Anyone who’s been to the movies lately knows that “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!” is probably the catchphrase of the season.
As uttered in the trailer for “Clash of the Titans” by a bearded, berobed, Olympic-size Liam Neeson in reference to an 800-foot beast with bad teeth and a worse attitude, it doesn’t have the romantic tingle of “You had me at hello.” Or the saltiness of “I’ll have what she’s having.” But as movie mantras go, it captures the exclamatory quality of “Clash of the Titans.” And of a movie year that has redefined the big-screen spectacle.
Few movies would seem more amenable to a remake in the age of computerized special effects than that camp classic “Clash of the Titans,” which, under the direction of Louis Leterrier (“The Incredible Hulk”), has become a story of men vs. gods — namely, the half-man/half-deity Perseus (Sam Worthington) pitted against the god of the underworld, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who is trying to seize power from Zeus (Neeson) and create hell on Earth. While the story is slightly different, the emblematic accessories of the 1981 original — Pegasus the winged horse, Medusa the snake-haired demon, the unruly Kraken — are all back and enhanced.
Leterrier, in fact, started creating his own special effects as an 8-year-old, after he saw the first “Clash” in Paris. “I was putting wings on my ‘Star Wars’ action figures to make them look like harpies,” he said.
The new “Clash” was not intended as a 3-D movie — it was the success of “Avatar,” Leterrier said, and that other 3-D conversion, “Alice in Wonderland,” that prompted Warner Bros. to order that “Clash” be retrofitted with an additional dimension. But that’s OK, its director said.
“When the company doing the conversion saw my film,” he said, “they said, ‘This is just what we want — stuff coming at you, stuff going away, big swooping camera moves.’ ... We had this enormous cable camera that goes down and back up and follows Pegasus up and down. My directing style was lending itself to 3-D, so it was a perfect movie to do that.”
Good thing, because when it comes to would-be theatrical blockbusters, the 3-D juggernaut is on the luge track to Crazytown. So is Hollywood’s love affair with international casting. Starring as Perseus in the new version is “Avatar’s” Worthington, the Australia-bred star whose trajectory is definitely heading up. (“Before he got cast in ‘Terminator 4,’” said “Avatar” producer Jon Landau, “I think he was living in his car.”) Also in the film beside Worthington, the Irish Neeson and the English Fiennes: the French Alexa Davalos (Andromeda) and the Danish Mads Mikkelsen as Perseus’ buddy, Draco.
“You might as well give them different accents,” Mikkelsen said, referring to the audiences that will likely flock to “Clash” this Friday. “The funny thing about America is that 80 percent of the people here have an accent. It’s a good development.”
Good development for him, too, or at least a payday. The hunky Danish star is well known to foreign filmgoers here: In addition to such big-budget fare as “Casino Royale,” he’s worked for his compatriot directors Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding”), “An Education’s” Lone Scherfig (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”) and Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bleeder,” “Pusher” and the upcoming “Valhalla Rising”). It seems safe to say Mikkelsen’s trying to maintain some kind of Hollywood-Copenhagen equilibrium that can only be helped by a big-budget boondoggle like “Clash.”
“It is safe to say,” Mikkelsen said, “if you do the same thing every day, you get slightly disappointed; when you mix it up every once in a while, it’s fantastic. If I only did small drama, I’d grow tired of myself; if I only did epic films, I’d grow tired of myself. Getting the chance to mix the two is a great opportunity.”
And as far as Leterrier is concerned, putting new faces on-screen can only be good. “I like discovering people on-screen,” said the director, who used the well-known Edward Norton in “The Incredible Hulk,” but with “Transporter 2” gave the fledgling Jason Statham a boost. “I love Brad Pitt or Will Smith, but I always see Brad Pitt or Will Smith. It becomes their film. I wanted something more of an ensemble cast, not ‘Clash of the Egos,’ but something with great actors working together.”
The only thing that seems to give Leterrier pause about his “Clash of the Titans” remake is, well, the fact that it’s a remake. “As a real movie fan, I want to see originality,” he said. “Or as original as you can get. Some movies that have been done before, there are ways of reimagining them. But I hope it doesn’t become the norm, that remakes are the only way to make a movie anymore.
“It’s hard for me to judge,” he said, “but I think this ‘Clash’ is quite different from the original. And I’m working on a lot of other things now, and none of them are remakes.”
THE ORIGINAL GRECIAN FORMULA
The 1981 version of “Clash of the Titans” starred such lordly English actors as Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Sian Phillips and Tim Pigott-Smith — as well as “L.A. Law” star-to-be Harry Hamlin. His Perseus was put through the mythological wringer by Olivier’s Zeus: killing the snake-haired Medusa, capturing the winged horse Pegasus and battling the Kraken, all en route to winning the lovely Andromeda (Judi Bowker).
Directed by Desmond Davis, the film was buoyed by the trademark special effects of its producer, Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-motion animation was the calling card of such special-effects landmarks as “The 7th Voyage of Sindbad” (1958), “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) and “One Million Years B.C.” (1966).
THESE FILMS WERE HIT AND MYTH
What most of us don’t remember from high school about the birthplace of Western civilization — aka ancient Greece — has been filled in by Hollywood, often to hilarious effect. For the most part, the big screen’s interpretation of the land of Sophocles, Socrates and Alexander the Great has mostly been about gods, myths, sea battles and English accents. Following are a few standouts of a weird tradition:
HERCULES UNCHAINED (1959) — A milestone in the sword-and-sandal craze of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, this Italian production starred Montana-born bodybuilder Steve Reeves in his second appearance as the demigod and strongman (the first was “Hercules”). The story was basically an amalgam of various myths and Greek drama.
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) — Ray Harryhausen’s magic brought the inanimate to life, let monsters walk the Earth and gave flight to Harpies in this Don Chaffey-directed adventure fantasy (with a score by Bernard Herrmann), which followed Jason and his posse as they pursued the Golden Fleece. En route, they’re attacked by an enormous bronze statue, are helped by a giant merman and battle a sword-wielding skeleton army — all of which predated computer graphics and were brought to life via Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation.
THE ODYSSEY (1997) — Emmy-winning adaptation of the epic poem, directed by respected Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (“Runaway Train”) and starring Armand Assante, Greta Scacchi and Isabella Rossellini. It doesn’t exactly stick to Homer, but doesn’t burlesque him, either.
TROY (2004) — Based on “The Iliad” but given a naturalistic spin by director Wolfgang Petersen (“Das Boot”), “Troy” starred Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, Orlando Bloom as Paris and Diane Kruger as Helen.
300 (2006) — Zack Snyder’s pugnacious epic starred Gerard Butler and Lena Headey and recounted the legendary stand by the 300 Spartan warriors under King Leonidas who, in 480 BC, battled 100,000 Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae. It was ancient Greece’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade and, as such, possesses a certain timeless appeal.