Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)

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.


J.D. said...

Speaking of this film being hacked to pieces and scenes being omitted, check this out:

Tony Dayoub said...

Fascinating, J.D. Although the story sound more complex and intriguing, I'm sure it was cut because of how unwieldy it would seem for what is essentially a fantasy/action flick. It'd be interesting to see the missing material, but I don't necessarily miss it.

And I don't have the problems with the internal consistency of the Zeus character the CHUD writter has. The Greek gods were mercurial to say the least, and often had motivations as difficult to understand as the Judeo-Christian God. So I just chalked up his conflicted feelings regarding Perseus to that.

As for Perseus seemingly giving in to his ancestry, I thought it did fulfill Io's prophecy that he would be corrupted by the gods, possibly setting up some internal conflicts for the inevitable sequel.

Thanks for the link.

Sam Juliano said...

"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 than the minor goddess Thetis did in the original."

And therein Tony, lies a great deal of the appeal. I went with 3/5 on this, but am tempted to go with 3.5 now. I do NOT agree with the majority of the critics at all, though I'll admit this was slow to get untracked, and the 3 D I saw it in added nothing (as you yourself admit.) There are far worse films out there, and I dare say there are some splendid set pieces on display here including that sustained Medussa mega-sequence in the final third. Perceptive piece here!

Tony Dayoub said...

Sam, I'm glad you chose this quote because it allowed me to correct a typo; I had forgotten to insert the word villain after complex.

Anyway, I agree the film has been overly maligned. It's never boring and introduces some nice ideas with Perseus playing a bit of an advocate for the cause of mankind. on a five star scale I'd probably give it a 2 1/2, which in my book means it's worth a matinee viewing.

Adam Zanzie said...

Question: when Io magically appears at the end, is Zeus bringing her back to life, or has Zeus transformed into her??? Because it's one thing to father a child, and another thing entirely to sleep with that child later on- especially if he is of the same gender! This movie shouldn't have been called Clash of the Titans; it should have been called "Incest of the Gods".

I can't say I agree with you on this movie, Tony. I was pretty underwhelmed. Granted, the original movie, as you say, was never very good to begin with, but at least it has the Harryhausen stop-motion animation going for it. Today they look corny as hell, but at least they still manage to produce some sort of effect. But the CGI in this remake is uninspired. I didn't enjoy the Kraken finale as much as you did- the waving tentacles filling the screen prevented me from being able to tell what was going on. When Perseus finally kills it, all I could think was: "That's it?"

Louis Leterrier is not a very interesting filmmaker, either. I just don't like the way he directs. The only memorable image in the whole film is the Kraken roaring at the screen; everything else feels rushed. The fight with Medusa is loud and unimaginative, and has none of the chilling suspense that Desmond Davis at least was able to incorporate during the Medusa sequence in the original. The scene with the witches is even worse! Leterrier barely even manages to establish the fact that without "the eye", the witches would go blind. I only knew they would because of my familiarity with the first film.

I like some of the performances. Neeson and Fiennes were awesome, as was Pete Posthlewaithe, and I actually think Sam Worthington is a worthy successor to Harry Hamlin. But the rest of the movie is rather ordinary, and feels like it will be destined to air through daytime television on channels like FX and AMC. Like I always say, the only thing worse than a bad film is a film that is mediocre (and forgettable).

Tony Dayoub said...

Whether you're being serious with this question about Io or not, if you bone up on your mythology you'll find the gods never had any problem with incest. Even Judeo-Christian traditions feature it prominently (Lot, anyone?).

I agree with your overall statement that even bad movies tend to be more memorable than mediocre ones. But within that there is a spectrum, too. I loved the performances here. The effects were well done. And I disagree with you on Leterrier, who shows a good grasp on framing and geography when filming action scenes. I never get lost in his sequences, and he holds shots a whole lot longer than some of his contemporaries. The movie was just fun.

But more than that, it has more substance than I expected on two levels. First, it impressed me by posing some of the same questions about humanism versus religion found in the source material. It really didn't have to go there, as the original film proves. Second, it acknowledges its cinematic history with visual and thematic ties to predecessors like DeMille's TEN COMMANDMENTS, and Biblical/Roman epics of the past.

My point is there's mediocre, and there's mediocre. Try finding anything worth mentioning in Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND outside of Mia Wasikowska's performance.