BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Perseus hunts the god Hades before he can unseat Zeus from Olympus.
PROS: Good rendering of Olympus, and yeah, the Kraken looks like something out of the Cthulhu mythos.
CONS: Dull script, lifeless direction, uninspired acting and routine action make this one of the dullest summer blockbusters in a long, long while.
First, full disclosure. I have never been a fan of the original Clash of the Titans. Though I loved Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects (especially his rendering of Medusa, which was one of the few sequences during the summer of 1981 to fill my veins with Freon) and though I admired its rather anachronistic place in a summer dominated by Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark and For Your Eyes Only (to say nothing on the brief nudity which only added fuel to my already overheated adolescent imagination), I stand apart from many of my generation’s fellow geeks in their affection for Desmond Davis’s telling of the story of Perseus and Andromeda. A reviewing of the movie on Netflix Instant Watch didn’t help matters; try though it did, my middle-aged brain simply couldn’t bite into its cheesy goodness, could not get past the stilted dialogue, the ham-fisted acting (surprising when one considers the talents of Sir Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, among others), or the charisma-free presence of Harry Hamlin’s Perseus. I understand why others love it, but it’s a blind spot.
So, when I heard that Warner Bros. was remaking Clash of the Titans, I had no qualms. In fact, I wished it well. Granted, it might lack Harryhausen’s monsters, but could conceivably make up for any lack with energy and fun. Seating Louis Leterrier in the director’s chair only enhanced the movie’s standing; after all, he brought 2008’s The Incredible Hulk to something almost resembling life, so I assumed he would bring an eye for action and a sense of pace to the remake. Hell, I told myself, if it leaves out Bubo, the mechanical owl from the original, then it already would be ahead of the game.
By Zeus, I was wrong.
It’s not just that this new Clash of the Titans is bad, though it certainly is that. It’s not just that it is boring, though it certainly is that. No, the worst thing about this remake is that, Olympus help us, it makes the almost-middling original look like a masterwork. (Think of what would have happened had Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez had had the hubris to carry out their threatened remake of Casablanca. Clash of the Titans 2010 would have made that look good.)
How could it have gone so wrong? It’s not like screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi were working with lackluster material. Even the most bare bones details promise wondrous adventure: Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae (daughter of King Acrisius), is raised by the fisherman Dictys, slays the Gorgon Medusa and ultimately rescues Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, from the sea serpent Cetus (replaced with the Kraken for the movies) and marries her. Add the vengeance of Hades, the rage of Zeus at the disdain mere humans show the gods of Olympus, throw in the assistance of Hermes and Athena, and one has the potential for something that should promise an enjoyable two hours, full of eye candy so joyously sweet that the viewer’s eyeballs threaten to contract diabetes.
And yet the screenwriters hobble the script. First they strip Olympus of all of the machinations and squabbles between the gods that make Greek mythology so fascinating by reducing the number of gods to precisely three: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. Then they alter enough of the story so that Perseus, who watched his family perish due to the actions of Hades, desires to defeat him before he can wrest power from Zeus. It is a decision that lames all of the Olympian power plays and faux heroics into a pale revenge story and transforms Perseus into a brooding modern action hero in the mold of Charles Bronson or Jean-Claude Van Damme (but with neither the sleazy presence of the former nor the vacant cheesiness of the latter). And they relocate the action from the familiar address of most mythology to a hodgepodge of settings that look like rejects from Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. For example, in this retelling Medusa resides either in or near the Underworld, for the simple reason that, if she did not, the screenwriters would have no reason to introduce Poseidon.
The schizophrenic settings bleed into much of the problem with the art direction as well. Though the gods appear to stand on top of the world in all of their scenes (in one of the movie’s few interesting touches), the world of Clash of the Titans 2010 lack vigor or visual interest, despite landscapes as diverse as desert dunes and boggy rivers. Lindy Hemming’s costuming similarly suffers; she decks Zeus in shiny Medieval armor (which shines like that of King Arthur’s in John Boorman’s Excalibur), tricks out Hades in greasy locks and black robes like some anemic cross between Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and Rob Zombie.
The cast misfires. Liam Neeson as Zeus looks like he’d rather be kicking ass in Pierre Morel’s Taken, Ralph Fiennes’s Hades can’t hide his own indifference to all the mayhem he causes, Alexa Davalos (Andromeda) and Gemma Arterton (Io) stare vacantly at the sound and fury surrounding them in hopes of some direction, and Mads Mikkelson just looks angry at being being named Draco. Only Sam Worthington, as Perseus, cuts the necessary portrait of a mythological hero, but he has less thespian ability, to say nothing of screen presence, than his predecessor in the role. (Yes, I shall come right out and say it: Sam Worthington is no Harry Hamlin.)
All of this could be forgiven had Louis Leterrier infused his direction with the deft touches he brought to The Incredible Hulk. Unfortunately, his lack of enthusiasm for the material shows in his lurching pace and the picture’s lack of any sense of rising action. Indeed, he films the entire movie like a video game: Perseus and his companions fight their way from one incident to another without any urgency, involvement or point. The action sequences themselves are confusing and poorly executed; often Leterrier acts as if he decided midway through the movie to shoot the sequences in Paul Greengrass shaky-cam fashion, making this less Clash of the Titans and more The Bourne Divinity.
Even the special effects aren’t very special. It’s not that the giant scorpions or Medusa aren’t well executed – they are – but they simply don’t have the presence that made Ray Harryhausen’s thirty-year-old monsters so wondrous. And yes, the Kraken looks pretty cool, but because the movie is so uninvolving, the viewer is seldom given reason to care.
Oh, and that damned mechanical owl is there. Before venturing out on his quest, he finds it in a wooden chest. Draco advises him to leave it behind. “We don’t need it,” he says. Which is a pretty apt statement about the movie itself.