As a longtime lover of both Greek mythology and big-budget action blockbusters, I naturally went to see Clash of the Titans. It’s about what you’d expect. If you think you’ll like it, you’ll probably like it. If you think it looks stupid, just stay far away. If you’re ambivalent, like I was, then you’ll probably feel about the same when you come out of the theater. Short version: I’d give it my half-hearted recommendation if it’s your sort of thing anyway, mostly because of Liam Neeson and a few snippets of the soundtrack, from Iron Man‘s Ramin Djawadi. (Those of you fortunate enough to own God of War III, though—and I hate you, by the way—may just want to stick with that. Kratos is ten times as awesome as anyone in this movie, and I suspect that the same goes for the monster-slaying.)
This review is pretty spoilerific, but that probably doesn’t matter even if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to do so. It should be fairly obvious that there’s no real suspense, and that any entertainment derived from the movie will come not from clever storytelling but from creature effects and moments of mild-to-moderate badassery.
Let’s get the basics out of the way:
It’s been awhile since Zeus (Liam Neeson) and his brothers cast down the Titans, with help from the Kraken, a creation of Hades (Ralph Fiennes). Through the years the Olympian gods have generally been asses to humanity, and a few mortal monarchs have gotten it into their heads to rebel. One, Acrisius, tries to lay siege to Olympus, but this ends badly in all kinds of ways. Several years later—the time of the main story—King Kepheus of Argos (Vincent Regan, the Captain in 300 and Achilles’ lieutenant Eudoros in Troy) has his soldiers tearing down statues of the gods, while his queen Cassiopeia (Polly Walker, briefly channeling her Rome character Atia) is strutting around saying that her daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos, effective in a thankless role) is more beautiful than Aphrodite. As befits a story based on Greek myth, hubris bites them in the ass. Hades, with permission from Zeus, demands that Argos sacrifice Andromeda to the gods within ten days, or else he’ll unleash the Kraken.
And yeah, you should know up front that I’m going to be nitpicking here, despite my kinda-sorta-recommendation. I criticize because I care, truly.
Sam Worthington, late of Avatar and previously Terminator Salvation, stars as Perseus, a fisherman who learns he’s a demigod after his parents and little sister (!) are killed in the crossfire between Hades and Argosian soldiers. He’s also been catching a lot of flak in reviews for being utterly uninspiring. Of course he gets two inspirational speech-type moments, which is at least one too many, partly because it’s true that he doesn’t bring a hell of a lot of charisma or intensity to the role.
I’m not sure I’d call him a bad actor, but he’s certainly a limited one. As bland, male model-ish action heroes go, he’s at least a step above Channing Tatum. Or maybe it’s just the accent. Anyway, something all of Worthington’s high profile roles to date have in common is that they’re supposedly normal dudes thrust into extraordinary circumstances. This could explain the relative blandness of their personalities, although making sense isn’t always the same as being good for a movie. (We follow Perseus because the camera does, but we’re not given much reason to care about him on a deeper level than is provided by the hurried Man vs. Gods backdrop.) It also doesn’t work so well to explain why Perseus adapts so quickly to his situation: his family’s killed, he learns he’s the son of Zeus, and he embarks on a quest to kill Hades, never really getting freaked out by anything, presumably driven by his limitless rage.
Thing is, he mostly just scowls and growls to convey said rage. Like I said, he never really freaks out or seems to be in genuine distress. Doesn’t really raise his voice. Doesn’t have much to say, either. Just variations on “My family was killed by a god” and “I can do this as a man.” While I tend to like stoical heroes over flashy ones, I’m not sure it works well for Perseus. He doesn’t have any experience with death or battle prior to the events of the movie, so you’d think he’d be less certain of himself. Maybe it’s the knowledge that he’s a demigod? Except he keeps saying stuff like “I can do this as a man.” Dialogue suggests that the divinity he ends up relying on is concentrated in a sword, but it would make more sense if he also had innate ass-kicking powers. Maybe that’s the case; it’s the only way to justify how one brief sword-fighting lesson is enough to make him a BAMF. But there are lots of movies in which one brief sword-fighting lesson makes a previously ordinary guy a BAMF—I hate this—so it’s hard to tell what the writers and director Louis Leterrier intended. If Perseus is in fact superhumanly gifted with or without the sword, this pretty much negates his tough talk. If he’s not, then even for a fantasy story we’re in BS territory. But again, that would hardly be unique to Clash.
