Review: Clash of the Titans (2010, 3D)

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Do you remember Clash of the Titans, a delightful 1980s film loosely based on the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda? It starred Harry Hamlin and Lawrence Olivier among others, but is best known as the last movie to feature the stop-motion talents of Ray Harryhausen.

A lot of people are very fond of it, but few people are so fond of it that they’d remake it. Which is what Warner Bros, writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and director Louis Leterrier have done.

The question is: is it as good or is it better than the original? And does 3D make it a better movie than it would have been? Here’s the trailer:

Plot
The mortal son of the god Zeus embarks on a perilous journey to stop the underworld and its minions from spreading their evil to Earth as well as the heavens.

Is it any good?
It’s a bit lackluster, I have to say. Yes, the visual effects are very good and they’re easily superior to the original’s. But in terms of character, style and a whole load of other considerations, it’ll leave you feeling unsatisfied.

Greek mythsNow, as far as the Greek myths side of things is concerned, it’s all a bit Chinese whispers. If the original Clash played around a little bit with the myths – changing the Perseus story slightly to include the gift of an owl from Athena and losing Hermes’ winged sandals, adding the Kraken from Icelandic myth/Tennyson, taking Pegasus from the myth of Bellerophon and so on – this new Clash has taken all of those things, treated them as the original myth and made its own changes.

That’s not to say it hasn’t in places actually gone back to the myths. Once everyone knew about Zeus and the other gods, but now the film includes a Princess Irulan-in-Dune-style introduction to the gods, the Titans, Olympus, how Hades came to rule the underworld, etc, so today’s audience knows what’s going on. But said introduction is delivered by Io (Gemma Arterton from Quantum of Solace), who now rather than being the daughter of a river-god turned into a cow, is now a human cursed with eternal youth; the Kraken is supposed to be Hades’ son and used to defeat the Titans in the war for Olympus; and the gods created humans to fuel their immortality through worship.

So this version is also just about as historically, mythologically, geographically, culturally and linguistically inaccurate as it’s possible to get, with Argos mysteriously moving to the west coast of Greece to near Paxos and Antipaxos, 5th century BC Attican art decorating bronze age palaces lined with modern Greek graffiti, Greeks wearing corn-rows, wearing Hellenistic era armour and carrying iron swords, Hades is full of fire and brimstone like Hell, and so on. We even have Arabian djinn turning up in deserts.

But apart from me, no one really cares and let’s face it, it’s not like the myths themselves weren’t full of a few contradictions. This is Greek myth as backdrop to a Universal Studios ride or a Renaissance Fayre: let’s just think of this all as a magic fairy land full of Harry Potter beasts and “Zeus”™. So let’s move on.

Problems
More problematically is it just doesn’t make a whole load of sense even on its own terms. Perseus (Sam Worthington, with full on Russell Crowe Gladiator growl, short haircut and Australian accent), who at least here acts like he might be the son of a god, unlike Harry Hamlin, is sworn to fight the gods. The gods are pissed because mortals are beginning to refuse to worship them, and during one of their punishments, Hades kills Perseus’s adopted dad.

After Perseus turns up in Argos, Cassiopeia (Rome‘s Polly Walker, given much the same character to play) insults Aphrodite so Hades turns up and tells Argos they have to sacrifice Andromeda or else the Kraken will destroy them in just a few days’ time.

He also outs Perseus as a demi-god, so the Argovites head off with Perseus to try to find out how to kill the Kraken, which eventually turns out to be the head of Medusa, which means a trip to the underworld is necessary. Along the way, Perseus, Io, and Mads Mikkelson, together with some comedic Argovites and the aforementioned djinn, have to fight giant scorpions and the Stygian Witches, as well as bribe Charon the ferryman. But Zeus also pops up to hack off Perseus, and Hades has given Perseus’s hacked-off former father (the one married to his real mum, Danaë) some super-powers as well, because Hades (Ralph Fiennes) is hacked off with Zeus (Liam Neeson) and wants to take over from him.

