Things Fighting Bigger Things
2010 // USA - UK // Louis Leterrier // April 14, 2010 // Theatrical Print (AMC West Olive)
C - Let's be honest, here. Desmond Davis' 1981 swords-and-sandals-and-stop-motion fantasy epic Clash of the Titans is not a particularly good movie, and the affection that it engenders flows from nostalgia born of endless Saturday-afternoon telecasts on UHF stations in the decade after its release. To be sure, the original Clash introduced Gen-Xers (your truly included) to special effects master Ray Harryhausen's unreal creations, and served as a gateway drug for the discovery of his earlier works, such as Mighty Joe Young, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Today, stop-motion has essentially vanished from big-budget live-action films. (Although not from film altogether, thankfully, as it has recently given us wonderful features such as Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox.) Accordingly, French director Lois Leterrier's remake of Clash can be properly regarded as neither a tribute nor a slap to Harryhausen's creations, although it is rife with winking references to Davis' film. This Clash is strictly a diversionary actioner for the era of computer-generated beasties, one that owes as much to the original Greek myths and post-Lord of the Rings blockbuster norms as it does to the 1981 film. Of course, the force that really sired this update is the almighty dollar, and its target audience is composed of money-flush adolescent boys who can't be bothered to seek out the original Clash. So why bother? Well, because Leterrier, his reputation as a flashy hack notwithstanding, knows how to direct a thrilling action sequence. And because sometimes an old-school fantasy quest is just what the doctor ordered.
Clash presents a slick, simplified take on the myth of Perseus, the illegitimate son of the lightning god Zeus (Liam Neeson) and a mortal woman. Left for dead as an infant, Perseus (Sam Worthington in glower mode) was raised by a fisherman and his family, who have the misfortune of standing in the lethal path of Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the underworld. It seems the city of Argos has been behaving in a particularly blasphemous, god-defying manner lately, and the miffed, autocratic Zeus has given his younger brother Hades leave to terrorize the city into submission with his monsters. Things come to a head when Argos' queen injudiciously lauds her daughter Andromeda's (Alexa Davalos) beauty as superior to that of the gods. Hades offers a way for Argos to atone for its sacrilege: present Andromeda as a sacrifice in ten days for his sea monster, the Kraken, or the beast will destroy the city.
The means by which Perseus gets drawn into this crisis is a little sketchy, but before the first act is over, his divine heritage has been revealed and the city has shanghaied him into questing for a way to defeat Hades' leviathan before the deadline. The god-son is only in it to confront Hades and avenge his slain adopted family, but the king of Argos suspects that Perseus' blood gives them an edge against the Kraken. The city sends the newly forged hero off with a squad of Argos soldiers and a couple of eccentric monster-slayers, and the film settles into the "fantasy adventure" part. Like the original Clash, Leterrier's film hews closer to the classical Hero's Journey than recent fantastical epics, which tend to favor sweeping warfare over small-scale escapades. There are no epic battle sequences featuring tens of thousands of warriors here; just a band of heroes running from one CGI-monster-studded set piece to another as they race against time. It's often flimsy, but also enjoyable in its way, if only because few fantasy films pursue a pure Guys-on-a-Quest outline anymore.
For the most part, Clash doesn't have pretensions to be anything other than a tacky action flick featuring weird monsters and copious ass-kicking. (There's some egregiously anachronistic critiquing of royal privilege, but the film is palpably apathetic at the prospect of pursuing this line of thought.) Leterrier's film lacks the pornographic dazzle and gore-addled gratification of Zack Snyder's 300, but also that film's strident political gesticulations. Clash is just aiming for heroic thrills, and in that respect it's a modest success, although the awfulness of select elements routinely distracts. The performances range from the serviceable to the terrible, with Worthington's jaw-clenching turn front-and-center in the latter category. The script presents Perseus as a straightforward, clearly motivated warrior-hero, the type of lug whose lack of experience and general hotheadedness lead him to attempt daring (read: foolish) acts of courage. It's not a complex role, but the actor should at least have fun with it, and given that the film's villainy is spread around—both the gods and the humans are pompous assholes—the hero needs to be that much more appealing. Worthington, however, scowls and sneers his way through the role with all the enthusiasm of a Gucci model, and his buzzcut, baby blues, and chiseled profile seem more suited to a Space Marine than a mythic hero. Neeson and Fiennes are slumming; the former looks actively embarrassed in bafflingly medieval armor apparently lifted from Liberace's closet, while the latter phones in the menace with goggling glares and a wheezy rasp. Even the second string—normally compelling presences such as Mads Mikkelsen, Liam Cunningham, and Pete Postlewaite—feels wasted. The dialog is often ludicrous, but mostly it's just forgettable, lacking even the rare bite exhibited by the original Clash's Olympian scenes.
