The Clash of the Titans

The literature and mythology of Ancient Greece has provided the plot hungry movie industry with source material almost since the beginning. Unfortunately the results have been decidedly mixed. I can think of a couple of good films, but no great ones. There are, of course a ton of Italian made Hercules movies, each one sillier than the last. There’s also the 1954 production of Ulysses with Kirk Douglas, which is actually pretty good. In 1963 the great Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for Jason and the Argonauts, which wasn’t a bad movie.

And in 1981, Harryhausen produced and did the effects for the original Clash of the Titans. This one, Harryhausen’s second foray into mythology didn’t work out as well as the first one, and the first one wasn’t all that great.  It was a loose retelling of the Perseus myth. Perseus, one of Zeus’s many illegitimate offspring, is found in a wooden box with his mother by a fisherman who raises him as his own son. When he grows up he must go on a quest to save Andromeda, the princess of Argos, who is to be sacrificed to the Kraken, on loan from Norse mythology, because her parents defied the Gods. In 1981, in an ill-advised attempt to cash in on Star Wars, they included a robot owl to provide advice from Athena and comic relief. I don’t think I need to say anything more.

So now they’ve remade Clash of the Titans. I don’t really object to the basic idea. I’ve always said that I’d prefer them to remake a flawed film with an interesting idea rather than a classic that was done perfectly the first time. Sam Worthington of Avatar fame takes over the Perseus role from Harry Hamlin, which is an upgrade. Liam Neeson takes Zeus’s thunderbolts from Laurence Olivier (a downgrade even though Olivier was obviously slumming in the original) and of course the modern computer generated special effects are better integrated and slicker than anything Ray Harryhausen could have imagined. Though the old master’s have more personality and soul.

The result is an entertaining, if not great film. Worthington fulfills the undemanding role of strong silent action hero adequately, even though we don’t really get to know him or see the greatness in him that others apparently see. Even Neeson’s Zeus is somewhat muted. We are told the Gods are arrogant and arbitrary, we don’t really see it.

The main problem, in my view, are the decisions that the director Louis Leterrier and screenwriters Travis Beecham, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi have made to give the story a twenty-first century feel. They’ve taken the theme of hubris, a favorite of the ancient Greeks and turned it on its head, equating it with the modern theme of existential rebellion. An interesting idea, but they don’t really make it work, simply because hubris is central to ancient Greek literature. You take it away, it all falls apart.

Another problem is Ralph Fiennes’s Hades, the God of the underworld. They portray him as the devil; he even has demons at his beck and call. In mythology where everyone’s ethics are ambiguous, the idea of pure evil is unwelcome and uninteresting. I guess the ancient Greeks are too sophisticated for modern studio heads.

But perhaps, I’m over-thinking it. I would love to see a mythology movie based more strongly on the source material, or maybe even an adaptation of one of Mary Renault’s novels. That would be cool. But I suspect that because the effects cost so much money for these things, they have to be somewhat dumbed down to appeal to a wide audience, or at least that’s the perception in Hollywood.

It’s a pity. The contribution of the ancient Greeks to our culture deserves better than B-movies.

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