Review: “Clash of the Titans”

Considerably departing from both the original myth and its 1981 cult classic progenitor, Louis Leterrier’s remake of “Clash of the Titans” proves a disheartening disappointment. Flat and inconsistent, there is considerable effort on display here but no clear sense of where it is all meant to go or what it truly hopes to achieve. The result is a few admirable elements are lost amidst a cacophony of digital set pieces, horrendous scripting, and a grim self-serious tone that’s more laborious than engrossing.

As someone who wanted to pursue Greek Mythology as a vocation and voraciously consumed its lore in my childhood, Desmond Davis’ original film was my “Star Wars” as such. No other film, even the more lauded but less interesting 1963 “Jason and the Argonauts”, ever seemed to nail the tone of the subject quite so squarely on the head like ‘Clash’ did. It had the right combination of very human Gods ruled by petty emotions and played by acting legends, glamorous (albeit airheaded) heroes and heroines, sinister creatures superbly realised by Ray Harryhausen, a rousing score, a dash of nudity and a grand sense of adventure and fun.

These days it’s considered a camp nostalgic throwback favoured only by us children of the 80’s. Too inconsistently paced, woodenly acted and old-fashioned in its storytelling approach – only a few elements still click with today’s audience raised on the darker likes of “300” and the “God of War” games. Those modern examples at least seem to have a much firmer grasp of Greek mythology than this remake’s script by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi.

In an effort to change the original into something more contemporary, the new ‘Clash’ makes many of the mistakes of the old and adds more than a few of its own. Some changes do succeed, such as the interesting self-empowerment theme with Perseus and to a lesser extent mankind rejecting their divine lineage even in the face of death. One or two throwaway lines and a flashback sequence hint at the darkness of the Olympian gods such as the so-called seductions of certain mortal women being more akin to rape than anything else. Yet these few interesting beats come at the cost of several random changes that ultimately rip the heart out of the picture.

The most notable change is the very motivation of the lead character – no longer saving the life of his wife-to-be Princess Andromeda, instead he’s a lost figure with nothing driving him beyond a desire to avenge his parents death. This renders saving Andromeda and the people of the city, the main reason for the quest, a trivial endeavour with little weight to it. Things aren’t helped by some strange additions like a doomsday prophet character preaching sacrifice, a race of beautifully designed if narratively pointless wooden Djinns, and the considerable reduction of the once tragic Calibos into a angry grunt that looks to have just escaped a burn unit (though he does get a more fleshed out backstory).

To fill in some of the gaps there’s Io, Gemma Arterton’s immortal priestess. With all the female Gods of the original in absentia, the mostly missing Andromeda reduced to a few lines and the prideful Cassiopeia rendered a caricature killed off in her first scene, Io is jarringly inserted into the story to serve as the film’s only real shot of estrogen. As a motherly sage she’s a passable but bland re-imagining of Burgess Meredith’s old amphitheater owner. As a considerably under developed love interest, Arterton is stuck with some truly atrocious dialogue that will draw unintentional laughs while her chemistry with Worthington falls decidedly flat.

Harry Hamlin’s original Perseus was a pretty boy, a self-entitled blank slate whose nipples got as much screen time as his face and whose acting often seemed more akin to a Vidal Sassoon commercial. To his credit Sam Worthington tries to shatter that image both physically and performance wise, but is hamstrung by the anaemic material given to him as the remake’s incarnation of Perseus. I will say he does manage to pull off both an armoured and cloth skirt well though, and there’s a few split-second ‘up kilt’ camera shots destined for a frame-by-frame analysis when the Blu-ray comes out.

From interviews its been suggested the Aussie actor was the one that came up with much of the subplot about Perseus’ rejection of his real father Zeus. For that I’m thankful because otherwise there’s little to the character who is stuck simply reacting for much of the first and last act of the film. It’s only that middle act and his interactions with a nicely underplayed performance by Mads Mikkelsen that give the film its few sparks of energy. The rest of the mortal cast from “Skins” star Nicholas Hoult to Alexa Davalos are fine but so marginalised they’re simply not involved enough to be of any consideration.

On the immortal plane things get a little stranger. Aside from their human qualities, one of the most intriguing things about the Olympian Gods is their relationship structure. Maggie Smith’s catty and vengeful goddess Thetis was one of the original film’s major highlights, as were the few interactions between the various immortals like Hera and Athena. Here the paradigm is reduced to the bland Christian God/Devil model with prideful Zeus and vengeful Hades seemingly the only real Gods around.

Oh sure Danny Huston gets all of one line as Poseidon, while a “Star Trek” star shows up with what looks like glittery poodle excrement on his head to deliver a message. Otherwise its just Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades channeling past performances and even mannerisms (Fiennes does his Voldemort whisper throughout). They’re not helped by the decision to wear glam rock armour lens flared to such an extent that the main chamber on Mount Olympus looks like a show revue at Caesar’s Palace. I do like the floor seemingly made from Google Earth though.

The film’s various creature creations are more successful for the most part. While the Kraken itself looks too CG to be taken seriously, its slow emergence out of the harbour of Argos is a well-orchestrated sequence even if the blurry freewheeling harpies prove an annoying distraction. A black Pegasus is smoothly rendered and looks good on screen, as do the blue-flamed Djinn. Giant scorpions are the key to one of the best action sequences in the film even if Leterrier’s frantic camera and editing undermines the full impact. Even the Stygian witches work better than I expected, though seem too deliberately garish (the CG ‘eye’ in particular stinks) and thus not as delightfully sinister as the original’s cannibalistic old crones and their giant crystal ball.

The biggest failure critter wise is Medusa. Even with its dated blue screen, the original’s Medusa sequence is a superbly atmospheric scene reliant on effective lighting, sound and tension. Here Medusa is treated as a bland action set piece, more about speed than suspense. The creature itself isn’t a vision of horror but a big snake with a European supermodel’s face glued to the front which looks truly silly.

The location filming is interesting if rather strange topography for Ancient Greece. Action moves from ancient city to forest to sandy desert to volcanic wastelands with no real acknowledgement or sense of days/miles travelled. Pacing is all over the place as we must wade through over half-an-hour of very bluntly delivered and overwritten setup in the early stages before the action starts. Once it does, there’s very little breathing room as set pieces run into each other and the all too choppy editing tries to keep you engaged with intensity. It doesn’t work

Then there’s the 3D. Added as an afterthought late in post-production and rushed into conversion by the studio, the results are the worst 3D yet seen for a recent feature film – even more so than the recent “Alice in Wonderland”. Nearly invisible in some scenes, very layered 2D-like in others, the so-called extra depth actually distracts and detracts rather than enhances the experience.

Strangely lifeless overall, the new ‘Clash’ doesn’t have the sense of nostalgia or camp that in some ways protects the original from too harsh a criticism. There was a lot of potential here from all involved, but the opportunities seem to have been wasted thanks to poor scripting, brutal editing and indecisive direction.

This was my most anticipated film of the season and there are certainly moments where I caught a glimpse of some strong ideas. The creature action has appeal, and most of the key people involved acquit themselves as they do the best with what they’ve been given. It’s just a shame the final result is just an untidy and not particularly cohesive film that some will easily dismiss. Those of us with more passion for the subject matter and the original though will find it empty and mildly heart breaking.