Saturday, August 14, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Clash of the Titans (2010)

I first saw the original Clash of the Titans (1981) when I was eleven or twelve, at the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, New Jersey.

As a kid, I loved the movie without reservation, and found the fantasy, romance and adventure -- so ably imagined and executed by Ray Harryhausen -- entirely to my liking. The stop-motion effects/creatures were startling for their time, and painstakingly-achieved.

Specifically, I recall the film's atmospheric opening, which featured a Mother and her young child cast cruelly into the hungry a coffin. And then there was Medusa: a terrifying, nightmare-inducing creation lurking in the shadows, first seen in flickering candle-light. She was a nightmarish apparition, and one that endured in my memory for years after first watching the film.

Well, I'm not eleven years old now.

But in judging the remake of Clash of the Titans (2010), I must ask the all-important question: would an 11-year old child today enjoy this Clash as much as I enjoyed the cult original all those years ago?

The undeniable answer is, yes...absolutely. I should make no bones about that. This is an elaborate, big-budget fantasy film with well-realized creatures and monsters, and some serious, dynamic action.

However, as a forty-year old film critic, I might point out my grown-up reservations about this re-imagination. I could explain, for instance, that this new version of the legend is decidedly less romantic in flavor than its predecessor was. The original film highlighted a love affair so passionate and enduring that it was recounted in the stars themselves, in the constellations of our very night sky. But here, Princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is almost an after-thought in the screenplay and never casts more than a longing look at hunky Perseus (Sam Worthington). He hardly seems to notice she's there.

No time for love, Dr. Jones.

I might also note that there is far less humor, far less magic, and indeed, far less joy in this remake than was found in such abundance in Harryhausen's comparatively innocent picture. I might even note how the new film makes a mean laughing-stock out of the original film's R2-D2 surrogate, a golden clock-work owl named Bubo.

In our contemporary pop culture, there's just no space in the cinema for a cute-little sidekick like Bubo, I suppose, which explains why he is dismissed with that nasty in-joke. I mean, Bubo doesn't have golden testicles, and he doesn't fart, belch, rap or anything like that.

The point of this rumination is simply that we are in a different place, entertainment-wise, than America was in 1981, and this Clash of the Titans is definitively a product of today, not a product of that era. In other words, we are much further down the line away from theatricality and artificiality in the cinema than we were thirty years ago. Rather, the pop culture needle today points further towards realism and naturalism than ever before in our nation's history. Still, I don't think you can blame the movie for reflecting this reality. We can't rightly expect it to reflect anything other than the culture in which it was created.

But because of our culture's increased, almost obsessive demand for realism, even the Gods of Olympus are somehow smaller-than-life and less magnificent in this version.

We demand definitive answers and immediate gratification about mysteries in our culture today, and so this Clash of the Titans insists on explaining the exact relationship of the Gods to humans: they thrive on our worship, literally, like our emotions are tasty nutrients. Zeus eats our love; Hades our fear. What humans get from the Gods, apparently, is environmental stability. Nature is controlled, at least until we step out of line.

Accordingly, much of this film involves how the humans of Argos tire of the Gods' capricious, tyrannical ways and decide to strike a blow for human independence. They want their country back. They want liberty and freedom. And yes, this is indeed a metaphor for the culture war going on in the United States today. There is, actually, a timely subtext here, and like The Dark Knight, it's on the "right" side of the spectrum, which is relatively rare in Hollywood.

The realistic approach to the drama dictates the very look of Clash of the Titans. Our protagonist, Perseus -- still a hero from Greek Mythology -- spends the duration of this film covered in dirt, grime and scorpion guts, and is also something of a lunkhead. This incarnation of Perseus lacks the imaginative, curious spark, and even the energy that defined Harry Hamlin's Perseus.

The character's background has been made even darker in the remake too, for the purposes of increased brooding and sustained emotional angst. Not only has Perseus lost a mother, but his biological father has been transformed into a monster, Calibos. Even Perseus's adopted family is murdered in tragic fashion...right down to his innocent little-sister. Let me be clear: what entirely motivates this Perseus is the ugly and commonly found human emotion of revenge. He's not in it -- like the people of Argos -- for liberty, freedom and emancipation from tyranny. Rather, he's got it in for Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who pulped his family's boat in a fit of rage.

