Wrath of the Titans

Warner Bros. (2012) 99 min. PG-13

Director: Jonathan Liebesman

Screenplay: Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson; Story: Greg Berlanti, David Leslie Johnson and Dan Mazeau; based on Clash of the Titans (1981) by Beverley Cross 

Cinematography: Ben Davis; Editing: Martin Walsh

Production Design: Charles Wood; Set Decoration: Lee Sandales

Costumes: Jany Temime; Score: Javier Navarrete

Stars: Sam Worthington (Perseus), Liam Neeson (Zeus), Ralph Fiennes (Hades), Rosamund Pike (Andromeda), Toby Kebell (Agenor), Édgar Ramírez (Ares), Bill Nighy (Hephaestus), Danny Huston (Poseidon)

 

This redundantly titled sequel to 2010’s Clash of the Titans opens with the narration of Zeus as he recaps events forgetful viewers need to be apprised of from the first film as if priming them for the latest installment of a chapter serial (Part 3 is currently in the works). For some reason all this is played out against images of cave paintings instead of the more age appropriate black silhouette figures that decorated Grecian urns and earthenware, and the confusing artistic choice associates the tale with an even earlier, Paleolithic time period than needs be.

The idea behind this panel drawing approach seems sound enough though, since it links the movie directly to the storyboarded, comic strip art from which it derives its ink splotches of inspiration. Wrath of the Titans has a superhero action adventure ambiance about it that would seem quite clever if comic books themselves hadn’t been trading on such myths since their very inception. These Titans movies simply seem to be getting back to basics by turning back the clock to the Bronze Age, morphing these Greek gods into the sort of selfsame superheroes they once served to inspire.

Comic book characters, with their god-like powers of flight, strength, invisibility, speed and what not, remain all the rage as perennial summertime entertainment at the multiplex. With Marvel heroes like Spiderman, Thor and Captain America in a dead heat to compete with Batman and Green Lantern and other denizens of the DC universe (a true clash worth paying money to see), Wrath of the Titans seems like an acceptable compromise, a diplomatic way to steer clear of the fray. Being (loosely) based on mythology rather than comics (the mythmaking of our modern times, which kids sponge up and learn by heart the same way Helius does the exploits of the gods here), Titans would also seem intent on commanding greater respect and a better class of clientele by appealing to more scholarly pursuits. Comic books are considered disreputable, junk food for the mind, while encouraging kids to read the classics is supposed to be a productive past time, the educational equivalent of eating their vegetables. That such a misconception could possibly hover about a film like this is ludicrous though. Titans can’t be approached reverentially just because it has the aura of antiquity about it, and it doesn’t expect to be. Quite to the contrary, this sequel attempts to align itself even more closely than Clash of the Titans did with other standing superhero franchises, making clear it wants to horn in on a piece of the action.

Wrath is far more cavalierly anachronistic than its forbear, and with its jokey, post modern, self referential asides it frequently suggests the tone of Disney’s Hercules more than it does the Hellenistic myths it’s meant to be based on. Like comics themselves, Wrath of the Titans subverts ancient epics, toying with them in the interest of influencing children to invest in the tie in merchandising. It seeks to strain these legends of their twinklingly remote aloofness by imbuing them with a more immediate and modern sensibility. Wrath wants to make over the story of Perseus into something unique and original and entirely its own. It runs into a problem there though. Where comic book characters may have originally been sparked by classic myth, Wrath is supposed to be a straightforward adaptation of a specific one, a fact which in large measure ties its hands, preventing it from free forming and improvising too extensively. Yet this hamstringing sense that it should stick to its unimpeachable sources is absurd considering how far astray it’s already gotten, with its Cyclopes and Minotaur and chimera, all leading up to that epic final showdown between Kronos and his offspring in a world title rematch that no ancient Grecian ever dreamt of. 

In true ancient times, before DVD or VHS, even before TV, sequels were a necessary evil since movies were a one shot deal. After they’d played in theaters, there were no secondary avenues for studios to make any further profit off them, so films were indefinitely shelved or, more commonly, permanently scrapped. The only way to allow audiences to relive the moviegoing experience was by reworking the same basic premise with the same actor over and over again under different guises, the well oiled studio system cranking them out with the regularity of cookie cutters. Movies intentionally had a sameness about them then that let audiences know exactly what to expect going in, and fans addicted to a certain star could be counted on to keep turning up in retread after retread, trying to relive the experience in lieu of ever seeing the original again. With broadcast networks and the home entertainment industry having made virtually any title released over the past hundred years readily available to consumers, the assembly line moviemaking mentality which characterizes Wrath has become redundant. If fans really want to reexperience the first time, they can simply rent Clash of the Titans from RedBox on their way out of the supermarket. And it’s probably not such a good idea for this sequel to set itself up for comparison against a title that’s still so readily available since there hasn’t been enough time for our memories of seeing it to have sufficiently faded. Totally violating our sense of the Aristotelian unities, nearly twelve years are supposed to have passed at the beginning of Wrath of the Titans, when in actuality it’s only been two since the original was released.

