Clash of the Titans (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Early in the new Clash of the Titans, Perseus (Sam Worthington) prepares for battle, rummaging through the armory in the ancient Greek seaside city of Argos. He discovers a shiny, clicking, mechanical owl, and asks the warrior Solon (Liam Cunningham) about it. With a grimace, Solon replies, "We don't need it."
The owl is, of course, a reference to Bubo, the comic-relief companion of Perseus in 1981's Clash of the Titans — and while it's possible that the line is merely a nod to fans' ambivalent feelings for the character, it also seems a bit like temporal smugness. Thirty years have passed, after all, since a film needed Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion to enliven its mythological creatures. Yet 21st-century CGI isn't a substitute for a sense of fun and imagination — which may explain why, more than its being a remake, this Clash makes you feel like you've seen it all before.
The legend of Perseus — son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), cast to sea as a baby and rescued by a fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite) — is familiar. And, the setup echoes the earlier Clash — angry gods threaten to destroy Argos with the sea-beast Kraken unless the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is sacrificed, or Perseus defeats the creature.
But there are a few twists offered by screenwriters Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Hades (Ralph Fiennes) plays a more prominent role as instigator, in billowing clouds of black hellsmoke. There's also a tug-of-war between humans revering the gods and asserting their independence, and a swipe at apocalyptic zealotry.
These new wrinkles might have made a more compelling story, if it seemed director Louis Leterrier (2008's The Incredible Hulk) was committed to the characters and thematic elements of this blockbuster. Instead, it all becomes background noise for an even louder foreground noise. Perseus and Co.'s battles — which include giant scorpions, a cursed king, a squadron of flying harpies, and the snake-haired Medusa — are all edited together with frantic inefficiency. The result is a movie that moves without creating any real tension.
In 1981, fantasy filmmaking still generated a sense of cinematic wonder, with a demeanor more playful than grimly determined. Clash 2.0 has nothing fresh to offer; it's simply another calculated blockbuster. That notion extends to its use of 3-D, which reportedly was added during a rushed 10-week conversion late in post-production. Outlines blur around characters, and depth of field proves about as profound as a Magic Eye image. Take off your glasses during a 3-D Clash screening, and I dare you to tell the difference. There's no excuse for its use — except as a cash-in.
And really, that's how the overwhelming majority of footage in Clash of the Titans feels. There are moments of genuine excitement, and a few creative inspirations, like a design that renders the ferryman Charon as part of his barge on the River Styx, and the barge itself as a hollowed-out rib cage. But you only have to compare Fiennes' sleepwalking villainy as Hades to his Voldemort from Harry Potter to see the difference between a movie that's putting in an effort, and a movie that's just sort of sitting there. Clash of the Titans may not need a whimsical stop-motion mechanical owl, but it sure needs something — anything — to give an audience a reason to give a hoot.