Movie Review: Clash of the Titans

The 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans—much like its predecessor and the Greek myths it draws its inspiration from—falls under the “because why not” school of plotting. A cursed man’s drops of blood turn into giant scorpions, because why not? Pegasus the legendary mount shows up out of nowhere exactly when needed, because why not? Kraken, the destroyer of Titans and the most feared creature in the cosmos, can be defeated by a woman cursed by the gods, because why not? And so on.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, just as there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the modern Clash of the Titans being a CGI festival first and everything else second. Movies can provide spectacle in a way that no other medium can, and there’s something to be said for the virtuosity and joy in a simple, awesome display of special effects might. (I’m thinking of Speed Racer, a movie that revels in the unique attributes of blockbuster filmmaking like no other.) The original Clash was a display showcase for legendary effects master Ray Harryhausen, and, as it turns out, was his last work in that field. I missed the film in my childhood, but most of my peers have fond memories of it.

The new Clash of the Titans has a lot of the grandness of its predecessor. As in the original, the depredations of the gods–chief among them Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes)–have taken their toll on humanity, and mortals have decided enough is enough. The city-state of Argos leads the rebellion with the destruction of temples and statues, which drains the gods of the love and prayers that fuel them. When Hades punishes a legion of Argos troops for destroying a statue of Zeus, he also callously murders the family of Perseus (Sam Worthington), a lowly fisherman… and also something else entirely.

So Perseus saddles up with some troops from Argos (and an immortal lovely played by Gemma Arterton) to take the fight to the gods themselves. A refreshing change of pace from modern fantasy movies more interested in laying the ground rules for potential franchises.

You can sense the “but” coming. Perhaps it’s that we’re not kids anymore, or perhaps it’s that we get a few CGI blockbusters every year like clockwork, but this new Clash begs the question of its own existence with every frame. (That’s a question I end up asking a lot these days, and as often as not it’s my litmus test for a movie’s overall worth: “Why was this made?” Money is always at least part of the answer, but if it’s the only answer, beware.) I was passably entertained, and some sequences were pretty exciting, but that’s simply not enough anymore. Either I’m a crank or we’re all getting numb to bombast on the big screen.

The movie I kept thinking back to was last year’s A Serious Man. In that, perhaps the Coens’ finest film, average suburbanite Larry Gupnik can only stumble as the world heaps indignity after indignity upon him. Gupnik is a religious man, but his religion provides precious few answers about what may or may not be happening in his life. (Not that Judaism ever made that promise in the first place.) It’s a film both humble and cosmic, and it plumbs the very core of the great theological questions. What is the rhyme or reason to life? Why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa? To a religious person, all of these are variations on the one real question: Where, if anywhere, is God?

Well, Perseus and his fellow Greeks know exactly who is responsible for the troubles in their lives, and being a believer is irrelevant; Hades is going to pop in and fuck your shit up whether you believe in him or not. And rather than flounder in a universe that is not and never will be answerable to humanity as Gupnik does, Perseus and Pals are able to challenge the gods directly.

OK, so their method of challenge plays like a middle-of-the-road Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But still: pretty keen. When this or that character curses the gods for demanding love and obedience while heaping scorn and folly on humanity, Clash of the Titans feels almost… dare I say it… transgressive?

But nevermind. Clash of the Titans is a perfectly serviceable piece of CGI fluff with minor touches of effects innovation, but even two days later whole passages of the movie have slipped from my mind. There’s little here to fire the imagination, which was the original’s great contribution to a generation of kids. There are worse ways to spend your time, it’s true. But shouldn’t we have higher standards than that?

A note on Clash of the Titans’ 3D presentation. Studios are getting downright aggressive about pushing the 3D format, with the thought that giving audiences something they can’t find anywhere else will pull them away from their cushy home theaters and their Netflix. Clash, like Alice in Wonderland and Up before it, does not make a compelling case for the necessity of 3D. It is in fact hindered by it; great long stretches of the film are talky and not particularly showy, and most of the film is shot in dark locations only made murkier by the 3D process. Opt for 2D.

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