As Spinal Tap might say at this point...none more black.

Or more bleak, really.

Symbolizing these changes in character motivations and story particulars, 1981's immacualte white Pegasus steed has been made entirely black for the remake. I'll try not to read too much into this significant color change, but it's worth mentioning. at least. More dramatic, perhaps, is the use to which Pegasus is put by the producers. In the original Harryhausen film, Perseus had to capture Pegasus, and laboriously train the horse. He had to put in significant time and effort to wrangle and tame the noble animal. In this version, Perseus literally just hops on his new steed with no introduction, no training, and no taming. Again, instant gratification. The original movie rewarded patience. This movie has no patience at all.

Once more, however, I don't blame the movie so much as the culture. Everyone's a dark knight these days. And we want action, not foreplay, apparently. But the upshot is that this new Clash of the Titan feels a bit commonplace and enervating, instead of magical and uplifting.

Again, this remake downplays romance to an alarming degree and I think that's its cardinal sin. Never once does Perseus think about (or even mention, actually...) rescuing Andromeda from the fangs of the Kraken. Instead, he wants to destroy the Kraken so he can get at Hades, who will be vulnerable once his creation is defeated. Thus the core of the Clash of the Titans story has been changed from one in which love motivates the hero to one in which hatred motivates him instead. Andromeda is a cipher in this story -- a minor cog in the narrative wheel -- and all the action is geared towards the destruction of the enemy, not the love of another human being. She gets rescued, sure, but it's a side-effect of the vengeance-quest.

This extreme shift in the story's core may be the very reason why Perseus's supposedly inspirational speech at the doorway to Medusa's temple plays so woefully flat and almost laughable. It's supposed to read as a tribute to mankind's nature, and his ability to stand up to a huge, overgrown power like the Gods (metaphorically the U.S. Government). Someone must stand up and say "enough," declaims Perseus, channeling his blue collar, fisherman father (Pete Postlethwaite).

But you don't inspire people based on hatred, with only the thought of tearing something down, because of a heightened sense of victimhood or personal grievance. Simply opposing an existing structure for the sake of opposition accomplishes nothing; nature abhors a vacuum. It's "that vision thing:" it must be present for a new philosophy to take root in the hearts and minds of a people, and Perseus never makes the important case here that humans would be better off on their own.

In fact, he's a hypocrite. Perseus accepts Zeus's help throughout his quest. Zeus gives him a magical sword...and he (eventually) accepts it. Zeus gives him the coin to pay the ferryman...and he accepts it. Zeus even resurrects his would-be lover, Io. In other words, Zeus "entitles" Perseus...he successfully brings Perseus into the existing (apparently corrupt...) system, through these hand-outs.. Thus the film's message is thoroughly corrupted too. You can't trust the Gods...unless they're on your side. You must destroy the Gods...unless they can be helpful to you, personally. Do you really want liberty, or just gold coin?

In addition to altering this story from one about love to one about hate, there's a weird, paradoxical quality about the remake too.

Specifically, there's much more violence in this version of Clash of the Titans, but somehow -- simultaneously -- much less terror. The original Medusa was the kind of imaginative, grotesque creation you'd think about before going to bed at night; and this Medusa -- though spectacularly rendered -- won't affect the delicate psyche at all.

My three year-old son could watch this Clash of the Titans and not be bothered in the slightest by Medusa's presence or appearance, whereas I wouldn't let him near the original film for several more years, because of Harryhausen's suggestion and intimation of terror in the Medusa sequence. Medusa was a nightmarish, legitimately scary creature in the original. Here, she's spectacular and amazing, but not scary.

Again, that tells you something about the culture now. It more readily accepts violence, but also blanderizes the violent material to some degree so as to achieve the widest possible reach...and the biggest audience.

