The gods of classical mythology have always been selfish and capricious, but in a tempestuous, grand, passionate style, sort of like “Dallas” in heaven. In the new Clash of the Titans, the gods are about as grand and passionate as “The Simpsons,” and not a tenth as interesting. The original 1981 Clash of the Titans gave us Zeus portrayed by Laurence Olivier with a sort of dissolute patrician dignity. As played by Liam Neeson in the remake, he’s merely grumpy and vacillating. No wonder his half-human son Perseus (Sam Worthington) keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’s a man, not a god.
Clash of the Titans takes the secularizing bent of the 2004 film Troy a step further. Troy retold one of the best-known Greek myths as a purely human story, leaving out the gods. Clash of the Titans goes further: The gods aren’t just ignored, they’re all but dethroned.
Over and over, from the opening voiceover onward, we’re told how the gods (specifically Zeus) made mankind selfishly, to bask in and draw strength from their prayers and adoration. The men continually tell one another that this arrangement benefits the gods much more than it does the humans, and it’s high time for men to rebel against the gods, throw off the yoke of servitude, and take their fate into their own hands. The gods, meanwhile, warn one another that the human rebellion must be suppressed before it gets out of hand; men must be punished and reminded of their place.
Hades (Ralph Fiennes, working hard to make his balding god of the underworld as different as possible from his signature baldy from hell, Voldemort) plays Zeus like a lyre, persuading him that releasing the Kraken on the uppity citizens of Argos — who are withholding prayers and worship like an unwelcome tax — is a good way to get the love flowing heavenward again. (Switching up Fiennes and Neeson might have been an interesting move.)
In reality, Hades’ goal is not men’s love but their fear, which feeds him as devotion sustains Zeus. Releasing the Kraken is a gambit to strengthen Hades against Zeus, enabling him to escape the underworld and seize Olympus for his own. (The Kraken appears courtesy of Davy Jones and the East India Company. If the defeat of the Kraken is taken straight from the original Clash, at least both versions of Clash realize that defeating the Kraken is an important event that ought to be in the actual movie. Gore Verbinski, are you taking notes?)
One of the new Clash’s worst moves is sidelining the Kraken’s designated victim, the princess Andromeda, who is no longer Perseus’s companion and love interest. In the original Clash, Perseus’s mission was both a heroic quest and a romantic one; he was out to save the woman he loved. This time out, Perseus's female companion is a woman named Io, played by Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace). (The original film had a Bond girl too, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, but the movie knew she was out of Perseus’s league.)
Although not a demigod, Io is cursed with immortality for spurning the advances of a god. Medusa also spurned the advances of a god (hat tip), and wound up being violated, turned into a cross between Grendel and his mother from the 2007 Beowulf, and exiled to the realm of the dead. Some girls play hard to get and become immortal hotties who cavort with Sam Worthington. Go figure.
Immortality seems to work differently here than in Greek mythology, since (spoiler alert) it turns out that Io can be killed. (For example, Perseus could kill Medusa since she was mortal, but her Gorgon sisters Stheno and Euryale were not and could not be killed.) This is usually terribly inconvenient in Greek mythology (being killed, I mean, not being immortal), since rescue missions to the underworld are horribly difficult and almost always unsuccessful, but it’s amazing what one can accomplish if the screenwriters just put their minds to it. (Incidentally, is immortality ever considered a “curse” in Greek mythology?)
Being immortal(ish), Io has been around the block a few times, and has picked up some mad combat skills. Like Perseus — whose human family is killed by Hades early in the film — she has a grudge against the gods, so she takes on the Burgess Meredith role from the original Clash, or perhaps the original Rocky, both goading and guiding Perseus on a quest to defeat the Kraken, which she tells him will weaken Hades and enable Perseus to take him down. That’s right: Perseus’s motivation isn’t to save the city, or even the girl. It’s revenge. Again. Like Troy, Gladiator and Braveheart.
Co-ed combat training sessions being what they are, sooner or later someone always winds up on top. Here it’s Perseus, whose inner demigod tends to kick in after he’s been knocked on his behind a few times. Feeling the force of his, um, passion, Io murmurs, “Calm your storm.” I wish I could say it’s the worst line in the film. Well, perhaps it is.
Strangely, despite all the Sturm und Drang about rebellion against the gods, the movie ends on a curiously status quo note: Zeus is in his heaven, Hades in his hell, and all’s right with the world. Perseus’s moment of revenge against Hades is an oddly understated afterthought to the defeat of the Kraken. It’s like the filmmakers lost track of what motivated their hero.
The original Clash of the Titans marked the end of an era. Highlighted by the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creature effects that had graced the likes of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, the 1981 epic was a throwback to that earlier breed of film, and (but for a few bits of quasi-classical nudity) could easily have been made a decade or two earlier. The remake is violent, joyless, humorless and unmagical.
In his last big 3D epic, Worthington rejected his humanity and embraced otherness (big blue alien otherness). It wasn’t that tough a decision, since mankind in that film was pretty ugly and unlikable. In Clash, Worthington rejects Olympian otherness and embraces humanity — but humanity isn’t much more attractive or appealing here. The Na’vi in Avatar got a benevolent nature goddess. Perhaps in the movies everyone gets the gods they deserve.
Opening on Good Friday and setting a new Easter weekend box-office record, the new Clash of the Titans features a divine father in the heavens (Liam Neeson, the voice of Narnia’s Aslan, as Zeus) who tells his divine/human son, “I wanted [mankind’s] worship, but I didn’t want it to cost me a son.”
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In your Clash of the Titans review you ask the parenthetical question, “Incidentally, is immortality ever considered a ‘curse’ in Greek mythology?”
In fact it is, at least once. The mortal man Tithonus (the son of King Laomedon of Troy, though his mother was a nymph, if I remember correctly), fell in love with Eos, the golden dawn, and she petitioned Zeus to grant him immortality so that they could be married and remain with each other for all time.
This Zeus did, but — in a fit of the sort of terrible pique for which he is known — he took her request more literally than it was intended and neglected to also grant Tithonus eternal youth. He became immortal, as requested, but didn’t stop aging. Eventually he was little better than a skeleton; some stories say he turned into an insect of some sort, though I don’t remember exactly what happened with that.
Tennyson’s “Tithonus” (1859) is a fine poem based (occasionally loosely) on these events. You might enjoy it.
— Nick Milne
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.