a jab than a nod, and will go straight over some younger viewers’ heads. Some, however, especially those watching it out of fondness for its predecessor, will be annoyed to find that the update plays fast and loose with both the mythology and aspects of the 1981 original film, most significantly SPOILER WARNING completely omitting the Perseus-Andromeda romance (which was in not only the 1981 film but also the original mythological story of Perseus and in fact even has constellations named after it). Here, Perseus and Andromeda interact only fleetingly and his mission has nothing to do with feelings for her. The original was (or at least aspired to be and is viewed nostalgically as) a romantic epic, with the valiant hero rescuing the princess from the monster; this Perseus is just out for revenge. In fact, there’s a hint of understated romance between Perseus and Io, whose character was not in either the mythology or original film, but don’t come here looking for love. This Perseus has more pressing things on his mind, principally slaying a long line of monsters on his way to the Kraken and Hades himself. Incidentally, Hades did not figure in the original’s plot at all (he has essentially replaced Maggie Smith’s Thetis in the plot), and as usual Hollywood has inaccurately equated Hades with Satan as evil; in the actual mythology, while depicted as a dark figure as ruler of the underworld, Hades was actually considered one of the fairer of the gods, and the underworld was where all souls went, good or bad, and thus not equivalent to Hell.  By the way, while we’re nitpicking, the Kraken is from Norse mythology, and has nothing to do with the Greeks, and stands in for Ceto, the sea monster Perseus defeated in myth.

Continuing his out-of-nowhere sudden stardom with his third Big Movie in a row (following Terminator Salvation and Avatar), Sam Worthington acquits himself adequately with what little he has here, but removing the romantic aspect leaves his Perseus even more undeveloped than the original. His only scrap of character dimension is his desire for vengeance against the gods and refusal to use his godly gifts, leaving Worthington with little to do besides a lot of manly scowling and glaring and going up against a series of CGI monsters. Being surrounded by CGI should be becoming old hat to Worthington, he has an earnestness amid silliness, and he cuts a manlier figure than Harry Hamlin, but for the would-be Next Big Thing, this is a far step down from Avatar.

Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, reunited onscreen for the first time since 1993’s Schindler’s List, which gained them both an Oscar nomination, are slumming here.  A troll-like Fiennes in particular is unintentionally goofy, hissing his lines in his wheezy baby Voldemort voice (fans of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire will know what I’m talking about) that makes him sound like he has emphysema, lurking around hunched over with a scraggly beard like Rumpelstiltskin.  Neeson maintains a little more dignity despite being clad in blindingly shiny white armor, like he’s at some campy costume party, but he doesn’t provide too much either besides growling about those uppity mortals (and, of course, getting to say ‘release the Kraken!’). Of the others, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, probably best-known as Bond villain Le Chiffre opposite Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, makes a valiant effort to maintain his dignity as crusty veteran soldier Draco (and, to his credit, usually seems like he belongs in a better movie), while Gemma Arterton’s character might as well be named Exposition, Liam Cunningham gets a few amusing lines, and Hans Matheson and Nicholas Hoult don’t have anything to do except trek along behind Worthington and a say a line here and there. Alexa Davalos, her character completely undercut by the removal of the Perseus-Andromeda romance, and an unrecognizable Jason Flemyng are just kind of there, and Pete Postlethwaite’s bit part is equally thankless.