These are the reservations of an adult film critic, one seeking narrative and thematic consistency, and gazing at the context that breathed life into the remake. But I've got to go back to that eleven-year old child: If I were eleven, I would absolutely love this movie.

And here's why. Even though it is a remake of an existing story, this Clash of the Titans boasts some amazing, and imaginative creatures as well as some commendable narrative invention. For example, the giant scorpions of the original have been improved upon approximately a thousand-fold. The movie even gets creative in the way the beasts are utilized in the plot. Here, the Scorpions are battled to a standstill, then harnessed as steeds, as transportation. The imagery of men riding giant scorpions across rocky terrain is powerful, and a testament to human ingenuity (which fits in with the movie's theme). Secondly, the movie adds some great new creatures as sidekicks for Perseus: the djinn, desert wanderers and "conjurers" who also have a grudge against the Gods. If I were a kid again...I'd be first in line to buy action figures of these guys. The Djinn are mysterious, inscrutable, magical and pretty damn awesome.

In terms of action and special effects, the Kraken, Medusa, the Stygian Watches, the Ferrymen and all the other mythical creatures are brought to colorful, vivid life in effective and creative fashion. I know the purists hate this fact and will no doubt criticize me as a generational traitor, but stop-motion animation isn't exactly cutting edge, or particularly efficacious these days. We can enjoy the craft as nostalgia, and as a fine, difficult art that is past its prime. But the computer-generated beasts of this Clash of the Titans are truly impressive, save for Calibos, who looks like a steroidal burn victim rather than a creature from the realm of fantasy. But the new technology works. It enables Perseus and his men to engage these gigantic creatures in a fashion that, as an eleven year old, would have absolutely thrilled me. I've argued before that the computer doesn't understand the flesh, and enumerated the reasons why CGI doesn't work well in the horror genre. I stand by that argument entirely. But horror is about flesh and blood, and fantasy films are a different beast all together.

I also appreciated the fact that Louis Leterrier and the other makers of this film have thrown in some narrative curve balls for the old-timers already familiar with the story (I mean me.). Here, Perseus rides up to the roaring Kraken with Medusa's head in a bag, ready to turn the "colossal elemental beast" to stone...when banshees arrive and promptly steal the bag out from under the hero. That's a new and fun wrinkle that gives way to an unexpected (and delightfully rendered) special-effects action-scene. Getting Medusa's head seems like an easier task this time around, but holding on to it proves more difficult.

My wife Kathryn really, really didn't like this movie. She's a fan of the original, and she fell asleep in this movie. She said that it was emotionally-empty and there wasn't one character she cared about, or who seemed real. I don't disagree with those points. The movie is flat in terms of human dimensions and relationships, but emotional truth is not really the movie's point. This is a movie that showcases brave men fighting giant monsters, and on those admittedly limited, simple terms, it succeeds. The confrontations are thrilling.

So I enjoyed the movie as a modern-day throwback to the great Harryhausen pictures of yesteryear - with swords battling scorpion claws, and men menaced by inhuman beasts -- and I would definitely recommend this one to kids. But as an adult, you may find the film relatively shallow. To sufficiently enjoy it is not difficult, however, if only you follow the advice Perseus receives from Io.

Ask only what you need to know, nothing more.

If you don't ask too much of it, this Clash of the Titans is an exciting fantasy. Gaze too deeply, however, and your heart will turn to stone.


  1. I'm still debating whether to see this. However I was recently listening to the Geek in the City podcast (based out of Portland) and they are a bunch of heavy metal nerds.

    They put up a Clash of the Titans playlist and went and saw the film in the theater with just their iPod for audio (all metal) and said the movie was far better that way since the movie is sort of a heavy metal video anyways. I think I might try that approach when I rent.

    As for the comparisons between the first film and the remake:

    CGI is not doubt consuming in terms of man hours and the digitial effects artists certainly work their ass off to create something special BUT do you think the actual hands-on approach of the outdated stop-motion effects lends to the 'loving' factor that is missing in the remake? You can build a fictional house on the Sims or something on a computer but can it rival building a house with your bare hands. Shoot, wasn't that point of Unforgiven (okay, I'm stretching)?

