Thursday, April 8, 2010

Clash of the Titans: Far from Titan-ic

Clash of the Titans (2010) • View trailer for Clash of the Titans
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for action violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.8.10
Buy DVD: Clash of the Titans • Buy Blu-Ray: Clash of the Titans [Blu-ray]

Most sword-and-sandal epics are notoriously stodgy and creaky.

The dialogue is invariably arch and cornball, the testosterone gets splashed across the screen in buckets, and the actors rarely feel authentic to the era. We too often get a sense that we're watching 21st century men and women dressed up in togas, who declaim in the manner of third-rate stage companies doing bad Shakespeare.
Scrambling to avoid getting skewered by the tail of a monstrous scorpion --
such a genre cliche! -- Perseus (Sam Worthington) and Io (Gemma Arterton)
dodge through rocky crags while trying to find better cover in a mostly
desert landscape. And things are about to get worse, because that huge
scorpion isn't alone ... and the next one's even larger.

Such films just can't help looking and sounding like a product of far more innocent times, back when Steve Reeves made his Italian Hercules flicks in the late 1950s and early '60s, or when stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen wowed audiences with epics such as 1958's The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and 1963's Jason and the Argonauts.

The new Clash of the Titans makes an additional mistake, also common to this sub-genre: Director Louis Leterrier doesn't even try to control the various accents emanating from his cast, leaving us to believe that these gods and heroes came to Mount Olympus and ancient Greece by way of central casting in England and Australia.

Granted, this film's production values are top-notch, and modern special-effects technology translates into bigger, better and badder monsters ... but everything plays out with an air of silly bravado.

Probably not the mood Leterrier had in mind.

Exceptions exist, of course; Gladiator is a magnificent drama, and even the flawed Troy had its moments. And while the artificial CGI environment of 300 was distracting, the human passion came through pretty well.

Not so with Leterrier's Clash of the Titans. This is a mostly silly children's film, just like the 1981 original, which similarly strove for "respectability" by dragging a few famous faces into key roles. Thus, while Harry Hamlin's Perseus traded florid speeches with Laurence Olivier's Zeus and Claire Bloom's Hera back in the day, now Sam Worthington's Perseus gets bounced between Liam Neeson's Zeus and Ralph Fiennes' Hades.

That said, genre fans are certain to get a kick out of this film's fleeting appearance by Bubo the mechanical owl, which played a key role in the 1981 version (also stop-motion animated by Harryhausen).

Bubo may look clunky and old-style compared to this new film's computer-generated beasties  and of course that's the whole point of the mechanical owl's brief cameo  but the joke's on Leterrier: The human performances here are just as clunky and old-style as their predecessors, three decades ago.


Perseus comes of age at a time when the Greeks are turning their backs on the gods: a move that seems impressively daft, given the powers of the various Olympians. Indeed, Zeus finally gets his knickers in a twist when the citizens of Argos destroy one of his statues; the ruler of Olympus subsequently allows his underworld brother, Hades, to wreak havoc throughout the city.

And worse will come: Unless the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed to the monstrous Kraken during the coming eclipse, the beast will destroy Argos utterly.

Cue a bit of manly interference by Perseus, who happens to be a demigod: a son of Zeus by way of a mortal woman. Trouble is, Perseus abhors his birthright, and by extension his quasi-godly skills; he'd rather be valued as a man among other regular men.

As always is the case with such sagas, even the most fearsome monsters have a weak spot. In this case, Perseus learns that the Kraken, still a creature of flesh and blood, will be vulnerable to the magical stare of the horrific gorgon: that hideous woman of legend with snakes for hair, whose stare turns any mortal being to stone.

Obtaining the gorgon's head, though, won't be an easy task ... not with distractions such as giant scorpions and the half-man/half-monster Calibos (Jason Flemyng) to contend with.

Fortunately, Perseus has allies: the world-weary Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), who leads a small but loyal band of soldiers, and Io (Gemma Arterton), a resourceful young woman who, like Perseus, is born of god and man.

Unfortunately, Leterrier sacrifices character development on the altar of lustily choreographed action sequences, such as a very protracted battle with the aforementioned giant scorpions. Like so many of the red-shirted engineering crew members in TV's original Star Trek, Draco's various men are little more than monster fodder: barely named and introduced before (for example) being skewered by a giant scorpion tail.

Eventually, Perseus' rag-tag team is reduced to its key players, but Leterrier  and screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi  prove equally ruthless with these remaining few. It all seems pointless: If Leterrier and the writers wanted Perseus to do all the heavy lifting by himself, why bother introducing secondary characters?

Worthington doesn't get to demonstrate much in the way of acting chops; his Perseus is suitably heroic, but the "dilemma" relating to the character's blood-tie to Zeus gets little more than token lip service.

Worthington's line readings, in his few scenes with Neeson, are pretty clumsy ... although, in fairness, the dialogue is pretty laughable to begin with.

In short, pretty much what I'd expect from the genre.

The film's bigger problem, though, is purely technical. This Clash of the Titans was planned and developed as a standard (flat) film, and then hastily transformed into a 3-D flick in the wake of Avatar and its massive box-office take. Well, as James Cameron has made a point of insisting  and he certainly should know  3-D technology doesn't work that way. Retrofitting leads to problems.

And the problems here are glaring. The image shimmers and shifts constantly, because the 3-D depth of field doesn't work properly. The focus is off, and that's a big problem during the climactic battle with the gorgon, which takes place in darkened, lava-filled caves that generate lots of shadows; the action choreography becomes difficult to see, let alone follow.

My advice, then, if you're determined to see this film: Skip the 3-D version, and settle for its standard-issue cousin. It'll be a far better viewing experience. Fewer headaches, too.

In fairness, I wouldn't call this Clash of the Titans a wholly bad film; it's merely foolish and predictable. It's also watchably entertaining, and kids and action junkies probably will find it a hoot (with apologies to Bubo).

But if Hollywood studios churn out too many sub-standard 3-D projects like this one, they'll kill the medium just as surely as they did back in the 1950s.

That would be a shame.

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