Monday, October 12, 2020

Clash of the Titans (2010)

 

The idea of remaking Clash of the Titans had been kicking around Hollywood since at least the 90s, and once we entered the CGI era that would make the creature effects doable there was more and more interest.  Finally, in 2010, the remake, directed by Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Now You See Me) arrived in theaters with a heavy thud.  Despite a budget of $125 million and the work of a lot of creditable actors, the film is a complete, disastrous mess.

The result of multiple different screenplays mashed together, the film seems bent on fucking up everything that made the original movie great.  In the 1981 version you get the operatic, brooding opener with Acrisius putting his daughter and bastard grandson into a coffin and casting them into the storming sea while he curses the gods.  It delivers all the exposition you need with a dramatic bit of monologue and a great location shoot.

The new movie, however, never saw anything it couldn’t narrate the fuck out of, and it starts right off with what becomes the major problem of the script: it’s terrible.  The fact that the person writing it could not create decent dialogue to save their life did not stop them from writing a whole fuckton of dialogue that will be crammed into your face in many, many boring scenes of people standing around and delivering exposition in rote, declarative sentences.  The movie even added the character of Io – played by the lovely Gemma Arterton – expressly for the purpose of narrating things, just in case you missed the point that this is all super-serious and not fun.

The quality of the cast is the real tragedy here, as aside from Liam Neeson as Zeus, you have Ralph Fiennes shamelessly hamming it up as Hades, Luke Evans as Apollo, and Alexander Siddig as Hermes – even though he appears on screen for about 10 seconds.  Other familiar faces include Mads Mikkelsen, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Liam Cunningham, Nicholas Hoult, Vincent Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, and Rory McCann, among others.  You will spend the whole movie thinking “hey I know who that is.”  So many good actors, and so little for them to do.  The only one not slumming it is Sam Worthington, who is as bland and dull in the role of Perseus as he is in all his movies.  This was the time period where they were casting him in everything, hoping he was the new Russell Crowe, except it turned out his talent is strictly mediocre.

The story deviates so far from the original that it seems less like a new interpretation and more like mockery.  Here, Perseus is born to Acrisius’s wife, who Zeus seduces, Uther-style.  She is not named, and she dies in the sea-casket, so she never even gets a line.  Then Acrisius is struck by lightning and turns into Calibos, with a makeup design that is really boring and uninspired.  In this movie, Hades is the main antagonist, part of a plotline about humanity rebelling against the gods, which comes across as really, really stupid and forced.  The kraken is not “the last of the titans” as in the original, but a monster Hades created to kill the titans, and despite expensive CGI, it looks nowhere near as cool as Harryhausen’s striking creation.

Andromeda is given nothing to do, has no romance with Perseus, and is demanded as sacrifice for seemingly no reason.  Even after Perseus rescues her, he just leaves to go be with the Goddess of Exposition.  Perseus is saddled with a cast of side-characters who serve as fodder, plus the inexplicable presence of “Djinn”, who look like tree people and seem to be from some other movie.  The design of Medusa is like something out of a video game, rather than the terrifying monster Harryhausen created, and indeed the entire sequence seems like a stage from a video game.

The CGI, overall, is not great, with everything looking muddy and grayish, and yet somehow too shiny, like plastic.  The costumes and set dressing are fantastic, and the digitally-painted backgrounds and vistas look top-notch.  It’s too bad the effects overall look so underdone and ugly, which is not helped by the rather poor art design, which makes everything look too slick.  There is a definite Blizzard kind of aesthetic in the design of the monsters and the gods, so it all kind of reminds me of Diablo.

I don’t object to the idea of making a version of Clash that does things differently, the problem here is that every change they made from the original makes the movie worse, muddies up the story, and makes things more complicated without adding anything except shitty dialogue and sub-par CGI.  In the original movie Perseus falls in love with Andromeda, and everything else follows from that motivation.  In this version, Perseus has no personal motivation except that he’s mad at Hades, and he seems to slog rather grudgingly through the plot.

Despite being a pile of crap, this movie made enough worldwide to warrant a sequel, and that will be where things get interesting.  The idea of men at war with the gods is a good one for both over-the-top action and some genuine existential undertones.  Here the whole theme fell flat, but in the unlikely follow-up, Wrath of the Titans, the full awesome potential was realized.  I’ll get to that one next time.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Doom Idol

 

Like a storm, the armies of Kadesh poured forth from the borderlands and rode through the valley of the Nahar, a plume of dust in their wake as though they were a fire upon the earth.  Summer was waning, and the floodwaters were drawing away, leaving fields covered in the black mud of the high season.  The roads emerged from the water and dried in the fierce sun, and armies of horsemen rode over them, seeking the heart of empire.

Zudur was at the forefront, high in his war saddle, his helm shielding his face from the sun, and his standard-bearers riding close behind him.  At his side walked the lion who was his only brother now, black mane vibrant in the waning light of day, the rear leg limping slightly as it went, a mirror of the misshapen king who led his hosts to war.

