Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Crash of a Titan--a kind of tribute to Ray Harryhausen

Harryhausen's big guy, meeting his blind date for the first time

First, there's this sad news.

Then, there's this, one of my older articles comparing one of Harryhausen's lesser works with the more expensive digital remake. Just to remind us what we've lost, and how good he can be.

Let the bloodletting begin.

Crap of the Titans

You'd think they'd get one thing right; you'd think they could take a so-so movie, Ray Harryhausen's 1981 valedictory opus Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davies is the director on record, but let's not kid ourselves--this is Harryhausen's baby all the way) and make a halfway decent picture out of it. Walking out of Louis Leterrier's 2010 remake, though, all I could think was: “I miss Harryhausen.”

By no stretch of imagination was the original good, much less great--Harry Hamlin looked ridiculous in sandals and miniskirt, and the chemistry between him and starlet Judi Bowker was so underwhelming you kept looking sideways for the Marx Brothers to leap in and save the show. I remember Ursula Andress and Claire Bloom (beautiful actresses, both) being stiff as Greek statues; I remember thinking the mechanical owl was so blatant a rip-off of Artoo Deetoo that George Lucas ought to sue (and later--when Artoo took to the air in ridiculously tiny rockets--wondering if maybe it was the other party that ought to sue).

But, strange to say, the years have been kind to this Titans. Laurence Olivier's Zeus--who was so salty you could fry him in a pan, add coffee, and come up with red-eye gravy--goosed the picture to life whenever he was onscreen. Olivier has his 'thespic' moments--even in a production where he's obviously there for the paycheck he never simply phones in the performance--he's constantly on and ebullient and chewing with much gusto on the badly designed scenery.

Then there are the creatures. Bubo has, finally, become charming (while Artoo through the years has become mean-spirited and annoying); the monstrous Calibo (Neil McCarthy) achieves a sort of tragic stature; Medusa slithers with gravid grace, and has a suitably evil glare; the Kraken, unmistakably modeled after the alien Ymir in Harryhausen's 1957 20 Million Miles to Earth, possesses a grandeur that gets grander every time I see him again (he looks as if he had swallowed an umbrella that had snapped open).

And that, for all the stillborn drama and cheesiness of the overall production, is what I remember about the movie--its considerable flaws now forgivable, its virtues considerable. I suppose what John Huston as Noah Cross once said still applies: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Harryhausen's Titans is an old building whose time has apparently come.

Keith Phipps of the Onion A.V. Club wrote of the Leterrier remake: “If Clash were a meal, it would come in a paper bag and have some grease stains near the bottom.” I disagree; I don't think Mr. Phipps appreciates the virtues of a greasy burger, the fulsome flavor of properly charred meat on toasted buns, the juices (red from a medium-rare patty) oozing thickly out the sides and staining one corner of the bag. Harryhausen's Titans is a bar burger, a diner's special, a one-of-a-kind creation that's too fatty to be good for you, but makes for a satisfying snack; what Mr. Phipps must be thinking of is a McDonald's Happy Meal, which to my recollection has never stained the corner of anything--it's too dense and flavorless and dried out, as Morgan Spurlock once put it, for any self-respecting bacteria to touch.

Yes, Leterrier uses the latest in CGI techniques, and yes both Medusa and Kraken move smoother than before--the Medusa skittering over rocks like a frightened gecko, the Kraken lifting his head (and for a while there you think he's nothing but head) out of the ocean, then baring an impressive set of ginzu knives. But Harryhausen's creatures for all their clunkiness had personality--the Medusa dragged her serpentine body painfully across the rocks, and her face held this look of aggrieved fury partly because, you think, she'd been thusly accursed (she almost didn't need that green glow of power emanating from her eyes, the expression was arresting enough). Leterrier's Medusa is a babe with snake hair, and the way she would slither here and there you wonder--why does she kill? If I had that much mobility I'd take a month off and backpack through the Amazon jungle, maybe visit Machu Picchu.

Then there's the Kraken (which, by the way, is Scandinavian, not Greek at all--I can understand the creature vacationing at the Greek Isles to get a tan, but why this sideline involving virgins?). The Leterrier Kraken is an animal (a rather tasty-looking one at that; give me a lemon wedge and tartar sauce and I'm all over that creature), and presumably looks at Andromeda (Alexa Davalos, who to her credit actually manages to look more interested in her eventual fate than Bowker) strictly as food. Harryhausen's Kraken has the whiskers of an old man, the leer of a lecher, and tentacles to match; when he climbs out of the sea, you don't know exactly what will happen--dinner, or the most hideously outsized date rape in recorded history?

And that's pretty much it except I might add that Liam Neeson, who plays Zeus, says the line “Release the Kraken!” as if he was hoping the command would slip by without anyone bothering to obey; fact of the matter is, he looks like he'd rather let the entire movie slip by without anyone bothering to notice he was there...on the whole, he'd rather be somewhere else altogether. 

Now why bother showing up to collect a paycheck if you can't get some kind of satisfaction out of said paycheck? Olivier knew better: if the picture was going to stink (his was like day-old fish; the remake was more like week-old fish (okay, I'm being unfair to week-old fish)) then he was going to, if not save it, at least derive some kind of pleasure from it. He was going to have fun, Zeus damn it, and he'll give his equivalent line of dialogue a snap and roll and punch that Neeson would have been wise to emulate (“LET LOOSE THE KRAKKEN!!”). Not exactly great acting, but definitely great hamming.

First published in Businessworld 4.8.10


Anonymous said...

Best appraisal of the original "Clash" I've read, though I'm less enthused about Olivier's performance than the author. But like him, I miss Harryhausen, and I was surprised at how unready I was for his passing.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, I don't think it's a great performance--I do think it's a fun one, and that he enjoys himself a hell of a lot more than Nesson ever does.