Critics busily compared the first Clash of the Titans to the 1981 version, and we can’t help getting similarly caught up here in measuring Wrath of the Titans by the standards set in the 2010 adaptation, especially since it’s so slavishly modeled after it. While the movie may attempt to advance themes and relationships from the first film, the structure is identical setup to setup with Clash of the Titans, and one can either be aghast at the lack of creativity evident in this, or charmed by the familiarity of it all, like getting reacquainted with an old friend who hasn’t been seen in… well, two years. One can find a correlating scene in Clash for just about every big highlight to be had in Wrath of the Titans. The meeting in the woods with the Cyclopes is a curious combination of the ambush of Calibos in the woods in the original and the attack of the giant desert scorpions (again Perseus is threatened with being squished, only to have his faithful prong sproing to attention and save him). Like those oversized arachnids with their lethal stingers, the initially malevolent Cyclopes also turn out to be helpful allies to the hero here. Calibos, the resentful half son of Zeus who plagued Perseus before, has morphed into Ares, who reviles him for much the same reasons, and ambushes his party at the entrance to Tartarus precisely as Calibos once did on the forest floor. Those two torsoed Makhai soldiers unleashed upon Andromeda’s army at the end can be favorably compared with the skeletal, winged wraiths that resembled screeching, skinned black bats in the first film, whereas the emergence of the enormous Kraken from out the sea is equitable with the bursting of Kronos from a volcanic crater. And, of course, Perseus’ locking horns with the Minotaur in its cavernous, catacombed lair is obviously meant to recall his classic confrontation with Medusa (we’re doled out one signature monster per movie).

With its identical structural pattern, the philosophy behind Wrath of the Titans seems to have been not to mess with a successful formula, and how formulaic it is, taking the notion of big budget Hollywood sequel making to a place so derivative one could consider it plagiarism if it hadn’t been stamped with the same name as its forebear. Purporting to be its own creature, from the relatively redundant title on down, it’s clear that this movie isn’t so much a sequel as a pseudo-remake, a complete revisioning of the original. For a myth based fantasy film this displays a shocking lack of imaginative faculty on the writers’ part, and there were three of them so the blame can be evenly divided between Greg Berlanti, David Leslie Johnson and Dan Mazeau. For audiences addicted to high octane action adventures though, coming to this sequel seeking to recapture the same feelings Clash of the Titans invoked in them, the derivativeness will make this feel like a second honeymoon, even while they’re gnawed by the notion that the moviemakers could’ve come up with something new. Wrath of the Titans takes viewers through the precise same motions as the first film, strapping them into a roller coaster for a second ride, and expecting them not to be disappointed when it fails to take any different turns.

This sequelis like a reverse negative of Clash of the Titans, which was designed along a schema of light and airiness. Everything here has been converted to darker tones and set against a ravaged, apocalyptic landscape.  The movie has a strangely mordant mood about it, what with Mount Olympus reduced to rubble and all the old gods dead or dying, leaving the earth a less enchanted place for their passing. This sense of finality makes it abundantly clear that the original cast won’t be returning for any further sequels. Hearing that Zeus has gone to hell (literally), and sure that civilization itself will soon follow, Bill Nighy’s Hephaestus remarks, “In that case we’d better prepare for the end of the world,” and the mood of the movie certainly seems to suggest the end of something (an era perhaps), with the entire Greek pantheon fading away. In the absence of these immortals, who turn into stone idols to themselves (as if they had gazed upon the face of Medusa), before withering away like sand castles in the surf, there are wars and rumors of war, devastation, disease, and cataclysmic climate changes. These are all the tell-tale signs the world has slipped to the abyss, that the day of reckoning is upon us. In that sense, the mindsetof Wrath of the Titans is similar to other end of the world films that seem to be coming right and left of late, such as Take Shelter, The Divide and Melancholia. Their unmitigating forecast of gloom and doom is downright depressing, and sadness is not a feeling one expects to carry away from a silly superhero movie like this.

Playing with words as it is already, Wrath of the Gods might’ve been a more fitting title for this Titans installment since the destruction wrought by the titans loosed from Tartarus is intrinsically tied in with ‘natural’ disasters such as volcanoes (Kronos is belched out of the belly of a crater), earthquakes (which herald the arrival of the chimera), meteor showers (as those fireball demons rain down upon the earth, hitting the ground running), thunder, lightning storms, all the incomprehensible caprices of mother nature that gave superstitious mankind the inclination to invent gods to pray to in the first place, in the interest of wielding some measure of control over the elements. Religious fundamentalists traditionally interpret such disasters as being visited upon mankind in order to punish us for our mortal sins and transgressions. Allowing the elements to assume physical form, as they do here, literalizes that notion. They’re sent as a scourge, divine judgment upon us. The Perseus saga has been converted into a religious parable, a cautionary tale for our godless times. The message seems clear- repent ye sinners for the end is nigh.

It’s as if Wrath of the Titans were trying to induce viewers to identify more strongly with the story by transposing a pseudo-Christian mindset upon pagan myth. One would think all those gods were dying off to make way for the modern monotheistic era. However halfhearted, there’s an implied attempt to take viewers to church, exorting them to pray by showing us how the Grecians have damned themselves by dreading more than revering the gods, thereby strengthening Hades, the Satanic figure who feeds off their fears, and weakening Zeus, the omnipotent heavenly father who thrives on their love and worship. It also empowers audiences with a sense of sway over life and death to know that the very existence of these immortal beings is placed in our hands. Deciding whether we should let them live or die is a little like omnipotently choosing whether or not to clap if we believe in fairies.  It’s not just the halflings on screen who begin suffering from a god complex.

