Monday, April 05, 2010

Clash of the Motivations

Since I was so stoked that they'd decided to remake the 1981 B-movie classic, Clash of the Titans, of course I had to go see the final result on opening weekend. I'd really expected to like the new version better. Heck, the improvement in special effects alone should have been enough to send Titans '10 up the movie quality ladder by magnitudes over Titans '81. Not to mention better acting, better sets and costumes, a higher budget overall. The upgrade had tools at its disposal the makers of the original probably couldn't have dreamed of, and for that I'd figured Titans '10 would smear Titans '81 to dust.

Weirdly, turns out Titans '81 is actually the better movie. And it's all because of motivation. Who would have thunk that story could end up being way more important than flashy CGI, better acting, cooler sets and costumes and a much higher budget?

Below are major SPOILERS, so stand warned if you haven't seen either version and wish to do so spoiler-free.

For those Titan newbies, the story of both movies is loosely based on the Greek myth of Perseus, demi-god son of Zeus, and his adventures in monster slaying.

In Titans '81, pretty-boy Harry Hamlin's Perseus finds himself plunked down by the gods in the cursed town of Joppa, where he stalks spots the beautiful princess Andromeda while she's sleeping and falls hopelessly, desperately in love.

(Sidebar: you have to completely accept the massive luck Perseus has when Andromeda doesn't wake up to reveal she's actually a brainless Jersey Shore reject with an accent and voice like Fran Drescher's, otherwise it all falls apart right there.)

Perseus learns that Andromeda has been cursed by the angry goddess, Thetis, whose feelings were hurt when Andromeda refused to marry Thetis's son Calibos after Zeus turned Calibos into a disfigured goat-monster as punishment for killing Zeus's herd of flying horses. Thetis's vengeful dictate now means that any man who wants to marry Andromeda must correctly answer a crazy-hard riddle, but if he fails - which they all do - he is burned at the stake.

Perseus, driven by his passionate feelings for Andromeda, fights Calibos and finally breaks the curse by answering Andromeda's riddle, earning her hand in marriage. However, all is not puppy dogs and rainbow happy endings for this cute couple. When Andromeda's vain mother, the Queen Cassiopeia, brags that Andromeda is more beautiful than even Thetis (hadn't that whole curse debacle taught her anything about pissing off a bitter goddess?), Thetis demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to a sea monster, the dreaded Krakan. Not only does Andromeda have to die in such an undignified manner, she has to remain a virgin, so she and poor Perseus don't even have the option of engaging in a month of full-time nookie until the fateful day arrives.

Which, now that I think on it, maybe means that Perseus wasn't driven so much by love as by insane sexual frustration to embark on his quest to kill the Krakan and save Andromeda. I mean, this guy goes above and beyond just in order to get some. He outsmarts the Stygian witches, fights the three-headed Hydra, and takes on Medusa before finally rescuing his lady love, so he must have been in need of some serious touch.

Still, the idea that a guy would go literally to the Underworld and back in order to save the heroine is tremendously compelling and makes for some awesome myth. Those ancient Greeks knew their shit.

Things aren't quite so simple in Titans '10. Perseus is still there, now in the form of swarthy Sam Worthington, and he's still the demi-god son of Zeus. But his motivation for all of the destruction and mayhem he endures isn't quite so noble as wuv, tru wuv.

Perseus's adopted father, mother and sister are casualties of a war started by humans against the gods of Olympus, whom the humans have started to resent for not taking better care of them. Fueled by grief and rage, Perseus declares his own  war against Zeus and Co., with Hades serving as the specific target of his revenge since Hades was on the scene when Perseus's family bit the dust. Perseus has no idea he's Zeus's son, and when he learns this little bit of personal genealogy, he's none too happy about it. In fact, through pretty much all of the movie he rejects any divine intervention on his behalf and refuses to play his half-god card, determined to "win this as just a man" even if that means "win this as just a man who's now dead".

Andromeda shows up as well, but Perseus couldn't really give two hoots about her. When Cassiopeia brags on Andromeda's beauty being more awe-inspiring than any god, it's Hades and not Thetis who condemns the city to destruction at the hands of the Krakan. He gives the folks of Argos (another change from Titans '81 where it was Joppa, not Argos, in jeopardy) an out if they are willing to give up Andromeda to the Krakan. They have a full 10 days to decide between sacrificing a single virgin versus facing the complete destruction of their city and the death of every single citizen, but Perseus doesn't stick around to debate which totally obvious and reasonable Sophie's Choice-like option the townies should take. He's on a personal mission to destroy Hades and if he manages to save a princess or a city or two in the process, well, cool. Bonus.

The balance of Titans '10 pretty much follows Titans '81 with the same parade of monsters to be defeated and a few insignificant if not minor story changes. For example, Perseus's fellow demi-god rival, Calibos, is no longer Andromeda's spurned fiancé but rather the very human king that Zeus cuckolded to produce Perseus. Titans '10 Perseus and his crew receive some big time deus ex machina assistance from a band of djinn, creatures that had nothing whatsoever to do with Greek mythology if my facts are straight. Oh, and Titans '10 threw in a crazy religious zealot to supposedly rack up the tension regarding Andromeda's being sacrificed or not. At least, that's the only reason I could see that he was there.

