The Website of The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field
Locus Online
Sub Menu contents


Monday, April 5, 2010

Thoroughly Modern Mythology?: A Review of Clash of the Titans

by Gary Westfahl

While the director (Desmond Davis) and screenwriter (Beverley Cross) of the original Clash of the Titans (1981) are duly cited in this remake's closing credits, the name of that film's producer, special effects artist, and true creator, Ray Harryhausen, is strangely absent. This would appear to undermine what science fiction fans would prefer to believe about the origins of this new film: that it was conceived as a loving tribute to that celebrated master of stop-motion animation, best known for a series of memorable fantasy films that began with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and concluded with Clash of the Titans (as opposing to representing yet another case of an idea-deprived, risk-averse Hollywood seizing upon a proven success to churn out a serviceable product that will lure the masses into theatres and generate profits before word of mouth drives them away). However, since there are signs that director Louis Leterrier and writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi were actually aware of, and appreciative of, Harryhausen's accomplishments, perhaps the omission of his name was intended as a kindness to a still-living legend who might not wish to be associated with this very different version of his most famous film.

A different version, I must emphasize, not an inferior version; for while it would be easy to complain that this new film represents a shameless trashing of a cherished classic, and while such remakes do exist (cf. The Day the Earth Stood Still [review here]), critics must be wary of a reflexive nostalgia that would blind them to the realities of changing times, and I would rather regard this film as precisely the sort of Clash of the Titans that one would have to produce in the year 2010. Certainly, it is unsurprising to see Harryhausen's crude and laborious stop-motion animation replaced with state-of-the-art, persuasively rendered, computer-generated effects, yet the story which provided the pretext for his extravagant creations, a loose adaptation of the Greek myth of Perseus, also had to be reshaped for a new generation.

Specifically: Harryhausen's films were always low-budget efforts aimed primarily at children, and the way that they characterized the relationship between Greek mortals and their gods in Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts (1963) reflects once-common attitudes about the relationship between children and their parents. That is, children may sometimes love their parents, and sometimes hate their parents, but they must always put up with their parents, since they are the ones in charge. Similarly, to Harryhausen's heroes, the gods sometimes seem wise and benevolent, and sometimes seem petty and vindictive, but they can see no way to resist their overwhelming power, clearly conveyed by the recurring conceit of chess pieces representing mortals being moved by gods across a chessboard in Jason and the Argonauts to illustrate how the gods were effortlessly controlling everything the mortals were doing. And the very young viewers of those films could readily accept this notion of distant authority figures firmly dominating lesser beings.

Today, however, if producers are aiming at theatres instead of the direct-to-video market, they must make films for larger audiences, and a typical target is the most frequent filmgoers, teenagers and young adults. Accordingly, Cross's Clash of the Titans has been refashioned as a story about adolescent rebellion against distant authority figures. At the beginning of the film, the citizens of Greece have grown tired of their meddling, oppressive gods and are openly rebelling against them, so that Olympians like Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who somehow depend upon the love and fear of mortals to maintain their immortality, must ponder strategies to regain the respect of their restless subjects; Hades even says that "like children," the mortals "need to be reminded of the order of things." On a personal level, Zeus's son Perseus (Sam Worthington) repeatedly rejects his father's invitation to join the gods and resists using the magical weapons Zeus covertly provides him with because he does not want to "become like" the gods. Of course, the last thing that typical teenagers want to do is to grow up and become like their parents.

This shift in attitudes in reflected in the film's most overt references to Harryhausen's legacy. When Perseus and the soldiers who will accompany him are gathering equipment for their mission, he picks up an exact replica of Bubo, the cute mechanical owl which was Perseus's constant companion in the original Clash of the Titans, a device obviously introduced to amuse very young viewers and hence a device despised by many older viewers. When Perseus asks, "What is this?" the brusque response of veteran soldier Draco (Mads Mikkelson) is "Just leave it," signaling that this, more mature version of the story is not for children. And although we observe in Olympus small statuettes of mortals, including Perseus, which resemble chess pieces, they are never pushed around on a chessboard, since these gods are unable to control their mortals.

