Saturday, 10 April 2010

Mishmash of the Cretins: Grim Foreboding for Sword-and-Sorcery in film

Generally, there are many ways one can approach the iconic Medusa of Greek Mythology. The Gorgoneion was an apotropaic amulet of the Ancient Greeks, usually depicting a tusked, snarling, bestial face leering below a mass of writhing snakes. This form was also depicted in the Athenian symbol pictured above. Others take the serpentine approach, depicting her with an ophidian tail, scales, scutes, horns and other fearsome features, such as in Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans. Most recently, Medusa appeared in the infamous video game God of War, where she sports cobras for hair and razor-sharp claws: though her face is not quite as monstrous, she still bears fangs and a somewhat mean expression. However, the exact last approach I’d go for–indeed, the polar opposite of the mythic creature’s entire being–in a remake of Clash of the Titans is a face that elicits the response “she’s absolutely gorgeous.”

This is probably the most potent example of just how much of a colossal disaster Clash of the Titans is–and what’s most worrying of all is how the mistakes made here could so easily happen in “Conan.” I’m going to warn now that the plot of the film–and that of “Conan”–will be dissected, destroyed and defenestrated forthwith, though frankly, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the whole film anyway.

Ray Harryhausen, pictured with a cabinet full of magic.

I love the work of Ray Harryhausen. He is one of those formative figures in my early life, whose creations have inspired a love of special-effects oriented cinema, not to mention fanning the flames of my enthusiasm for history, mythology and palaeontology. I’d watched just about every film of Ray’s I could get my hands on as a child: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, One Million Years B.C., The Valley of Gwangi, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, and his masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts. However, I have no illusions that outside of the masterful animations and effects, the films themselves are not the apex of cinematic narrative. The human characters are serviceable but unspectacular, the plots linear and workmanlike, and they generally offer few surprises.

Clash of the Titans is perhaps the most notable example here: it’s an enjoyable film, but the human characters are portrayed rather underwhelmingly, acting merely to get from one set piece to another. The heroes have little of the boundless enthusiasm and action of Jason or Sinbad, the villains not quite as diabolical–with the notable exception of Calibos–while the thespians (and Ursula Andress) of Olympus are quite possibly the most blasé Greek gods I’ve ever seen. However, when the stop-motion wonders of Harryhausen appear, the film switches gear into sublime cinematic joy.
It’s a similar dichotomy which can be seen in other effects-driven films, such as those of Harryhausen’s predecessor and mentor, Willis O’Brien. King Kong is memorable not so much for the interpersonal politics on the Venture, or Carl Denham’s character arc from ambitious documentary filmmaker to rough-and-tumble mogul, or the romance between Anne Darrow and Jack Driscoll: it’s most memorable for the incredible character that is Kong. The fury and power of the primordial beast tempered with the clumsy tenderness and need for love and companionship of a sentient creature, the simple character quirks and moments, the ironic sadness of his unrequited love for Darrow. There are similar examples of inhuman characters being the focus and appeal of a film–the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the titular  sometimes-menace sometimes-savior of Tokyo star of the Godzilla films, certainly the two-dimensional cast of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Thus was the case in Clash of the Titans. It isn’t so much the adequate leads or the suitably Shakespearean Olympians that provide the appeal, but the non-human characters: the tragic yet horrible Calibos, the awe-inspiring Pegasus, the ferocious Dioskolos, the iconic Medusa–Harryhausen’s design proving the archetype for many modern depictions, as with his Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad–the monstrous menace of the Kraken. Somehow, the film just comes alive when Harryhausen works his magic. One would then think that it would be really difficult to mess up a remake: as long as they get the monsters right and provide thrilling, powerful action scenes in a goodly number, it’ll match or even surpass the original. Sadly, not only does the new film fail as a remake, it fails as a film in general.

Greek Mediocrity

"Whadda ya mean I'm not in the remake? I've been replaced by a what!?!"

First up are the reason anyone goes to see these things: the monsters. Everyone knows their Greek creatures, even if it’s only basic stuff. I’d earlier alluded to the, frankly, insane choice to use the likeness of Natalia Vodianova for Medusa. It takes a special kind of madness to think that the breathtakingly beautiful model could possibly be a good starting point for a beast whose very role in Greek Mythology is representative of the gods’ petty jealousy and cruelty, in turning a woman of great beauty into a horror of literally petrifying hideousness. Again, the filmmakers could have made a point out of this, using the later “beautiful Medusa” archetype popularised in art and sculpture to infuse a bit of poignancy: however, that only works if the mere sight of her face turns a man to stone, the implication being that she is so beautiful that it kills anyone who seeks to bear witness.

This is Natalia Vodianova, the Russian supermodel upon whom the film's Medusa is based. As you can see, she's indescribably hideous.

That doesn’t work though: in this film, as in the original, Medusa uses some sort of “petrify-vision”, indicating that it isn’t treated as a curse so much as a superpower on her part. At which point one wonders: why does Medusa then have this obsession with turning men into stone when it appears to be entirely optional on her part? At least in the original her hideous visage would mean that no man would want her, so she could feasibly be so twisted by rejection and loneliness to turn homicidal. However, if you factor in the other half-human figures of Greek Mythology which are considered sexually appealing – centaurs, satyrs, sirens and whatnot – she really doesn’t seem all that unattractive. Combined with her very toned torso, I can’t see what her problem is. There’s also the larger annoyance that the film’s concocted origin turns Medusa from an arrogant victim of just desserts to a truly tragic figure, yet the filmmakers didn’t bother injecting even a modicum of this element, choosing instead to make her a mindlessly cackling harridan.

Other creatures fare as badly. The three sisters don’t look like crones, so much as refugees from a Guillermo Del Toro movie: I also don’t quite understand why they need the eye when their gesturing and movements seem to indicate otherwise during the confrontation. The harpies borrowed from Jason & the Argonauts seem to exist as Hades’ messengers, though they’re not really anything more than vague winged beasties. Some of the creatures of the original don’t appear at all: Calibos’ pet vulture, which surely would’ve made for a fantastic aerial battle with Pegasus, is not present. Neither is Dioskilos, the two-headed hound.

Still, there are some decent enough new creations. Even if I can’t understand the point of making Pegasus black (an attempt to make the myth “darker and edgier,” presumably) nor why they made an entire herd of them when the whole point is that Pegasus is unique, the steed himself is well executed. Though this iteration of the Kraken looks like the offspring of a Rancor and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, it is a substantial improvement over the original, which was more or less Harryhausen’s own Ymir with extra arms. It’s a shame it doesn’t actually get to do anything: all it manages to do before it gets dispatched is yawn and stretch. While I don’t understand exactly why they changed the origin of the giant scorpions from Medusa’s blood to that of Acrisius (this film’s version of Calibos, played by Jason Flemyng, who you might’ve seen in another fantasy film), they are rendered pretty spectacularly.

She's apparently a disgusting abomination of humanity.

It’s a shame the human roles aren’t even a fraction as interesting. Sam Worthington is unspeakably bland in the role of Perseus. I can’t stress enough how dull this Perseus is: it’s almost fascinating in its own way. I’m talking Keanu Reeves or Jet Li level emoting, or lack thereof. For some reason, the perfectly heroic and serviceable character in the original just wasn’t angsty enough. Harry Hamlin didn’t deliver an Oscar-worthy role, but he at least looked like he was feeling emotion, rather than awkwardly and unconvincingly contorting his facial features in a facsimile of emotional expression. Half the time I was watching Worthington, I started to wonder if he really was a person, and not a computer-generated effect himself. Of course he isn’t: if he was computer-generated, he would be much more lively and animated than the waxwork he is in this. Indeed, Worthington’s Perseus reminds me more of the default “create-a-character” in computer role-playing games, the blank canvas upon which players are invited to add hair, change facial features and tweak things, before going on to add statistics and strengths–Worthington is the actor equivalent of this character. Finally I understand why he gained such acclaim in Terminator Salvation: he’s pretty damn good at portraying an unfeeling, emotionless robot.

What’s most disappointing is the rendition of the Olympians. Surely this was a wonderful opportunity to make beings that look truly celestial, otherworldly–divine? In a baffling backwards step, the Olympians are not clad in togas and depicted like beings of unfathomable power, but… the knights of the Round Table of John Boorman’s Excalibur? Why? Not only are the likes of Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and others clad in painfully plastic-looking suits of impractical fantasy plate, but the camera lense has been smeared with vaseline. The effect is immensely cheapening, and every scene on Olympus looks like it was filmed in the era of Flash Gordon and The Adventures of Hercules–and the original Clash of the Titans, for that matter. I cannot fathom the reasoning for this, when the rest of the film looks so competently rendered.

Ah, but none of this is the worst part of the film. All the above I could forgive, if the film made me forget about them while I was watching. However, not only did the film not sweep me up in the narrative, but it’s quite possibly one of the stupidest films I’ve ever seen. The cavernous maw of the Kraken is as nothing to the jaws of the great devouring leviathan which has munched holes the size of valleys in the film’s plot.

"Why do I always pick these roles? Same as Laurence Olivier: money, dear boy."

For example, the relationship between Men and Gods. In this film, men not only believe in the gods, they know they exist: they have actively taken part in the affairs of mortals, and their incredible divine powers are in full evidence. Why, then, would said mortals provoke the gods by desecrating their monuments and rejecting their worship? When Argive soldiers topple a statue of Zeus, they are immediately wiped out by a vengeful and furious Hades (as is Perseus’ family). However, the meager survivors go back to Argos… and the Argives continue to revel and blaspheme against the gods! Polly Walker’s Cassiopeia arrogantly crows words to the effect of “are we meant to tremble in fear, to soil our garments in terror?” At which point I was practically screaming “Yes, you brainless imbecile! Hades just wiped out half of your army seconds after they defiled a holy monument, do the gods have to spell it out for ya?” The whole “War against the Gods” theme is as laughably futile as termites declaring war on elephants. Immortal elephants.

That’s just the mortals. The gods themselves display acts of stupefying idiocy. Hades–yet again cast as the bad guy despite being probably one of the nicest and most well-liked of the Olympians in the original myths–is out to usurp Zeus as Lord of Olympus. So, he starts off a complicated gambit, where he weakens Zeus by coercing mortals to turn his back on him, while feeding off the Argives’ fear by threatening to unleash the Kraken upon them. The only one capable of thwarting his plans is a demigod… like Perseus. Luckily, nobody–not even Perseus himself, or Zeus for that matter, who believed he perished as an infant–know of his divine heritage, so Hades could easily leave Perseus in Argos unaware of the knowledge that he’s their only hope, and see him crushed with the rest of the city. Except he doesn’t: Hades does something truly astounding in its injudiciousness, by revealing to Perseus and the entire court of Argos of Perseus’ true nature–and then tells Zeus himself! Hades had everything tied up: the only possible reason I can think of is that Hades felt the plan was so foolproof, that he needed to complicate it to have a little sport. It’s the equivalent of Achilles taunting Hector to go for the ankles, or Sigurd fighting with his back to his foes with a big target around the weak spot in his back. Or Superman handing out pamphlets about kryptonite, what it is, and where to get it.

I'm in your archipelago, eating your poleis. Om nom nom.

Then there’s other feeble errors that shouldn’t have made it past the first draft. Hades gave the Argives ten days to sacrifice Andromeda before he summoned the Kraken. If I were the ruler of a city who was given ten day’s warning for an unstoppable natural disaster, rather than dutifully await the harbinger of total destruction like a quivering jellyfish… I’d just move. Halfway through the film, a tribe of Djinn are introduced for seemingly no reason other than to take up screen time, but they have the very useful characteristic of being immune to Medusa’s gaze. The Djinn are sworn to aid Perseus to gain vengeance against the gods, and a single individual (played by professional huge person Ian Whyte, who was in a certain other fantasy film) proved himself the superior of Perseus’ entire entourage in combat. Why, then, didn’t Perseus just take a dozen of these guys and sic them on Medusa instead? Quite possibly the silliest is after the first climactic scene: Perseus emerges with Medusa’s head in a bag, when Not-Calibos arrives and guts one of his allies. Instead of using Medusa’s head to neutralize Not-Calibos quickly and tend to his friend, Perseus drops the most powerful weapon he has and engages Not-Calibos in a lengthy melee which he stood a good chance of losing! It’s like Rambo dropping a loaded and functional heat-seeking missile launcher so he can engage a stronger, deadlier foe with a Bowie knife!

Mistakes aren’t limited to narrative: basic general knowledge suffers. Zeus has a pet bald eagle–said bird being rather famously indigenous to North America, which is a wee bit of a trip away from Greece. Within the space of ten days, Perseus’ troop come to a vast desert… in Greece, which isn’t exactly known for its deserts. The film can’t even keep its own continuity under control. Io, Perseus’ new love interest, is stated early in the film to be cursed with agelessness, and sees her loved ones die before her, indicating some level of immortality. How is it, then, that she gets killed by Calibos? If Perseus is so doggedly reluctant to use one gift from the gods (a magic box-cutter type affair) to the point of his stubbornness costing lives, why does he appear to have no problems accepting another gift from the gods (a coin with which to bribe Charon) given to him by Zeus himself? Early in the film, Zeus acted completely indifferent and borderline antagonistic to Perseus, having never heard his prayers: why does he then start actively helping him in his mission to defy his father–Zeus?
So overall, Clash of the Titans is that special blend of action movie that isn’t merely stupid–it’s anti-intelligent. Stupidity indicates some sort of lack of information or knowledge, but what we see in Clash of the Titans is nothing less than some strange, terrible opposite of intelligence, being willfully stupid as opposed to unintentionally so. The antimatter of intelligence–and sadly, the antimatter of fun most of the time.

Grim Precedents

The real reason the head's in a bag is because it was emoting more than the hero. Can't have that, can we?

Perhaps the one most worrisome aspect of Clash of the Titans is how unashamedly soulless it is. Just about every aspect of it seems designed with demographics, tick-boxes, surveys, focus-groups, box office analysts, profit calculators, and dollar-infatuated moguls in mind. There are many faults which go beyond the script itself, and affect the production as a whole: faults that I could easily see being replicated in Conan.

First of all, the acting is atrocious across the board. None of the actors make any effort above the bare minimum, even though there are some pretty accomplished thespians in the film: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Pete Postlethwaite (hmm, hasn’t he been in another fantasy film lately?), Alexander Siddig, Liam Cunningham, Mads Mikkelsen, and Polly Walker. Of them all, only Liam Cunningham makes any real attempt at liveliness, with the rest of the cast acting like the director’s drugged them with horse tranquilizers. Of course, one could say that this is just fidelity to the source material, but then, why choose to be faithful to the bad aspects when you should be faithful to the good?
These people are not bad actors, as evidenced in other films displaying their prowess: the only explanation I can think of is that they were directed this way. This isn’t the first film to waste Neeson’s talents: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace also took perfectly good actors and did precisely nothing with them. This concerns me, as in an effort to be deathly serious with little more than occassional humor, the upcoming “Conan” film could similarly waste their actors. So desperate are they to avoid making the film camp and tongue-in-cheek, the filmmakers could go in another direction completely, to make it so limp, solemn and po-faced that there’s no life to the production. Howard’s work is serious, but it isn’t apathetic or bloodless: quite the opposite.

Then, the film takes the credo “everyone’s just here for the monsters” to the extreme, to the point where the human scenes are so boring one can’t help but wish for a mindless action scene to stimulate the senses. Any scene that doesn’t have a beastie in it just drags and drags to a quite astonishing level, which is amazing given the sumptuous detail given to the sets and costume design. Since the “Conan” film’s main draw is the Cimmerian himself, this probably won’t be as problematic, since half the Doppenheimer script is composed of action or sex scenes, no doubt satisfying those fans seeking nothing more than grog, gore & whores. So far, so Deathstalker. However, the scenes which don’t feature Conan, and even the scenes that don’t have Conan slicing or sexing, might be in danger of being as boring as the non-action scenes in Clash of the Titans.

