***/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C+
starring Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker, Burgess Meredith, Laurence Olivier
screenplay by Beverley Cross
directed by Desmond Davis
by Bryant Frazer Clash of the Titans, a fast-and-loose assemblage of Greek mythology with the general look and feel of an Italian Hercules film, was a throwback even in 1981. Produced by Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen, whose previous collaborations included special-effects extravaganzas like Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and The Valley of Gwangi (a western with dinosaurs!), the picture was conceived as a star vehicle for Harryhausen's ever-more-refined work animating miniature creatures frame by painstaking frame. As it turned out, Clash of the Titans was the ultimate--by which I mean final--showcase for the artist's technique.
Clash of the Titans saw Harryhausen's efforts reach a technical apex, with his glowering, snake-haired Medusa and smoothly articulated Pegasus winning deserved plaudits. But the old-fashioned filmmaking style felt dated at the time--consider that this po-faced sword-and-sandals adventure arrived in theatres on the same day as Raiders of the Lost Ark and you'll get an idea of the magnitude of this unfailingly earnest film's crisis in tone--and it proved to be Harryhausen's swan song. Despite its box-office success, Harryhausen failed to mount a proposed follow-up project, Force of the Trojans, and retired after the film's release, at the age of 62.
Seen from some distance, where the decades blur together so that the film's straight-arrow epic approach isn't as obviously anachronistic, Clash of the Titans holds up reasonably well, both as a slice of nicely-aged cheese and as an example of tabletop F/X. The protagonist is Perseus (Harry Hamlin), son of Zeus, a mortal who lives at the whim of the Gods' bitchy personal politics. Mount Olympus is re-imagined here as a sort of retirement home for crabby immortals, populated by such budget-busting thespians as Laurence Olivier (Zeus), Claire Bloom (Hera), and Maggie Smith (Thetis). None of them have a lot to do (and Olivier was reportedly quite ill at the time), though it's good fun to watch them ham it up in fairly inconsequential roles, bickering over the affairs of mortals.
Long story short, Perseus falls for the princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) and gains her betrothal through some clever subterfuge, but he finds himself scrambling to save her once a jealous Thetis demands her sacrifice to the monstrous Kraken, a fearsome, oversized sea serpent. Lurking devilishly in the shadows of the tale is man-beast Calibos (Neil McCarthy), a non-mythological figure likely inspired by Caliban from The Tempest. He's the main rival to Perseus as suitor of Andromeda. (In longer shots and action scenes, he's actually animated by Harryhausen.) Perseus determines that he may be able to vanquish the Kraken by slaying the dreaded snake-woman Medusa, whose gaze turns men to stone, and appropriating her decapitated head as a weapon. Winged horse Pegasus, who allows Perseus to keep tabs on his enemies, helps him through this quest. Exquisitely animated by Harryhausen, Pegasus is one of the film's key figures--Perseus's capture of the strong, graceful flying animal symbolizing Man's struggle to approach the domain of gods.
This isn't Greek mythology, exactly, but it's an adequate greatest-hits medley. Screenwriter Beverley Cross abandoned the classical Pegasus origin story (he sprang from the body of Medusa) and imported the Kraken from Scandinavian folklore. Harryhausen fills out the yarn by borrowing from his own mythology, with the Kraken, for example, bearing more than a passing resemblance to his monster from 20 Million Miles to Earth. Meanwhile, Bubo, a burbling mechanical owl, is on the scene to exploit the tremendous affection audiences of the time felt for cute robots. Watching the picture today, the arrival of Bubo feels like the moment Clash of the Titans loses its nerve. Instead of standing tall, resplendent in its loinclothed anachronism, the film makes a desperate move and surrenders to goofiness.
