The original Clash of the Titans came at the end of a long reign by Ray Harryhausen as innovator king of special effects work, with his stop-motion creations that spanned decades in science fiction and fantasy films, often considered classics. Clash was also made pre-CG, when matte paintings were still the tool of choice, compared to contemporary green screen images. The original film, limited by these technical restraints (or was it freer because of them?) also came across as sweetly innocent, made for a purpose (genre entertainments that families could enjoy) that was fitting of its era (decidedly un-ironic times, those). Harry Hamlin’s fresh-faced Perseus was aided by aging Burgess Meredith (as an actor who filled in the blanks) and a tweeting robot owl .
The story itself is fairly simple: Perseus is the human son of Zeus, king of the gods, and he must save Princess Andromeda from being sacrificed to a titan known as The Kraken which will otherwise destroy the kingdom of Argos. This threat comes after Queen Cassiopeia makes an ill-timed remark and offends a god or two. The updated Clash of the Titans (offered up in 3-D because trends are important to Hollywood bottom lines) muddles every aspect of that simpler film and the story it tells.
In the new film, Perseus (Sam Worthington, hot off Terminator Salvation and Avatar, looking to usurp some imaginary action crown) is raised by resentful fisherman Spyros and his wife (Pete Postlethwaite and the lovely, long-missed Elizabeth McGovern) who are killed when Hades (Ralph Fiennes) throws a tantrum and destroys their ship. Angry at the gods but uncertain of his origins, Perseus is brought to Argos, where Cassiopeia makes the mistake of saying her daughter Andromeda’s (Alexa Davalos) beauty is greater than that of the Gods. Enter Hades to pose the Kraken threat, giving Perseus ten days to come up with a solution. This includes time spent with giant scorpions, three old hags with one eye (between them), snake-haired Medusa and winged-horse Pegasus.
But the filmmakers decided to add some Arabic dressing to this Greek salad in the form of the Djinn, a race of desert warriors who, as they are damaged, replace their flesh with tree bark, making them look like the sturdiest petrified men you’ll ever see. They also use magical blue flame to cure wounds, and know how to domesticate giant scorpions, so they come in handy. And instead of a robot owl, Perseus is guided by Io, a lovely woman cursed with agelessness (which sounds an awful lot like immortality) who has watched over the hero since his birth.
But story differences really don’t offend as much as the technical failings of the film. Directed by Louis Leterrier, Clash is so badly filmed that it’s hard to believe this is the man who made Transporter 2 and The Incredible Hulk, both perfectly acceptable examples of modest, fast-paced stories firmly cemented in enjoyable, gritty action. Neither of those films were difficult to watch, yet the action in Clash is so blurred and indecipherable in places that it quickly becomes annoying. And this isn’t just the headache-inducing 3-D effects at work, though they don’t help matters either. Like Avatar, Clash is a film that would have been just fine without the 3-D system backing it up, but instead that highly-evolved technological advance ends up muddying otherwise decent visuals. It says a lot that publicity stills are far more enjoyable than the actual film.
As Zeus, Liam Neeson (soon to be seen in the upgrade of The A-Team) appears to be little more than a beard in armor. Fiennes seems to be an angry beard who is balding, riding on sparks and smoke, generating vicious CG harpies from his murky exhaust. Alexa Davalos makes Andromeda a dour mistress, and Gemma Arterton is beautiful but emotionless as Io. Other actors seem to have been left on the cutting room floor: Danny Huston appears for about three seconds as Poseidon, who played a much larger role in the original tale.
Thank goodness for character actors in supporting roles. The always reliable Liam Cunningham gets some stoic comic relief as Solon, one of the soldiers accompanying Perseus. And Mads Mikkelsen has a terrific face for epic roles; his Draco, an Argos general who teaches Perseus about swordplay, knows how to effectively sneer and cut his eyes around at any given moment. The actor gets more to do in better films (Flame & Citron, Casino Royale, Valhalla Rising), but at least he gives some heft to the limited role with which he is saddled.
After a long month of harsh, heavy, foreign powerhouses (Red Riding, Mother, A Prophet), one needs some mindless, dazzling entertainment to reset the gauges. But Clash of the Titans fails miserably at the simplest forms of enjoyment, instead creating a technically muddled, uninspiring film that supports the argument against remakes in a major way. A film like Clash doesn’t have to be memorable, just enjoyable. The filmmakers clearly got that part reversed.