Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Clash of the Clunkers
(Clash of the Titans, 4/12/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

So what's the point of remaking a movie like Clash of the Titans, the 1981 Ray Harryhausen sword & sandal epic that, truth be told, was not very good to begin with? Simple: in Hollywood's view, the advent of CGI has wrought a revolution in filmmaking as momentous as color or sound. Remaking an effects epic from antiquity (that is, before the year 2000) amounts not just to making it again, but making it right. So for those who thought that all the original Titans needed was photorealistic special effects, your ship has arrived. Release the kraken!
      So much for the theory. In practice, 2010's Clash is the predictable result when a film runs the gauntlet between the Scylla of indifferent writing and the Charybdis of mind-numbing spectacle. We get a lot of gee-whiz effects, to be sure, but not much reason to care about what's on the screen. Not that the movie is unwatchable— as these things go, it actually has its moments, every one of which seems as precious as a small miracle. Olympus just deserves better.
      Like the original, this Clash is about the struggles of mere mortals to overcome the tyranny of the gods. The hero, Perseus (Avatar's Sam Worthington), is the son of a human woman and the ultimate skirt-chaser, Zeus (Liam Neeson). By circumstances too tedious to recount, he becomes the only hope of the city of Argos to avoid devastation by the kraken, the pet monster of Hades (Ralph Fiennes). To do so, he leads a mismatched band of hearty adventurers to slay the Medusa, whose stony gaze is the only weapon powerful enough to stop the giant. Along for the ride are the deliciously sardonic Mads Mikkelson (the blood-weeping baddie from Casino Royale) and Gemma Arterton (also seen in a Bond film, Quantum of Solace) as Io, a mortal huntress cursed—that's how she puts it, "cursed"—with ageless beauty.
      Back in '81, Olympus seemed like a hazily envisaged assisted living center, populated by aging heavyweights from the British acting pantheon like Sir Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith. Here the gods, led by Neeson's Zeus, seem a bit more hale and hearty, but are still cursed to life in eternal soft focus.
      Scorned by their mortal spawn, Zeus and Hades smite the humans with lavish special effects, and Perseus and the other mortals strike back with feckless defiance. The mismatch is unconvincing. Still, it becomes mildly entertaining to watch Worthington and Mikkelson throw themselves with foolish abandon at giant scorpions, winged demons, or whatever else the gods put in their way. The fight with Medusa (Natalia Vodianova) is also well done, with the monster slithering fast amidst the ruins and our heroes attempting to fight what they can't look upon. (The filmmakers show awareness of some of the ancient sources by showing Medusa as a lovely—albeit snakily coiffed—young woman, not just the usual Hollywood harpy.)
      Given that he is barely recognizable, it's tempting to say that Ralph Fiennes is slumming here. But like Oedipus, Fiennes just can't escape his fate—his Hades has a kind of weary gravitas that is actually quite compelling. The same can't be said about Neeson, whose Zeus is basically The Phantom Menace's Qui-Gon with a Taliban beard and an incongruous suit of medieval armor.
      In short, Clash is a cheese sandwich that's hard to swallow. But at least there's plenty of cheese— with a dash of spicy mustard on the side .

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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