This should have been better.
Clash of the Titans is a perfect film to remake: it’s got awesome, memorable moments, a great title, and it’s not that good of a film. The movie’s charm lies in the Ray Harryhausen effects, but everything in between those scenes is boring and lifeless. I grew up worshipping the film, but as an adult I understand that it’s a movie that can only be improved upon. But the new Clash falls prey to exactly what makes the original so flawed: whenever there isn’t a monster on screen the film’s a snore, or worse, laughable. It seems like director Louis Leterrier realized this and cut the hell out of his movie, leaving us with a film that has no room to breathe and that just careens from monster scene to monster scene.
And that’s the best part of the movie. The new Clash of the Titans feels like a botched adaptation of a really cool novel: in the movie mankind, sick of the whims of the gods, has declared literal war upon them. Like as in bringing armies to Mount Olympus to kick some ass. This is obviously an unwise move, but it’s also kind of awesome, and it gives the entire film a bizarrely secular humanist bent. I’ve always like the Greek gods because they’re so human – they make the whims and vagaries of fate more understandable. After all, when your top god is a guy whose main hobby is raping while in the forms of animals, the misery in the world around you makes more sense. It’s harder to understand why the loving Judeo-Christian God, who leaves all the raping to his priests, inflicts so many horrors on his flock. And the idea that these personal Greek gods finally push humanity too far is great, and a great starting point for the journey of Perseus, himself a demigod and the offspring of Rapey Zeus.
All of these ideas are neat, but few of them live on screen. We’re told about them, and Perseus’ personal journey is about reconciling the god and the man within him, but it all feels like window dressing. There are other excellent conceptual things going on, including a revolutionary religious leader in the city of Argos – doomed to be destroyed by the Kraken unless Perseus can take matters into his own hands – but they never get dealt with properly.
Which is probably a blessing, since the film’s first third, which is all set-up, is a chore. Director Louis Leterrier seems unable to create a reality in the beginning; everything feels silly and goofy. That will probably work with kids who are today the age I was when I enjoyed the goofiness and pomposity of Clash of the Titans, but as a grown-up moviegoer I just couldn’t deal with Pete Postlethwaite as Doomed Expositional Dad with a straight face. There are other characters set up in the most perfunctory way possible – I’m not even remotely clear on the names of anyone who isn’t a direct lift from the original movie – but again, Leterrier can’t give his actors a reality in which to play their early scenes. I’m not saying the film needed to create a ‘realistic’ Ancient Greece – the film is set in a total alternative Mythosverse, which is cool by me – but because no one can find the emotional grounding for their characters I was never able to give a shit about any of them. Or figure out who they were as various monsters dispatched them.
Once Perseus and his merry band of cannon fodder set off the film picks up simply because Leterrier knows how to stage action scenes. Aftere Perseus meets the new film’s version of Calibos things get off and running and there’s a fairly enjoyable hour of going from set piece to set piece; it’s only when the action takes a break and Perseus and new character Io, played by Gemma Arterton, have a heart to heart that you remember how goofy so much of this is. In terms of generic monster action, Clash of the Titans delivers, but this is a movie that introduces a really cool looking Arab guy made totally of wood and then gives him almost no other defining characteristic or personality trait (or even a name outside of the credits, as far as I could tell). This version of Clash of the Titans feels like it was structured to be more of a men on a mission movie – the cannon fodder actually looks different enough that it’s plausible they could have once also been defined in the script – but the film’s mad rush to get to Medusa’s lair means that everyone who isn’t Perseus is cast aside.
The character who is most hurt by this is Io; a much hotter version of Burgess Meredith, Io is a woman who has been cursed with immortality and who has been watching Perseus his whole life, thinking he could be the key to taking down the gods. But Io is so disconnected from the main narrative that it feels like she was CGIed in later; she doesn’t seem to be traveling with the group but she’s always around when needed. She also delivers silly pep talks every now and again, and she and Perseus seem to have the hots for each other*, but she’s so outside the story that I kept waiting for the revelation that only Perseus could see her.
Sam Worthington is fine in the role of Perseus, although I think ten years from now his grossly anachronistic buzz cut is going to be the big joke about this movie. I like that Worthington is willing to make all kinds of whiny noises when Perseus gets hurt or is in trouble, and he doesn’t play the character with the cardboard intensity of Marcus from Terminator Salvation, as I feared. There are a couple of moments where Worthington allows his scowl to fall away and he smiles and you can see a sparkle in his eye that I wish he had brought more often. In those moments you can feel the charisma that got him roles like this, and that he has completely hidden away in his American work.
