Review: Clash of the Titans

This big-budget mythology mash-up suffers from FX overkill.

This big-budget mythology mash-up suffers from FX overkill

Perseus (Sam Worthington) battles gods and monsters in the 3-D remake of Clash of the Titans. ((Warner Bros. Pictures))

Inside of me there’s still an eight-year-old boy who had the pants scared off him when he first saw the man-eating cyclops in Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. That inner child was the reason for my unseemly excitement when I heard that they were remaking Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans.

Where Sinbad (1958) was the first of the great stop-motion animator’s classical-creature features, Clash of the Titans (1981) was the last and the culmination of the series. It not only boasted some of his most memorable monsters, but also his only A-list cast – led by no less than that Shakespearean titan, Laurence Olivier, as Zeus.

Directed by Louis Leterrier, the new Clash is equally classy, with a pair of mighty thesps, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes, as Zeus and Hades, respectively. The monsters, on the other hand, are bigger and wilder than anything Harryhausen conceived – thanks to the wonders of computer imagery and animatronics. If I were still eight, I’m sure I’d be seriously freaked.

Only this Clash, unlike the family-friendly Harryhausen flicks, isn’t for children. It’s for nostalgic adults like Leterrier, who saw the original as kids and are meant to appreciate his remake as a loving homage. What the director didn’t anticipate is that those adults might also scorn it as a weak imitation of more recent fantasy films, from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Pan’s Labyrinth.

Since the movie is meant for grownups, screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have taken the original’s spin on the Perseus myth and tried to give it more depth. Instead of the simple, pretty-boy Perseus of Harry Hamlin, we have Avatar’s Sam Worthington as a rebellious demigod who stubbornly rejects his divine status. After Hades, the god of the underworld, causes his adopted family’s death, this Perseus becomes hell-bent (literally) on revenge.

He isn’t the only rebel. The city of Argos is also getting uppity, refusing to worship the fickle Olympian deities. Hades plans to teach them a lesson by forcing the foolhardy king of Argos to sacrifice his beautiful daughter, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), to that ultimate deep-sea demon, the Kraken. Looking to get back at Hades, Perseus agrees to embark on a quest to defeat the Kraken by seeking out its only nemesis – Medusa, the serpent-coiffed Gorgon with the stony stare.

In the Harryhausen spirit, the plot toys freely with Greek mythology and even strays outside of it. The writers have not only kept the Kraken (a creature purloined from Scandinavian folklore), they’ve also thrown in some nomadic Djinn out of the Arabian Nights, who assist Perseus on his mission. Up on Mount Olympus, meanwhile, there’s a Biblical-style power struggle between Neeson’s white-clad, humanity-loving Zeus and Fiennes’s bitter, Lucifer-like Hades, who plots to overthrow him.

This mythology mash-up is perfectly fine – it’s a popcorn movie, after all, not Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths. The problem is the filmmakers’ more-is-better mentality, which ends up cluttering the tale with half-realized characters. Perseus sets out on his journey with a band of soldiers, led by the gruff, sarcastic Draco (Danish tough guy Mads Mikkelsen), plus the guardian nymph Io (a marble-white Gemma Arterton), plus a couple of crude hunters. The latter are presumably there for comic relief – only there’s also a grizzled old vet whose main function is to toss off the occasional dry quip during battle sequences. None of these sidekicks are as much fun as little Bubo, the cute mechanical owl who helped Hamlin’s Perseus (and who makes a too-brief cameo here).

Liam Neeson stars as Zeus in Clash of the Titans. ((Warner Bros. Pictures))

The philosophy of excess extends to the monsters. The FX team, led by The Dark Knight’s Nick Davis and Conor O’Sullivan and Gladiator’s Neil Corbould, are determined to overwhelm us. The giant scorpions are now the size of Transformers; Medusa doesn’t just have snakes for hair, but also… OK, I won’t spoil the effects. But for every creepy success, there’s a crummy misfire – notably the three blind Stygian Witches, who share a fuzzy eyeball that looks like it was ripped from the socket of an unfortunate Muppet.

Despite the impressive international cast, the acting is mostly pedestrian. Apart from using his own Australian accent, Worthington might as well be repeating his role as the rebellious Jake Sully in Avatar – he even sports the same Marine buzz cut. Neeson, looking slightly embarrassed, underplays as Zeus. Arterton’s Io and Davalos’s Andromeda are almost interchangeable. Only Fiennes stands out, serving up just the right amount of ham as the villainous Hades. Doleful-eyed and sooty-fingered, he gives his infernal god the hoarse voice of someone who has spent too much time down among the smoke and ashes.

Leterrier, who helmed 2008’s flop reboot of The Incredible Hulk, is not an especially adroit director and the action scenes often look like they were edited with a blunt sword. It doesn’t help that the movie was converted to 3-D in post-production to capitalize on the current, Avatar-fuelled craze. Instead of enhancing the visuals, it’s just lame and distracting – proof that the technology isn’t something you can just slap onto a film like a new coat of paint.

But that’s the least of my disappointments. I’ve been looking forward to the day when my baby daughter is eight and we can snuggle up on the couch and watch Clash of the Titans together. Needless to say, it’ll be the Harryhausen version, not this remake.

Clash of the Titans opens April 2.

Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBC News.