That's not to say the rest is some marvel of fantasy storytelling. The directorial style of Desmond Davis is, as far as I can tell, a non-factor, adding little to an authorial voice that unmistakably belongs to Schneer and Harryhausen, who emphasize the story's ripest elements without much in the way of cinematic flair, subtlety, or wit. They do expect you to be wowed by some of the images on screen, on which count they deliver. (If you're in the right frame of mind, Harryhausen's fierce Medusa is still pretty scary to this day.) But Clash of the Titans shines most clearly as a relic of the craft of special creature effects. Harryhausen's only real progenitor in film history is Willis O'Brien, the special-effects master who brought the original King Kong to life. O'Brien's work is primitive by late-20th century standards, but it's notable not just because it did the trick for audiences back in the day, but also because it has an appealing handmade quality. In Kong's matted fur, moving herky-jerk this way and that from frame to frame, could be discerned the lingering fingerprints of the artist.
Throughout his career, Harryhausen himself had animated every stop-motion frame on projects that bore his name, but the rigors of this film led him to hire a small crew of assistants. Taking up the mantle of creature master from O'Brien and even working alongside him a few times, Harryhausen quickly became the most exalted practitioner of his craft. But as he poured heart and soul into Clash, his acolytes in the movie business were outdoing him. The Empire Strikes Back brought truly exacting stop-motion work to the screen in 1980, what with its animated tauntauns and armoured snow walkers setting the bar ever higher, and George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic VFX firm outdid itself in 1981 with the first use of something called "go-motion" to bring the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative to life in Dragonslayer. Essentially, the puppet was rigged so that, rather than being moved between the moments when frames were snapped, it would be moving while the camera's shutter was open, bringing a more realistic motion blur to stop-motion's traditionally stuttering puppetry. And with that, state-of-the-art creature animation was no longer a one-man job. Visual effects were turning into less a handcrafted endeavour and more an industrial process. It was the end of an era.
I don't mean to suggest that there are no great artists in the field of VFX today, or that digital animation somehow doesn't count. There is good and wondrous stuff being done with 3D animation, including the major and minor triumphs that issue reliably from Pixar's dream factory in Emeryville, California. Yet I can't help feeling that too many of today's filmmakers have unwisely traded a certain sense of wonder, one that finds its grounding in the real world, for pure digital spectacle. Harryhausen's Clash of the Titans was shot on location in Malta, Spain, and Italy, and you can sense a degree of conviction in the fact that the filmmakers went those extra miles to get the right physical settings. Nearly thirty years on, a state-of-the-art adventure like 300 could be shot entirely in a warehouse in Quebec and the audience would be none the wiser: Its locations are completely disassociated from the mundane world outside where we foolish mortals actually spend our days and nights.
Behold the relatively low-budget Kraken in Harryhausen's film, then compare it to the writhing, tentacled, computer-generated monster rising out of the ocean in the expensive-looking remake. The CG Kraken may be more convincing in its massiveness, and it may look more "realistic"--but is realism a necessary virtue in a fantasy film? Harryhausen's charmingly anthropomorphic Kraken is a beast of pure imagination, its destiny one with human dreams and nightmares. This year's model may be more nearly perfect in its realization but, well, I enjoy the imperfections. Those are the fingerprints of the artist. Harryhausen may never have flown on a winged horse, or washed up on a European beach after his rescue by a supernatural sky daddy, but he's some kind of mystic. His work here is ample evidence of, and ineffable tribute to, the human urge towards the divine.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The first thing you notice about Clash of the Titans on Blu-ray is that it comes packaged as a dorky hardcover book with a disc tray glued to the inside back cover. The front cover has embossed lettering, while several of the film's creatures--Medusa, the Kraken, and Pegasus--are also textured into the cover, which glistens with rainbow colours as it reflects the light. It has the look and feel of a children's picture book, a possible indicator of how Warner expects the demographic for this formerly-MGM title to skew. Whatever, Warner Bros. marketing dudes--but there are reasons why collectors tend to prefer interchangeable (and thus easily replaceable) disc packages. If baby or doggie starts gnawing on the spine, you're stuck with the toothmarks. A multipage advertisement for the Clash of the Titans remake by director Louis Leterrier is also tucked into the DigiBook. Fortunately, it's not attached to anything, making for easy disposal.