    As for your analysis of love-inspired vs. hate-inspired storytelling, I must commend you. That is a really interesting take.

    Great article (as always).

  2. Hi Will,

    Thanks for the comment, buddy.

    I think you have a point, at least for those of who are old enough to remember stop-motion.

    There seems to be that inescapable sense of affection and attachment to the creations of a Ray Harryhausen, as opposed to the purely "computerized" effects of the remake.

    But I wonder if this is merely a factor for our generation, and not really a consideration for younger ones. Don't know for sure, and I mean that honestly. For me, there is something less personal to "attach to" (or identify with) in this version, but I would be a fool to claim they effects aren't brilliant. They are brilliant.

    Thank you for the comment on my view of the storytelling. Love/hate: that's the real difference btwn original and remake.

    One movie is motivated by the need to save the one you love.

    The other is motivated by the need to kill the being who wronged you.

    This, I believe, is the biggest problem with the film...and with many, many films released today. We're living in the Dark Night (Dark Knight) of American Pop Culture.

    I wish that our filmmakers could imagine a fantasy universe where revenge isn't the most powerful driving human impulse.


  3. Sometimes revenge pictures work but I agree with you: moderation is necessary.

    My favorite Bond flick is License to Kill, a Bond film completely motivated on revenge. Bond, in that film, has NO redeemable qualities but someone I liked him that way. That said, one of my least favorite Bond films was Quantum of Solace, another revenge centric flick.

    Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite films and that, while considered a revenge picture, also taps, successfully, into the films of yesteryear with nostalgia and an attention to detail. But the key with Gladiator is that it is art, not purely fun. Clash of the Titans seems more of a popcorn flick and when the bare, raw, emotions is revenge, perhaps it cheats us of a truly effective narrative. I dunno, just my opinion.

    In any case, Clash of the Titans, either version, shouldn't be about REVENGE at all. Even if love is absent, at least have the excuse of brainless warmongering rather then brainwashing the audience into believing negative emotions.

  4. Will: I couldn't agree with you more. And I too liked Licence to Kill very much; I also liked Quantum of Solace - :). I don't, in theory, have a problem with revenge-based movies.

    It's just that in terms of superheroes and sci-fi, there are too many revenge-themed flicks these days.

    Revenge is the fuel which drives so many of the biggest movies (like The Dark Knight, or Clash of the Titans), going back years, it feels like. And I submit that it's an unhealthy paradigm for us. Getting back at somebody is not innately heroic, in my opinion.

    Heroes must face obstacles, of course, but revenge is getting tiring of late.

    Great comment!


  5. Hi JKM;

    I was looking forward to your report on Clash, which I haven't seen, and you didn't disappoint. Your commentary makes a great counterpoint as I just finished enjoying the last Harry Potter novel as an audiobook (having of course devoured the print version the day after it came out - and that late only because my wife had first dibs) - this is pertinent as both stories start out as "journeys to revenge against Ralph Fiennes". But Harry's story is a classic because he moves beyond revenge (note that at the series' midway point he casts the killing curse "Aveda Cadavra" at Voldemort, and at the end, when he actually has the power, he casts the disarming spell "Expelliarmus") while along the way learning many valuable liberal lessons. I make this point to lead up to a generalization: the best fantasy stories are inherently leftist (including the Gospels, he said, ducking), the best science fiction, libertarian (he said, ducking lower). (Horror is, according to Stephen King, inherently conservative). Revenge yarns work best as Westerns, whatever the setting.

    Put me squarely in the pro-License to Kill column when we are sorted at the End Times, please. (Though I agree with Will on Quantum).

  6. Hello DLR!

    You make some insightfulpoints here (even if I disagree with Stepehn King about horror...).

    If Clash of the Titans 2 finds Perseus growing beyond the petty need for revenge, then it may be on to something, and I'll have to re-assess! :)

    I understand that being orphaned, essentiallly, and having to defeat the guy who killed your parents is part of the hero's journey, but it's just been done to death by the movies over the last five years.

