Clash of the Titans
Less bang for more bucks in this re-release of the Kraken
SO WHEN DID "Release the Kraken" become the new "Play it again, Sam"? Mentioning that I was going to see an advance screening of the remake of 1981's Clash of the Titans tended to inspire people to deliver a hearty rendition of the Laurence Olivier (or, in the trailer for the new movie, Liam Neeson) line. Point being, the original was conceived largely as a vehicle for the work of stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen, but its campy adventures obviously remain a fond(ish) memory for many for reasons beyond its creaky effects. While director Louis Leterrier's reboot rolls out the latest in CG beasties and aftermarket 3D and replaces passive pretty boy Harry Hamlin with action puppet du jour Sam Worthington, it mostly misses what made the original worth remembering—in a fond way, at least.
The three credited screenwriters remain somewhat faithful to the outline of Beverly Cross' 1981 script, which itself was only partially faithful to Greek myth. The product of a grudge fuck between a mortal queen and king of the Olympian gods Zeus (Neeson), infant demigod Perseus is cast into the sea and discovered by a lowly fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite), who adopts him as his own son. The grown Perseus (Worthington) and his adoptive family find themselves caught in the middle of a war between men and the gods fomented by the god Hades (Ralph Fiennes, trying hard but hobbled by being costumed like John Travolta in Battlefield Earth). When the displeased deities threaten the annihilation of the city of Argos via primordial Chthulu-like terror the Kraken, Perseus joins together with the de rigeur ragtag band of companions to save the city, along the way facing down the divinely cuckolded beastman Calibos (Jason Flemyng), giant scorpions, the flesh-eating Stygian witches, and Medusa, the snake-haired monster whose gaze turns men to stone.
Of course, Worthington starts the movie about halfway there already. The Australian actor has toplined three of the biggest action movies of the past two years, including the highest-grossing movie of all time, and yet he remains a curiously inert screen presence. In contrast to Hamlin's diffident naïf, this Perseus is written as a defiant man of action, headstrong and angry at the gods. Worthington's inexpressive dip-lip, snub-nose face, and suedehead haircut help him embody that change in attitude and set him apart from Leterrier's wild-haired Greeks, but he ultimately comes off a bit like a tight end from Texas A&M who wandered into a casting session and got lucky. As a mythic hero, he works hard but doesn't inspire.
Indeed, Worthington's Perseus is just the scowling face of a movie that takes itself entirely too seriously. As in Leterrier's 2008 The Incredible Hulk, there are jokes, even the occasional in-joke, but nothing much actually fun. Olivier embraced the campiness of the original and still managed to bring memorable saturnine slyness to his Zeus; Neeson stands up straight in his celestial armor, booms his lines, and struggles to not come off like a big shiny tool. Perseus and company's battles with Calibos and the CG giant scorpions are impressively brutal and kinetic, but they're shot and edited into a nearly incomprehensible blur. (The editing also bespeaks a much longer, if not likely better, original cut.) A romantic subplot between Perseus and fellow demigod Io (Gemma Arterton in couture togas) mainly serves to show off the script's seams. The new Clash is the kind of silly but not silly enough movie that seems to expect Io touching Perseus' chest mid-clinch and telling him to "Ease your storm" not to get a laugh.
The real hero here is Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (Flame and Citron, the Daniel Craig-era Casino Royale), a double-take ringer for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in his beard and breastplate, seemingly on an epic quest to steal scenes as the stoic Argosian soldier Draco. Indeed, character-actor trainspotters might forgive Clash some of its affronts for giving the likes of Postlethwaite, Liam Cunningham, Ashraf Barhom, Polly Walker, and Danny Huston a wig and a few lines. Know who else comes off surprisingly well in spots here? Ray Harryhausen. Leterrier pulls out all the stops to make Perseus' encounter with Medusa theme-park-ride thrilling, but Harryhausen's haggard, blobby beast lurching around a dimly lit lair still chills more.