The movie’s anachronistic biblical allusions are augmented by the many miraculous, Lazarus like resurrections, such as that of Helius after he appears to have been caught in the direct line of the chimera’s fire (indication that the son is as invincible as the father). Hades literally raises Zeus from the dead which I suppose should make sense given that he’s king of the underworld, where all souls must eventually gravitate, but doesn’t follow in relation to the almighty himself, who’d earlier stated that the death of a god is simply an absence, that their soul doesn’t persist after passing. Consequently, it’s not quite clear exactly where Zeus is being pulled back to life from.  

Rather than the titans, it was Hades who was unchained like the biblical beast in the first film, let loose to roam the earth for a thousand years. He was given leave by Zeus to put the fear of the gods back into mortals who had lost their faith and turned their backs on them. Clash of the Titans presented a war between the dark, superstitious past and a more enlightened age of reason in which rebellious man, as embodied by agnostic Perseus who rejected the gods, believed he had advanced to the point where he no longer needed to implore the heavens and look to the skies for divine intervention. Suitably the film, as shot by cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr., seemed bathed in the bright, white of illumination. Taking a darker tone, Wrath unleashes the gods’ full divine fury. Intent on wiping disobedient humanity off the face of the earth entirely in this one, Hades unleashes all his minions, sending them rampaging forth from the acrid pits to ravage the land at random. Considering that the bottle is supposed to have been uncorked, it seems odd then that we only see the depredations of that chimera and those two-torsoed Makhai soldiers that lay waste to Andromeda’s armies (the Cyclopes seem to have been around for awhile and Taurus remains caged in Tartarus). Where have all the other ghouls and goblins and long legged beasties and things that go bump in the night gone to?

Wrath of the Titans wants to establish itself as a study of contrasts, presenting us with a monster born of fire in Kronos rather than a water based beast, as was the Kraken that Perseus defeated in the original. The dichotomy between these two extremes is laid out early on with the introduction of the chimera, which snorts fire and trails smoke out of one side of its head, while drooling fluid from the other. This ambiguous liquid is supposed to be fuel for its fire but it looks more like saliva splashing out the corners of its jaws, just swill sloshing around in a loose basin. The conceptual design for the chimera puts one less in mind of the traditional image of that hybrid-  lion, eagle and goat head growing out the back- than the seven headed beast of Babylon, which might very well be the intent given the apocalyptic feel to the rest of the film. It’s the damndest thing you ever did see, part lion and part shambling, Jim Henson creature shop creation, with a unicorn horn jutting from the center of one snout. The chimera is built as stoutly as a woolly rhino and when it tangles itself up in that fishing net we can’t help feeling as if the hero were bagging big game. Perseus tries to leash it, looping a length of chain around its neck and digging in with the intent of bringing it to bay, but he may as well be trying to pacify a rampaging pachyderm. The thrust of its forward momentum just drags him along the ground on a bumping and bruising sleigh ride that should have skinned him alive if he weren’t already invincible. When the hero hops aboard this beast with two backs, it’s as if he were trying to bust a bucking bronco and the anachronistic effect is hilariously discordant. The hot and cold contrast suggested by the two-headed chimera leads us to expect the obvious, that only water will be able to defeat the apocalyptic Kronos born of fire and brimstone. There seems no other earthly reason why Poseidon’s son in particular, Agenor, would be trotted out for show and brought along for the ride.

Hades’ pitchfork, Zeus’ lightning bolt, and Poseidon’s triton form the Spear of Triam, the only weapon capable of defeating Kronos since only earth, wind and water could vanquish the father of all fires. We can’t be blamed then for assuming that with Poseidon dead and both Zeus and Hades on their last legs, Perseus, queen Andromeda and Agenor are now meant to ascend to their ranks, taking up the reigns of leadership over Mount Olympus, closing the sacred circle by forming a new, all-powerful triumvirate. I wish the writers had taken a bit more time to gather together an entirely new pantheon of heroes in this way, tantamount to the X-Men movies or upcoming The Avengers crossover, where each member could have democratically contributed their own individual specialty. If Perseus had trawled up all of the other useless demi-gods running about, all the numberless halflings sired by sexual Olympian Zeus, they would’ve comprised an army in themselves. Uniting their colorful array of powers against a common foe, they could’ve defeated Kronos without the deus ex machina of their divine forefathers, definitively proving man’s self sufficiency and justifying the god’s passing.

Unfortunately, Andromeda is human and female and so the weakest link, instantaneously inferior to all the boys. She may be meant to be lacking by dint of her mortality and not of her sex, but when all their spare time is spent saving her, it surreptitiously seems to amount to the same thing regardless. This Andromeda offers a new spin on the the old fashioned concept of love interest; in these post-feminist times, sexiness is accentuated by a breastplate. This is not the Andromeda of myth, but rather an attempt to modernize and improve upon the concept by outfitting her as an Amazon leading her soldiers into battle in full suit and armor, rather than waiting anxiously on the homefront. This tough titty warrior queen bears no feasible relation to the equally anachronistic progressive reformer she was presented as in the original. Indeed, there’s such little connection between the two characters that we hardly even notice that she’s played by a completely different actress (Rosamund Pike takes over the part from Alexa Davalos). I’m all for equality of the sexes, but turning Andromeda into Wonder Woman to rope in additional mythical associations and fill the void left by the absence of Io on this journey, causes problems, since it also leaves the movie bereft of a lovely fair maiden for Perseus to prove his valor by rescuing. The closest we get is Liam Neeson’s bound god, and he makes a decidedly poor stand-in for a damsel in distress. It must be acceded though, as a Valkyrie this go-round Andromeda cuts a far more self assertive figure in proceedings. Maybe the movie should have had her instead of Perseus riding that winged Pegasus and brandishing the mystical spear of destiny at the end.

