Skip to main content

Why, once he even tried to ravish me, disguised as a cuttlefish.

Clash of the Titans
(1981)

(SPOILERS) A Harryhausen step too far? Dynamation deflation? At the time, being a devotee of Jason and the Argonauts and lured by the cash-in mini/movie-adaption ads from Smiths Crisps – I was a DC Thompson comics reader; they appeared, it seems, in Warlord, although it could as easily have been Buddy or Victor – I was as eager to see this as any right-minded kid was the next Star Wars. And Ray had evidently considered the zeitgeist (hence Bubo). But not enough. I know many swear by Clash of the Titans, but too much of it is stale or ineffectual – regardless of the occasional splash of tastefully titillating nudity – and the additional budgetary extravagance fails to manifest in a visually enticing manner. Too often it looks plain cheap (awful to say so), and stuck in the production mode of two decades earlier.

Clash of the Titans should have been so much more. I mean, the ready-made quest narrative is far easier to work with than rustling up a new Sinbad (it’s a wonder Harryhausen never did Hercules; it isn’t even listed in his lost projects. It seems he’d opted out of a Perseus adaptation in the ’60s because of his perceived association between “Percy” and “sissy”). Some of the animation hits the target – Medusa, filmed in making-life-difficult-for-yourself fashion against a flickering fire; the scorpions; Pegasus, - but the integration often leaves much to be desired. Perhaps because you can feel the schematic gaps here more than in other movies.

Or because director Desmond Davis wasn’t up to par. Ray has Ted Moore back as cinematographer, who worked on both previous Dynamations, but he’s missing something this time (Moore also lensed for seven Bonds and won an Oscar for A Man for All Seasons). A significant portion of Clash of the Titans looks no more proficient than a BBC production (much of Davis career was in TV). There are interiors boasting very obvious set-based studio exteriors, and makeup that doesn’t seem to be feeling it.

Calibos, as performed by Neil McCarthy in closeups, is very good, probably because he’s matching the model (cart coming after the horse, as the character was originally devised as mute so Ray didn’t have to animate speech) That doesn’t really help with the sense, for all that Harryhausen was proud of the integration, of actor and stunt double in the cutting between animated Calibos and his live-action counterpart. Pegasus fares better, but there’s a cumulative sense of very obvious elements failing to cohere that distracts from the action.

So when it comes to the prize exhibit, the showdown with the Kraken – which looks like the best thing ever on the poster, and is a testament to how you need to sell goods that aren’t up to par, especially in the weary age of unremarkable photoshop campaigns – the results are entirely underwhelming. Ray suggested “The end Kraken sequence would have been far less impressive without his music” referring to Laurence Rosenthal’s “wonderful” score. It really isn’t, though (wonderful), often sounding like’s Rosenthal’s treating the proceedings as a kids’ show (like Davis, he’s best known for TV work). This is where Harryhausen being the biggest star rather bites him in the behind. It’s like Bond was with its directors for a long while, where craftsmanship was subordinate to reliability.

And the Kraken is awful, the worst of terrifying rubber monsters. “Release the Kraken!” amounts to poor Jack Gwillim (Poseidon; he was King Aeëtes in Jason of the Argonauts) pretending he’s underwater and so looking slightly constipated while green-screened onto a large grate. Elsewhere, the Stygian Witches aren’t even Dynamation, with some make-do blind makeup (that BBC comparison). To underline this, Tim Pigott-Smith appears, with a perm, as a brave soldier. Harryhausen said of employing Davis: “We did not want a modern approach to the story, but it had to be converted to the screen with the right balance of reality and fantasy”. The problem is, Clash of the Titans often looks plain antiquated, whereby the joins are not only obvious, but also getting in the way of enjoyment.

Ironically, while the cast have been beefed up compared to previous Dynamations, the characterisation suffers. Caliban needs to be compelling, but we have to be told he is (others show sympathy for his plight). Screenwriter Beverly Cross gets down the essential hypocrisy of Mount Olympus, with Zeus’ partial displays of morality, and Sir Larry is a sound choice for Zeus, and Maggie Smith even better as Thetis. Unfortunately, the spread of subplots helps to murder the pace rather than up the ante. At the financing stage, Columbia pulled out and MGM came in, with more money as a sweetener, hence the likes of Ursula Andress (there’s a particularly artless introduction to the goddesses, courtesy of Zeus, including Claire Bloom, Pat Roach and Susan Fleetwood).

Bubo works, pretty much, although Athena’s real owl is way more awesome. Bubo’s in the vein of Battlestar Galactica and The Black Hole as far as cutesy R2-D2 knockoffs go, so Ray was a little disingenuous when it came to his old-school protestations. There’s much contradiction in his statements, though, stating Clash of the Titans cost $16m, more than all his projects to that date, yet ending up with something far less proficient by comparison. And not wanting Arnie, because he was too beefy, but happy with the charisma vacuums of Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker.

I’ll always admire what Harryhausen was attempting, but he needed to apply skills across the board that were equal to the attention to detail he brought to bear in the animation department. One only needs look at movies in the fantasy genre during this period, and the leaps and bounds in prosthetics, cinematography and integration (the previous year’s The Empire Strikes Back used stop motion, also evidently so, but did it with much more care). Had, say, Ridley Scott in Legend mode approached this project in collaborative mode, both might have come out with a winner.

There are elements that appeal, of course. The design of Calibos, and his shadow transformation on the chessboard, is superbly evocative. The astral abduction of Andromeda (so why does she need a vulture with a cage?) The dying scorpio’s leg trembler, surely an inspiration on ED-209. Thetis’ talking head. But then there are the gaps in coherence. Zeus demands weapons for Perseus (why not just send him home?) “Ask your riddle” is a bit of nonsense, since the answer isn’t clever and is very literal.

The irony of such complaints is that Clash of the Titans was a big hit, grossing $70m worldwide and just missing the US Top 10 for the year (in the fantasy genre, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II and Time Bandits beat it). If studios were doubtful of the sustainability of stop motion in the face of CGI, box office suggested it was still viable. The truth is, though, Ray would have needed to be more adaptable to continue. He was an old pro, a one-man band (who reluctantly brought in several collaborators on Clash of the Titans) and not suited to such broader thinking and planning.

He said of his retirement – he was 61 on completion of the movie – “the technology wasn’t the problem. It had become harder and harder for me during those last few pictures to sustain my enthusiasm”. I suspect, had the adulation he hoped for from all that toil been more widely forthcoming, he wouldn’t have felt the same way. He prospectively had The Aeneid-inspired Force of the Trojans lined up, but considered it fell apart because appetites “turned to more violent subjects with sex and muscles”. Which sounds like Greek myth to me, but your definitions may vary.

Indeed, the disappointment is that, when it came to redoing Perseus in 2010, the myth was treated in the least effective or resonant manner, its success based entirely on post-conversion to 3D in the wake of Avatar. That grim-and-gritty approach followed the path of the ill-advised de-magicking of myth found in the early ’00s (King Arthur, Troy). Clash is beloved of many who grew up in the ’80s, in much the same way as Krull or The Dark Crystal, but its deficiencies as a piece of storytelling and filmmaking can’t be ignored.






Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight ; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983) (SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk , and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm ’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. T

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…