The transfer is impressively accurate--those of us who caught theatrical screenings of this movie will recognize it as the real deal. Although the image is inconsistent from scene to scene and sometimes from shot to shot within a scene, that tracks with the experience of seeing Clash of the Titans in 35mm. Shots of the gods conversing on Mount Olympus are soft-filtered to render aging complexions with a near-creaminess that doesn't quite suggest immortality but nods in that general direction. Daytime exteriors are sharper, if somewhat grainy, and sometimes suffer from gate-weave or light scratches and nicks on the source material. Darker scenes tend to be grainier still, and of course any shot that's the result of an optical process, such as double-exposures or matted-in elements, takes on an even more battered appearance, stemming from generational loss that occurred as multiple layers of film stock were combined in post-production. The sharper, smaller image of a home theatre is unkind to some of Harryhausen's "Dynamation," which seemed a bit smoother projected onto a much larger screen. Warner may or may not have made some effort at better matching these shots in the HD transfer process; either way, the results are pretty gritty. A full digital noise-reduction pass might have been nice if applied very judiciously to remove scratches and other blemishes rather than wrecking the texture of the film, but it's not really necessary. This is how Clash of the Titans looked on its original theatrical release, warts and all.
The great irony of super-efficient video-compression schemes like the Microsoft VC-1 codec used here is that, while they promise to deliver the best possible reproduction of a 35mm source on a consumer display, they are severely tested by one signature characteristic of the celluloid image: the thick, random "noise" that is film grain. If I were to register a complaint about this transfer, it would be that a hint of digital artifacting (artificial patterns in the grain) is perceptible in scenes where the grain dances most heavily across the frame. It's more noticeable on the crappy $200 TFT LCD display on my computer desktop than it is on the nice Sony Bravia XBR4 in my living room, so maybe I'm nitpicking. That said, my computer tells me that the Clash of the Titans BD uses up only about 33 GB out of the 50 GB available on a dual-layer Blu-ray Disc, with barely 30 GB dedicated to the movie itself. Next time, compressionists, why not crank up that bitrate?
One more quibble: Clash of the Titans is presented at the 16x9 aspect ratio of 1.77:1 with just the thinnest of "windowboxing" bars running down either side of the picture. That's not quite correct for a movie that showed in American cinemas at 1.85:1. However, the movie likely screened abroad in the common European ratio of 1.66:1, so perhaps this transfer simply splits the difference. It looks fine either way.
Audio is a sufficient two-channel DTS-HD MA track that seems to accurately reproduce the film's original Dolby Stereo mix, steering music, atmospherics, and the occasional sound effect into the surround channel(s). Unlike a lot of 5.1 upconversions of old-school Dolby mixes, this one has an authentic early-'80s-moviehouse vibe, and it's plenty. Dolby Digital tracks are selectable with dialogue in French (1.0), German (2.0), Italian (1.0), Castilian (1.0), Spanish (2.0), Portuguese (2.0), and Czech (2.0). Sound quality varies among them (some are noisy, some have dialogue very high in the mix, etc.).
Extras are limited to excerpts from a single standard-definition talking-head video with Harryhausen, broken up into irritatingly tiny fragments in order to create the illusion of voluminous content. "A Conversation with Ray Harryhausen" (12 mins.) offers the stop-motion maestro a modest opportunity to put the film in the context of his career, talk about casting and location shooting, give shout-outs to some of his crewmembers, and congratulate himself (rightly) on the influence of his work on other, younger filmmakers. The special features menu also points to a series of seven videos, each of them no more than two minutes in length, in which Harryhausen comments on different animated creatures in the film: Calibos (1 min.), Pegasus (1 min.), Bubo (47s), Medusa (2 mins.), the Kraken (1 min.), Dioskilos the two-headed dog (1 min.), and the giant, killer scorpions (40s). It's nice to see Harryhausen on screen, but this is pretty weak sauce. The aperitif preceding all this is a high-definition, high-decibel (Dolby Digital 5.1) "sneak peek" (5 mins.) at the remake consisting of footage from the film's trailer along with generous helpings of interviews and B-roll. Originally published: April 1, 2010.