Draco (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre), a veteran Argosian soldier, is tasked with escorting Perseus on his mission. Somewhat surprisingly, he just sort of goes with it, apparently trusting that because Perseus is a demigod, helping him without argument is the right thing to do. That would be one thing, but as the story progresses Draco defers to Perseus, who’s quickly at ease with being the expedition’s de facto leader.
My problem with this is rooted in the “I can do this as a man” thing. If Perseus has no extraordinary abilities, then the only justification for his determination and confidence is his anger. But Draco, apart from being tough and experienced, probably has just as much reason to be pissed at the gods; we know that many Argosian soldiers have been killed in recent days. Draco’s also in a much better position to be dispensing morale-raising platitudes. But whatever. Mikkelsen, like everyone else, has little to work with, but he makes more of it than most of the others.
Oh, almost forgot: there’s an unsubtle but still kinda nice touch that touches on Perseus’ mixed heritage. As a boy, during a thunderstorm Perseus rubs at his chest. He does it again in another storm as an adult, shortly before his parents are killed. And before fighting Medusa, he is told by Io (see below), touching his chest, to “calm his storm.” I had hoped that this inner storm would prove to be a source of divine power, but like I said, they never really made it clear, and seemed to want him not to be superhuman. Zeus doesn’t say anything about it either, when they finally make nice.
Gemma Arterton (MI6 pencil pusher Strawberry Fields—I know, right?—in Quantum of Solace) co-stars as Io, an ageless (but not unkillable) watcher-mentor figure for Perseus. For scorning the advance of a god, she was long ago cursed with immortality, doomed to watch her loved ones die. One may wonder why the unnamed god didn’t just rape her, as we learn Poseidon raped the pre-snake-ified Medusa, and this is just one of several backstory plot holes the character has, which I think could have been easily avoided with a better script. (Let me clarify: of course I don’t think the god should have raped Io. It just seems to be the modus operandi of Olympians scorned, so there’s no compelling in-universe reason for this case to be different.)
The biggest question mark is Io’s self-appointed task of watching over Perseus through the years. We don’t know where she comes from, how she knew to look out for him, how she was able to do so if she lacks extraordinary powers besides her lifespan. . . We can assume that she learned how to fight over the years, because why not, especially in the world she inhabits. But another problem is that she comes across as a woman of her apparent age (Arterton’s 24) who just happens to know lots of stuff, rather than as a woman who actually has the accumulated wisdom and heartache of many lifetimes. Part of this is due to her to-be-expected degeneration into a love interest. I guess it’s not too weird if Perseus turns out to have a similar lifespan, but again, given how big a deal he makes out of the whole “living as a man” thing, it’s not clear.
(An attached trailer was for Prince of Persia, in which Arterton also stars, in a role that looks suspiciously similar to that of Io, except with a spray tan. Y’know: sultry, mysterious exposition chick. I hope she doesn’t get stuck in parts like these.)
My preferred alternative to Io, given that she already operates in a bit of a deus ex machina capacity, would have been the classical route of Zeus deploying Athena, goddess of wisdom and traditionally the counselor of heroes. She could dispense advice and be a guide, while withholding more direct aid, and we could have avoided the half-hearted romantic subplot.
Critics’ comparisons of Fiennes’ Hades to his Voldemort are inevitable and more or less warranted, if tiresome. In any case, Hades gets some of the coolest special effects, at one point becoming a whirlwind of shadow and flame, at others teleporting to unfurl wings of smoke. But Fiennes doesn’t have much to do besides hiss threats and slowly wave his arms around.
Then we have Neeson’s Zeus looking admittedly odd in that shiny, anachronistic plate armor. I still thought it was kind of cool, though I seem to be in a minority there. The biggest problem with Zeus is that even though he created humanity, the gods are dependent on worshippers’ love for their immortality. (Except for Hades; he’s apparently figured out a way to subsist on their fear and hatred.) This raises many questions, none of which are answered. Here’s just one: why was a god able to bestow immortality on Io (as a punishment, no less)?
It’s also never entirely clear why Zeus is in Perseus’ corner from pretty early on. Soon after Perseus and his honor guard embark on their journey, Perseus is drawn to a magic sword lying in the woods—an apparent gift from the gods—and has a friendly encounter with a Pegasus, which Io says is a message. The explanation that makes the most sense is that Zeus was prepared for the possibility that Hades was working at cross-purposes, but he seems surprised when Hades reveals this. It’s also hinted that Zeus was just basically being a doting daddy, but that too is inconsistent with other behavior: not bothering to keep track of Perseus from birth, obviously, and also insisting that because Perseus holds no love for Zeus, there’s no reason to treat him differently from the other mortals.
My Athena idea would have helped in this regard, too. Either Zeus could have clearly been aware that he was being played by Hades, or Athena, being the wise and cunning one, could have been helping Perseus on her own. Alas, it was not to be.
Some critics have mocked the presence of “djinn,” who apart from originating in Islamic literature are supposed to be made of “smokeless fire” but here are made of wood for no compelling narrative reason. I’ll admit it was weird to have anything called “djinn” ambling around, but though they were problematic, that has nothing to do with their not being Greek, or even their being wooden.
They had the same problem as two random comic relief mercenaries, which is that they come on stage briefly, do some marginally cool-looking stuff that’s supposedly important to the plot but could’ve been avoided had the story been better planned and written, and then wander off. Well, one djinn sticks around out of a combination of self-interest and solidarity, and gets a decent death scene (in the clutches of Medusa, he starts to laugh, and then explodes). But the djinn could’ve been discarded entirely, thus streamlining the narrative. They enter when Perseus and his honor guard have finished killing two or three giant scorpions but find themselves faced with three more, which happen to be even bigger. The djinn appear from out of nowhere, pacifying the beasts and eventually taming them for riding. Perseus also suffers a poisoned wound in the fight, and refuses to pray to Zeus to heal it, so a djinn heals it for him.
Look, those last three scorpions were pretty unnecessary, and there was potential for a spot of character development in the aftermath of Perseus’ first combat experience. As for the poison, it could’ve been left out, or Perseus could’ve been forced to reckon with his demi-divinity earlier than he ultimately does. The one djinn who doesn’t eventually abandon the quest (the group is told by witches that they’re on a suicide mission) never really does anything to justify their presence in the story. Because the encounter with the scorpions doesn’t take too much time, I also don’t buy that riding them would’ve sped the journey up all that much.
As for the two mercenaries, they bail with the djinn, but show up in the last action sequence back in Argos, riding a scorpion and apparently intended to get a grin out of the audience (“Hey it’s those two guys!”), but because of the brevity of their previous screentime it’s a flat moment.
There are many jokes written into the script. Only one of them is something resembling good.
Aaaand this is longer than my Avatar review, which I’d hoped to avoid, so I’ll shut up now.
Again, in summary: God of War > Clash of the Titans, but if Clash is your thing anyway, and especially if you’re not a gamer who’s experienced the awesomeness of Kratos and his Blades of Chaos/Athena/Exile, then go ahead, see the movie. Just, y’know, enjoy it “for what it is.” (I’ve never really liked that phrase.)