LONDON — As decisions go, it was the same kind that faced the 1970s souls who had to pick just the right warlock-and-serpent mural for their customized van. Should the Pegasus be white or black? Maybe glowing red eyes too? And what if — instead of noble feathers — the mighty steed of myth came with a killer pair of bat wings?
That was one of the choices French filmmaker Louis Leterrier wrestled with last summer on the set of “Clash of the Titans,” the Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures adventure that just pulled in $105.6 million worldwide in its opening weekend.
On a crisp, blue-sky afternoon in a soundstage outside London, the tall, slender director watched with intense focus as his star, Sam Worthington, bulled his wall through the panicked streets of Argos on his way to meet destiny while carrying the head of Medusa in a bloodied sack. It was going to be another marathon day for the director; the Gorgon sister’s head might have already been in the bag but there were hundreds of epic decisions ahead for a project that would finish with 1,400 visual-effects shots on the screen.
“The first time someone said, ‘We’re doing a “Clash of the Titans” remake,’ I thought it was crazy, I thought it was an offense to the original,” Leterrier said, referring to the 1981 fantasy with Harry Hamlin and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters. “The idea of someone redoing that movie with horrible CG creatures — I hated the idea. And then I watched the original again, and I said, ‘Actually there may be a way to pay homage to the original one and do something new and special.’”
The solid opening for the $122-million production did not signal a complete victory for Leterrier. The reviews for the film have not been especially kind.
Kenneth Turan, for instance, writing in the Los Angeles Times, said the movie has a “numskull plot” and a cluttered feel because of a late-in-the-game conversion to 3-D. But for a certain generation of male moviegoers — the one that includes the 36-year-old Leterrier — the “Clash of the Titans” brand name comes with a guilty-pleasure crackle that has nothing to do with serious film criticism.
The original was the first film Leterrier remembers seeing at a theater, and the creature creations of producer and effects pioneer Harryhausen were so distinctive and intriguing that the youngster was dazzled and started on a career path to becoming a second-generation filmmaker (his father, Francois Leterrier, directed the 1977 erotic film “Goodbye Emmanuelle”). Not everyone, though, holds the now-dated sword-and-sandal film up to such lofty status.
Take Worthington, who shrugged when asked last year on the set whether he felt as if there were any extra pressure in a project that had such a popcorn heritage. He said fanboy recollections of the film were more emotional than they were accurate.
“It’s a movie people remember, sure, but when people say to me, ‘I love it, it’s my favorite,’ I think, ‘Did you watch it lately, mate?’”
“Clash” stars Worthington as Perseus, Hamlin’s role in the original, who this time around is lean, mean and out for vengeance as opposed to the earlier pretty-boy plot of earning glory to win the hand of a woman. Leterrier said he chose Worthington because he wanted a scrappy Achilles, not some muscular Adonis.
“I didn’t want a big, handsome American who looks like a superhero and who, when you see him at the beginning of the movie, you know right away he’s going to win in the end,” he said. “I wanted a troubled guy, a guy who is dragged through this ordeal and doesn’t want to be a hero. ...
“In films these days, you have the very strong superhero actors and the very fragile actors. The in-between, the guys that go back and forth, are very rare. And Sam is that guy.”
It’s a role that adds to the Australian actor’s unusual status as a specialist in half-human roles; he was a forlorn cyborg in “Terminator Salvation,” a blue alien hybrid in “Avatar” and now the half-human, half-god son of Zeus (Liam Neeson).
Perseus was raised by Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), an earnest fisherman, who dies in an attack by the dark god Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Perseus directs his rage and grief toward the gods, who increasingly are angered and alarmed in conflict with humans. The mortals are obviously no match for the powerful gods of Olympus: A key concept from screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is that the gods get their power from the worship of mortals and, without the prayers and tributes, that power and sway will fade.
That wasn’t the only new wrinkle. The white Pegasus that was such a signature visual from the original is black this time around (but the red eyes and bat wings were deemed too demonic), and more gods are onscreen, such as Poseidon (Danny Huston), who Leterrier said would have a far more prominent role in a potential sequel, which looks more likely with the box-office start. The mechanical owl Bubo makes a fleeting appearance as a nod to the first film.
Leterrier — who directed “Transporter 2” and “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton — has a view of “Clash” as a trilogy where the story expands out in concentric circles with Perseus at its center. The Titans, the parents of the Greek gods, would see their first action in a movie named after them.
Worthington said he and Leterrier are hopeful.
“Some movies end and you say, ‘What’s the sequel? We can’t do another one because the story is over,’” he said. “But things aren’t resolved in ours. There’s still the dilemma between father and son and where the relationship of Zeus and Perseus stands. And the humans and their war with the gods and the desire for change and fairness.”
The disgruntled mortals and the aloof, powerful gods even bring a bit of class commentary into the pure-summer adventure, although looking too deeply into a glossy summer movie can lead to eye strain.
Mostly, it’s interesting that the 21st century special-effects film not only returns to Greek myth but it also celebrates the audacious visuals of fanboy culture without shame — take the silver suit of armor worn by Zeus that manages to evoke the gleaming warriors of “Excalibur” and the strong anime influences and cosmic deities of Jack Kirby’s pioneering comics work with Thor and the New Gods. The armor, one suspects, could have been bent into shape by Led Zeppelin’s hammer of the gods, says screenwriter Hay.
“If the movie works the way we hope it works, it will access that way you watched movies when you were a kid and you were just psyched to go see a movie,” he said. “It was a quest for awesomeness at all times. It should kind of be like metal, you know, like the side of an old-school custom van?”