This was cool in Troy and 300, so it'll be cool here too, right?

So if the action scenes are more numerous, what could the problem be? The problem would be the fact that there is zero dramatic tension. In Clash of the Titans, only Perseus, Draco and Io are properly introduced and named: the other half-dozen members of his troop don’t even get a five-second establishing moment. Thus, the audience doesn’t even get an opportunity to warm to them, when we never learn their names or why they’re on the team, resulting in nothing less than sheer indifference to their fates. About all the emotional investment I had in, say, “The Scottish One” was the fact that I recognized him from another fantasy film that made sweeping alterations to the source material. (Four Solomon Kane alumni? At this rate, I’m astonished Alice Krige or Max Von Sydow wasn’t in it to complete the straight flush!)

There are many of these characters in the “Conan” script. Unless there have been substantial changes, there aren’t a lot of characters apart from “Conan” and Tamara to feel any sympathy towards. We get approximately the same amount of time with Corin & Islene that we do with Perseus’ adopted parents in Clash of the Titans (poor Pete lasts an even shorter time than he does in that other film in which he played a doomed father), and will probably care about as little when they meet their untimely ends. Artus comes and goes in short order, the One-Eyed Thief has maybe a few minutes of exposition and plot-moving, Ilira exists to giggle and wail in scant attire as the situation demands. The villains not named Khalar, Marique, Ukafa and, to an extent, Fassir don’t fare much better. Cheren, Lucius and Remo are basically ticks on Conan’s hit-list, and treated as little other than targets, with no motivation or character background of their own. Hopefully the rewrites address this, but it’s exceedingly doubtful. The “Pict,” “Marauder,” and “Narrator” don’t even warrant names.

And, of course, there’s the stupidity. Oh Valka, the stupidity. It’s often asserted that people going to action movies expecting intelligence aren’t exactly getting into the spirit of the thing: that’s fine, but I don’t go to action movies to see intelligence insulted either. Happily, the second draft removed a lot of the really obnoxious acts of imbecility, but there are still plenty of groaners to be concerned about: the idea of Khalar’s army going from Cimmeria to wherever “Khor Khala” is unchallenged, Conan being a sadistic angsty brat, blind archers.

("26-year-old Aly would take any excuse to put a picture of a pretty lady on the blog, please excuse his eagerness" - Time Travelling 35-year-old Aly)

The state of Clash of the Titan’s 3D conversion cannot go unmentioned. The story goes that film itself was filmed in the traditional manner, but after the success of Avatar, the lifesucking vampires in charge of money decided to apply post-production 3D to Clash of the Titans. The results have been unanimously panned: the only scenes where the 3D matters only amount to a fraction of the overall film, barely justifying the extra cost. It got so bad that, according to some reports, some cinemagoers started to take off their 3D glasses to watch the film normally, even putting up with a blurry picture. That’s a pretty comprehensive failure.

Naturally, Lionsgate/Millenium seek to scoff a piece of the flavour-of-the-season pie, and “Conan” will also be in 3D. There doesn’t seem to be any information on whether this will be produced in the “good” or the “bad” 3D method, but seeing how relentlessly rushed the project’s been, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that this too would be a “post” job. A shame for those wanting to see flying heads, spurts of blood and Rachel Nichols in full, reach-out-and-touch 3D, no doubt.
Speaking of Rachel Nichols, I don’t have much confidence that Tamara will be any more of an action girl than Io was in Clash of the Titans. All Gemma Arterton’s Io really did that was vaguely “action-girl” was fling a bola at one of the giant scorpions. From then on, all she did was spout pertinent exposition and be the girl-in-peril that the big Man has to rescue. As with Howard, Greek Mythology is full of badass warrior-women that the film could’ve appropriated: Atalanta, Hippolyta, Enyo, Artemis, perhaps one of the Amazons mentioned in Greek Myth. After Xena: Warrior Princess spoiled us for genuinely tough, powerful females, women warriors in a Greek Mythology milieu have a lot to live up to.

