'Clash of the Titans' film a crash and burn
New 'Clash' a clunky allegory about political dissidence
Much hay has been made of Warner Brothers' shoddy 3D conversion of “Clash of the Titans,” Louis Letterier’s remake of the 1981 Harry Hamlin guilty pleasure that served as both stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen’s swan song and perhaps the de facto pop culture primer on Greek mythology.
The original was helmed by British director Desmond Davis, who never really did anything else of note after that: a made-for-TV Sherlock Holmes movie, some BBC Shakespeare, a slow fade back into the inconsequential. But apropos of nothing, he did give the world this one arid, sanguine B-movie epic that played in near constant rotation on television throughout my childhood as a Saturday Afternoon Special, as a Monday Night Movie, late-night filler as other, presumably more elegant, stations went to static.
Somehow, for me, the original “Clash of the Titans” has been imbued, from its old TV rotation schedule, with the aura of misspent time frittered away, beautiful weekend afternoons spent guiltily indoors on the couch, drawing the curtains closed to shut out the brightness of the day, to cover the glare from the windows on the television screen. Or being uselessly awake at two in the morning when you’re ten years old, with the volume turned way down so no one will wake up and force you back to bed.
So in retrospect Harry Hamlin acquired a kind of synaesthetic force, so that he’s the taste of lemon-lime Gatorade, the nuclear powdered cheese on Doritos, flat RC Cola watered down by melted ice, and the smell of our old couch cushions, like stale air from rarely-opened closets, dryer lint and Mom’s Pert shampoo.
Of course, now the 1981 version is the “original,” and forever after discussions of “Clash of the Titans” must be prefaced with distinctions in order to avoid confusion. “No, not the one with the scorpion-riding Djinn,” one might say. “The original.”
For some reason, it’s particularly sad when a campy, rough-hewn movie like 1981’s “Clash” gets remade. There’s no way to recapture the charm of its silliness, and no matter how short they make Sam Worthington’s skirt (and is it ever short) he just can’t recapture Harry Hamlin’s olive-skinned, Mediterranean sexiness, which had a flat, porn-y quality to it, more Playgirl beefcake than cinema heartthrob. That combo of his flat affect with his over-oiled, brazen physicality was winning, like he’d just wandered off the set of a gladiator-themed stag film. Add to the mix Harryhausen’s chintzy bestiary, Ursula Andress, and magic weaponry and presto: cult classic.
That a movie like this was a blockbuster in its day is besides the point. Relishing “Clash” means embracing the technological limitations of 1981, and this new “Clash” is as flat and lifeless as the computer-generated moments in George Lucas’s redux Stars Wars trilogy, where new technology is meant to “enhance” the originals. For “Return of the Jedi” that means that the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace, once a feat of charming Jim Henson-esque puppetry, is revised as a buffoonish, computer-generated spectacle. It’s painful to watch.
If Lucas’ reasons for the change was to make the new Max Rebo Band more “realistic” looking, he failed utterly. The computerized singer, if anything, looks more false than her clumsy marionette predecessor. And the marionette had one advantage: it was made of the real – real latex, real Styrofoam, or whatever such puppets are composed of. To be tactile, to have density, to cast a shadow, is always an advantage in worlds of make believe.
I had a few of the toys made off the 1981 “Clash,” and they were key props in my own games of pretending. The Kraken was the piece de resistance of my toy chest, a foot-tall green plastic monster with four arms and a removable tail that thrashed. He was the angry god all my other action figures feared; the stiff-limbed Star Wars guys, the more bendable – and thus more prone to erotic tableau - G.I. Joes, the diaphanous Crystar: Crystal Warrior figurines. I also had Perseus and Pegasus. Pegasus’ wings were rubber and fit into his plastic body by little rubber tabs. I’d lost one of the rubber wings early on, so he was a tragic figure, a one-winged horse who could no longer fly, ridden by Destro from G.I. Joe. He’d swipe men off their feet with his remaining wing and trample them.
My Kraken lived not in the ocean, but at the bottom of the wicker hamper in my parents’ closet. Action figures waged war amongst the Dr. Scholl's and tacky red high heels I’d never seen my mother wear. They hung in daisy chains from the waist belts of dresses crushed against the back of the closet. If any of the toy men and women performed an act of desecration, the Kraken would rise out of the damp towels and dirty socks of the hamper and devour them.
My father was an unstable and sometimes violent man, so the Zeus figure from the 1981 “Clash” resonated. The essential drama of a displeased patriarch was no news to me. So when Laurence Olivier’s Zeus crushed the tiny stone figurine of the misbehaving Acrisius, I got it. He ground the figure to dust, and in the world below, the real Acrisius died in agony, and the Kraken was released to finish off the city: the consequences of making Dad angry.
I know that I didn’t rewrite that story in my own games. I didn’t manufacture a revolution against the gods in the sky. I was the gods in the sky, and I was just as cruel and unforgiving. The angst of being at the mercy of the powerful is at the heart of 1981’s “Clash.” Human beings are aware on an invisible world above their own, and they must navigate beneath it. That parable rang especially true in my mind as a child. But I envied Perseus. He charmed his cruel father; he was chosen. Zeus left him gifts, bent the rules for him. A glittery golden owl made of clockwork came out of the sky. Perseus had all the advantages.
Well, it was the dawn of the Reagan era.
One of the worst things about the new “Clash” is how it tries to politicize the action of the plot. The 1981 version was, in the spirit of Greek tragedy, utterly primal, about wayward sons displeasing vicious fathers, jealous husbands casting their wives into the sea because of patricidal prophecies.
Letterier turns the whole thing into a clunky allegory about political dissidence. Human beings are tired of the capriciousness of the gods, so they’re openly defying them. This allows the film to construct an identifiable villain, in the form of Hades, played with ultra-camp flair by Ralph Fiennes.
The problem is that he’s not scary. In fact, nothing in the film is scary. It has no visceral impact. The Kraken rising from the ocean lacks awe. The effects are all laughably bad, from the re-design of the Stygian Witches as bulbous monsters, to the presence of the Djinn, who look even worse, like extras from a particularly bad episode of “Babylon 5.” The revolutionary zeal of the plot adds nothing, and the quest narrative structure of the original is compromised in weird ways.
Letterier tries to make an ad hoc “Lord of the Rings” movie more than he tries to re-envision “Clash of the Titans.” He’s got the evil wizardy bad guy, the small group of warriors complete with quipping, hirsute sidekicks, the ethereal non-human love interest who dances around at the edges of the plot. But it all plays as shtick.
The 1981 “Clash of the Titans” has big flaws, but it’s still an earnest little movie. It believes in the world it’s trying to create. It wants to tell an epic quest narrative, and you feel the weariness of travel and the strangeness of the creatures Perseus must fight. Because the world that Desmond Davis and Ray Harryhausen created was just a step away from the real, so that the intrusions of the uncanny – Medusa, the witches, the Kraken – felt weird and arresting.
The bad movies we grow up with as kids sometimes get unduly lionized. We exalt crap because it’s imbued with nostalgia, purely by coincidence: you happened to be nine when it came out.
Louis Letterier’s giant scorpion version of “Clash of the Titans” may very well wind up being part of some poor kid’s nostalgia. But he or she will be wrong. There’s no perspective from which this “Clash” is good. And I’ll unequivocally defend the 1981 version as a kind of crappy but still great piece of genre cinema, and call shenanigans on any future person who loves the Sam Worthington version, despite the presence of Sam Worthington’s thighs throughout the thing.
Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.