Tuesday, December 06, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Clash of the Titans (1981)

"The myth, the magic, the mystery... the combat, the courage... before history, beyond imagination..."

Those are just a few words of descriptive ad-copy (from the trailer...) heralding the ambitious 1981 adventure fantasy, Clash of the Titans.

This is a film I grew up with, and though I am quite aware that its story mangles the specifics of Greek Mythology, it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

Clash of the Titans also represents a golden "lost age" in film history and the development of visual effects, arising from an era when computers didn't create and control every aspect of special effects imaginable. Yes, Clash of the Titans arrived on screen with its fantastic effects courtesy of that legend, Ray Harryhausen, the latter-day heir to Willis O'Brien, and a true master of the form called stop-motion animation. All the effects are created here through that painstaking, unbelievably time-consuming process. Thus the models used (like that of the villain, Calibos...) are unbelievably detailed, and move exquisitely about their paces.

Clash of The Titans boasts a beautiful and disturbing (as well as atmospheric...) opening sequence, as a heartless king casts his daughter, Danae, and her infant son (Perseus) into a rageful sea. Filmed at Cornwall, these opening moments grant the audience a view of an angry sea and an accompanying cruel punishment. Set amongst craggy shores, crashing waves, and an entourage of soldiers (beautifully costumed...) this prologue begins the journey of Perseus in highly-detailed terms, and we feel as though we are really back there, in those ancient days, wondering what capricious fate awaits us...conjured not just by the sea, but by the whim of the Gods of Olympus.

The remainder of the film concerns the odyssey of Perseus (Harry Hamlin) as he grows to adulthood, and is instructed by his father, the King of Gods -- Zeus (Laurence Olivier, the king of actors...) to "find and fulfill" his destiny. He does so at the city of Joppa, a "Kingdom under a curse." It turns out that the beautiful princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) has been put under a curse by her former fiancee, a monstrous creature called Calibos. Calibos was once a handsome man and heir to the throne of Joppa, but he hunted and killed all but one of Zeus's flying stallions and in retaliation, Zeus has transformed him into a devilish, horned beast with a tail.

Using three gifts from the Gods (a mirrored shield, an invisibility-rendering helmet and a sword that can slice stone), Perseus defeats Calibos and wins the hand of Andromeda in marriage. But all is still not well. The Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) is highly disturbed during the wedding when Andromeda's mother, the vain Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) compares her daughter's beauty to that of the Goddess. Thetis thus orders Andromeda to stand as a human sacrifice to the "last of the Titans," the sea monster called "the Kraken," for her mother's insolence.

Worse - at least for unlucky Perseus - the gorgeous young woman must go to the sacrifice a virgin!! Perseus has only thirty days in which to find a way to save his beloved future wife, and with the help of a playwright named Amman (Burgess Meredith) and the leader of the Guard, Thallo, sets off on another quest. He must kill the Gorgon known as Medusa - a creature that can turn any man to stone with a gaze - and use her decapitated head to freeze the Kraken and thus free Joppa. He's assisted in his heroic journey by Pegasus, the last of the flying stallions, and Bubo, a little mechanical owl constructed by Hephaestus. But even this God-given gifts may not save Perseus as he crosses the River Styx with the Ferryman, Cheron, and heads out to the Isle of the Dead to confront Medusa, the beast with snakes in her hair...

I saw Clash of the Titans in the theater when I was ten or eleven years old, and I loved every aspect of it: the sword-fight with giant scorpions, the flooding and destruction of a city by the Kraken, and the wonderful flights of Pegasus. I still admire the film, particularly its craftsmanship. But when I was a kid, this film undeniably represented the state-of-the-art, and was heir to stop-motion film fantasy classics such as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which I also adored.

Watching it today, I reluctantly realized how far special effects have really come today with computers. And as an old-school kind of guy, I'm loathe to admit it, but Clash of the Titans has certainly aged badly in 24 years. The monsters are all still amazing to behold, and convincingly rendered with stop-motion animation...yet, the process matching work seems rather dire, so that exposures between foreground and background elements just don't blend well. Goddamn! I hate that. Not because it ruined the film for me (it didn't...) but because I sooooo much wanted the effects to hold up in the age of Revenge of the Sith and other CGI glories. After watching Clash of the Titans, I can no longer cling to my perception that special effects "used to be better". They were carefully crafted - and mastered without computers - but I can't deny the efficacy of today's approach. As much as I wish I could.

But Clash of the Titans remains a fun movie, despite the "aged" special effects. The film reaches its apex on the Isle of the Dead, as Perseus hunts Medusa in her dark temple, with fires flickering all around. This sequence involves the best special effects in the film, and is also undeniably the most tense. Perseus's men are picked off one at a time by the Gorgon, who is armed with a bow and arrow, and our hero must rely on the mirror in his shield (and a reflection...) to take the head of the beast. This is a terrifying scene, and very suspenseful, and I also think it suffers least from the processing problems I noted above. There is exquisite matching (down to the reflected light of the fire...) between live-action and stop-motion, and it may have something to do with the fact that the scene was staged inside, and all aspects of lighting could be controlled. The outdoor shots - while containing beautiful location vistas - really show the mis-match in exposures to ill-effect.

Of course, Clash of the Titans also gives the world another derivative R2-D2 clone - in ancient Greece, no less - a helpful mechanical owl who speaks in clicks and whirs, just like the beloved Star Wars droid. This was de rigeuer in fantasy movies of the age (think V.I.N.Cent in The Black Hole, or Muffit in Battlestar Galactica or Twiki and Theo in Buck Rogers...or that little cursor thing in Tron, and on and on). But even that never bothers me...there's just something innocent and delightful about Clash of the Titans. And that quality survives, even if the special effects have aged more than I would prefer.

From a visit to the Stygian Witches, to the taming of Pegasus, to the final battle with the Kraken, Clash of the Titans is just as much daring fun as I remember it was. A rip-roaring fantasy and a fast two-hours at the movies. This film got a reference in Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back, and I certainly understand why. It's probably a cultural touchstone for Generation X in that it was the stop-motion film for our particular generation. For the previous generation, it was probably Jason & The Argonauts or the amazing Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

But for me, it's Clash of the Titans. Anyone out there seen this film lately? Does it still hold up for you? What draws you it, even after a quarter-century?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous8:02 PM

    I enjoyed this movie so much as a kid that I saw it three times when it played in theaters in 1981. It was the first Harryhausen movie I got to see on the big screen. Of course, from reading my Starlogs, I was already an avid fan of Harryhausen. I tried to catch everyone of his movies on tv, even when CBS showed "Valley of Gwangi" on the Friday Late Night Movie ("Gwangi" has always been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it on latenight tv).

    Clash of the Titans is still very entertaining to me. The corny old-fashioned, yet epic, style of storytelling still holds appeal. Most of the effects hold up fairly well. Only two really stand out as bad; the opening titles with that poorly superimposed gull flying in the sky and the sequence with the scorpions. The animated scorpions are fine, but the background plates are very washed -out looking. Harryhausen remarks about this in his book "An Animated Life"; he wanted to reshoot those backgrounds but was unable to.

    The Medusa sequence is magnificent, as are the scenes with Calibos. The score is memorable too. Great work by the composer. Some questions remain. Why did the Kraken only eat virgins? If that's the case, wouldn't it have starved to death long before?



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