 The problem with Perseus as an impervious hero is although he’s part god and, being immortal, can’t be killed, he has no real super powers to impress us with. Not even super strength. Rather than amazing us by shooting bolts of lightning out his hands like Zeus or calling forth tidal currents like Poseidon, or even pounding things into pumice as if he were Thor’s hammer, all he can do is shock us by proving how much pulverizing punishment he can take (he’s like a human punching bag in this one), while still coming back for more, awe us with acrobatic swordsmanship and name drop his illustrious ancestry, which is ironic since Perseus has always distanced himself from the special privileges that come along with his lineage. He seems to have been decreed most high among the demi-gods simply by dint of his being the son of Zeus, and this implication, that leadership is passed down from father to son like a royal legacy undercuts Perseus’ ongoing efforts to prove that he’s his own man. There’s even the inappropriate suggestion at the end that the mystic sword with which he slew the dragons is being bequeathed to Perseus’ own son Helius. It’s become a scepter beknighting the next generation of demi-gods.

The third wheel here is also sorely used. Despite what he says about everyone having their own individual moment to shine, Agenor never is given a truly memorable turn in the spotlight, a chance to show us what makes him so special. Even when he’s in his native nautical habitat, cast upon the waves as he charts a clear course to the island of Lemnos, in scenes that recall the Argonauts on their Odyssey, or when he’s forced to take Hephaestus’ place as guide, using his odd bronze Geiger as a compass to make his way through the maze, just another industrious Theseus with his silver thread, there’s no emphasis on the fact and no follow through. Agenor is a navigator by trade, steering by the stars is inborn in his nature, like the ancestral migration of sea pods, but he’s in need of a big scene to cap that fact in order to put it over for audiences. In the part, Toby Kebbell has trailing tresses of frazzled dreads that resemble an unkempt mass of tangled seaweed, and he’s been humorously made up to resemble a Caribbean raggae musician. One half expects him to start pounding out calypso beats on a bongo drum like Sebastian the sea crab in The Little Mermaid. We can’t quite fathom why Perseus has joined forces with his Agenor though, since there’s precious little in this movie that has to do with the watery worlds. His presence in the original Clash, where battle was done with the leviathan of the deep, would have made more sense. We’re told how much water means to Agenor, he’s 70% proof himself, how much he needs it to perform at his optimal level, then he’s dropped down in the sands of a desert as dry as dust for the fiery finale. The movie would have us believe this ‘great disappointment’ distinguishes himself as a hero in this environ by encouraging Andromeda’s soldiers to cover themselves with mud so they won’t be burned by the fires of Kronos, as if they were amphibious creatures burrowing into the riverbed for suspended hibernation. Agenor is simply used for comic relief here, and one can’t tell how exactly he’s meant to advance the story apart from emphasizing the fact that the gods seem to have been a universally libidinous lot one and all, making us less inclined to single out Zeus for not being able to keep his Kraken in his pants.

One of the central themes of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a modern spin on Greek mythology charting the growing pains of a different son of Poseidon, was that of absentee fathers, be they god or man, and the resentment harbored toward them by their abandoned sons. But since Percy Jackson revolved around the exploits of a young, teenage hero this subject seemed both more relevant and made more sense. If Perseus in these Titans movies is any indication though, such boys never really outgrow their abandonment issues, not even once they become fully grown men. This is what all these titans are really ticked off about and the very modern sensibility inherent in this archetypal Oedipal tale places it in a more emotionally contemporary context, makes it easier for viewers to identify. Fittingly enough for a sequel that can itself be seen as a cinematic descendant, Wrath of the Titans is all about the father-son conflict, elaborating on the theme (founded in Clash), by exploring its emotional effects at different generational levels and as it plays out across the interrelationships of a more diverse array of men (apparently the gods sire no daughters), roping in all the ancestors, cousins, uncles, brothers of fanciful history’s most horrendously dysfunctional family. We can see it in Zeus and Hades’ relationship with their father Kronos, Agenor’s with Poseidon, Perseus and Ares’ relationship with their mutual father Zeus, and in Perseus’ relationship with his son Helius, with whom he’s trying to break the ingrained patterns of abandonment and emotional abuse that characterize his kind. In essence, Wrath of the Titans is a variation on Sherwood Pictures’ Courageous. Moreover, we see how competition for their fathers’ affection creates friction among the sons. The Cain and Abel conflict between Perseus and Ares, who resents him for being their father’s favorite, is largely the result of jealousy, as is that between Zeus and Hades.

