Clash of the Titans (United States, 1981)

March 05, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Clash of the Titans Poster

On the surface, Clash of the Titans would seem to be mixed using a sure-fire recipe for success, so where did things go wrong? How did a film that should have captured the imagination of the young Star Wars generation end up failing? Some of it has to do with the inability of certain highly regarded actors to perform up to the expected level. Some is the result of abominable special effects. Some comes from the presence of too much juvenilia. But mostly the problem is Beverley Cross' screenplay, which is unacceptably, irredeemably bad. Cross may have understood Greek mythology, but he did not comprehend how to assemble a script that would appeal to both adults and kids.

Greek mythology, with its sex, violence, monsters, and heroes, should provide fertile soil for an epic fantasy adventure, but a greater degree of style is required than the one exhibited by director Desmond Davis, who doesn't seem to know whether this should be a serious endeavor or a children's yarn. The film's tonal shifts from the ridiculous to the sublime are too frequent and oddly handled to be forgivable, and they give Clash of the Titans a split personality. One minute, there's a tense confrontation between Perseus and a hideous monster. The next, he's conversing with a mechanical owl. The movie, which was originally targeted at both Star Wars fans and the ever-growing population of Dungeons & Dragons gamers, failed to enrapture anyone in either camp. Then again, with Clash of the Titans, "camp" is indeed an appropriate descriptor.

This is a re-imagining of the myth of Perseus (Harry Hamlin), the son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier) and a mortal woman. Perseus' claims to fame are his defeat of the dreaded Gorgon Medusa, his taming of the winged horse Pegasus, the defeat of the sea monster Ceto, and his marriage to Andromeda (Judi Bowker). While there are variations in literature about the specifics of these legendary incidents, the movie largely follows the most common accounts, with "the Kraken" substituting for Ceto for reasons unknown. (The Kraken is a sea monster from Norse mythology and has nothing to do with the Gods of Olympus or their parents, the Titans.)

The film's approach to what should be an heroic epic is to treat the material as if no one over the age of 12 would be interested in the story. (Contrast this with how Wolfgang Petersen developed Troy, another tale of a mythical hero.) There is no drama to speak of - simply scenes of Perseus battling one monster then moving on to his next adventure. The romance with Andromeda is lifeless and perfunctory (and, as attractive as Judi Bowker may be, her performance is one-dimensional). Burgess Meredith acts like he's in a Mel Brooks comedy. And the pièce de résistance is the embarrassing metal owl Bubo, which chirps like R2D2. Apparently, it was felt that Clash of the Titans couldn't possibly be entertaining to kids without a version of one of Star Wars' droids. The effect on the film is not unlike the one the Ewoks had on Return of the Jedi. With Burgess Meredith and the owl, it's almost impossible to take Clash of the Titans seriously, and the Doctor Who quality special effects don't help.

Ray Harryhausen is universally revered as being among the greatest of the pre-computer special effects wizards, and his fingerprints are on dozens of Hollywood's most memorable fantasy movie epics (including the Sinbad films and Jason and the Argonauts). Some of the stop-motion animation work in Clash of the Titans is superlative but the other effects elements, particularly the blue-screen work, fail. The scenes with Poseidon cranking the handle to raise the portcullis confining the Kraken are especially bad. While special effects in 1981 were primitive compared to what they have become in the intervening decades, they were not in the Dark Ages. Numerous contemporaneous films (such as The Empire Strikes Back) employed multiple kinds of effects work with more credible results, leaving viewers to wonder what went wrong in Clash of the Titans. Regardless of the cause, the outcome provided the kinds of cringe-worthy moments that jar the viewer out of the delicate spell cast by the film. It's possible to enjoy Clash of the Titans as a celebration of camp but not as the serious endeavor it was envisioned to be. And the good aspects of Harryhausen's work here are swamped by the bad.

One might naturally assume that a movie featuring such respected names as Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, and Sian Phillips would possess some degree of gravitas. Alas, these actors appear less interested in giving performances than in being paid. Olivier in particular is awful, vacillating between going over-the-top and phoning it in. Perhaps a good analog would be Marlon Brando in Superman. At any rate, in the pantheon of screen Zeuses, Olivier doesn't rank highly, ending up somewhere down around Wilfrid Hyde-White from Xanadu. Then there's the choice of Harry Hamlin as Perseus. At the time, Hamlin was largely an unknown and was obviously selected purely on the basis of good looks. There's certainly no acting ability in evidence; the mechanical owl outperforms him. On several occasions, one can be forgiven wondering if Hamlin is in fact one of Harryhausen's less successful animated creatures.

Despite its general failure, some scenes from Clash of the Titans remain memorable. Chief among them is the duel with Medusa, a scene that ripples with tension. Sadly, the battle with the Kraken lacks a similar sense of danger. For a PG-rated movie, Clash of the Titans contains what would be, by today's standards, unacceptably risqué material. In an early scene, a bare breast is seen. Later, Andromeda is shown fully nude from behind. The Medusa battle is also sufficiently creepy to potentially frighten young children. If released today, Clash of the Titans would receive a PG-13 even though the storyline was developed with young audiences in mind. There's not much here for adults unless they're in the mood to be nostalgic about a quarter-century old film that hasn't improved with age. 2010 will apparently see a remake and, considering special effects advances (and the involvement of Lawrence Kasdan as screenwriter), there's hope that this new telling of Perseus' tale may outstrip the original. It wouldn't take much for that to happen.

Clash of the Titans (United States, 1981)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 1981-06-12
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1