Film Review: Clash of the Titans

The new 'Clash of the Titans' may be bigger and louder than the 1981 original, but it isn't that much better.

At first glance, 1981’s Clash of the Titans would seem to be one of those rare films that would actually benefit from a big-budget remake. While the original does carry significant nostalgic weight for those moviegoers who came of age in the ’80s, when viewed in the harsh light of day it’s a pretty crummy movie, marred by terrible acting, slack pacing and special effects that are, to put it kindly, inconsistent. All that said, Titans does have a goofy charm that makes it impossible to hate; how can you not be amused by a film that offers a mechanical owl that squawks like R2-D2, respected British thespians like Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith slumming in togas, and endearingly retro monsters designed and animated by F/X-pioneer Ray Harryhausen? (The stop-motion maestro’s depiction of the slithery Medusa remains the movie’s single best sequence.)

The new Clash of the Titans, on the other hand, strives to be anything but goofy. Director Louis Letterier, the Luc Besson-trained shooter responsible for Transporter 2 and The Incredible Hulk, bulks up the narrative with every gimmick at his disposable. Want big-ass CGI monsters? You got ’em! How about eardrum-shattering action? That’s here too! And did I mention that the movie is in 3D? (Well, okay, it was actually shot in 2D and converted to the third dimension at the last minute.) The result is…well, still pretty damn goofy, just in the ’roided-up way of most overstimulated, underwritten contemporary blockbusters.

As befits the director who rebooted the stalled Hulk franchise, Titans 2.0 presents a comic-book version of Greek mythology. That's not entirely meant as a criticism, by the way. Certainly, Letterier's visuals are far more dynamic than the flat, static images lensed by Desmond Davis back in ’81. The director frames many of his establishing shots as if they were splash pages, drawing the viewer's eye to the scale of the lavish sets or digitally enhanced scenery, and stages action sequences that are fun to watch, if not always comprehensible. An early encounter with some giant scorpions is a highlight and the final battle features some exciting moments of winged-horse-on-Kraken combat. (It's worth pointing out that the late-inning inclusion of 3D adds nothing to the viewing experience beyond a mild headache, so don't feel compelled to shell out for the higher ticket price. In the wake of Coraline and Avatar, the gulf between a movie shot in 3D and one converted after the fact is becoming more and more obvious.)

The comic-book influence can also be seen in the characters' easily classifiable costumes—mainly battle armor for the good guys (and gods) and hooded robes for the villains—and the action-heavy narrative. Lulls between battles are rare and when they do crop up, there's always another deadly creature lurking around the next corner, just a few, moments away. Even the background of the story's demigod hero Perseus (Sam Worthington) has been altered to be more in line with the funny pages; in this version, he's an orphan taken in by a kindly family as a baby only to discover his true lineage later in life and embark on a quest that will reveal the extent of his powers. Hmmm, sounds vaguely like the formative years of a certain man of steel...

Fans of Greek mythology will likely be unhappy with the enormous liberties the filmmakers have taken with these ancient tales and, truth be told, they've got good reason to be upset. The various gods, goddesses and demigods depicted here barely resemble their namesakes in either appearance or personality. In fact, the movie's treatment of Olympus seems more in line with Christian theology, as the screenwriters recast the titular clash of the titans as a battle between a single goodhearted God (Zeus, played by Liam Neeson) and a duplicitous devil (Hades, embodied by Ralph Fiennes), with the half-human son of God caught in the middle. Perhaps the mythological figure done the most disservice by this film is the nymph Io (Gemma Arterton), portrayed here as a moony-eyed, ageless demigod who becomes Perseus' sidekick despite her apparent inability to do anything useful.

It would be one thing if these changes were made in the service of telling a better story, but it's all too clear that the filmmakers have little interest in the myths they're appropriating. Their primary concern is moving the characters from set-piece to set-piece with the bare minimum of attention paid to who they are and how they got there. (The movie's short attention span is best encapsulated by the climactic encounter between Zeus and Hades in which they repeat an exchange they had in an earlier scene virtually word-for-word.) For all its flaws, at least the original Clash of the Titans approached its source material with a certain wonder and respect. And that's why it's the version that will continue to be watched, enjoyed and, yes mercilessly mocked, long after the remake has faded from memory.