(SPOILER ALERT) At first I thought this was going to be an aeotiological, Xena-level of ahistorical explanation for why the Greeks stopped worshipping the gods, but by the end of it, the words “we want sequels” are carefully stamped over everything. Zeus, who had so far been portrayed as a tyrant and thoroughly evil, is suddenly mortals’ best friend again, pally with Perseus, resurrecting the dead to be nice and so on. It was just that Hades drumming up trouble that caused the war between the mortals and the gods. Similarly, Perseus has been trying to find a way to kill Hades – he’s told what it is and… it doesn’t work. Otherwise, how would Clash 2 come about if there weren’t any gods and Hades were dead?

Similarly, there are weird traces of anger at the Christian God being sublimated here: the gods are depicted as evil, in part because they cause mortals to die. Hang on… that still happens, doesn’t it, so is any god that causes mortals to die evil? The writers also want to have their cake and eat it: the origin story (well, one of them) is told correctly, with Athena cursing Medusa for being raped by Poseidon in her temple, and that’s used to show that the gods are evil. Yet, the intrepid party go off to kill Medusa anyway, because Medusa’s a bit of a bitch. So who’s bad here: mortals or gods?

Characters
Perseus is divided, but he doesn’t want to be like Zeus, despite being half-god, having a light sabre for a sword, and being able to bounce off surfaces and fight like Sonic the Hedgehog. He knows that much. Except he decides later he doesn’t mind it that much, and maybe old dad’s all right. Io hates Zeus as well, and has been helping Perseus his whole life (how does she know about Perseus exactly?). But she’s all right with Zeus by the end, too. It’s just that Hades that was bad. None of the other characters get much by way of character definition: they just do things.

Olympus is beautifully realised, and really conveys an otherworldliness that we can’t quite fit into our mortal brains. These are gods capable of doing amazing things, instead of sitting around gassing all day as they do in the original movie. But despite there being 12 gods on display (there were plenty more in the myths), only four of them even get dialogue: Poseidon, Zeus, Hades and Apollo (who gets a line). Goddesses, who were so important in the original myth, don’t even get a name check, let alone dialogue; Io is just there as love interest and because she’s not a goddess and therefore not evil. It’s a very, very manly movie that’s arguably more misogynistic than even the ancient Greeks, who did at least include women in their stories and give goddesses something to do.

Direction
The film itself is very beautiful to look at, even in sickness-inducing, headache-causing, colour-desaturating 3D. The 3D itself doesn’t really add anything, although given the film wasn’t shot for 3D, I was surprised how well most of it turned out. Admittedly, it just seemed like a lot of Viewmaster slides at times, but there were a couple of moments when it was truly 3D.

However, it’s poorly paced. There are long sequences where nothing really happens. Worthington is just too self-contained and growly in his performance to make you care for him, showing no charisma or real emotion whatsoever. The action scenes are just too difficult to follow in 3D Viewmaster-vision, although the later ones where Perseus begins to act godly do work a whole lot better. There’s no real reason for Io and Perseus to fall in love. Andromeda’s an after-thought who promptly gets ignored (except if there’s a sequel, I’m sure). Fiennes is hammy, Neeson is just shouty. Mads Mikkelson is… Mads Mikkelson, but is actually really good.

Overall, it just feels like a movie that needed pruning back, having a rethink, and a return to basics. The change from making the gods just an accepted part of life to the enemies of mortals until the end of the movie makes no sense, destroys motivation for the characters and is illogical – after all, if the gods wanted mortals wiped out, that would easily done, as the story demonstrates. The Io love-interest is pretty daft. The lack of other gods is just wrong.

So I’d say stick with the original, and let’s see if the sequel’s any good.

  • SK

    My first reaction was that it might just be the worst film ever made in the history of films being made.
    I haven’t scaled that down much since. It’s awful — you didn’t even mention the dialogue, which when it isn’t just characters spewing not even clichés but the empty ghosts of clichés at each other — Io’s death scene is a particularly bad example, Arterton quite clearly unable to work out how to say things that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever.
    You also missed the real point which tips off it’s about the Christian God — Zeus’s desire to be loved. I’m pretty sure that the Greek’s Zeus didn’t give a damn whether the mortals loved or hated or thought any damn thing about him provided he was getting his end away on a regular basis and in a wide variety of shapes, but the ‘God’s a needy tyrant’ criticism is a classic of adolescent assaults on Christianity.