Too long had the warriors of the Hatta rested upon old victories.  Too long had they grazed their horses on sweet grass and rode in hunts and mock battles, forgetting the taste of blood.  Zudur remembered his childhood days, when it seemed the world lay open to their conquest, and the city of Kadesh was only a stop along the path.  He had watched as months became years, and years decades, and now his father was dead and he was king, and no more would he allow the strength of his warriors to wither away.  Ashem awaited, and they would take what had been ordained for them.

If he had any doubt of it, he had only to look on the lion that paced him, sent to him by the god of the sky.  Ezurhad was the god of the lightning and the fire of the storms, and he had led the way of the people out of the eastern lands with a golden lion.  Now another lion followed him and guarded him, and he knew he was favored of the god who had shaped his race like iron on a forge.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Clash of the Titans

 

Released in 1981 after a difficult production history, Clash of the Titans was famously the swansong of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, who retired from filmmaking shortly after he finished it.  Already in his sixties, it is likely that the advent of Star Wars and the new age of special effects had shown him which way the wind was blowing, and that his kind of small-scale monster picture would not survive the new era that was coming.

It was a good way to bow out, as Clash is the most lavishly produced Harryhausen film, and boasted the biggest budget he’d ever worked with.  He created a huge cast of monsters for the movie, from the humanoid Calibos to the winged Pegasus, from the mesmerizingly terrifying Medusa to the towering, city-flattening Kraken.  It is also the film in his ouvre that has most in common with Sword & Sorcery, and displays more grit, horror, and violence than any of the other, more kid-friendly movies in the Harryhausen history.

The original script was apparently much more pulpy, with the Kraken ripping Pegasus into bloody pieces at the end, and Andromeda spending a lot of time naked.  As it is, there is still quite a bit of pulp DNA in this, with some casual nudity and some quite graphic violence.  Between Calibos getting his hand chopped off, the soldiers’ gruesome deaths at the stingers of the giant scorpions, Medusa’s bloody decapitation, and the butchery of her two-headed guard dog, there is a good bit of gore to be found, certainly out of bounds from what one expected from a Harryhausen movie.  The film opens with King Acrisius putting his daughter and her infant son in a coffin and casting it out to sea while she wails and begs for her life, followed shortly by the complete destruction of the city of Argos.  It’s actually pretty intense.

The cast is famously star-studded, with both big names and some that would go on to greater notoriety later.  Lawrence Olivier may have been phoning it in with laser Floyd lights behind his head, but his natural gravitas and authority made him the perfect Zeus.  The gods are rounded out by other well-known names like Ursula Andress, Pat Roach, Claire Bloom, and Maggie Smith as the antagonist, Thetis.  Sian Phillips does a lot with a small part as Queen Cassiopeia, and Judi Bowker adds some spark to the bland princess role.  Harry Hamlin as Perseus is good-looking, but comes across as rather dim, and he’s not that good an actor, being totally upstaged by Burgess Meredith as his funny sidekick.

In Sword & Sorcery the gods are always either distant and unknowable, or they are monsters from some ancient epoch when mankind was cattle.  In Clash the gods are – as in the genuine epics – very much present in the narrative.  They talk to the hero and villain, they take sides, they grant favors and send gifts.  What keeps this from turning into a moral axis that would be more reminiscent of High Fantasy is that the Greek pantheon were never paragons of virtue.  The gods were just very much like people with their passions writ large.  The whole story starts because Zeus couldn’t keep it in his pants, and the rivalry between Perseus and Calibos is fueled by them both being the semidivine children of gods, favored by their parents.

There’s nothing inherently opposed to S&S with this idea, as there is never a sense that Perseus is engaged in some kind of holy crusade.  He is caught up in a very personal struggle to save the woman he loves and defeat the subhuman monstrosity who has cursed her and the city she will someday rule.  That he is aided by Zeus, his father, while Calibos is aided by his mother Thetis makes it seem more like a war by proxy, with the divine parents using their children as agents to fight each other.

But Perseus is saved as a hero figure because he does not get everything given to him by his dad.  He takes actions that he decides on himself, and which take courage and involve great danger.  Nobody told him he had to tame Pegasus, consult cannibal witches, or do battle with the Kraken – those are all things he decides to do himself, he just gets some help along the way.  At the end, when he rides across seemingly half the Levant to face the Kraken, he gets just the tiniest nudge from Zeus to help him along.

This isn’t really a Sword & Sorcery film, because the characters are drawn too broadly, and too easily divided into good guys and bad guys.  But the crazy, overheated landscape of monsters and curses, bloody burnings and beheadings, and of everything being at the whim of capricious, vindictive gods is something that could definitely be made to work.  Almost 30 years later Hollywood decided this needed a remake and, unfortunately, we will get to that one next.