Playing him as a cross between a falsely obsequious Rasputin and a scuttling, treacherous Richard III, Ralph Fiennes firmly places his Hades among Shakespeare’s litany of dispossessed, basterd sons. Looking less withered than in the original, feeding off man’s fears appears to have done him a world of good, taking years off, like a refining facial mask. Fiennes again squares off against the Zeus of Liam Neeson, his arch nemesis from Schindler’s List (the movie which raised both actors to prominence), and even after all these years they’re still being cast, appropriately enough, in the guise of good versus evil. While it’s unclear if this is entirely due to makeup effects, Fiennes’ slight familial resemblance to Neeson has been brought out to such a degree it’s downright uncanny. The two men really do look like brothers in this one, and Hade’s just seems to have gone through all the trouble of raising Kronos from his coffin of stone to garner a little begrudging respect from his sibling. He simply wants to see Zeus humbled a little, to hear him admit to his very mortal weaknesses (“Your sweating like a human. Next it will be tears.”); he doesn’t want to see him dead. Hades’ heart doesn’t seem to be in his perfidy this time round; he doesn’t even morph into that billowy black, butterfly patterned plague cloud any longer. And with ultimate evil having now joined forces with ultimate good to prevent the anti-matter monster from destroying creation, one would think that, in itself, represented the sort of perversion of the natural order that would cause the universe to collapse in upon itself. As with Andromeda, Hades’ character conversion here is regrettable since it leaves a dramatic void at the center of the movie. Perseus is without a personable villain to grapple with apart from the Ares of Édgar Ramírez.

Warriors and soldiers pray to Ares, the god of war, for help in battle same as soldiers pray to Poseidon for safe passage across the sea, and as a symbol for militaristic war mongering, he’s been linked with the bad guys who want to destroy the earth. But there’s no suggestion that presenting Ares in such a disparaging light is intended as a pointed comment against the destructiveness of war in general. That would be too hypocritical considering the fun being had with all the fights and battles director Jonathan Liebesman indulges in. Still, militaristic Ares, who takes the place of Calibos from the first film, makes an interesting contrast to pacifistic Perseus, who has become a fisherman, a prince of peace. Praying to him becomes as big a bugaboo as invoking the name of Beetlejuice, since it pinpoints more swiftly than GPS precisely where his victims are located, leaving them sitting ducks. Hades persecutes his brother because he resents the low, wormlike thing he’s been forced to become by being sentenced to rule the underworld. He hates Zeus, but he loves him too, and when Zeus proves his magnanimity by apologizing, Hades’ feelings of maliciousness toward him are instantaneously resolved and he behaves like a dog who’s been scolded and is waiting for a pat on the head from his master to prove that there are no hard feelings. When Ares whales away at Perseus there are no conflicted feelings about it, it’s through sheer hatred, partly because he resents him for being their father’s favorite but moreso because he’s disgusted by his weakness. This god of war to whom strength and might mean everything can’t fathom how their father could prefer a son so weak and pathetic over him, a son who’s part God, but mostly human. To his warlike way of thinking, crushing and humiliating Perseus will emasculate him, defitively demonstrating Ares’ innate superiority, and his father’s foolishness in not recognizing it.

The relationship between Zeus and Perseus is meant to suggest that of God and Christ, his son in human form, who was born to be the savior of mankind, if in a more literal sense in Perseus’ situation. There’s also a marked stress placed here on the importance of Perseus’ heavenly father learning to be a god of divine mercy and forgiveness, a lord of love rather than a god of wrath and fury. Neeson is starting to look more and more like Michelangelo’s Moses as the years pass and the six foot plus actor has the sort of height built to command respect. He’s been getting cast in such an alarming number of wisdom of the ages roles, he threatens to displace Morgan Freeman as the screen’s most revered representative of saintly authority. With his sonorous, stentorian tones he sounds like he’s still playing Aslan, the all-knowing lion king from Chronicles of Narnia. Moreover, his Zen-like instructions to Perseus to “use the power inside you” reverberate hollowly. They’re the sort of instructions handed down to Jedi warriors in galaxies far, far away. His Zeus spends most of the movie in the station of Prometheus bound to the rock, with a vulturous Kronos recharging himself by draining his power and life force. Zeus has been reduced to glorified battery charger here, leaving him melting away like molten lava or alkaline acid from the appendages down. He appears to be melding into the wood work, becoming a pillar of stone to replace the parasitic father he’s reviving.

Seeing omniscient and all-powerful Zeus in such a vulnerable state, at the mercy of others, affronts our sensibilities concerning what exactly an almighty god is supposed to be. Even for a more superstitious ancient age populated by gods and monsters, observing deities taking on human form and walking among men, as Fiennes does in his hooded cloak, gliding through the encampment like Henry V the night before battle, certainly undermines their ethereal mystique. These marathon-scaled Olympians are diminished, reduced to the dimensions of common man. How are humans supposed to worship gods who are placed on their own level and privy to the same, very mortal inperfections and vices, including greed, wrath, lust, envy.  No wonder man is meant to have lost his wonder and dread and no longer stands in awe of them. It’s impossible to be reverential, to think of gods as gods, when they look and behave just like one of us.