Not so insignificant is Perseus's complete and total lack of romance with Andromeda. Instead, Titans '10 Perseus develops a serious jones for Io, an ageless demi-goddess who's been saddled with assigned the job of watching over Perseus for his entire life. Io serves as exposition faery, wise mentor, and hot semi-badass babe to throw some UST on top of Perseus's pile of troubles. Not that this romance ever develops the steam to be compelling in that OMG-that-was-so-hot! way or has anything whatsoever to do with the story itself. Just a little something to keep the womens happy, I guess.

My question, though, is why this change in female focus? Why not just keep as Perseus's motivation for all he does his great, epic love for Andromeda and the need to save her from being eaten? It worked for the ancient Greeks, right? And they built some pretty kick-ass monuments that are still around.

Sure, maybe today's audience wouldn't buy the original's far-fetched premise that Perseus would risk life and limb for a woman he fell in love with before she even spoke a single word to him. Heck, before she even opened her eyes and acknowledged his existence. And I imagine audiences of today wouldn't like so much that Perseus and Andromeda are separated for most of the story while he's off slaying monsters and she's busy contemplating her upcoming gruesome death between the jaws of a terrifying Titan. And it's true that us post-Buffy, tech-savvy gals aren't as down with the level of damsel the original Andromeda displayed with all of her being chained to the rock and writhing helplessly, waiting for the saving to start. Heck, these days we ladies even kill our own spiders. Really.

But any screenwriter worth his/her salt could have solved these problems easily. The new and improved Andromeda v. 2.0 could have been one bad-ass princess determined to take up a sword and save her own damn city and her own damn life her own damn self. Road trip with Perseus wherein many wacky hijinks and a butt-load of monster-ass-whupping ensue. Throw in some sizzling near-kisses, glimpses of creamy bare skin and rippling six-pack abs, and a few longing eye-locks, we could buy that these two crazy kids might just have something for each other after all.

At the very least, the Titan '10 braintrust could have ignored the implausibility of the Perseus/Andromeda Insta-Love-Of-All-Eternity (tm) and just hoped that we audience members would be willing to suspend our disbelief another tiny fraction to go with it, not such an out-there request given that we're already expected to buy a story that involves immortal gods, giant scorpions, and a woman who has snakes for hair. Sometimes we will amaze you with our ability for accepting the ridiculous.

So, net net, Titans '81 Perseus is driven by lust love for Andromeda to all of his daring do. Titans '10 Perseus is driven by revenge and some god-sized Daddy issues. I'll give you two guesses which motivation provides for a much more interesting story.

Titans '10 Perseus came over as a tad bit whiny and a whole lot bitter, and to be really honest, other than the total destruction of Argos and the death of all of its cute pets and little kids inhabitants, I really didn't care much if Perseus succeeded in defeating the Krakan or saving Andromeda. He didn't really have a personal stake in the matter, after all. Somehow risking life and limb in order to exact revenge doesn't seem very heroic or noble to me. It seems a bit stupid. Better had the writers of Titans '10 made their Perseus seem at least a little bit concerned about the people of Argos and thus the hint of purpose to his quest being to save their lives. Heck, they could have at least thrown in a helpless brother or sister living in Argos that Perseus felt compelled to save.

Titans '81 Perseus had a major stake in defeating the Krakan since the sea-beastie was about to consume Perseus's soul-mate. During the entirety of his quest, we wanted him to succeed. We felt his pain and stress and the overwhelming pressure he was under...Despite the cheese, you just had to keep watching to see how it all worked out. I cared about Perseus's success. I wanted him to save Andromeda. Oh, yeah, and the city of Joppa. Of course. Right.

I will say that the one thing Titans '10 did much better than Titans '81 was to give Perseus's soldier posse some names and backstories. In Titans '81, the garrison that accompanied Perseus on his suicide mission adventures were red shirts, only one of the whole group given a name and a handful of dialogue. In Titans '10, all of the soldiers had names and personalities, and they even provided some comic relief. Thus, when they were all picked off one by one, you felt the sting for real. I especially appreciated Draco played by the absolutely delicious Mads Mikkelson (pic to the left) whom I hope to see in more movies very soon (he played Tristram in King Arthur - so very nice - and the villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale). Plus, the costumers gave the soldiers of Argos an awesome hairstyle that they also used in Troy, which surely has to be more historically accurate than the shag worn by Harry Hamlin.

I honestly don't know if you go to Titans '10 without having previously watched Titans '81 how you will feel about the movie. I do know that my reaction is not a result of nostalgia. In anticipation of going to see both Titans '10 and Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief (also loosely based on Perseus: The Greek Original) I purchased the 1981 Clash on DVD and forced invited my 9 year old son to watch it with me, warning him in advance that the special effects were beyond cheezy. (Sidebar: really fun to watch an "old" movie with "antique" special effects with a kid who was born after Titanic, Toy Story, and The Matrix and thinks Gollum lives in a sprawling mansion in Bel-Air.) As we left the theater last night, I asked him which version he liked better.

"The first one," said my son.
"Why?" I asked.
"The story was a lot better."

That's my wise boy.

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