Hollywood is once again in remake mode, searching for classic stories with built in audiences. It’s hard to say whether remakes of The A-Team or The Karate Kid will meet with success. One of the crap-shoots in remaking a cultural icon (the original of which may or may not have any intrinsic value) is the chance that the product will be exponentially worse than a mediocre original: witness such travesties as Bewitched, Get Smart, or (one shudders), the 1998 version of McHale’s Navy.
Of course, every now and then, Hollywood ekes out a win in this process, if not transforming the source material into something loftier, at least reimagining it with enough flare to thoroughly entertain a modern audience who may or may not be familiar with the original. Something like this happened with Lost In Space and, of course, the recent Star Trek.
This is the situation with the current Clash of the Titans – a remake of the much-beloved-if-quirky stop-motion 1981 original by famed animator Ray Harryhausen, and a rare win in the remake department. What we have may not be Oscar material, but it’s certainly worth $9.50 and a tub of popcorn to entertain the kids on a pre-summer Saturday afternoon.
What audiences loved about the original, however, wasn’t so much the engrossing story or the amazing acting (the bare-chested Harry Hamlin was there more for his ‘acting talents’ than his acting talents), as it was Harryhausen’s endearing if quirky special effects. The stop-time marching skeletons and menacing Medusa where favorites of young boys since they clearly could relate to their own play with model making and fanciful stories of demi-gods and goddesses, and the movie had a bit of that making-it-up-as-we-go-along quality that one gets from the best of youthful play. Chancy, then, to redo this movie using standard CGI techniques (since the 3D is now the standard for many a film coming out this summer, it may be more of a distraction than anything) without adding anything genuinely unique to the visuals.
In our modernized version of the story, the movie opens with a young woman and infant being rescued from the sea (like a bounty of tuna) by an old fisherman. The woman is dead, but the infant is the young Perseus, a demi-god (borne by Zeus of a human mother), destined to be the man who leads the Argosians in their rebellion against the vengeful god Hades (played with coy understatement by Ralph Fiennes). Though the opening posturing by the gods is a bit pedantically irksome (Zeus and Hades, particularly, who really don’t get along, engage in some stultifying Olympian Exposition 101), the feeling exhibited by this father for his adopted son is promising, and draws us in to the yarn.
Eighteen years later, when Hades inadvertently kills Perseus’s adopted family while wreaking havoc on the insolent population of Argos, Perseus finds himself a captive in the city, and the only volunteer willing to lead a battalion in a war against the gods.
Sam Worthington, who plays Perseus, seems to be ubiquitous lately, carrying the lead in every major sci-fi since the summer of 2009. As “demi-god” Perseus we perhaps get our first glimpse as to why. Brooding, soulful, yet stout of heart, he was born to play the comic-book hero: a softy who transforms, though a process of inner soul-searching, into a man of steal (and as my Bubbie used to say, not hard on the eyes either). He’s obviously way too old for this part (essentially that of a precocious teenager learning to be a leader), but who cares? Clearly if Hollywood continues to have a hard time finding athletic young men with this much emotional openness, Worthington is in for another bonanza year leading roles.
Perseus leads his charges through the (familiar, one hopes) story – battling the deformed Calibos, talking to the Stygian witches, cutting the head of Medusa, and finally confronting the invincible Kraken. (The one hazard of taking your kids to see the film will be having to hear endless recitations of that fine immortal phrase - “release the Kraken!”). What could have been a stultifying series of remade confrontations comes to life from the casual modern dialogue (“if these are gods, I want nothing to do with them”) and the well-timed CGI effects designed to thrill modern audiences (including some nifty scorpion fights, some deeply sexually disturbed creepy witches, a battle-royale at the Argos walls, and flying bats from hell). Sure, one can recite the movies they are all borrowed from (Transformers, Pan’s Labyrinth, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, respectively), but remakes are nothing without their more recent cultural touchstones. The point is that the tone is kept consistently at the right temperature between blast-em-up and campy, and with the exception of those pompous gods, the story zips along with only a few minor pit stops for exposition. Harryhousen might not have been too impressed with the 3D, but he’d approve of how director Louis Leterrier has re-animated his story.