In Clash of the Titans half blood prince Perseus didn’t believe the pantheon was worth joining for this very reason, feeling that the trivial and petty gods weren’t truly deserving of man’s devotion. On a more personal level, his turning his back on the gods was also a rejection of the father who had wanted nothing to do with him until discovering he was touched, special, a demi-god himself. His embracing his humanity, his mother’s side, wholeheartedly was a barbed rebuff of Zeus. For some strange reason, Wrath chooses to completely reverse this original stance. Rather than feeling the gods to be unworthy of him, now Perseus believes himself to be unworthy of ascending to their realm and taking his place alongside them, being an inconsequential half human and marked by his mortality and all. He took a fierce, defiant pride in his humanity in the first film, refusing to acknowledge his god half, the parts of his father inside him, so it’s disheartening to see how it now makes him feel less than the dust. Both Zeus and Andromeda must build up his wobbly confidence with self affirming speeches about the superiority of the human race. This sequel concerns Perseus’ acceptance of his destiny, his acknowledgement that the gods are a necessary evil, that without them man is at the mercy of treacherous devils and the world goes to hell (reinforcing the notion that without religion, civilization would collapse). Here he finally embraces his lineage, embraces his godhead. It’s also about his coming to terms with and forgiving his father for all the hurt and injury he’s done him. There’s more give and take in this sequel, as the two men make gestures toward reconciliation, with the god Zeus praying to the human Perseus, who still stubbornly and pridefully refuses to pray to his heavenly father, for divine intervention.

It’s his love for his own son Helius, his human half asserting itself, which serves to make Perseus “stronger than a God,” why he alone among all men will prove capable of defeating Kronos. It’s what gives him the will and drive to go that extra distance when all the other gods have given up and given in, his desire to secure the future so that Helius can have a chance to grow to manhood. “Your boy gave you strength, as did mine.” Zeus observes and that’s Perseus’ sole motivating factor now. He has no independent existence apart from his child and by turning him into such a devoted father the movie uses the notion of paternal love to milk easy emotions from the audience. An interesting attempt has been made to show Perseus trying to break the vicious cycle of desertion that has traditionally characterized the other gods’ disownment of their offspring. Despite his best efforts he’s unable to keep the sacred vow he made to his wife Io before she died though, swearing that he would never abandon their son as he himself had been abandoned. Forced to do just that when he embarks upon his final quest, Perseus feels that the unbecoming conduct of his forefathers has succeeded in coming full circle, catching him up in the same fixed patterns of behavior he had tried to break.

Sam Worthington’s Perseus is the opposite of Sampson; he seems weaker the longer locks he grows. Having traded up his bristly, closely shorn military crop for a full head of curly raven hair, this more domesticated Perseus, tamed by his love for Io, is meant to have gone soft as his tresses, become accustomed to easy living. The fact that he’s stopped shaving it, just letting his follicles spread freely, indicates how lazy and complacent he’s become. The soft eiderdown atop effectively undermines the rugged air of virility he possessed in the original, an impression accentuated by his also playing nursemaid to a nipper in this one. Looking aged, saggy and out of shape with his broken down body, creaking and cracking joints, the character seems to have gone to seed. The actor doesn’t appear to have bulked up much for this one either, looking top heavy and boasting a more natural muscle tone that makes it apparent that he’s gone slack, given way to his weaker, flabbier mortal side, appearing (physically speaking) far more man than god. Required to again take up arms and return to his former life of soldiering, of which he’s none too proud, Perseus goes through the same humorous machinations as Clint Eastwood did in Unforgiven, even struggling to hoist himsef into the saddle mount of a shying Pegasus. Trying to wind himself back up to fighting form allows Worthington to amuse us by demonstrating how inept Perseus has become and how out of shape he is. When he tries to sheath his sword in its holster and it gets entangled in all his drapery, we expect him to take off his cape since he doesn’t really need it to soar through the air like Superman and it isn’t known to be chilly in hell where he’s heading. But instead the situation affords him the chance to indulge in a bit of slapstick comic business from the days of vaudeville. Perseus is increasingly beginning to feel his age, and forced to stare his own mortality in the face for the first time  sees the downside of the human condition. All the fiery, hair trigger volatility he used to display, like the stereotypical hot-blooded half breed he was, seems to have been doused. He must find a way to reclaim his inner roar for this last hurrah, those romantically tousled curls beginning to resemble the matted pelt of the chimera mane more and more as the film progresses. Worthington’s mop does a large measure of the acting for him, which is a thankful distraction since his Perseus sporadically spurts what must be the world’s first Australian accent, and it seems even thicker here than it did in the original. Then again he’s in good company since the usually irreproachable Bill Nighy likewise makes little effort to disguise his British inflections as Hephaestus.

Perseus’ tunic has been died to bring out the blue of his eyes and it’s just as aesthetically pleasing when we notice that the black of his loose curls have been matched to the black of his horse Pegasus, which in turn reflects the smoky, volcanic ash of Kronos. Such imagery helps make the movie seem very much of a piece, but truth be told, the segmented episodes comprising the narrative haven’t been connected well into a cohesive whole, at least not in a way intended to build any accumulative dramatic power. The viewer is simply lurched from one showy set piece to another. The writers haphazardly slash and grab from various mythical sources with no overriding rhyme or reason, so the scenes don’t seem adhered together by a familiar trajectory as they were in the original Titans. There, through familiarity with the story and the earlier adaptation, audiences had at least a rough idea of where the odyssey was taking them, despite all the stopovers along the way. Rather than building from strength to strength, these isolated episodes, varying wildly in tone, feel so disconnected from one another they hardly seem to belong to the same film. Since the original movie imparted a similar impression however, it’s difficult to say whether this is a defect or a successful attempt on the part of the sequel to further emulate its progenitor.

