Clash of the Titans is a throwback to a throwback, not unusual for a fantasy film, but less predictable than the revivals of Star Wars and Indiana Jones for new generations. The first Clash of the Titans opened in summer 1981, on the same day as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but its style of fantasy already felt as venerable and unchanging as Disney’s. A bland, brave hero fought his way through a succession of masterfully-animated stop-motion monsters to save his princess. The format went back to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), which were staples of lunchtime TV and film matinees when Clash was released. Any kid who read film books knew the author of these fantasies wasn’t the director (anyone remember Don Chaffey, who directed Jason, or Desmond Davis, who helmed the first Clash?) but rather the stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, protégé of King Kong’s Willis O’Brien.
Like the remake, the original Clash retold the Perseus legend, though the non-Classics reading viewer would remember it as the one with the hissing snake woman that turns people to stone, the sea monster, the Pegasus, the giant scorpions, the metal owl and Laurence Olivier’s Zeus. Its decent box-office take was swamped by Spielberg’s and Lucas’s fairy-tales, and it was the last of its stop-motion line. Of Harryhausen’s films, Jason and the Argonauts (the one with the giant statue that picks up a ship) is more iconic, but it’s already been remade as a TV miniseries in 2000. Sinbad’s brand power, meanwhile, was tarnished by an unsuccessful Dreamworks cartoon, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003).
Directed by Louis Leterrier, who previously showed titans battling in The Incredible Hulk (2008), the new Clash is a mostly indifferent fantasy. Sam Worthington’s presence as the stoic Perseus is enough to draw unfavourable comparisons to Avatar, and his scenes with love interest Gemma Atherton are horribly hokey, but the monsters are the most telling measure of the film. You could seldom mistake a Harryhausen creature for anyone else’s, while the remake’s computer critters are fatally generic. The tail-swinging giant scorpions are poor cousins of Shelob, the spider in Return of the King (2003), while Pegasus has less majesty or character than the gryphon in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). The Medusa isn’t just less scary than Harryhausen’s hag-faced serpent, but the film-makers place her ruined temple over a fiery lava-pit, losing all the Stygian shadows of the original. As for the Kraken (the sea monster), it unfolds its tentacled body in a leisurely Godzilla-like build-up, only to be dispatched before it can do much monstering.
There’s an echo of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books in the set-up of men toppling idols and rebelling against cruel gods, but it peters out half-heartedly. (Liam Neeson takes Olivier’s role as Zeus, having voiced quasi-divinities in the Narnia films and the cartoon Ponyo, 2008.) Another suggestion of clumsy rewrites is the scene where Perseus’ death is foretold by a coven of hideous witch oracles – the film’s most effective creations – and then just forgotten. The sets and scenery are often impressive, and Pete Postlethwaite lightens the early scenes as Perseus’ adopted father, but the main quest plods, even with the tamed scorpions serving as people carriers. And viewers who’ve grown up with tongue-in-cheek epics such as the Hercules and Xena TV series, or Disney’s cartoon Hercules (1997), will wonder where all the jokes went.
I saw the film in 3D, fairly close to the screen, and was struck by the frequent distortions of actor’s heads and hairdos, which often split unnaturally into different planes. It wasn’t a fatal distraction, but it nullified any of the benefits of the 3D format, which was cloddishly applied to the film in post-production.