This theme of rebellion against authority has a political dimension as well, with the gods portrayed as tyrants correctly being resisted by mortals seeking freedom. Thus, as the first visualization of the human campaign against the gods, Perseus and his adoptive parents, fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite) and wife Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), watch as the soldiers of Argos defiantly topple an enormous statue of Zeus, precisely mimicking the famous footage of victorious soldiers toppling the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Absolute rulers on Earth — the royalty of Argos — fare no better: when King Kepheus (Michael Regan) and Queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker) resist Hades's demand that their daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) be sacrificed to the monstrous Kraken to spare their city from destruction, angry citizens take to the streets to successfully demand the sacrifice on the grounds that their princess is "no better than us." And Andromeda herself, properly sensitive to the plight of her subjects (she defiantly asks her parents, "Have you seen what's happening out there? Have you even bothered to look?"), hands out food to suffering peasants and happily agrees to die for them. What is more provocative, and correspondingly more understated, is that this business of battling against one's gods has an anti-religious aspect as well, best conveyed by the unsympathetic zealot Prokopion (Luke Treadaway) who leads the mob that seizes Andromeda and strings her up to be sacrificed, all on the grounds that this is, after all, what the gods want. In its pursuit of big box-office dollars, though, Clash of the Titans cannot dare to openly suggest that, perhaps, contemporary people might also be better off if they decided to stop worshipping their own repressive gods.

Still, in one key respect, the film fully respects traditional hierarchies: as the son of Zeus, Perseus possesses the proper aristocratic pedigree that automatically qualifies him as the world's "savior" (which is what Draco calls him, not entirely sarcastically), so the other, more plebeian warriors gradually defer to his judgment in all matters; and eventually, several of them willingly sacrifice their own lives to help Perseus kill Medusa and emerge as the film's hero, which we are told represents his destiny. It is in the manner that this outsider is implausibly embraced as everyone's messiah, and not simply his habit of flying around on the back of a large winged creature, that Worthington's Perseus resembles his role in another recent film that, as some may vaguely recall, also attracted some criticism for an overreliance on clich├ęd themes. But clearly, the narrative motif of the undistinguished common man who is revealed to be The Chosen One is much too appealing to abandon in favor of lip service to egalitarian values, and the film definitely never promised any genuine novelty, inasmuch as its first line is "The oldest stories ever told are written in the stars."

The story has been awkwardly updated in another way which undermines the film's emotional impact. In the days before feminism, everyone was comfortable with the notion that men would handle all the heroics, while the role of women was simply to be rescued, or to wait at home for their heroes' return. Thus, the original Clash of the Titans followed Greek mythology in developing a romance between Perseus and the threatened Andromeda, who upon being rescued by her hero was appropriately destined to become his bride. Today, however, heroes must fall in love with women who prove they are just as tough as men by accompanying them and actively participating in the heroics. (Consider, as one example, the smart, capable female guide who replaced more demure predecessors as the romantic interest in the remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth [2008] [review here]). But in this case, since the story line required Andromeda to stay at home as the Kraken's intended victim, she could not join Perseus's mission. Hence, while Perseus (spoiler alert!) still rescues Andromeda in the end, they do not fall in love with each other, and he rejects her implicit offer to marry her and become the new king of Argos. Instead, to function as a fittingly liberated object of Perseus's affections, the film introduces a new character, Io (Gemma Atherton), seemingly a name randomly chosen from Greek mythology since her character bears little resemblance to the Greek demigoddess seduced by Zeus. Instead, this Io tells Perseus that she was a mortal who once resisted a god's advances and therefore was punished with the gift of eternal life. No, this doesn't make any sense, as Perseus himself comments, but it does allow an ageless Io to function as Perseus's lifelong protector (a role she assumes for unknown reasons), to guide him during his journeys, and to ultimately replace Andromeda as his lover. The problem is that this desperately contrived character generally seems more motherly than romantic and never manages to develop any genuine relationship with Perseus during their adventures, so that their final pairing is merely a nod toward convention, not a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps there wasn't time for an additional rewrite to better integrate this character into the action.

