Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It's a Monster Mash

Two years ago, Clash of the Titans was remade for the big screen, directed by Transporter helmsman Louis Leterrier and starring the action genre's newest hero Sam Worthington. Buoyed by those names, the film was a huge success by any standards, grossing almost $500 million worldwide. Looking back on it today, it's difficult to consolidate that success with what we see now as one of the worst excesses of Hollywood moviemaking in the modern era. Clash was one of the first films to embrace 3D conversion following James Cameron's Avatar; but unlike the Oscar-nominated epic, criticism for it generally revolved around the effects, which were nowhere near the same standard as Cameron's piece. Worse, the film never felt like anything more than an endless hall of action sequences, character development apparently crushed beneath the technical designs of a released Kraken. I saw the film on DVD and so never had to witness its 3D conversion, but for the most part I enjoyed Clash as a mindless diversion, if not necessarily a good focus for my free time. Now Clash of the Titans has succeeded in one way in which the 1981 Harryhausen classic never did: it spawned a sequel. With the bland name Wrath of the Titans, the trailers made the film look little more than same as what I'd already seen on DVD. Still, a chance to witness a monster mash of classic mythological creatures was too much to ignore, and became the primary target of my weekend film trip.

Ray Feinnes, adding to his bank account
A decade after defeating the Kraken and saving the world in Clash, demigod Perseus (Worthington) lives the life of a simple fisherman and family man. Despite losing his wife Io some time back, Perseus is dedicated to the raising of his son Helios. While he has not accepted his role as half-immortal, he cannot avoid the problems coming to his world; people no longer pray to the Gods, whose powers wane without support from mortals. This has the unfortunate side effect of weakening the walls of Mount Tartarus, prison of the ancient Titans. Now monsters are breaking free and being loosed upon the world, but even that is not the worst. Kronos, King of the Titans, will soon be able to escape his confinement and wreak havoc on the world. It is up to Perseus and a small force to stop it, but it will not be easy. God of the Underworld Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and God of War Ares (Edgar Ramirez) are desperate to retain their godly powers, and in doing so they have made a deal with Kronos: limitless power by sacrificing Perseus' father Zeus (Liam Neeson) to the power-hungry Titan.

Apparently in this film Perseus prefers blondes.
As in Clash, the plot in Wrath of the Titans is very simple: Perseus leads a small party consisting of a few important characters and a bunch of cannon fodder against supernatural beasts, and by the end all the cannon fodder has died in horrific and violent ways, while the heroes stand triumphant. Thankfully the characters here are more varied and entertaining than the dry, humorless personalities of the first film. The best example might be Agenor, played by War Horse's Toby Kebbell. Described as a "disappointing" demigod, Agenor has comedic timing, adequate character development and a solid foundation, and Kebbell manages to master both Poseidon's Trident and the audience's attentions with his wit and charm. Another stroke of casting genius is elder funnyman Bill Nighy as Hephaestus, a god who assists the party with their quest. Nighy's is a small role, but since it's fricking Bill Nighy, he does better with it than anybody else could. Rosamund Pike takes over the role of Andromeda from Clash's Alexa Davalos, and the transformation in Andromeda from helpless princess to warrior queen is probably the biggest change (besides the apparent invention of hair dye, anyway) in the sequel. Pike does a good job overall, even if Andromeda's change doesn't do much when she tries to take on Gods like Ares in a stand-up fight. Still, it's nice to see the film's lone female not stuck in the "damsel in distress" role, and I've generally liked Pike's performances in general. Worthington himself seems almost like dead weight. The man doesn't even bother to hide his Australian accent, as if challenging director Jonathan Liebesman to make him change his tune. He also doesn't seem on board with the film's almost humorous direction, and his performance is even more charmless and dry than it was the original Clash. If it wasn't for last year's under-appreciated The Debt, I doubt I would have any faith in Worthington to carry on with a successful Hollywood career, so lackluster is his effort. I know he can act; I just wish he'd stop turning it on and off at whim and get to work.

Zeus forgot to bring the beer again. D'oh!
At least one of my main criticisms of the original film has been addressed: the Gods are AWESOME now! The characters of Zeus and Hades have been legitimately beefed up, as befitting the talents that are Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. While I won't go into details for spoiler reasons, it's nice to see these characters become a little more relevant even as they have little overall importance to the people of their own universe. It was also nice to see other gods get in on the act, from Nighy's Hephaestus to Edgar Ramirez as Ares, the God of War. Ramirez in particular gets afforded some well-deserved attention, his biggest role to this point being in the miniseries Carlos in 2010. Here, his performance is not necessarily varied but powerful, and he arguably out-grimaces Worthington in their shared scenes. I'd definitely be interested in seeing more of him, whether it be in Kathryn Bigelow's new bin Laden film or simply going back to finally watch Carlos.

Somehow I don't think he wants to play "patty cake."
The film's special effects are a decent improvement over the original (I didn't see the sequel in 3D either, due to timing), but I had a serious issue with the way Liebesman, who made last year's Battle: Los Angeles, handled things on the action front. Taking over for Leterrier, Liebesman tries to do the same thing the Frenchman did in going from action sequence to action sequence, with barely a character moment in between. The real problem with that is that Liebesman is a major proponent of the "shaky cam" effect in trying to make events more exciting. When are directors going to learn that shaky cam doesn't engage the audience, but confuses them? There are almost a dozen major battles throughout the film, featuring such massive creatures as the Chimera, Cyclops, Minotaur and Kronos, but Liebesman manages to make every single fight feel small and unworthy of our attention. What I had hoped would be the film's greatest strength ends up being its biggest flaw, as nothing is ever clear, and like a drunken excursion we're not really ever sure what's happening until it's over.

Not quite as endearing as the Kraken, no...
After seeing the trailers for Wrath of the Titans, I would have been more than happy if the film had just been a collection of Perseus taking on mythological creatures from beginning to the end. With amazing special effects, it was all for which I could have hoped. But with the narrow view of Liebesman, that unambitious idea was more than the film actually attain. While it tries its hardest to charm itself into your hearts, lousy action in an action film is inexcusable, and really sinks Wrath down near the bottom of 2012's rankings. Another potential blockbuster that missed wide, seeing a film like this makes me long for the days of summer, when dreck like this will be replaced by far more tantalizing fare such as Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man.

I really can't wait.

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