The biggest problem with Titans is that everything feels half-baked. We get over-obvious, on-the-nose expository dialogue to string the action sequences together, with characters from Andromeda to Cassiopeia (killed off in her first scene, in another middle finger to the mythology) to Spyros launching into impromptu little dramatic speeches out of nowhere, like they know this is the high point of their five minutes in the movie and dammit, they’re going to get out what they have to say! Two members of the band are introduced in a way that clearly suggests they are intended as comic relief, and then nothing is done with them, and they leave the group halfway through, rendering their entire existence utterly pointless. Not only is the completely eliminated Perseus-Andromeda romance indispensable to the mythology, it also renders the climax flat, because Perseus isn’t racing to save Andromeda, he’s just spitting in the eye of the gods, basically just to be doing it. And if the filmmakers intended to shift from Andromeda to the new character of Io as Perseus’ love interest, their fleeting hint of romance is so half-hearted that it called for either being further developed or left out; as is, its inclusion seems random. This is the only scene, incidentally, that attempts to make Io a character as opposed to walking exposition who almost amusingly launches into back stories of gods and monsters whenever something needs explained to us. It’s never really explained exactly what she is or why she’s been watching Perseus his whole life, and likewise, the Djinn is a plot device who has no character and is never really explained, but serves plot purposes at convenient moments. Calibos’ design isn’t as creepy as the more demonic original, and while combining King Acrisius and Calibos into the same character had the potential to make him a tragic villain with a personal connection to Perseus (in the original, he was the son of the goddess Thetis and the original fiancé of Andromeda, disfigured by Zeus for killing his herd of flying horses), his role here is reduced to hired muscle. Things like this smack of half-assed writing, and there are other things that raise suspicion that parts of the film were left on the cutting room floor. What’s the point, for example, of casting Danny Huston as Poseidon and then giving him one line? The rest of the gods stand silently in the background with no dialogue. Some of the juiciest scenes in old Greek mythology flicks were the gods lounging campily around in their togas, entertained by the struggles of the mortals, or playing catty games with each other. Here, it’s as if Zeus and Hades are the only gods who really matter. Some plot elements are fuzzy. How exactly does everyone in Argos suddenly know Perseus is a demi-god?  Hades’ master plan is on the flimsy side, and his climactic ‘confrontation’ with Perseus is anti-climactically over in about five seconds and leaves Hades looking like a rather unimpressive villain. Zeus’ motives are also a little hard to follow. He is angered by the defiant Argonauts and gives Hades permission to terrorize them, but then gives Perseus a magical sword to help on his mission, and still later visits him to offer him sanctuary on Olympus and tell him if he continues on his mission he will die (?).

It’s hard to know how much of this to blame on director Louis Letterier, as word from industry insiders has it that the movie was more or less pulled out from under him and chopped to pieces by the studio, which cut out large chunks of material, reportedly including a more significant role for Andromeda and, yes, a romantic angle between she and Perseus, larger roles for the other gods and more court intrigue among them, Perseus and Io’s relationship left platonic, and Zeus both better-defined as a character and given a darker side (the original script had Apollo and Athena, both of whom had significant scenes completely omitted here, helping Perseus, not Zeus himself). Given the level of chopping, editing, and reworking, it’s not surprising that Titans not only feels inconsistent and ill-defined in some plot aspects, but also has the sneaking feel of a movie that’s got an overly meddling, micromanaging studio’s sloppy fingerprints all over it. In any case, the original script of Titans sounds like the movie I would rather have seen.

If all my complaining makes it sound like I hated Clash of the Titans, that’s not true. The action scenes are serviceable, and while Medusa (motion-capture provided by Russian model Natalia Vodianova) is too obviously CGI, the giant scorpions are nice, Pegasus beautiful, both the actual horse and added CGI wings, and the Kraken is, appropriately, the film’s most impressive effect. At various points of the movie I got a little impatient waiting for the long-awaited emergence of the Kraken to kick things into full gear, and the climax, however brief, builds to an epic feel the rest of the film is lacking and generates genuine visually spectacular excitement. The scene in which the band crosses the River Styx to Medusa’s lair with the skeletal ferryman Charon is suitably atmospheric and nicely-visualized. The Medusa scene itself, generally considered the high point of the original, is also reasonably exciting, although Medusa’s overly CGI appearance and the scene’s franticness reduces the tension a little while the original took time to develop suspense and atmosphere, making this at least one essentially identical sequence where the original had one on the update. There are all kinds of elements that are overdone to the point of unintentional comedy, from Fiennes’ making the dubious choice to resurrect his baby Voldemort voice, to ripe lines like Io telling Perseus ‘you’re not just a god or a man, you’re the best of both’ (the actors deserve some kind of award for saying some of their lines with such somber faces), to random side distractions that draw more attention than they should, like a wacky Hades worshiper rallying a crowd to sacrifice Andromeda, and it doesn’t help that in the face of obvious camp, everyone from Worthington on down clenches their jaw and grits their teeth and pushes stoically onward like they’re making a Biblical epic. Just once acknowledging its own silliness could have done the movie a little good. While Sam Worthington is clearly aiming for square-jawed action hero in his career choices on this side of the Atlantic, I’d like to see him try something lighter. He has the good looks and, at least in interviews, easygoing humor and charm to be a winning lead in a romantic comedy, instead of shutting his natural likability away in one-dimensional brooding he-men like Perseus (although Avatar gave him a chance to do a little more actual acting).

After such a nitpicking ramble, it might come as a surprise that I’m granting Clash of the Titans 2 ½ stars, but as I said at the beginning, it is mildly entertaining with some nice effects and at least one legitimately awesome sequence (release the Kraken!), but perhaps the most frustrating thing about this, as with most mediocre films, is that it’s possible to see how, with just a little more effort in certain areas, it could have been far better than it was.

**1/2

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