Monday, 23 August 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Neither the outright disaster I expected nor a good movie, Louis Leterrier's remake of the semi-classic 1980 Desmond Davis-helmed tale is yet another example of contemporary cinema’s marvellous grasp on technical accomplishment and ever-waning capacity to tell a decent story. Presenting in essence a synopsised version of the original’s plot, culled from classical legend but festooned with new story gimmicks that serve little real function, and a lot of expensive spectacle, Leterrier drives pell-mell with barely a breath taken for characterisation, romance, or mood.

Gone is the initial annihilation of Argos, and Perseus’s journeying to Phoenician Joppa. The dualistic rivalry of Perseus and Calibos has been reconfigured into a bifurcated war against vengeful patriarchs (an interesting new theme in reboots, after The Wolfman), as Perseus defies both his deity sire Zeus (Liam Neeson) and his nominal Earthly father Acrisius (Jason Flemyng), who is, in this version, the stricken mortal remade as Calibos. Simultaneously, an interesting but breathlessly hurried subplot entails Hades’ (Ralph Fiennes) plotting to take over from Zeus as lord of Olympus, manipulating a crisis of faith and trust between the Gods and humankind to force Zeus into unleashing the Kraken, a monster which will unwittingly feed Hades' power.

Such a boldly reconfigured mythology could have presented a wealth of possibility, especially as the film pays thematic tribute less to the zesty romance of the 1981 film than to the more cynical themes of Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963) in explicitly using mythology to portray the development of human individualism in the face of archaic power and duty. And yet the urge to render the schematic moralism in more familiar Manichean terms doesn’t seem to comprehend the ethos of Greek mythology at all. Other Gods are barely even acknowledged, both visually – they’re mostly hazily perceptible on the edges of the frame whilst Neeson and Fiennes rant and hiss – and also metaphorically. Eros and Aphrodite have no hope of making an impression on a film that been rendered as dourly macho as this one.

The metaphysics are not really much more than window dressing on a film that works best on the level of a ‘50s B-movie, full of flashy stunts and colourful, indeed wonderful, sets and costuming. That it does hang together in the end is largely due to Leterrier’s optical pyrotechnics. He and his filmmaking crew have expended such a great amount of money and craft on presenting a dazzling mythical Greece. Leterrier does, to his credit, attempt to construct a sense of comraderie between the pick-up band that is Perseus’s mob of helpmates, including rugged old Argos warriors Draco (Mads Mikkelsen, amazingly wasted) and Solon (Liam Cunningham), a grotesque Djinn, and Io (Gemma Arterton), a cursed immortal detailed to advise and guide Perseus, and to whom he begins to possibly, sort of, maybe, kind of, distantly feels attracted to. The film’s embarrassing wetness about any kind of man-woman thing extends to performing a wholesale trash-job on the myth’s union of Perseus and Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), the princess whose sacrifice to the Kraken Perseus is attempting to forestall. His relationship with Io is instead emphasised, and there’s a moment when they seem about to, you know, kiss, or something.

Io’s presented as a more fitting mate for Perseus because she is like him no ordinary human, but also because she, unlike Andromeda must finally be, is not defined by passive willingness to be eaten. It’s hard to tell if this is a function of feminist parable or Leterrier’s unawareness of anything that doesn’t fit into his action-man sense of the universe. Arterton, a supple, unforced screen presence, does manage to inhabit Io with a quiet, unexpectedly soft and seductive kind of plucky fight and moral strength, but Leterrier’s awkward editorial grammar, cutting to random shots of her away from group shots of his boy’s club, merely confirms visually what is already apparent: she’s been tacked on. But then again, that’s also true of Calibos, who makes random appearances to cause trouble. Worthington, as Perseus, works up a fair level of low-key soul and down-to-earth sympathy, but he’s conspired against by a dourly conceived variety of mythic hero. There’s so many competing pressures to keep his character a 10-year-old boy’s ideal of manly cool that he’s frozen almost into immobility.

Worse yet, Letterier screws up the basic motifs of the story. Perseus no longer has to tame Pegasus; the winged horse just turns up when needed. Perseus’s resistance to using Zeus’s gifts, and his sheer irritable arrogance in the face of the heavens, saps the inherent wonder and mystery. He is given a magic fold-up sword, which he avoids using as long as possible, but he has to be provided with a shield on the run, made from the armour of one of the giant scorpions he and his fellows have to kill along the way, making the later use of it to reflect Medusa’s reflection defiantly illogical. The actual confrontation with the Medusa is staged like a video game, and most of the cast of characters, whom the film has taken some trouble to set up, are casually dispatched therein. Before venturing into the Medusa’s lair, Mikkelsen mentions how his kid sister was sacrificed to the Gorgon, a detail which comes from nowhere and leads us nowhere, only serving a kind of vestigial need for motivation. Even Leterrier’s more ambitious visuals smack of the derivative: the three Stygian Witches and Charon are obviously patterned after Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy/Pan’s Labyrinth creations, and cut-and-paste flourishes from other fantasy franchises are likewise constantly in evidence.

I’ve tried not to compare too much to the 1981 film, which, although far less well-produced and polished than this work, is nonetheless much broader in scope and emotional and sensual in quality. After all these comments, this Clash of the Titans probably sounds like a worthless film, and yet it does have qualities that stand on their own. The decision to cut out some of the more twee, kiddie-crowd-pandering refrains of the older film, like Bubo the mechanical owl, helps render the tone more even, but there's not much humour to take his place: when Bubo did turn up in a rather contemptuous cameo, I actually found myself missing his clunky charm afterwards. The motif of the human race rendered as a wooden statuettes which the gods manipulate like toys is retained, but barely utilised, until one late moment when the Kraken’s marauding causes dozens to be dislodged from their nooks and fall flaming to the ground – an inspired image. The good acting by a committed, excellent, but ill-used cast does a lot to make the film more compelling than it ought to be, particularly Fiennes’ hoarsely disdainful Hades.