A bigger problem than the sexual inequality is the racial elements. I already talked about the heinously racist elements in the early “Conan” script–or at least, the elements that could be construed as such. Clash of the Titans isn’t free from this. The only character from an Arabian background in the film, that mysterious Djinn, speaks in an barely-intelligible form of Arabic. However, that’s not the problem: the problem is that he manages to cripple the Medusa by self-destructing. Yes, the only Arabic character in the film is a suicide-bomber. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Alexander Siddig–a British actor of Sudanese ancestry who really deserves better–plays a crazed religious zealot who maims himself in a frenzied revelation, and encourages the multitudes of Argos to forsake Zeus and take up worship of Hades. In other words, the only Arab actor in the film portrays a religious zealout who seeks to usurp a kingdom’s religion, preying on fear and utilizing sacrifice to achieve his goals. I don’t think it’s intentional insensitivity on the part of the filmmakers: just another example of their astounding stupidity.

"I swear, when Hephaestus upgrades me with those laser eyes and razor feathers, I'll destroy every last one of you."

So this article doesn’t turn into an “Accept No Substitutes”-sized monster itself, I’m going to end on what I feel is the most important aspect in any remake or adaptation: fidelity and respect to the original. Both Clash of the Titans and “Conan” have prior film inspirations, and both of them are based on older source material (Greek Mythology and the work of Robert E. Howard respectively.) Clash of the Titans treats both its inspirations with disinterest bordering on contempt. I’d already mentioned the absense of Dioskilos and the vulture, as well as the unworthy Medusa. However, the single worst scene in the entire film is the only cameo of Bubo, the divisive mechanical owl of the original film. The scene in which he appears is about the most unsubtle reference in the history of references: Perseus picks him up, it twirls about on a stick, while he asks “what’s this?” Apparently it’s nothing, and should be left behind.

That there just says it all, really. Love him or hate him, Bubo was one of the most iconic elements of the original: to treat him as garbage is to effectively treat the original as garbage.

I could easily see a counterpart in the “Conan” film:
YOUNG “CONAN”: Father, what is this?
He holds aloft the famous Atlantean sword, and swings it in a kata identical to Arnold’s.
CORIN: That? It’s junk, a child’s weapon. Throw it away.
The last thing the film needs to do is alienate the fans of the first film, by treating one of the iconic elements as, effectively, garbage. While I’m sure those who utterly despise Conan the Barbarian would get a vindicated kick out of it, it serves no purpose to the story other than to call attention to the other film. It’s about as childish and immersion-breaking as when Michael Bay took pot-shots at Godzilla in Armageddon, or just about every dig Shrek made towards Disney (which accounts for about three quarters of the entire series, really.) Then again, perhaps the threats to the camel in the script will have to suffice as the painfully ill-advised “homage” to the “original.”

I don’t want to be proven right. I don’t want to see “Conan” end up as soulless, limp, moronic, generic and ultimately pointless waste of money. I’d love to be proven wrong. I’d love for Sean Hood’s rewrite to totally reconcile the story we’re stuck with to the original tales, to make them at least not directly contradictory to what Howard told us. I’d be ecstatic if Momoa tore the house down as Conan, Nichols provided a compelling and refreshingly capable love interest, Khalar a nuanced and powerful villain, and for the others to do the best they can with their roles. I’d be happy for Nispel to shock the world and provide the film he’d always been capable of, that just hasn’t come to pass until now. I don’t want a Conan movie to be bad: I want it to be great. I desperately want to go to a Conan film, and enjoy it, be it a pastiche or a true adaptation.

I just don’t see it happening.
(This review was originally published on The Cimmerian on this date. I followed it up with a Director's Cut of further grievances.)

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