  • SK

    My first reaction was that it might just be the worst film ever made in the history of films being made.
    I haven’t scaled that down much since. It’s awful — you didn’t even mention the dialogue, which when it isn’t just characters spewing not even clichés but the empty ghosts of clichés at each other — Io’s death scene is a particularly bad example, Arterton quite clearly unable to work out how to say things that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever.
    You also missed the real point which tips off it’s about the Christian God — Zeus’s desire to be loved. I’m pretty sure that the Greek’s Zeus didn’t give a damn whether the mortals loved or hated or thought any damn thing about him provided he was getting his end away on a regular basis and in a wide variety of shapes, but the ‘God’s a needy tyrant’ criticism is a classic of adolescent assaults on Christianity.

  • MediumRob

    “My first reaction was that it might just be the worst film ever made in the history of films being made. I haven’t scaled that down much since.”
    Ah. Someone who hasn’t seen Transformers 1 or 2 then.
    “It’s awful — you didn’t even mention the dialogue, which when it isn’t just characters spewing not even clichés but the empty ghosts of clichés at each other — Io’s death scene is a particularly bad example, Arterton quite clearly unable to work out how to say things that have absolutely no meaning whatsoever.”
    She’s never really given much gravitas to anything I’ve seen her in. Not Lost in Austen, not Quantum of Solace. But I couldn’t hear much of the dialogue since it was all mumbled by Worthington et al. And expecting good dialogue in an action blockbuster is really just expecting the moon on a stick. It would only be noteworthy if the dialogue didn’t suck. But I should probably have pointed it out, you’re right.
    “You also missed the real point which tips off it’s about the Christian God — Zeus’s desire to be loved. I’m pretty sure that the Greek’s Zeus didn’t give a damn whether the mortals loved or hated or thought any damn thing about him provided he was getting his end away on a regular basis and in a wide variety of shapes, but the ‘God’s a needy tyrant’ criticism is a classic of adolescent assaults on Christianity.”
    Zeus’s need to be worshipped was well established, with the correct forms of worship being something very important in the Greek religion (might I recommend Walter Burkert’s ‘Greek Religion’?) – and indeed the mythology itself, since it’s both Prometheus’s giving of fire to mortals and his tutoring of mortals in how to get the good bits from the sacrificial animal, tricking Zeus into having the bad bits (later versions say Zeus knew all along that he was being duped), that causes Zeus to punish Prometheus with daily eagle-liver fests and mortal men with the creation of “lying tongued, deceiving hearted” woman in the form of Pandora (but that’s women-hating Hesiod for you).
    His need to be loved by mortal men, rather than merely worshipped and respected, however, is indeed an invention of the film, as is the idea that the gods could grow stronger from the worship of mortals or that’s why they’d been invented in the first place (mythologically, these would have been mortals from “the Age of Bronze” or “the Age of Heroes”, which would have been the second load of mortals created by Zeus, the Age of Gold being Kronos’s cracking first attempt which Zeus got rid off when he took over on the general grounds that he didn’t create them, and the Age of Silver being Zeus’s first crap attempt at creating mortals, which was so awful he decided to try again. The general idea of having mortals around was to have something to play with and indeed worship you, but just because that feels good. And at this point in history, the gods would have been walking around merrily on Earth, getting invited to weddings, that kind of thing. It’s not till the end of the Age of Heroes they decide to bugger off. Note this is Hesiod’s version and there are various other origin myths, including the Athenian of idea of mortals having grown from the ground – ie Gaia, but that’s the one most go by).
    However, I didn’t take this invention necessarily to be a direct critique of Christianity in the movie. Although one could argue that the Manichean oppositionism that you get in movies is from the prevalence of Judaeo-Christian thought in American culture (it’s certainly not from Manicheanism itself), I simply took it as
    a) the need to have a single baddie god who could be responsible for all ills (Hades, even though that’s not his function in mythology)
    b) the need to have a single goodie god to oppose him and for us to be able to sort of side with (Zeus, even though the tendency to make Zeus wise, nice, etc, was something that only crept into the Hellenistic religion from about the 5th century BC as basically life became a bit nicer for Greeks, which is why Prometheus gets rescued from the rock by Heracles at Zeus’ instigation in ‘Prometheus Bound’, but not in earlier versions of the story).
    If all the gods had been bad, then either
    a) Perseus would have to destroy them by the end of the movie or everyone would think him a loser
    b) the poor audience would be confused by the lack of a happy ending
    And a) and b) both preclude the possibility of a sequel, which is why Zeus suddenly becomes all fluffy and benevolent at the end – it’s okay to have the gods still ruling if they’re not tyrants, but just a bit grumpy.
    Certainly, you can’t directly map God onto Zeus and Satan onto Hades – after all, Hades is the one who gives birth to the Kraken (his only son) in this, and Zeus talks about snuffing out mortals who only exist at “his grace” (although that is a Christianity term, I’ll give you that). You might be able to claim that’s like God of the Old Testament and Judaism but not the Christian God.
    I do think you’re right to suggest that Zeus needing love from mortals is a subconscious import from Christianity – it might even be to make the Greek gods more palatable to US audiences, since a predominantly Christian audience might well need to have gods that love them and need their love to be able to deal with – I just don’t think it’s necessarily a critique of Christianity itself.
    I have to say though, one of the things I was pleasantly surprised by was that the gods are still there at the end of it. They’re not killed by Perseus, they’re not shown to be imposters. Christianity doesn’t take over. It’s a polytheistic US movie, which is somewhat remarkable, I think.

