Clash of the Titans (2010), dir. Louis Leterrier
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 28, 2011
I actually watched this film in October, in preparation for the day-long colloquium on Clash of the Titans which we held at Leeds at the end of that month. It’s taken me a while to write it up, partly because I’ve been busy, but also because it was clearly going to be a bit of an epic review. Not only did I already have a lot to say about the film myself by the time I’d finished watching it, but I then attended three excellent papers about it during the colloquium which gave me a whole swathe of interesting new perspectives on it. What follows is now a combination of my own original responses and further ideas which I picked up from the three papers presented on the day. I’ve tried to give the appropriate credit wherever it is due, but apologies if there is some bleeding between my own ideas and other people’s.
Like the 1981 film (in fact, I’d say rather more so), on one level the 2010 version is a bit pants. So let’s get that out of the way first. The dialogue is laboured, the story is unengaging and rather nonsensical (partly because important plot-development scenes were edited out during the production process), and I personally find brutish, macho heroes of the kind presented here alienating and uninteresting. So this just isn’t destined for my top ten favourite films list – or indeed my top one hundred, for that matter.
But then again, it very obviously isn’t aimed at me. It follows Gladiator, 300 and (as Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe‘s papers made clear) a bunch of video games which I have never played, and have no desire to play, in focussing on action adventure and manly heroics. And I guess that’s what some people go to the cinema for. It’s not really my bag – but all the same, there is still plenty of interest for me to pick over here about the use of the Classical past and the concerns of modern audiences.
Then and now: 1981 and 2010
The 2010 film positions itself quite explicitly in relation to the 1981 version, but usually in a ways designed to create a sense of difference and distance between the two. It starts where the 1981 film left off – out amongst the stars, with a narrative voice-over setting the scene – as if to say that it intends to move forwards from that point, rather than going back to re-tread old ground. And although my friend and I both cheered when Bubo, the mechanical owl from the first film, put in a cameo appearance in the palace armoury, he turned out to be there only so that he could be rejected, and proper ‘serious’ weapons chosen instead – again, a sign that the new film wanted to present itself as taking a different approach to the story.
All the same, the plot structure of the two films is broadly similar (though nothing like entirely so). I also spotted an interesting example of parallel casting with Cassiopeia, the mother of Andromeda. Back in 1981, she was played by Siân Philips, who had recently starred as Livia in I Clavdivs, while in 2010 she was Polly Walker – recently famous for playing the very similar role of Atia in HBO’s Rome.
Her daughter Andromeda’s role has been almost entirely reimagined, though, and indeed largely pushed aside in favour of the ageless (yet not immortal) Io. As my colleague Steve Green pointed out in his paper at the colloquium, this is a really important change which helps the film to bring out what is clearly meant to be one of its main themes – Perseus’ struggle to come to terms with his split identity as a half-man, half-god. Io with her curse of agelessness occupies a similar position, and this means that she can a) act as a more appropriate romantic match for Perseus, and b) gradually guide him towards embracing both sides of his parentage. As Io tells him, “You’re not just part man, part god. You’re the best of both.”
Io’s role outside the story
But Io isn’t merely a character within the story. She also stands outside it in a number of ways. It is she who provides the film’s narrative voice-overs, and in this role she seems to enjoy a long-term perspective on the film’s events. Given that she is ageless, perhaps we are meant to understand that she has lived long past the period covered in the film, and is looking back on it from several centuries later – possibly even from our own time? If so, that makes her role rather similar to that of the director, who has the same overview of the story which he is telling.
Certainly, within the film itself, she does play a directorial role. It is Io who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ by telling him, “You were born to kill the Kraken”, and helps to train him up for his fight with Medusa by sparring with him on Charon’s boat. She also provides explanation and backstory where necessary – for example saying that the Stygian witches will know how to kill the Kraken, or explaining Medusa’s history. With relation to the previous film, this means that she seems to have absorbed the role of the playwright Ammon, who struck me there as a kind of in-story director-figure, and who has otherwise more or less disappeared from the 2010 version of the film.
