by Tony Dayoub
Why revisit a great movie when there are so many lesser movies that could be improved by a remake? Louis Leterrier's Clash of the Titans is a huge improvement on its predecessor. And let's be honest, whatever feelings of nostalgia get stirred up when thinking of Ray Harryhausen's 1981 version, the designation of "classic" hardly applies. The acting in that one is wooden even by fantasy genre standards, with Laurence Olivier slumming as Zeus (no doubt after Alec Guinness' appearance in Star Wars made such a thing acceptable) and Siân Phillips generously wearing a permanent grimace on her face in order to not outdo the stiff Judi Bowker who plays her daughter. Concessions to the trends in fantasy at the time—like the requisite robot sidekick, in this case a metallic owl named Bubo—only served to highlight the great expanse between Harryhausen's increasingly antiquated effects technology and the ILM visual FX burgeoning at the time. Eight-years-old at the time, I saw the original on opening day in 1981 and recall it fondly much less for its story or visuals than for its two scenes of gratuitous nudity (not unusual in a PG-rated film back then). Ironically, today's political climate allows Titans to retain a PG-13 rating by eschewing the nudity but amping up the violence.
The new Titans by Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) strips down a lot of the ponderous speechifying of the original to propel the film along at a much faster clip. It dirties the production design up a bit to give it some of the texture that just screams "ancient" or "mystical" nowadays. But mostly, it's just a heckuva lot more exciting to watch. The slithering Medusa moves through her lair much quicker and with greater stealth; the memorably evil Calibos of the first one elicits much more sympathy here as played by Jason Flemyng because of his newly appointed familial ties to the hero Perseus (Sam Worthington) and the twisted misshapen physical appearance he is saddled with after defying Zeus (Liam Neeson); Hades (Ralph Fiennes) makes for a much more satisfyingly complex villain than the minor goddess Thetis did in the original.
Leterrier's delight at mounting this film clearly finds its way to the screen. I'm not one to usually fall for "meta" moments that wish to pay so-called homage to fanboy favorites. But it is more than amusing when one scene show us Bubo the owl's fate in this version. And as a film buff, I found it quite funny to see Neeson and Fiennes going tête-à-tête, a sight unseen since their iconic duel in Schindler's List (1993). If there is a drawback, it is the obvious sense that much of the film seems to have been left on the cutting room floor. How else does one explain the brief appearances of such A-list character actors as Danny Huston, Jane March, Elizabeth McGovern, Izabella Miko, Pete Postlethwaite, Alexander Siddig, and Polly Walker? Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) as Draco gives a compelling enough performance to make one overlook the slight to his cohorts.
Beyond the simple quest undertaken to save the princess in the first one, Leterrier's Titans addresses the idea of free will and defiance of the gods, a large part of Greek mythology which has often gone unaddressed on film until now. Central to the plot is Perseus' messianic delivery of his people from their oppressors, a timeless archetypal tale that finds its cinematic parallel in DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), only in this instance those oppressors are the gods themselves. The relationship between the two film is enhanced by Leterrier's opening and finale. Rather than start with Baby Perseus' exile and imprisonment in a wooden box sent to sea, Titans introduces us to the box as it springs up from the ocean, an act of birth not dissimilar to Moses' introduction in the DeMille film, and only tells us of the circumstances behind the exile later, retroactively. The glorious finale involving the Kraken bursting out of the ocean takes the myth full circle, and spectacularly recalls the denouement of DeMille's film, the astonishing parting of the Red Sea, in a way that Harryhausen's version never could; I speak not of the original's wonderful stop-motion animation but the pedestrian framing which was designed to capture every dollar onscreen at the expense of dramatic tension. Leterrier's Kraken is almost too large for the screen to contain it...
...which brings us to the interesting question of 3-D vs. 2-D. Titans was converted to 3-D after it was filmed, a measure undertaken to capitalize on the prevailing trend. Avoid this version at all costs. It is no coincidence most of the negative reviews for the film come from critics who saw the film in this format. The flatness of this retroactive 3-D effect is akin to that of a cheesy Viewmaster/stereoscopic picture rather than the full-bodied effect displayed in the recent Avatar. Clash of the Titans is a fun matinee-worthy romp which doesn't need failed gimmickry to spice it up.