  • MediumRob
  • SK

    Good points, especially regarding the need for a ‘good god’ and a ‘bad god’. But what I was thinking of was that Zeus’s need to be loved is not presented as one of his good traits. It’s a flaw. He’s a bunny-boiler god, a pathetically needy God, at least at the beginning (was there an attempt to have him gain more actual respect for humans at the end, to give him an ‘arc’? The film was so bad I honestly couldn’t tell). Remember, at the very beginning it’s Zeus who is insisting they must not negotiate with the humans, because they snubbed him when he wanted their love and his fragile needy ego couldn’t take it.
    So while Zeus is the ‘good god’ as opposed to Hades’s ‘bad god’, I think Zeus is also portrayed as emotionally weak, foolish, easily manipulated, and generally ineffectual — not evil (or, you’re right, Perseus wuld have had to kill him and bye-bye sequels) but certainly not admirable. The message is definitely that humanity doesn’t need him, and probably would be better off without him (I’m sure his eventual end, if they get that far in the franchise, will be something like Christopher Eccleston’s in The Second Coming).
    And given that so much of the Zeus-imagery comes from portrayals of the Christian God, and the ‘needy god’ image is certainly a criticism levelled at Christianity, I can’t help but think that there is an intended message of ‘even the good god is a weak god and you’d be better off without him, ARE YOU LISTENING CHRISTIANS?’
    As for the dialogue, I expect action movie dialogue to suck, ie be straightforward, to-the-point and generally lack any subtext. But usually there’s at least some actual content there. In good dialogue no one ever comes out and says ‘I love you’. In action-movie dialogue they do, usually in clichés to flag up to even the dullest audience member what’s going on. The dialogue in Clash of the Titans goes below even that level: the clichés are there, but they’re just strung together with nothing behind them. It’s possible to make an action movie that paints emotions in broad strokes and then uses clichés to convey those to the audience; Clash of the Titans had no emotion at all. It was as if the scenes had been entirely filled with placeholder dialogue that sounded like the sort of thing people in loves scenes (or fight scenes, or dramatic scenes) say in other films, until they’d decided what was actually going on — only they forgot to go back, and so you got something that looked
    like action-movie dialogue because it contained the kinds of clichés that you find in action movies, but actually is like… like a pastiche of action-movie dialogue. Like a small child’s attempt at writing action movie dialogue along the same lines as they construct knock-knock jokes, where they know the form but don’t get the point.
    And I have seen both Transformers movies. There is no way you can convince me they are not awesome. Others have tried. In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Megatron beats Starscream with his own arm. That is a scene I have been waiting to see since I acted out Simon Furman’s stories with my Pretenders, wishing so hard I owned a Grimlock like the boy round the corner. Nothing will convince me those movies are not works of genius.
    Give. Me Your. Faaaaace!

  • SK

    That was all written before I saw your last message, with the link.
    Ah.

  • Indeed. Not sure whether I would have liked the scripted version either, but at least it would have been coherent and closer to the Perseus myth. But as I said, I liked the ending and making Zeus the baddie and the following films about Perseus’ fight against him would have been further away from the myths altogether.

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