The owl is, of course, a knowing reference to Bubo, the comic-relief companion of Perseus in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans—and while it’s possible that the line is merely a nod to the ambivalent relationship some fans have to the character, it also feels a bit like temporal smugness. Thirty years have passed, after all, since a fantasy adventure needed to depend on Ray Harryhausen stop-motion to bring its mythological creatures to life. Yet the CGI advances of the 21st century aren’t a substitute for a sense of fun and imagination—which may be why it’s not just because this Clash is a remake that you feel like you’ve seen it all before.
And that feeling’s also not because the legend of Perseus—son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), cast out to sea as a baby and rescued by a fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite)—is so familiar. While much of the basic setup echoes that of the ’81 Clash—angry gods threaten to destroy Argos with the sea-beast Kraken, unless the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed or Perseus can find a way to defeat the creature—there are a few twists offered by screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Hades (Ralph Fiennes) plays a more prominent role as instigator, appearing in billowing clouds of black hellsmoke. There’s also a lot of attention paid to the tug-of-war between reverence for the gods and humans asserting their independence, and a swipe at apocalyptic zealotry.
All of those new wrinkles might have made for a more compelling story if it felt as though director Louis Leterrier (2008’s The Incredible Hulk) were really committed to the characters and thematic elements of this blockbuster. Instead, it all becomes background noise for a fantasy that spends a whole lot of time on foreground noise. Perseus and company’s battles—with giant scorpions that rise from the tainted blood of the cursed king Acrisius (Jason Flemyng); with a squadron of flying harpies; with the snake-haired Medusa—are edited together with frantic inefficiency, resulting in a movie that moves without generating any real tension.
It’s also true that in 2010, action adventures are so omnipresent that they really have to work to be exciting. No one’s going to pretend that the original Clash of the Titans was a literary masterwork or that it existed for any other reason than to showcase Harryhausen’s creations; it certainly was cringe-inducing to watch Laurence Olivier whore himself out as Zeus in one of his last screen roles. But in 1981, that kind of fantasy filmmaking still generated a sense of cinematic wonder, with a demeanor more playful than grimly determined. Clash 2.0 has nothing fresh to offer; it’s simply another calculated blockbuster construction.
That notion extends to its use of 3-D, which reportedly was added during a rushed 10-week conversion only late in the post-production process. And there really hasn’t been such a thuddingly unsuccessful use of the technology like this since its resurgence over the past couple of years. Outlines blur around characters; depth of field proves about as profound as something you’d encounter using a ViewMaster. Take off your glasses during a typical five-minute stretch of a 3-D Clash screening, and I dare you to tell the difference. There’s no excuse for its use—except as a cash-in.
And really, that’s what the overwhelming majority of Clash of the Titans feels like. There are moments of genuine excitement, and a few creative inspirations, like a design that renders the ferryman Charon as part of his barge on the River Styx, and the barge itself as a hollowed-out rib cage. But you only have to compare Fiennes’ sleepwalking villainy as Hades to his Voldemort from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to see the difference between a movie that’s putting in an effort and a movie that’s just sort of sitting there. Clash of the Titans may not need a whimsical stop-motion mechanical owl, but it sure needs something—anything—to give an audience a reason to give a hoot.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes