REVIEW: Clash of the Titans [1981]

“Light has conquered darkness”

Would a film like being called charming? How about a fantasy action/adventure? Unfortunately, while watching the 1981 edition of Clash of the Titans, that word is what kept popping into my head. I can’t say the movie was great, it was way too laborious and the ‘please explain to me because I never knew Greek mythology existed’ exposition turned me off. However, I also can’t call it bad because there are multiple instances of enjoyment and craftsmanship, serving only to make me more excited for 2010’s remake. Ray Harryhausen’s creatures hold that type of timeless nostalgia allowing you to look past the deficiencies of the process and enter the fantasy world like the filmmakers hope. As far as the tagline, though, ‘An Epic Entertainment Spectacular!’ might have described it when first released, but I’d be surprised if so. This thing came after both Star Wars: A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, so why does it look ancient in comparison? Hence charmingly dated and ready for an overhaul—the rare film of which I can actually get behind the idea of a remake.

Can a film pander to its audience more than by having Zeus introduce each character by speaking to them as Hera my wife, Athena my child, etc, all while the camera focuses on their faces to make sure we know who is who? I didn’t think so, but then about midway through the movie, Perseus—a son of Zeus to a mortal woman that is exiled with his mother by her Earth husband, a man who’s life and city is destroyed by the Kraken in punishment—arrives at the city of Joppa without knowledge of what is going on. So, he sees a friendly soldier at the gates and asks him what is happening that a man has been burned in a bonfire amongst the public. Well, this kind man goes on to explain the history of Andromeda and Calibos, along with the curse of the God Thetis, pretty much catching he and us up with all the info needed to continue the film. Does it feel natural? Not at all, but the process is effective. And, truthfully, you do kind of assume that people back then would talk matter-of-factly—very proper and loquacious, stilted and mechanical in their overabundance of information. As such, the acting doesn’t come off as bad as it probably should.

There are some big names involved, especially for a film that could easily be put into the bin of movies that didn’t live up to the lofty goals it set for itself. By this time, Laurence Olivier was doing mostly tv work, so you can’t fault him for taking the paycheck on a big-budget fantasy extravaganza. He does his best Shakespearean theatrics as Zeus, acting the sympathetic king of the world, humble to even hope that one day the people of Earth will no longer need him, but realistic in the knowledge that there is enough anger and unrest for the eternal want of a ‘higher power’ to pray towards. It is overacted in its compassion, making the God out to be a champion of the people when in fact he was just a philanderer, known for punishing those Gods that helped humans. One thing I believe Percy Jackson did better was in showing the strong ruling hand that’s missing here. Perhaps Zeus is only kind because it is his son at the center of controversy—he does punish Thetis’ son Calibos rather sternly—but without an evil presence, say of Hades, (who is now included in the remake), it feels forced when you know the mythology and the hierarchy between he and humanity.

As for the other Gods, they are pretty much wasted. Jack Gwillim as Poseidon pretty much pretends to hold his breath behind a pane of glass containing air bubbles that serves as an underwater filter and I don’t even think Ursula Andress says a single word as Aphrodite, rarely even onscreen to warrant her casting as the Goddess of love. Claire Bloom’s Hera is given a little more meat in her role, Zeus’s wife being the only one allowed to openly defy her husband on Mt. Olympus, but it’s Maggie Smith who becomes the most noteworthy. As Thetis, she has more at stake watching her son become deformed and lose his chance at ruling over Joppa. So, she goes behind Zeus’s back to help her son in his battle against Perseus for Andromeda’s hand in marriage, even showing herself to the people of the city, spiteful and full of rage, with the ability to unleash the horrors of the Kraken to do what it did to the city of Argos. And that is why Zeus himself plays the orchestrator and willing participant in Perseus’s quest for glory, doing all he can to lead his son to victory.

Harry Hamlin’s Perseus reminded me of Chris Sarandon in The Princess Bride. He is very deliberate and earnest in portraying a man of confidence and power, but while Sarandon played it for laughs, I think Hamlin actually believes that is how this character should be portrayed. As a result, he seems somewhat amateurish besides an actor of Burgess Meredith’s caliber, even if it seems as though the old Penguin realizes this isn’t any colossal achievement of cinematic history. I will say that Judi Bowker’s Andromeda is beautiful and well worth the troubles of the men of Joppa, while Neil McCarthy is the show-stealer as Calibros. I loved his make-up work and the performance of pure malice; I just don’t know why they had to make him claymation in long shots. Fit a tail on his back and he could be the character for the duration instead of the choppy switching, frame to frame, from real to fake. But that is how the film is constructed, close-up shots of Perseus battling a puppet-like arm pans out to a super-imposed creature against his full frame.

You do eventually forget the artifice as the story progresses and begin to enjoy the monsters onscreen—even the out-of-place mechanical owl that kept reminding me of R2D2 rather than become its own memorable character. The Kraken is very Creature from the Black Lagoon and Medusa is an intriguing half-woman, half-snake, something that makes sense despite my never seeing her portrayed in that form. Of all the scenes, though, I think the scorpion fight rang the most true, although it ran way too long, a fact that plagues the entire work. We fly over the marshes as Perseus and Pegasus follow the Vulture carrying Andromeda for what seems like forever and we have to watch the hero fly into Joppa in order to save his bride when we all know he’ll get there, just cut that superfluous fluff out. Maybe it’s all there to fill out the runtime, but it only slows down the pace and gets me even more restless when I have to watch Hamlin try and look quizzical, acting as though he is pretending to think when he is supposed to be hatching a plan. Again, though, all this serves as a warm-up to what should be a true visual pleasure in the remake; just seeing the trailer’s updated visages of the Stygian Witches proves that point.

Clash of the Titans 6/10 | ★ ★ ½


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