As for the rest of the cast: Mads Mikkelsen makes a good show of it. I like the conflict between his character and Perseus; Mikkelsen wants Perseus to dig deep into his godhood, while antigodist Perseus just wants to do it all as a man. Mikkelsen has a force of personality that blows through the screen, and often eclipses Worthington. There’s a hint of a great rivalry turned mentorship here, but the film doesn’t linger enough to let this blossom into anything. Everybody else is sort of just there, getting killed by CGI monsters and all that jazz.
Then there’s the gods. I hope they got paid well. Ralph Fiennes is warming up for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, while Liam Neeson is happily settling into the corny phase of his career (see the upcoming The A-Team for more of that phase). The only other god who even gets a name put to a face is Apollo, but he’s in it for like a moment. The Mount Olympus stuff is so odd that I actually wish more time was spent there. The script, by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, adds interesting wrinkles to the behind the scenes machinations of the gods, and they set up a larger story that could be followed up in sequels. But the gods stuff gets kind of shortchanged, and we’re left with very strange cheeseball theatrics and glowiness. That said, Leterrier actually manages to make the Olympus stuff feel more real than any moment in the city of Argos; his heightened take works better in that realm.
Finally it must all come down to the real stars of any movie called Clash of the Titans – the monsters. They acquit themselves pretty well here, with the giant scorpion scene having the most Harryhausenian vibe to me, complete with animated guys riding on their backs trying to kill them by stabbing between their plates of armor. I like this new version of the Kraken if only because he fucks things up immediately, as opposed to the very polite and sticking to the ocean version in the original movie. This Kraken, and the scene featuring Perseus’ attempt to destroy him, feels incredibly epic in scope and is a lot of fun. Medusa doesn’t fare as well; I always thought that she could have been improved from the original, in terms of personality, and making her almost completely (sometimes seemingly unfinished) CGI doesn’t help matters.
The heroic beasts get short shrift. Bubo is the butt of an early joke, and Pegasus is but a plot point. I loved the look of the heroic Djinn, Sheikh Suleiman, but wish he had been given something to do in the picture. He’s practical, as are the Stygian Witches and Charon, the Boat Man of the River Styx. Calibos is practical as well, and I like the conceptual idea behind his rejiggered origin and the way he’s used in the film, but the actual implementation leaves much to be desired. The practical effects are all terrific, and even much of the CGI is acceptable for what it is.
I didn’t hate Clash of the Titans, but I find it difficult to defend. There are so many missed opportunities that it’s hard not to be disappointed. The script opens up some original and fun ideas that never get followed up on, and too many characters are left undefined and uninteresting. At this point I don’t know what to make of Louis Leterrier; I like his The Incredible Hulk better than this, but all of the flaws in that film are in Clash of the Titans, magnified a hundredfold. I think he’s a terrific action director, but once the movie turns to the characters he loses his way, sometimes fatally. There’s a romantic scene between Io and Perseus in the hold of Charon’s ship that’s simply a joke.
The version of Clash I saw was the converted 3D release, and I thought the 3D was terrible. The movie should be seen in only 2D. I think Clash will be a film I enjoy on Blu-Ray, and I’m sure I’ll watch it more often then the very slow original. Still, I wanted to walk out of the theater excited about the possibilities of future adventures of Perseus, and instead I walked out wishing this adventure had lived up to its full potential.
6 out of 10
* this really bugged me for one simple plot reason: if Perseus isn’t in love with Andromeda, the princess who will be sacrificed to satiate the Kraken so it doesn’t destroy Argos, why bother going on the mission to kill the Kraken in the first place? Perseus has more of a Death Wish story here – Hades killed his family and he wants vengeance – but the quest he undertakes is essentially suicidal. He could have definitely figured out a better way to get revenge, especially since the quest to kill the Kraken is undertaken under a very heavy time constraint. I hate to drag in stuff from interviews or set visits into reviews, but while on the Clash set Arterton told us that Io and Perseus had a brother/sister relationship, which is definitely not the case in the final movie. Unless the brother and sister in question are Angelina Jolie and James Haven Voight.