“Poseidon dead, Zeus captured. The words don’t even sit together.” rues Hephaestus, which is true enough, but with the entire movie coming across as one big oxymoron anyway, there’s no reason to quibble over the fact. A flighty brew of Greek fable and movie fantasy, Wrath of the Titans mixes its myths the way bad writers mix their metaphors. The moviemakers are already playing so fast and loose with the familiar standing fiction there seems no reason to restrain themselves at this point, jumbling everything up in a giant grab bag meant to excite us with jangling uncertainty as to what monster might turn up next. Despite the considerable bestiary placed at the writers’ disposal to pick and choose from, the monsters that do put in an appearance (some pretty famous ones at that) have been accorded no personality and there aren’t enough of them to stretch out the already heavily shorn running time.

The Cyclopes help Hephaestus forge the weapons of the gods, which kind of makes them the exact physiological opposite of the diminutive trolls who apprenticed Siegfried and taught him to smelt his mystical sword; they’ve instead grown lengthwise as high as the eye can see. From the neck down, the special-effects used to place them onscreen are quite fantastic and their atmospheric introduction as they stomp through the woods as tall as the towering timbers they use as clubs, outlined by a silhouette obscured in mist, recall some of the more awe inspiring and terror stricken moments accompanying the appearances of the dinosaurs in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Taking advantage of our natural fear of what we can’t quite make out increases our anxiousness as to what’s approaching. But then we see the Cyclopes’ faces and want to scream with laughter instead of fear. They look like leftovers from some Ray Harryhausen creation, which may be intended as an homage to the man who helmed the original Clash of the Titans (they resemble the Kraken of that film to an undue degree), but tends to throw us out of the movie since the contrived fakery jars against the realism of the rest of their physiognomy. These Cyclopes appear about as deadly as Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. When Perseus clambers atop one prone colossus, strutting across the length of its torso as if he were crossing a field, all the way up to its head to lay down what’s what face to face, he does so with all the amusing, macho swagger of Jack the Giant Killer. This entire sequence is like some loopy variation on Gulliver’s Travels, with the heroes having morphed into the minute Lilliputians. The action is sloppily edited though, as events occur at several different locations simultaneously. With the Cyclopes looking so identical, it hardly registers in the moment that there is more than one monster. Nevertheless, the Cyclops forest has a primeval, mystical grandeur about it which stands in stark relief to the movie’s other scorched, fiery locales, the majority of which are unprepossessing and ugly by intent. Apart from this one scene, Wrath of the Titans lacks the ethereal, fairytale visual flare of the original film.

Instead of Zeus’ heavenly dominion, set amidst the shimmering clouds, we descend this time into the dank, dark depths of Hades’ hell via an alternative route. The secret passage is mapped out for us by Hephaestus’ bronze atlas of Tartarus, which looks like a hollowed out globe with interlocking parts, its multi-layered, tectonic plates Pangaea arrested in the very act of dividing itself into the individual continents. Tartarus seems conceived after the seven circles of hell, a twining labyrinth that burrows downward, right through the hollow center of the earth, right into the belly of the beast. It’s a diabolical device of maddeningly devilish design; imagine each stacked section of the Leaning Tower of Pisa disjoining then seamlessly piecing themselves back together at trickily spaced intervals. Similarly the entire monolithic structure of Tartarus intermittently unlocks, rotates and reconnects at unexpected angles and at different levels without any underlying method to the madness, like a confounding Rubik’s cube.  It’s something out of Indiana Jones, but none of the divinely ordained heroes here have the sense to unravel the puzzle, to figure out how it actually works. We never learn how they piece together the inner workings of this giant mechanism, outsmarting its operating springs in order to overcome it, and we should since Agenor is ‘the navigator’ and as such should be shown as the one person besides Hephaestus capable of leading them to safety. Lost in the cavernous catacombs which have become a mausoleum for so many other men, Perseus and his party are like mice in a maze. Caught up in the gears of this colossal, clockwork contraption, they’re just trying to stay one step ahead of the crushing cogs that threaten to grind them into dust. 

 “The mind is the greatest trap of all,” Hephaestus comments on his masterful construction, which he designed in his mind’s own image. Its sole purpose is to further disorient trespassers already lost in the stone webbing by leading them down the twining corridors of their own subconscious. This underworld warren keeps moving and whispering like a living, organic thing but the movie remains frustratingly obtuse concerning how extensively the maze is meant to be psychologically manipulating the intruders. It senses their most deep-seated anxieties, plucking them from the black recesses of their subconscious, and forms an accusatory, hallucinogenic hologram to reflect these unspoken fears back at them. The writers must have plucked their own idea from The Empire Strikes Back, since Jedi in training Luke Skywalker was forced to confront the physical manifestation of his own greatest fear in much the same manner. When Perseus’ son Helius appears in the shadows, his slight silhouette makes us assume we’re looking at a female at first, which misleads us to anticipate the emergence of Io who, having already passed over into the underworld, should be no stranger. An accusatory specter, she should damn the guilt wracked Perseus for not adhering to his pledge never to abandon their son. That would have really been f***ing with his head.

