Clash of the Titans

When Perseus saw indeed that, his efforts would succumb to the weight of numbers, he said ‘Since you plan it like this, I will ask help of the enemy. If there are any friends here, turn your face away!’ and he held up the Gorgon’s head.

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Greek gods make lousy dads. Granted, they’ve got unusual pressures and distractions, what with all their intra-godly warring and petty revenge plots, their gargantuan childish tantrums and need for measly human worship. Still, their utterly terrible parenting is a recurrent storyline in Greek mythology — so recurrent that you might think this is the very reason humans are supposed to be worshipping them.

Take Zeus (Liam Neeson), now appearing in Clash of the Titans. He’s a big deal here, being king of Olympus and all the other gods, but he doesn’t show up until you have time to see how much damage his bad dad-ism does to his son, Perseus. (He’s conceived, by the way, when Zeus rapes his mom while disguised as her husband — a change from the traditional story, where he comes as a “shower of gold.”) Her husband, Acrisius, King of Argos (Jason Flemyng), smites back, nailing baby and mother into a chest and tossing them into the sea. She dies (as dreadful as fathers are in Greek myths, mothers are mostly just dead), but the kid is rescued by the fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), who brings him home to the wife (Elizabeth McGovern). Even when they have their own child, these measly humans do the completely right thing, raising up the boy to be strapping and noble, as well as played by Sam Worthington.

It’s not clear where his son’s Australian accent comes from, but Spyros instills in Perseus a fundamental rage at the gods. Being a fisherman is no picnic, and Spyros is increasingly depressed about never getting ahead. Bowing down to gods who only want mindless devotion and sacrifice? Someday, he says, with a faraway look in his eyes, “Somebody’s gonna have to make a stand. Someday, somebody’s gonna have to say, ‘Enough.'” Perseus nods, not yet aware that half his DNA is godly.

All this frustration with corruption and hierarchy sounds strangely contemporary, and then you remember the Greeks’ stories are actually ancient. But as timeless as some themes may be, the movie’s plotty departures from the original seem dated. Perseus’ demi-godly search for mission and identity aligns him with a motley crew of soldiers, hunters, and desert wraiths. He’s also terribly lucky to have a guardian watching over him since birth (hence his miraculous survival in the sinking chest), a fellow demi-god named Io (Gemma Arterton). As such, she’s very unlike the Io of myth, a nymph raped by Zeus, turned into a cow, and stung for years by a gadfly sent by Zeus’ furious wife Hera. It’s hard to tell exactly how she came to be assigned to Perseus, or why she’s in love with him. But her participation ensures that Perseus and the rest of the guys won’t be headed into Hades without a girl along. (This team is plainly geared to resemble other recent action-heroic-fantastical squads — say, Teams Neo, Harry P, or Frodo.)

This messing with mythology doesn’t always have an easy-to-spot rationale. And not everything in the new film remakes its most obvious inspiration, the famously cheesy 1981 Clash. Aside from some homagey bits — Perseus’ righteous scoffing at a mechanical owl, a herd of giant scorpions whose legs crackle and pop a little like Ray Harryhausen’s fabulous creatures, and the Kraken (the one Zeus orders released) — the movie mostly lurches along as if on wheels about to fly off. It doesn’t seem to matter much which episode comes when, except that everyone seems to know that it will be helpful to have Medusa’s head in hand, when it comes time to turn the shore-chewing Kraken to stone.

That Kraken, as Zeus’ angry brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) likes to say over and over, is his own “child.” By this he may mean they share a fondness for savagery and destruction, or he might be referring to actual familial relations, gods and monsters being what they are in myths. Grumpy as always, Hades is also humorless here, a sensibility made visible when he arrives on a scene as a great black cloud, then breaks into winged-monkey-like demons who flit by quickly and darkly, so you won’t long be distracted by their sloppy composition. More depressingly, the other half of the big fight finale, Medusa is here digitized so badly that her snaky form looks like the 37th xeroxed generation of some long-forgotten original. It doesn’t help that the film was shot in 2D then transposed into 3D, resulting in a murky, sometimes blurry, most often uninteresting and decidedly flat.

Less flat, but not wholly convincing either, the winged horse Pegasus is in this incarnation jet black, and doesn’t emerge from a drop of Medusa’s blood, but rather, seems to be just waiting around in the clouds to meet his predestined master. While it’s briefly delightful to watch Perseus astride as the horse galumphs through the sky, occasionally lighting on clay rooftops or along stone building walls so his hoofs can clomp-clomp-clomp. It’s goofy and unruly, an effect that suggests someone spent at least a few minutes thinking about how a flying horse would navigate such opposite elements as earth and air.

In at least one version of the myth, Pegasus was, like Perseus, the progeny of Zeus — also abandoned and, in his way, ambitious too. Here the horse is just a means for Perseus to get from one place to another. That sort of reduction, that loss of character and dimension, typifies Clash of the Titans, a movie that seems not to take a stand at all, but instead rejects its lineage and loses its way.

RATING 4 / 10