Clash of the Titans Review: One Big, Boring Kraken Tease (D)

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Is a 3D air battle, between a flying Pegasus and a majorly pissed off Kraken, worth your $15 or $20?

I guess that’s the real question when it comes to Clash of the Titans, a souped-up but strung-out mishmash of ancient greek mythology and cutting-edge special effects. At the end of the day, I don’t think the form really fits the function; the battles look great with state-of-the-art computer renderings, but outside the Kraken sequence they really don’t inspire an ounce of awe. The gods have never looked more real, or mattered less.

Now I should be careful to say that I went into Clash of the Titans expecting very little. All I really wanted were some awesome, angry gods, some kinetic humans, and a movie that knew when it was time to wink back at the audience. After all, this is an entire blockbuster built around the line: Release the Kraken! How serious can you really take all this stuff?

Give me a good dragon brawl and I’m pretty much good to go.

Well, as far as all that’s concerned, there’s one giddy moment during a chaotic battle with Medusa where we do get a chuckle-worthy punch line. I won’t ruin it for you but one of our warriors, thoroughly freaked out, pulls himself up, widens his eyes and delivers a brilliant little double-take. But that, alas, is the exception, not the rule, and the single biggest thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Louis Leterrier’s adaptation was how dry it all played. Everyone is talking seriously and soberly. The action sequences are shaky-cam Bourne-style gritty grindhouses. The citizens of Argos are so terrified and panicky that you start to worry they might actually turn on one another. And then we cut to the desert, where Perseus (Sam Worthington), Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and their fellow warriros are taking up arms against giant scorpions. (More at Techland: Check out our interview with the Titans director)

Giant scorpions score a perfect 10 in my book, but why all the propulsive testosterone? Why the action star cliches? Where’s the sense of adventure? Of whimsy? Shouldn’t this be a fun little trek, where we get to see the gods go head to head with their puny little creations? Where filmmakers get to think as big and as bold as they dare?

Or to put it all another way: I went in hoping for the giddiness of Transformers and instead got pummeled by the self-importance of Transformers 2.

One wishes that the producers would have realized here that the fun of the Titans premise is that it’s a blank slate. You can do whatever you want, in this space where fantasy collides with ancient reality. Let loose a little bit. But it becomes quickly apparent that Clash of the Titans is so worried in proving its technical merits that it forgets all about the importance of  temperament or humor. Think back to your favorite fantasy adventures – things like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark…isn’t it the personalities that jumped out at you? Sure, the Death Star chase looked cool, and the huge boulder in Raiders seemed impressive, but the action sequences only really mattered because we gave a damn about Luke proving his mettle under pressure, Han proving that he wasn’t just an egomaniac and Indy living to test fate another day. (More at Techland: 8 Netbooks Worth Buying Right Now)

In the case of Titans, they could have either gone the character route or the spectacle route. And they failed on both accounts. The human characters talk at us, delivering lines as if reciting scripture. Up in the heavens, Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) look grimly at one another and make proclamations about the humans down below. They refer to one another as “my brother.” Fiennes, in particular, voices his whole performance in a sort of gravely whisper – a technique that I guess would seem a little more menacing or sinister if he wasn’t forced to endlessly expound exposition. This results in lengthy, labored diatribes that are rendered flat and monotone. Zeus vs. Hades has all the appeal here of a C-Span telecast.

It doesn’t help that our human hero, Perseus– okay, he’s actually a Demigod – is effectively a blank slate. Worthington, who clearly has more talent than this script (or Avatar’s) has tapped, masters the look of fierce determination, and then fails to register just about any other emotion. He’s guided around by Io (Gemma Arterton), another supernatural being bound to the Earth, who  just appears at random, informing him of the rules laid down by the gods. Maybe she’s supposed to be the group mystic, or the spark of sexual tension, but in my book she’s one of the more obvious deus ex machinas that I’ve ever seen. Perseus gets into a sticky situation, wonders what he should do, and then bam, Io shows up – no matter where he is – and kindly tells him how to go about it. Our hero may see her as his guardian angel; I see her as the destroyer of tension. The wrecker of movies.

This isn’t drama; it’s a table read.

Still, Titans could have won us over with spectacle. And if the focus here was going to be on the giant beasts, here are the three things the film needed to do differently: Cut out all the chit-chat that saddles the first half of the story, stage the scorpion battles and Medusa sequences a little more creatively so we could better follow the hand-to-hand choreography, and give us more time with the Kraken. By the time our giant attack-dragon-sea-monster makes his long-anticipated appearance, it’s almost time for his exit. At the screening I attended, the battle was so short-lived that one person in the audience actually started booing.

At the end of our trek, as Argos finds itself under siege, all I can say is that I was slumped in my seat, indifferent about who lived or who died, bored by a series of gods who forgot to bring their A-game. Honestly, the Kraken could have won for all I cared. It would have been the first unpredictable step of the entire journey.

There’s a telling moment just after that climactic battle, where Perseus is lying unconscious on the beach with his princess, and his horse stomps a foot in the sand, trying to wake up his master. It’s a cute aside on a sunny seashore, a wonderful little detail, and you can almost feel the filmmakers sighing in relief that they’ve shed the burden of all these gods and action sequences. For a fleeting second, we get something unexpected, and it becomes apparent that up until now, Clash of the Titans has merely been obsessed with mechanically hitting the marks. Zeus, check. Hades, check. Medusa, check. Kraken, check.

If there’s anything a movie about humans taking up arms against the mightiest of gods shouldn’t evoke, it’s by-the-numbers storytelling.

Why not stay home and watch a re-run of Life on Discovery instead. You’ll find a whole lot more awe there.

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