Friday, September 18, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Clash of the Titans"

So they're remaking "Clash of the Titans," the 1981 mythology epic starring Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier and a whole lot of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion puppets. The new version comes out next spring, and is to star Sam Worthington (that guy's everywhere lately) and all computer-generated effects.

"Titans" is seen today as something of a cheese factory, mostly due to the relative crudity of the stop-motion visual effects in comparison with more modern ones. But I still think it's a wonderfully entertaining fantasia, a mash-up of Greek mythology that would probably mortify Edith Hamilton, but representing an exciting menagerie of amazing creatures and stories.

Granted, you don't see stop-motion used anymore to portray realistic creatures or things, because even the most meticulous puppet looks manufactured and fake, especially in close-up. And as groundbreaking as the achievements of Harryhausen ("Jason and the Argonauts") were, he never perfected stop-motion to the point where he was able to achieve seamless action. His skeletons, dragons and other critters always had a herky-jerk hitch to them.

Nowadays you only see stop-motion used for films like "Coraline," where the subjects are highly stylized and not intended to be an exact replica of reality.

As a kid watching "Titans" in the theater, I was really enthralled with the idea of Zeus (Olivier) and the other Greek gods reigning from Olympus, interfering with the lives of humans as a way to play out the conflicts between themselves. Interestingly, there's a subtle but distinct feminist subtext, with the goddesses Hera, Thetis and Athena (Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith and Susan Fleetwood, respectively) ganging up to thwart the will of Zeus. Zeus, as portrayed in the film, is the ultimate male pig, sleeping around with various humans that strike his fancy, resulting in a number of mortal offspring.

One of them is Perseus (Hamlin), and Zeus intervenes again and again to aid his son. The gods use tiny clay sculptures to represent their human pawns, moving them across the board like a chess piece. For example, Thetis plucks the figure of Perseus up and places him in an amphitheater in a faraway city, so the real Perseus wakes up hundreds of miles away from where he went to sleep. I just love that device.

The other thing that really stands out about the film is the villain Calibos, played by veteran TV actor Neil McCarthy in devil make-up that's still quite impressive. Calibos is the son of Thetis, and like Perseus was a favored child himself until he drew the wrath of Zeus for killing his herd of flying horses. Calibos was punished by being turned into a misshapen demon.

He's actually a rather sympathetic figure, since his betrothed Andromeda (Judi Bowker) spurned him after he was cursed. One wonders how she would have felt about Perseus if he, too, was struck down.

In vengeance, Calibos has placed his own curse on the city. Andromeda's spirit is transported to Calibos' lair in the swamp, where he provides her with a riddle for every suitor to her hand. Those who fail to solve it are burned at the stake. Perseus, of course, takes up the challenge of the riddle, although he only solves it by cheating.

At the direction of Zeus, Perseus is given three magical gifts: a shield, a sword and a helmet that turns the wearer invisible. He uses these to slay the Medusa, whose head he in turn uses to turn the Kraken into stone. The Kraken is the last of the titans, the powerful giants who ruled before Zeus and the other gods took over, and Poseidon releases him from his undersea cage when directed to smite whatever city of mortals has offended the gods.

If you know anything about Greek and Roman mythology, then you know that the movie mixes and matches the different legends and stories liberally. For example, Perseus is shown taming the winged horse Pegasus (which actually was accomplished by Bellarophon) prior to setting out on his journey that eventually leads him to Medusa. But in the relevant mythology, Pegasus actually springs forth from the body of Medusa when Perseus cuts off her head. Thetis was not even one of the major Greek gods, and Calibos was created out of whole cloth for this movie.

I'm interested in how the remake, due in March, will turn out; I'm intrigued by the casting of Liam Neeson as Zeus and Ralph Fiennes as Hades. In terms of which Greek legends they will distill for their story, it appears they're taking a completely new path. I'm excited to see the new version, although I'll miss Calibos.

3.5 stars

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