Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Frequent readers likely have noticed my general disdain for computer-generated imagery (CGI) in films. Sometimes these techniques work well, but too often they look cheesy and artificial. Even solid flicks like Spider-Man are marred by weak CGI; the fake-looking shots actively distract me.
While the phony qualities of much CGI cause most of my objections to the format, I have other reasons as well. At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I simply miss the sheer artistry behind the better physical effects. Even if they don’t seem totally realistic and convincing, they offer such warmth and charm that I don’t care. I respect the work of CGI artists and know many of them put a lot of time into their material, but those shots usually seem cold.
Lots of people use phrases like “charm” and “warmth” to excuse flaws, and one might accuse me of this as well. One can argue that I’m simply swapping one set of problems for another. The effects I espouse often seem unconvincing, so what makes their artificiality superior to the fakeness of the CGI?
I think the fact that most non-CGI effects actually exist makes a difference. The intangibles sway me as well - the simple fact that I know someone had to physically build and manipulate an element rather than just create it inside a computer.
To clarify: I don’t want to insult all of the CGI artists out there, for I think some of them do incredible work. I simply dislike Hollywood’s heavy dependence on the form and also the fact that this means the probable death of so many other kinds of effects. Everyone’s so heavily into CGI that there seems to be little reason for newcomers to invest their time in older forms.
One of the oldest kinds of physical effect, stop-motion animation brought life to classics like the original King Kong. The field reached its zenith with the pioneering work of Ray Harryhausen, arguably the most famous effects man of all-time. Old Ray’s still with us, but he hasn’t worked on a film in more than 20 years. He went out with 1981’s Clash of the Titans, a veritable feast of stop-motion animation that relied exceedingly heavily on his work.
Too heavily, if you ask me. Despite my affection for older methods of visual effects, they clearly have their flaws, and Titans exposed many of them. While the movie has its charms and seems entertaining as a whole, I think it goes overboard in its use of different effects elements.
King of the gods Zeus (Laurence Olivier) gets it on with beautiful mortal Danae (Vida Taylor). Their union produces a son named Perseus. When her father King Acrisius of Argos (Donald Houston) casts Danae and the infant Perseus into the sea, Zeus has the pair rescued and relocated to the island of Seriphos, where Perseus grows to manhood. The adult Perseus (Harry Hamlin) begins a quest to return to his rightful throne in Argos, which Zeus had destroyed as punishment for Acrisius’ act.
As Perseus heads home, he starts to learn his place in the grand scheme of things. Zeus gives him some cool hardware, and Perseus soon encounters the lovely Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker). Originally slated to marry Calibos (Neil McCarthy) - the son of Thetis, goddess of the sea (Maggie Smith) - Zeus punished him for some cruel acts and turned him into a deformed monster. Calibos places a curse upon Joppa: each suitor for Andromeda has to solve a riddle or he gets burned alive. Studly Perseus confronts Calibos and spares the monster’s life only if he eliminates the curse. Not the nicest of guys, Calibos essentially goes back on the deal and appeals to his mommy for help. When Andromeda’s mom Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) states her daughter’s more beautiful than Thetis, the goddess demands that they sacrifice Andromeda to the Kraken or she’ll destroy Joppa.
Man, these folks just can’t catch a break! From there, the movie basically turns into a series of quests. At times, the flick feels like a role-playing game. Perseus goes from place to place to retrieve objects and slay creatures without any real sense of plot or character development. The movie has a fragmented feel that never really comes together.
Despite the seemingly capricious nature of the story, Titans manages to offer some fun. It’s an awkward flick, as exposition gets tacked on in unnatural ways. For example, Zeus’ introduction of the other gods makes no sense; he states their roles as he chats with them. Shouldn’t these folks already be really aware of who they are and what they do? In a movie filled with lots of different - and semi-complicated - personalities, those moments become distracting at times.
Despite that, the film contains enough adventure to seem moderately compelling. Actually, on the surface Titans appears weak. As I break down the various elements, most of them come across as flawed. Despite a fairly strong cast, the acting doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Major talents like Olivier and Smith phone in their work, and both Hamlin and Bowker seem attractive but dull.
The effects material in Titans doesn’t represent Harryhausen’s finest hour. The work appears ambitious - probably too ambitious, really. Quite a few scenes include stop-motion animation for no apparent reason. For example, McCarthy plays Calibos for close-ups, but in wide shots we go to a puppet. Why? Sure, the puppet moves his tail, but those elements easily could have been achieved alongside the real-life McCarthy. The same went for the Medusa - there was no need to feature her solely via stop-motion. The sequences seem interesting but pointless, and they took me out of the film.
Probably the most effective animated character is Bubo the mechanical owl. As a robotic creature, he’s supposed to seem somewhat stiff and artificial, so it made more sense for him to be a stop-motion creation. Even Bubo has his problems, though. Nonetheless, I think a lot of these stem from the progress seen in effects since 1981; back then, Bubo really impressed me, but he looks pretty cheesy now.
One might argue that Bubo’s the best-acted and most memorable character in Clash of the Titans. Overall, the movie seems watchable and generally entertaining, but it fails to become more than that. It stands as a historical footnote since it’s the last hurrah of Ray Harryhausen, but otherwise, it’s not terribly memorable.