What Leterrier get right, as usual, is the action, which shares with that of his Transporter films and underrated The Incredible Hulk a clarity, urgency, and unambiguous connection to story that few directors achieve. While Clash doesn't realize Hulk's wonderfully tight link between action and drama, it at least moves in a straight line from one monster battle to the next, with the consequences of failure always looming. From a broad vantage point, the battle sequences aren't especially tense, as there's no doubt that Perseus will emerge victorious. (Of course, was there any doubt that Luke Skywalker or Willow Ufgood would win the day?) What Leterrier does admirably well is create a sense of chaos in his action, using terrain and space to fine effect, unafraid to let battles between man and monster veer this way and that. Other directors achieve this through needlessly frenetic editing, but Leterrier keeps things a touch more grounded. He wants us to actually see his effects wizards' creations—dodgy though they might be in some shots—and savor the capricious, uncontrolled character of battle. Perseus might dwell within the Protagonist Bubble of Protection, but his companions often perish quite suddenly and brutally, underlining the lethal nature of their foes, even if the film never lends these deaths much emotional heft.
Most of the memorable monsters from the 1981 film return here: giant scorpions, a coven of witches, Medusa the gorgon, Pegasus the winged horse, and the Kraken itself. Even the diabolical Calibos appears, although Leterrier's film recasts him as the hideous, exiled king who once consigned the newborn Perseus to the sea. (To my young eyes, the brooding, slightly erotic menace of Calibos was always the most frightening element of Davis' original.) Naysayers will likely decry the "sterility" of the new film's computer beasts compared to Harryhausen's creations, but this new Clash's threats are both stunningly designed and consistently frightening. Medusa retains a ghost of feminine beauty beneath her scales, which vanishes into serpentine grotesquery when her petrifying gaze flares to life. The Kraken owes as much to Japanese kaiju monsters (and by extension, Cloverfield) as it does to myth. Rising out of the Argos harbor with tentacles flailing and toothy maw clacking, it's so colossal that we never truly glimpse its entire form. Needless to say, the whole film is production designed within an inch of its life, and for the most part it presents a vivid fantasy world. (The tawdry, soft-filter, silver-and-alabaster Olympus is a prominent misfire, as is the stiffly unconvincing Stygian ferryman, Charon.) Consistent with most lavish fantasy films, it's the little details that stick, such as the smoke and orange embers that swirl in the air when Hades appears, or even the peeling skin on his pale forehead.
Clash might be a vulgar, hack-and-slash adventure, but it manages to avoid one of the perennial traps that bedevil the genre. Blessedly, there's no attempt to establish a romantic connection between Perseus and Andromeda. They only meet on two occasions over the course of the film, and her role is to permit Perseus' personal redemption for failing to save his family. The romantic sparks that do flare are between Perseus and Io (Gemma Arterton), a cursed, ageless woman who has been shadowing the god-son for years and volunteers to join his quest. (We'll just disregard the creep factor inherent in pining for your 600-year-old stalker...) The passion between the couple is a background element, and resolutely chaste, but it makes for a welcome change from the usual Hero and Princess template. Unfortunately, Leterrier tacks on a cheap romantic resolution in the film's final moments, rendering the wise, battle-hardened Io as little more than a prize. This is a shame, as it diminishes the film's modest flexing against blockbuster conventions. What's left is merely a glossy, silly escape-hatch to a time when heroes and monsters still rumbled.