If the maze doesn’t get the unwary, then the Minotaur surely will, knowing his way around it as he does, effortlessly negotiating its confusing corridors with the ease and instincts of a homing pigeon. He can calmly lay in wait, or rush trespassers like a charging bull, unexpectedly bolting out from the inky shadows where he’s concealed his hideous form. As with the chimera, one must take some issue with the Minotaur’s unorthodox conceptual design however. He’s an abomination alright, resembling an unfortunate genetic mutation, his face smudged into the suggestion of a snout as an impressively heavy set of horns branch from his temples like elephant tusks. He evokes closer associations with the Christian concept of Satan than Hades himself does, but like Calibos in Clash, this beast looks a tad too human and not bullish enough. The Minotaur is Wrath of the Titans’ showpiece monster, same way Medusa was in the first film, yet what he’s doing in the maze of Tartarus is the movie’s real puzzle. He has no reason to be in purgatory except as a surprise guest star audiences can readily recognize and shuck popcorn at, like a circus sideshow attraction. I’m glad he turns up though, if only because a maze isn’t a maze without at least one man eating Minoan roaming about. The equally bullheaded Perseus should have hooked a ring through its nose and led the tamed beast back to the light of civilization, or at least taken its head as a mounted hunting trophy, same as he did Medusa.  

While Clash of the Titans started out slow-moving, unfolding at the stately pace of a lordly epic, this one is so breathlessly paced, at a brisk one hour and 39 minutes, it feels rather rushed. Scenes that we want to hold onto a bit longer, that fire our imagination, such as that Pan-like labyrinth that whirs and winds like the gear works of some giant clock, aren’t held long enough. The journey through Tartarus and Perseus’ fight with the Minotaur seem over just as they begin to pick up a head of steam, and since the majority of Perseus’ party is killed off before even entering the underworld, the movie is deprived of a fair measure of its suspense concerning who will survive the trek. Wrath of the Titans wrings some clever riffs on the still freshly remembered Clash, setting itself up in direct comparison to the original, which was unexpectedly enjoyable for those who approached it not expecting much. Unfortunately, the fact that the original was so enjoyable just served to up the ante for this sequel, raising higher expectations than it succeeds in meeting. It’s crushed beneath the weight of them. Still, with that cleverly redundant twist on the title, fans of Clash will likely be drawn to this one already in love with the concept, even when the disappointing execution leaves them feeling slightly flattened.

The popularity of 3D has exploded in recent years, as creatively stagnating moviemakers search for new ways to expand their art. Like older movies, concepts, franchises and TV shows that are constantly being dusted off and recycled, rather than devising new and untried ways to advance the medium the only recourse of current filmmakers seems to be revisiting discarded earlier experiments, and improving upon them in these more technologically advanced times. 3D has become popular again and is being increasingly utilized for much the same reason it was back in the 50’s, as a means to lure stay at home movie viewers off the comfort of their couches and back into theater seats, offering them an advantage over their TVs (though 3D capable sets are already being issued so that television can keep pace with its chief competitor). It also affords an excuse to hike up ticket prices to astronomical proportions, as if 3D were a truly rare and exceptional event worth paying extra money to see, when it’s actually become quite commonplace by now. It hasn’t yet attained the standing of real respectability though, relegated as it is to the realm of fantasy and cartoon for the most part, not suitable for serious entertainment. 3D may be moving cinema a step closer to becoming a complete virtual reality experience, but at this point it still seems more a shrewd way to manufacture movies like Wrath of the Titans in a format that’s already PS3 and Xbox ready.

The 2010 Clash of the Titans was criticized in some quarters for the ineptitude of the 3D it was prematurely issued in, but the technology has advanced a ways in the two years since. For the most part, images don’t appear to be coming out of the screen in a manner intended to startle viewers out of their seats, the way the first movies are supposed to have done when projected over a century ago. Instead, the screen appears to be sinking in deeper, like a basin. Instead of throwing things at our heads to push us further away, 3D pulls us into the movie by eliminating that third wall, imparting the impression of multi-plane depth to a flat, two dimensional surface comprised heretofore merely of height and width. We’re absorbed into the screen the way Buster Keaton was when he leapt straight through in Sherlock Jr. Cinematographer Ben Davis’ camera twists and twines through the labyrinthine corridors as if it were Alice falling down that rabbit hole, dragging us along with it, taking full advantage of the new technology in such a graphically clear manner that dust particles can be seen floating in the air like those dandelions in Avatar. Being drawn in this way, we’re meant to become more immersed in proceedings, to feel like we’re really there in the movie’s midst, in the thick of the action. It’s meant to increase our sensorial experience of film by appealing to latent senses that have been laying dormant far too long.

3D has the power to make movies a completely different viewing experience. So much so that even older hits like Titanic are now being re-released in the new format, but there’s a problem here. Directors who consciously conceive their movies with the intention of having them projected in 3D are being cheated when the movies are then only issued in flat versions on DVD and Blu-Ray. This defeats the schematics of the director’s original vision as surely as having a widescreen movie panned and scanned for TV. Deprived of its fuller, richer look, the movie ends up missing some vital element that made it the theatrical experience it was. Rewatching Wrath of the Titans in two dimensions on TV isn’t really recreating the same experience one had seeing it in IMAX. This disparity will be the only surprising new turn viewers will find this roller coaster taking if they want to renew acquaintance in a few months with a followup viewing at home.  

 

 

 

 

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One response to “Wrath of the Titans

  1. Aw, this was a really good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to
    make a really good article… but what can I say… I hesitate
    a lot and don’t manage to get anything done.

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