Friday, April 2, 2010

Clash of the Humans

Ray Harryhausen geek that I am, I saw the remake of Clash of the Titans this morning (first day in the theaters, first show, first customer in the door). It wasn’t utterly horrible. The special effects were generally cool--I especially liked the slow build to the Kraken’s emergence--and they managed to preserve most of the creatures from the original: Medusa, of course (a snake hybrid as in Harryhausen’s conception), Pegasus (black instead of white, and fluidly animated; but then again, so was Harryhausen’s model), the giant scorpions, Charon, Calibos (though he was played by a man in makeup, with no special effects, and with a drastically different history than in the 1981 film). They even threw in Bubo (the original model, I’ve heard) for a cameo. It was too violent--a real problem for me since my six-year-old son is desperate to see it--and the actor who played Perseus, Sam Worthington, was completely unconvincing as the son of a god. But it was fun in a silly sort of way, and given how high my expectations were, I wouldn’t say the filmmakers let me down too much.

One thing, though, that I found puzzling in the film--and this takes me back to my earlier post about the Percy Jackson movie that came out a couple months ago--was its addition of a plot element that’s nowhere to be found in the original, not to mention in the mythic source materials: war between gods and mortals. I won’t go into the details (they’re too convoluted to trace anyway), but suffice it to say that the plot is set in motion by humanity’s determination to cast off divine oppression, and that the ensuing events arise in the form of the gods’ retaliation against such monumental sacrilege. This is basically the plot of the Percy Jackson movie--gods versus people--and it’s pretty close to the plot of last year’s blockbuster 2012 (divine prophecy results in end of the world) and of another movie from earlier this year, Legion (God sends angels to wipe out humanity; humanity fights back with lots of really cool guns). The tagline of Clash of the Titans is “Damn the Gods,” and that pretty accurately sums up this new genre of what we might call antideity fantasy.

I call it “antideity” and not “atheist” because, of course, it assumes the presence of a God or gods as humanity’s antagonist. And it makes you wonder: why are we so ticked off at the gods all of a sudden? What did they ever do to us? Any film that relies on this plot element automatically renders itself ridiculous: after all, the gods are gods, and by definition we mortals can’t win a war against them no matter how cool our swords or guns may be. So we must be really keen to tangle with them if we’re willing to court ridiculousness in so doing. Is it that we feel particularly aggrieved right now--that the collapse of so many world systems (economic, environmental, political, international) is making us feel as if malign, omnipotent powers are indeed toying with us? Or is it, as I suggested in my earlier post, that blaming the gods gets us off the hook? (Perseus’s adoptive human father, a shaggy, confused-looking Pete Postlethwaite, curses the gods when his fishing nets keep coming up empty. They’re coming up empty for us too, but that’s because we’ve overfished all the world’s waters.) Maybe the gods stand in for mortal enemies: our own indifferent government, the heartless corporations that run so much of our lives. Maybe, deep down, when we curse the gods we’re really cursing ourselves.

The moment everyone was waiting for--it’s almost worth the price of admission--is when Liam Neeson’s Zeus thunders to Ralph Fiennes’s Hades, “Release the Kraken!” It’s got an operatic quality to it, and also an Oppenheimer quality. For in the beast’s elemental fury against human civilization we see, as in a mirror, the truth: it is we, not the gods, who have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.


  1. Thanks for making me aware of your blog, and for this post. I haven't seen this film yet, and will likely wait until it comes out on DVD. I am a huge Harryhausen fan since childhood, but this was not one of his better efforts in my view, and the remake doesn't appeal all that much to me. I am pleased to hear of a semi-positive review of the film, the first I've seen thus far among reviewers.

    I especially appreciate your characterization of the film as "antideity" as distinguished from atheistic. This is a helpful concept, one that applies more readily to the film as well as to a general cross-section of American religiosity. With the prevalence of the chaos monster in culture under a variety of guises releasing havoc in any number of venues it is all too easy to blame the divine, when in reality it may indeed by us who has created and frequently unleashes the beast.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. I was sixteen when the original "Clash" came out, and too loyal to Harryhausen to see the film's obvious flaws. It would be interesting, though, to put the two versions side-by-side thematically or ideologically, not just visually as the reviews do. I guess that'll have to wait for another post!