Clash of the Titans: A Hit from a Myth

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Warner Bros.

Sam Worthington as Perseus in a scene from Clash of the Titans

Like the wailing of the Stygian witches, the critical cry has arisen against Clash of the Titans. This mythological epic, starring Avatar's Sam Worthington as the ancient adventurer Perseus, has endured a typhoon of negative reviews, for four reasons. One: After shooting the picture in the traditional format, the filmmakers slapped on 3-D effects at the last minute. Two: Director Louis Leterrier and his team dared to remake the 1981 original, replacing stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen's handcrafted creatures — Medusa, the Kraken, the giant scorpions, etc. — with computer-generated ones. Three: The new picture reduces the role of Buba the mechanical owl, one of Harryhausen's signature inventions, to a perfunctory cameo. And fourth: Well, a lot of critics just don't like it.

Let's diagnose these complaints. First, the 3-D makeover. Yes, it is nothing but Warner Bros.' scheme to fleece an extra $3 or $4 from the moviegoer's pocket. Yes, the retrofit adds nothing to Clash of the Titans, and may detract from the film's old-fashioned vigor, as audience's wait in vain for some big monsters-in-your-lap moment. (And it's rated PG-13 — unlike 300, its recent ancestor in the antique-Greek action genre — so the hacked-off-arm opportunities are also limited.) But at least this transfer to 3-D doesn't substantially darken the original image, as Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland did. More important, you don't need glasses or a bank loan to enjoy Clash. It's very watchable in 2-D. I realized that when I removed my goggles during some scenes and found nothing changed: no double vision, no change in brightness. A Cyclops could see the movie and miss nothing.

Second, on remaking an old favorite. I'll tell you why the middle-aged critical Cassandras remember the 1981 version as a movie milestone: because when they first saw it, they were 11. Not that it didn't boast its antique charms, mostly in Harryhausen's nifty-creaky beasties, but these scenes consume perhaps 15 mins. of a two-hr. movie. The rest is a botch, as storytelling or spectacle. First we're up on Olympus in the company of some swank Brit actors — Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Claire Bloom as Hera, Maggie Smith as Thetis — whose contempt for the material, and for themselves for taking this rich but demeaning payday, deprives their readings of either the sizzle of high drama or the florid flounce of high camp. Then we're on earth, in Argos, where the half-god Perseus, Zeus' bastard son, is incarnated by Harry Hamlin with a pouty air and the look of a Muscle Beach Andy Samberg. Under director Desmond Davis, the live-action scenes are stately, starchy, suffocating.

Third, Bubo. C'mon, guys, this whistling clockwork owl was one of Harryhausen's lesser concoctions. Offering comic relief to the 1981 film's solemnity, Bubo was a figure of George Lucas-like whimsy: the echo of R2D2, precursor to Jar Jar Binks. At the end, a wandering poet (Burgess Meredith) says that Perseus' achievements might inspire him to write a play, and when Bubo starts clucking he says comfortingly, "Oh, don't worry, I won't leave you out." The new movie's screenwriters, Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, took that as a cue to usher Bubo into a scene where Perseus (Sam Worthington) is girding for battle. "What is this?" he asks a soldier, who replies, "Leave it." The whole thing takes about 15 secs., which is quite Bubonic enough for my tastes.

As to the chief complaint about Clash of the Titans — that the movie stinks — what can I say? I liked it. This is a full-throttle action-adventure, played unapologetically straight. Except for a daft, doom-saying prophet, who seems to have wandered into Argos from a Monty Python sketch, the movie proceeds without winks or nudges; it doesn't cue its viewers to easy laughs. As Worthington told an interviewer, "We take it serious so the audience doesn't have to take it too serious." The movie relies instead on the narrative twists and power of the old Greek myths; for, purely as tales to keep the faithful entertained, the notions of gods as jealous and deceitful as the humans they created, and a snake-woman whose gaze turns men to stone, are at least as edifying and entertaining as stories about the multiplying of loaves and fishes or the parting of a sea. It's religious doctrine as bedtime fable, and suitable fodder for a movie epic.

The Olympian rivalry this time is between Zeus (regal, fretful Liam Neeson) and a new character, his banished brother-god Hades (a suavely sulfurous Ralph Fiennes). They engage in a tense debate — whether a god should trust the devotion of humans or manipulate their fears — and then put their theories into action. Zeus occasionally intervenes in Perseus's favor, while Hades materializes at Palace Argos in an inky cloud to threaten the city with imminent destruction unless Andromeda is sacrificed to the Kraken, a giant sea monster. In a way, the actors are playing the same opposing characters, patriarch-savior and lurid brute, that they embodied in Schindler's List, except that their pawns here are not the Jews of Germany but all humanity as represented by the people of Argos, and that these two grand figures are a side show to the crusade led by Perseus, the son Zeus wants to protect, the nephew Hades means to destroy.

The 1981 movie showed Perseus being raised by his mother and driven by love of the Argosian princess Andromeda. Here, Perseus is raised by his loving adoptive father Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), and thinks of himself as a fisherman, not a warrior; a working-class bloke, not a half-Olympian. He's the god-man as grunt, and Worthington — his accent wandering at whim from Australian to English to Iowan — plays Perseus as a wily proletarian, not far from the Jason Statham stud in Leterrier's 2006 movie Transformer 2. That's the way to play this character, since the movie is also about humans who have tired of being the gods' playthings and are ready for a slave revolt. Perseus will be their grizzled gladiator (Worthington often channels fellow Aussie Russell Crowe in that 2001 Oscar-winner), their smoldering Spartacus.

Critics who miss the mother-son warmth of the Harryhausen film, and its foregrounding of Perseus's and Andromeda's romance, are also missing the point. Through his travels and travails, Perseus does have a female guide, Io (Gemma Arterton), who fans a brief romantic spark. But it becomes clear — as the young man gathers around him a half-dozen battle-tested guys, led by Draco (that chiseled slab of testosterone Mads Mikkelsen), to confront Medusa and save Argos — that this Clash is a movie of men at work and at war, of hardened soldiers on an impossible mission. This is less the saga of a solo superhero than a paean to male teamwork, in the style of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, which itself was a homage to classic Hollywood director Howard Hawks (Air Force, Rio Bravo). Perseus is a man's man; he forges his closest bonds first with his adoptive father, then with his comrades: they face the threat of death together and count on one another's wits and grit to stay alive. It means something when he says, "I'd rather die in the mud with these men than live forever as a god."

The special effects — the encounters with the scorpions and Medusa and the Kraken — are fitting rather than astounding; they're smartly choreographed and shot by Leterrier's constantly prowling, soaring camera work, but aren't candidates for the CGI Monsters' Hall of Fame. In fact, when the Kraken shows up at the climax to claim Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), the creature looks less like Harryhausen's majestic creature from the Greek lagoon and more like Gamera, the killer turtle in a dozen Japanese B movies. There's also an odd, kinky kick to the sight of Andromeda strung up on a seaside platform like the most elegant bondage babe at Voyeur West Hollywood. But mostly this is strong, solid adventure, unsullied by the chic contempt of camp — and, despite its critics, well worth your dollars, at least for the 2-D version.

In fact, I'd bet you that, 30 years from now, if this remake is remade, today's kids grown into the middle-agers of 2040 will have memories every bit as protective as their elders'. They'll revere this Clash and insist that the new movie include their favorite character, the daft prophet.