The visual aesthetic
The visual aesthetic is also different from the 1981 film, moving from bright costumes and big hair to grungey grime and crew-cuts. But I think it is still operating within the same tradition – it’s just that that tradition in itself has altered radically in the past 30 years. As I said in my review of the 1981 film, its visual aesthetic helps to signal its links with the SF/Fantasy genre – but at that time, this was a genre full of films like Flash Gordon and Star Wars, and the costumes and model-work for Clash 1981 reflect that.
Now, SF/Fantasy visualisations are all about dark colour-palettes and CGI effects – and that’s what we have in Clash 2010. I certainly spotted multiple visual references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway – the appearance of Argos; treks through forests and desolate mountains; and perhaps also Io’s rather Elfin look. But Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe’s papers also opened my eyes to a whole world of further visual resonances which I hadn’t been aware of because I don’t play video games. There are characters, architectural designs, spatial layouts and even action sequences in Clash 2010 which relate directly to games like Titan Quest and God of War – and of course the cycle continues via a Clash of the Titans spin-off game.
Meanwhile, on the cultural-historical front, the settings for Clash 2010 were not quite such a bizarre mish-mash as they had been in the 1981 version. The mise-en-scène is predominantly Greek – and OK, so it’s Classical Greek rather than Bronze Age, as shown by the Attic red-figure vase paintings and gilded caryatids in the palace at Argos, but that seems reasonable enough for a mythological story which has no real historical setting. At least it’s broadly the right culture. But I also noticed quite a hefty dose of Roman-looking art and architecture, too, including embossed silver drinking-cups, a statue of a bearded Roman emperor in one corner of the palace and a recognisable arched aqueduct supplying water to the city of Argos.
Three father figures
At our colloquium, Steve Green’s paper touched on some of the similarities between Clash of the Titans and another mythologically-inspired 2010 film – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Like Perseus, Percy Jackson is the son of a god, and much of the emphasis in his story lies with the theme of broken homes, split identities, and not knowing your real father – also prominent themes in the 2010 Clash. In fact, in our discussion session, we realised that Clash of the Titans features no less than three father figures, each occupying distinctly different points on the spectrum of possible father-son relationships.
At the ‘nasty‘ end is Acrisius, Perseus’ (unwilling) step-father, who hates Perseus because he is a reminder of his wife, Danae’s, rape by Zeus. (I will note as an aside here that I find the trope of one man (Zeus) raping a woman (Danae) as a means of punishing another man (Acrisius) utterly abhorrent, and I would have liked to see that being commented on and challenged within the film. But it wasn’t, which is another reason why this just isn’t the sort of film I’m ever going to really enjoy.)
Acrisius is portrayed as an out-and-out villain, and as part of his villainy he also absorbs the role of Calibos from the previous film. After being struck with lighting and deformed by Zeus, he literally changes his name to ‘Calibos’, and becomes a crazed killer, bent on vengeance against Perseus. Although Hades ropes him into his own vendetta against Zeus by giving him special powers, Acrisius-Calibos’ own jealous motives remain clear – as, for example, when he encounters Perseus in the forest, and hisses, “You reek of your father” (i.e. Zeus).
In the ‘nice‘ corner is Spyros, Perseus’ adoptive father (played by the now-deceased Pete Postlethwaite), who brings him up from babyhood. Like Acrisius, Spyros has no blood relationship with Perseus, but the contrast between the two characters serves to signal that this doesn’t mean there can’t be a loving family bond. Spyros, and indeed Perseus’ whole adoptive family, is portrayed as loving and kind – they meet our expectations of what a ‘proper’ family should be, even without any blood link. As Spyros tells Perseus, “I am your father, Perseus. Marmara is your mother. And you will always be our son. The bond between us is… it’s much more than flesh and bone.”
And in the middle there is Zeus, Perseus’ biological father. Part of the story-arc of the film is the gradual development of a meaningful bond between Perseus and Zeus, despite their initial indifference (Zeus) or even hatred (Perseus) towards one another. When Hades first tells Zeus that Perseus is in Argos, he doesn’t care, simply saying that he hasn’t heard his prayers, and that he is no different from any other mortal. By half-way through the film, he has begun trying to create a relationship with Perseus, but at this stage it offered on his terms only – he invites Perseus to live on Olympus, and is angry and offended when Perseus rejects him. Finally, at the end, Zeus accepts that Perseus needs to live his own life, Perseus accepts Zeus’ help, and the two are reconciled.