    I want a new heroic paradigm! And if no one else comes up with it, I will :) (How's that for a threat?)

    Thanks for the great comment, my friend.


  7. The "Hero's Journey" is so old hat that even Shakespeare felt he had to shake it up a little (let's make the Hero all wishy-washy and give him a crazy girlfriend!) I liked that Lucas made an attempt at a "Villain's Journey", even if it was a botched job (Weird Al's parody told the story better, and with more emotional impact). Also, real-life heroes like Sgt. York and Smedley Butler never seem to undertake said "Journey".

    I hope you're serious about trying your hand at it...

  8. Yeah, also count me as a supporter of LICENCE TO KILL (Carey Lowell!) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE which I really enjoyed and felt was a great companion piece to CASINO ROYALE.

    As for CLASH OF THE TITANS, the one passage from your review really stuck in my mind:

    "My three year-old son could watch this Clash of the Titans and not be bothered in the slightest by Medusa's presence or appearance, whereas I wouldn't let him near the original film for several more years, because of Harryhausen's suggestion and intimation of terror in the Medusa sequence. Medusa was a nightmarish, legitimately scary creature in the original. Here, she's spectacular and amazing, but not scary."

    Therein lies the rub and why I can't get behind this new version. Aside from the total lack of charisma from Sam Worthington (who I actually enjoyed in ROGUE), the film is bland and milktoast - it doesn't provoke an emotional reaction, except maybe boredom. The original was thrilling, exciting, scary and seeing it at an impressionable age really affected me. I can't see any youngsters being affected by this one which, to me, resembles a big, noisy video game.

  9. Another of your fine film examinations and commentary, John. I agree with much of your analysis and it offers a cogent argument with the culture war going on. However, I do question the following:

    "Not only has Perseus lost a mother, but his biological father has been transformed into a monster, Calibos."

    Calibos was indeed transformed into a monster (and the character's relationship used very differently in the 2010 film), but he was not Perseus' biological father. As was explained in the 1981 version, but shown in this one, Zeus transformed himself, seduced and impregnated Perseus' mother. He is in fact his father. You couldn't produce a demigod otherwise (if Calibos was his dad).

    Certainly, the wrongs done to Perseus (biological mother and his entire adopted family wiped out), do make revenge a high motivation for the demigod. And we do get a Pegasus for our times. I saw this in the theatre in 3D (which was poorly done and made it too muddy and dark). It looks way better in Blu-ray Disc, though.

    My wife, too, didn't like it (though both of my kids, did). She was heard to say, "Just like Disney, they're always killing the mother!" For me, I found I enjoyed it better on second viewing. And I have to tell you, I really got a kick out of the character Solon's humorous asides throughout the film. From his, "Just leave it!" (the Bubo reference) to the Medusa's lair quip, "Not exactly confidence inspiring..." He was easily my favorite character.

    Thanks very much for this, John.

  10. DLR: I am very definitely serious. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Why so many "big" fantasy or event movies feel empty inside; or like reruns of older, better films. I've thought a lot about why our pop culture sometimes seems sick and petty. And a lot of it comes down to the hero's journey, the prominence of revenge, and the like. There is another paradigm, it just needs to be lifted into the spotlight. I'm working on that (boy, that sounds grandiose!!!)

    J.D. I totally agree with you that this Clash lacked the same kind of visceral impact on the imagination that the first one had. I don't know why, exactly. It did feel more flat --- it didn't have great highs or great lows, really. It just kind of hummed along, and nothing felt of life or death importance. And yet, I didn't hate it. I could see why a kid would really dig it, and I was, if not thrilled, certainly diverted by it!

    Le0pard13: Thanks, my friend, for the clarification on Calibos and his origin, as well as the great comment. I was very much on the fence about this movie. I had grave concerns about how the story was told, at the same time that I appreciated several touches. Good thing I have room on the blog to debate the positive and the negative -- this movie cries out for a look at both. It's not all bad, in my opion, yet also not all good. Does that make me indecisive? :)

    best to everyone!