The script would also have benefited from some revision to address the problem of the film's slow, stumbling start, as Perseus spends too much time as a passive observer of the unfolding story (Io's first words to him are, tellingly, "do nothing") while he resists the idea of becoming a hero (announcing that "I mend nets, not wield a sword"). Can anyone possibly imagine that his reluctance is generating any genuine suspense, that there are actually members of the audience sitting on the edge of their seats and wondering, "Will Perseus embrace his destiny and set out to kill the Kraken, or will he go back to being a humble fisherman?" And unlike the original, this film strangely neglects the interesting characters of the other Olympian gods, whose role here is generally limited to standing around and listening to Zeus and Hades making speeches; for example, one has to be extremely attentive to notice, from his one brief close-up and snippet of dialogue, that the god Hermes is portrayed by Alexander Siddig, Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). Since the film clearly enjoyed a hefty budget (knowingly referenced by Zeus when he tosses the underworld-bound Perseus a coin and comments, "It's expensive where you're going"), the producers might have spent a few thousand dollars hiring an expert on Greek mythology as a consultant; certainly, one of the most remarkable aspects of the series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) was that its creators actually read and drew upon that rich tradition, and a knowledgeable scholar might have offered these filmmakers a few good ideas to consider. (If nothing else, such a consultant may have suggested that Perseus's new, more adventurous girlfriend would be better named, say, Atalanta instead of Io, or that its new characters, the inhuman Djinn, would be better named Myrmidons.) This film also duplicates the original film's most egregious flaw — a disappointing conclusion — since neither of the Krakens is really as awesome as filmmakers had hoped. (As another similarity to Avatar [2009] [review here], the makers of Clash of the Titans succumbed to the delusion that one renders special effects more impressive by making them appear physically larger; but all objects can be the same size on a silver screen, and I found this film's giant scorpions — one of which actually stumbles while descending a mountain — far more creepy and frightening than its mountainous Kraken.)

On the set (or, more likely, in front of the blue screen), director Laterrier should have worked more with his actors as well. In the case of Sam Worthington, it may reflect the lingering influence of Avatar (though I have no idea which project he actually filmed first), or it may represent an effort to emphasize his character's disinclination to attain godhood, but his Perseus seems too much like an American marine in a World War II movie to be persuasive as an ancient Greek hero. (One wonders if he ad-libbed his most incongruous line, his instructions to comrades as they approached Medusa's temple: "don't look this bitch in the eye.") As for Ralph Fiennes, his Hades is far too stiff and ponderous to be truly menacing, while Gemma Arteron's Io is so vacuous as to render Worthington's affection for her utterly incomprehensible. Yet in contrast to Sir Laurence Olivier, who phoned in his performance of Zeus in the original Clash of the Titans, Liam Neeson demonstrates here that there really are no small parts, only small actors, by taking advantage of his very limited opportunities to make Zeus the only complex and emotionally resonant character in the entire film. Since he will win no awards for his efforts, one hopes at least that, like Olivier, he received a lot of money for his role.

One minor complaint: today, our thoughts about ancient Greece are inexorably linked to images of ruined temples and broken statues; thus, in a manifest effort to convey that their story is set in ancient Greece (and since there is nothing especially Grecian about the film's random mixtures of ethnicities and accents), the filmmakers have filled Clash of the Titans with images of ruined temples and broken statues. During their long journey, Perseus and his cohorts constantly walk past weathered statuary and abandoned ruins, and even Medusa's lair is depicted as a chaotic temple of cracked pillars and shattered stoneware. (In keeping with this theme, this version of Medusa, not content to merely transform people into statues, also enjoys smashing them to pieces after they are petrified, and I have already mentioned the destroyed statue of Zeus that serves as the beginning, and the endpoint, of Perseus's adventures.) The problem is that, at the time of this film's events, all of those statues logically would still be intact, and all of those temples would be inhabited, functional places of worship.

Yet the film's evocative ruins may be serving another, perhaps unintended purpose: to suggest that Clash of the Titans, despite its fitful strivings for modernity, today represents an antique, a story founded on outdated belief systems regarding inborn nobility and righteous struggles against absolute evil that no longer have a place in our contemporary world. At the same time, the ongoing popularity of such narratives — and there can be no doubt that this film will prove tremendously popular — indicates that many people retain a powerful attachment to ideologies and attitudes that they would unhesitatingly reject in real-life situations. However, since much of the entire genre of fantasy illustrates the same point, Clash of the Titans is hardly unique in this respect — and yes, anticipating its success, the filmmakers did leave the door open for a sequel. So, everyone should be prepared for a forthcoming Rehash of the Titans, another very modern, and very old, story.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Written by Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 screenplay by Beverley Cross

Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelson, Jason Flemyng, Alexa Davalos, Liam Cunningham, Luke Treadaway, Michael Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, and Elizabeth McGovern

Official Website: Clash of the Titans



Post a Comment

<< Home

© 2009 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.