Poor Perseus. If there’s one thing Wrath of the Titans wants us to know, it’s that it’s not easy being a demigod. As personified by Sam Worthington, rugged and equipped with an Australian drawl that jars against the allegedly ancient Greek backdrop, all he really wants to do is fish. Since the events of 2010’s Clash of the Titans, Perseus has lost his wife, Io (read: Gemma Arterton couldn’t be roped in for a sequel), but has an adorable little kid (John Bell), who’s the apple of his eye and crafts wooden weapons for him.
Tranquility, inevitably, doesn’t last long. The plot kicks in when Liam Neeson’s Zeus shows up, decked out in full Monty Python beard and doing his most determined Gandalf impression. Neeson also provides an opening voiceover, recounting the plot of Clash (this is helpful because, really, who can remember anything about it aside from the smudgy 3D?). In Clash, Neeson lent a bit of dignity: here he embodies fatherly righteousness, putting him centre stage and pitting him against Hades (Ralph Fiennes, wisely toning down his 2010 performance).
Here Hades has colluded with the god of war, Ares (an atrocious turn by Édgar Ramírez), to release Kronos, a titan with the power to destroy Earth, currently imprisoned in the underworld. Throwing in a host of new characters with ridiculous names, the movie promises an epic adventure in the best swords-and-sandals tradition.
To that end, director Jonathan Liebesman and screenwriters Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson draw on well known plot devices. Wrath of the Titans features a reluctant hero and a son in need of saving, as well as patricide, fratricide, crises of faith, and solemnly delivered pronouncements to gloss over its deficiencies of plot or other distinguishing features. Many of the roles are underwritten; the most egregious example is Perseus’ son, who appears only whenever the screenplay needs to raise the stakes for his dad and afterwards disappears into the background.
Despite the movie’s familiar conflicts — fathers and sons, men and gods — almost all of its plot is instantly forgettable, an issue not helped by the occasionally murky cinematography. That said, Wrath demonstrates some sense of pacing, unlike Clash, which stacked the deck with action sequences, each one progressively more mindless than the last. As Perseus and his motley crew must make their way to the underworld prison of Tartarus, at the centre of the world, they encounter all sorts of sub-Lord of the Rings-style creatures and set-pieces. They also do a lot of walking.
At least Wrath takes itself less seriously than Clash, with a jokier tone and more breathing space between the onslaughts of CGI. Bill Nighy is enjoyable and eccentric in an extended cameo, and Rosamund Pike’s imposing eyebrows are fine consolidation for Gemma Arterton not being around anymore. At any rate, Pike’s performance is more physical than Worthington’s, who appears disenchanted with the entire exercise. But you can’t blame him for looking bored. Clash of the Titans took a critical drubbing but was still a surprise hit: it’s a difficult act to follow. And so Wrath of the Titans is perhaps appropriately muddled. Elaborate but insipid, it’s competent but relentlessly dull.