It’s certain Leterrier never comes close to capturing the impact of most of the model film’s enduring set-pieces, which made up in flavour and vividness what they lacked in sophistication. Nonetheless, particularly in the epic-scaled finale, in which Perseus has to avoid not only the Kraken but Hades’ harpy-like minions and religious fanatics in trying to bring the Medusa’s head to bear on the colossal monster, this does possess a visual lustre and enthusiasm of staging that’s worthy of respect. Then Leterrier despoils his achievement by having Andromeda and Perseus fall into the sea and wash up apparently miles away a couple of moments later. The cumulative result is a film that bewilders in its simultaneous gusto and shoddiness.


Stephen Gallagher said...

I was up for a Titans remake - I'm a 'Harryhausen forever' kind of guy, but the original always felt like second-division Harryhausen to me - and I was encouraged by the trailer. But watching the movie itself was like witnessing a landslide from close quarters... a spectacle for sure, but a big, loud, impressive, and generally aimless one.

Writing in another place, I suggested:

All the set-pieces were adequately done, but strung together it was like everything always turned into a battle. Perseus is a guy who can't go to the fridge for a bottle of milk without having to fight off a horde of something-or-other. To me it felt like something written by gamers, where the main character is an empty vessel for the player, and the story objectives only matter to the extent that they give you somewhere to be heading for while shit falls out of the sky or bursts through the walls.

It seems ironic that, with three millenia of free development to draw upon, it's the story points that get screwed up. The pairing of Perseus and Io has the feel of a late editorial fudge to reward the hero with the more striking actress.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi Stephen.

To me it felt like something written by gamers, where the main character is an empty vessel for the player, and the story objectives only matter to the extent that they give you somewhere to be heading for while shit falls out of the sky or bursts through the walls.

That's very well put, and it says something that's lurked within my mind about a lot of recent action films without quite solidifying. I hesitate to insult gamers - I mean, I'm one myself after a fashion - but then again, the pleasure of gaming is the self-direction it allows. You can write yourself, or your own characters, into the "story" you're playing. To infect film-making with such structural qualities however demeans both mediums. And yes, there's a lot of suggestion to me that the Perseus/Io thing was a late addition: Arterton is so rarely seen in the frame with some of the other actors, and the way her character enters and exits scenes on occasions, really smells of "editorial fudge". Still, as I've said, I got the mildest of kicks out of it.

Sam Juliano said...

"Neither the outright disaster I expected nor a good movie, Louis Leterrier's remake of the semi-classic 1980 Desmond Davis-helmed tale is yet another example of contemporary cinema’s marvellous grasp on technical accomplishment and ever-waning capacity to tell a decent story."

I cite the very beginning of your review here to convey my precise feelings for this film. (I gave it a 3 of 5 rating) Yes, of course it's more technilogically superior than the 1981 film, but as you rightly note the earlier film had a broader scope and a stronger emotional connection. And yes, the comparative cyncicism of Harryhausen's film is seen here in large measure. It's a B movie indeed, harmless, and entertaining in a gulity pleasure sort of way, and I must say that Medussa set piece was irresistible.

Wonderfully engaging and exhaustive essay!

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Sam. Good to see you as always.

Do you mean the Medusa set-piece or the Kraken? Because I thought this version's Medusa bit sucked hard. Otherwise we're in close agreement: "a B movie indeed, harmless, and entertaining in a gulity pleasure sort of way" covers my overall feeling exactly. And, to a certain extent, I have to respect it for that. There's just not that many solid B movies coming out of Hollywood.

Sam Juliano said...

Oh no, the Kraken.

I wrote it up wrong!

Sorry about that.

Roderick Heath said...


Stephen Gallagher said...

I blame Joseph Campbell. One of the problems here could be that everyone in Hollywood's heard about The Hero's Journey and thinks of it as a roadmap, not an analysis, and has no perception of how it needs to be translated into character.

There was a Hallmark miniseries remake of Jason and the Argonauts with a whiny, passive Jason. His defining characteristic was one of monotonous self-doubt and he was constantly being urged by the Argonauts to step up to his destiny, when in any scenario of human truth they'd have eaten him and gone home.

Contrast that with the scene in the 1963 original, where wimpy Hylas wins the respect of all and the friendship of Hercules with a show of brains-over-brawn. Just thinking about it makes me want to dig the disc out and watch it again, knowing that it's going to lead us to Talos. That's how you do destiny.

Roderick Heath said...

That's a funny point, Stephen, and you may be right that an over-self-consciousness on filmmakers' part these days is problematic: everyone wants to act too sophisticated to give a dn about telling a story and yet will slavishly devote themselves to the most juvenile types of thrill imaginable. That said, I can't really blame Campbell: his ideas had a strong positive effect on the early Star Wars and Indiana Jones films as well as others in reinvigorating a sense of the purity of heroic storytelling. This sort of expedient storytelling to me smacks more of modern Hollywood's market-research-driven simultaneous urge to exploit yet display contempt for people who enjoy genre storytelling. After all, it's infected more kinds of film genre than just the fantasy-mythic variety. The cynical attempts to employ motifs without basic structure is readily apparent in contemporary rom-coms, for instance.