Between the three figures, then, father-son relationships are explored from every possible angle, with a fairly clear conclusion that it is the emotional bonds between the two parties that matter, rather than the biological ones. In the absence of biological ties, the relationship can be either highly functional, as with Spyros, or completely disastrous, as with Acrisius. And Perseus’ final reconciliation with Zeus happens because they have developed an emotional bond, not because they are actually related. It’s a very twenty-first century view of how family relationships are defined and what they mean – and, incidentally, much the same story as plays out between the Doctor and Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter.
Another major concern of the 2010 film lies with the nature and impact of religion. The 1981 version did depict rivalries between the gods – particularly Zeus and Thetis. It also ended with Thetis asking Zeus whether mortals should be allowed to get away with obstructing the gods’ plans, as Perseus had done to her:
THETIS: What a dangerous precedent. What if there more heroes like him? What if courage and imagination became everyday mortal qualities? What will become of us?
ZEUS: We would no longer be needed. But, for the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever.
But for the most part, the 1981 film chose not to engage with the relationship between mankind and the gods in any great detail. Indeed, the challenge to divine authority which Thetis complained about was not the real aim of the 1981 Perseus. He had simply intended to win the hand of the lovely Andromeda, and killing Calibos and the Kraken were secondary outcomes of this quest.
In the 2010 version, the religious dimensions of the story are much more central, and much more complex. The fraught relationship between mankind and the gods is central to the film, and personalised in Perseus’ uncomfortable position between the two. But we also see tensions within both camps, as different individual humans disagree with one another on how best to respond to the power of the gods, and different individual gods struggle with one another for supremacy.
The human response to the gods mainly reflects 21st-century scepticism of authority-figures. Belief as such is not in question, since the gods are entirely real within the terms of the story. But characters like Spyros and Perseus forcefully question whether humanity should be worshipping the gods while they behave arrogantly and are indifferent to mortal suffering. “One day,” Spyros grumbles, “somebody’s gonna have to make a stand. One day, somebody’s gonna have to say – enough!”
Yet we also see some humans responding to godly misdeeds with renewed religious fervour. This attitude is characterised in particular by Prokopion, the loin-clothed, top-knotted religious fanatic in Argos, who reacts to the anger of the gods by calling for greater heights of devotion – seeking to placate the gods, rather than reject them. He responds to Hades’ curse on Argos by proclaiming, “We must turn our hearts to Hades – it is the only way!”, and eagerly leads the movement to sacrifice Andromeda in order to save the rest of the city.
This is of course rather closer to the typical authentic ancient response when people suspected that the gods might be angry with them – root out any possible religious deviants and redouble the sacrifices. But we’re clearly not supposed to admire it. Our top-knotted fanatic bays for blood, commits extremist acts like burning his own hand to make a point, and appears to take sexual pleasure in the sacrifice of Andromeda. He can be mapped onto almost any modern religious extremist movement of our choosing, and appears very much characteristic of the concerns of this post-9/11 world. Interestingly, he is eventually killed by the falling hand of the Kraken after it has been turned into stone, which seemed to me like an ironic twist on Old Testament-style stories about people being struck down for worshipping false idols – except this time with the fanatic being killed directly by the idol itself.
Meanwhile, up on Mount Olympus, there is a direct rivalry between Zeus and Hades which makes them look a lot like the Judeo-Christian God and Satan. Certainly, we are explicitly told in the opening credits that Zeus is a creator-god (“It was Zeus who created man…”), while Hades’ black robes, his murderous bat-like harpies and his attempts to trick Zeus all map quite nicely onto traditional ideas about the Devil (not to mention drawing fruitfully on Ralph Fiennes’ star image as the actor associated with Voldemort in the Potterverse). But Zeus’ own childish, impulsive behaviour makes him far from a paragon of virtue, and indeed this Zeus is a much more morally ambiguous figure than his equivalent in the 1981 film. If he’s a proxy for God, then he starts the film as the Old Testament God of plagues and vengeance. By the end though, of course, his link with Perseus has forced him to become more human and more forgiving. If that’s the case, then another element to Perseus’ role in the film is to echo the story of Jesus establishing the New Testament, and re-harmonising the relationship between mankind and the divine.