The Lego Movie – review

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Hollywood’s most action-packed summer blockbuster is now playing – on home video!

Everything is awesome! Well, not quite everything – but more than enough to make THE LEGO MOVIE the biggest and best surprise this year. What could have been an annoying piece of feature-length product placement foisted on unsuspecting children, is actually a joyful experience for the whole family, far surpassing recent animated efforts from DreamWorks, Walt Disney Pictures, and Pixar. In fact, despite its February theatrical release, THE LEGO MOVIE qualifies as 2014’s finest summer blockbuster, in form if not in spirit: it take the hackneyed Hollywood template and repurposes its elements (explosions, car crashes, hero plucked from obscurity, wise mentor, hot sidechick) into a satirical contemplation on conformity, cooperation, manufactured entertainment, the joy of imagination run riot, and one’s existential place in a universe run by “The Man Upstairs.”

Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.
Everything is awesome in Emmet's world - even over-priced coffee.

THE LEGO MOVIE launches with an apparently typical prologue, in which the villain, Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell), obtains the “Kragle” – one of those MacGuffin-like doomsday devices that all summer blockbusters need. However, the wizardly Vetruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman) predicts that a hero will find the “Piece of Resistence” that will stop the Kragle. Years later, Emmet Brickowski (voiced by Christ Pratt) is trying to lead a happy life in a world of conformity, but he doesn’t quite fit in. The clever touch is that Emmet is not a rebel; he wants to be like everyone else, but even following a rule book full of instructions (always return a compliment, support the local sports team, buy overpriced coffee), he is too generic too make anyone notice him enough to become his friend – until he stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, whereupon he suddenly becomes the Most Important Person in the Lego Universe. Like a hapless Hitchcockian hero, Emmet finds himself hunted for reasons he does not understand, while being assisted by an ass-kicking lady by the name of Wildstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks).
What follows is equal parts THE MATRIX, TRANSFORMERS, and probably half a dozen other movies, with cameos from virtually every well known cinefantastique franchise you can imagine: Batman, Superman, Han Solo, Gandalf, and Dumbledore (Vetruvius has trouble pronouncing the later’s name and distinguishing the two wizards from each other). What makes THE LEGO MOVIE more than just a jumble of live-action cliches rendered in animation is the film’s willingness to question those cliches.
Our first hint that things are not quite as they seem comes when the last line of  Vetruvius’s poetic prophecy assures us that “all this is true, because it rhymes.” The prophecy results in Emmet being identified as The Special even though Wildstyle, like Trinity in THE MATRIX and Tigress in KUNG FU PANDA, is  clearly more qualified, but then the film jokingly confirms our suspicion that the prophecy was simply made up. In effect, the script acknowledges that Emmet is the traditional White Male Promoted from Obscurity Because the Plot Says So,* whether he deserves it or not.
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland
Batman, Wildstyle, Unikitty, Emmet in Lego Wonderland

Fortunately, THE LEGO MOVIE has more on its mind than simply undermining bad movie cliches. Emmet turns out to not be intrinsically important – in fact, he seems almost useless compared to the “Master Builders” surrounding him – but ultimately, his generic nature is an asset. The film is walking a fine line, avoiding simple dichotomies: while spoofing  onformity, it avoids simply championing individual creativity. As Emmet eventually points out, the Master Builders are great when working alone, but they do not work well as a team, because each is following his own muse. Unlike them, Emmet understands the value of following instructions that direct everyone toward a common goal.
Thus, Emmet saves the world not by being The Special but by being an Everyman. This leads to a brilliantly conceived conclusion, which literally takes the film to a new dimension.
SPOILERS
After being captured by Lord Business, Emmet is expelled into the void – which turns out to be real life, as we know it, realized in live-action, with Farrell now playing a father who has been forbidding his son to play with his elaborate Lego city in the basement (Dad is literally “The Man Upstairs”). The entire story we have seen is, in effect, a dramatization of the conflict between father and son: Dad wants to get everything exactly in place and keep it fixed there permanently with Krazy Glue (i.e., “Kragle”); his son wants to create new things and play, mixing up bits and pieces of different Lego worlds (big city, old west, etc).
When the son notices Emmet lying on the floor and places him back into the Lego world, his father insightfully asks, “What would Emmet say to Lord Business?” When the animated story resumes, Emmet and Lord Business reconcile their differences, vicariously acting out the real-life father-son reconciliation.
The final act is less a surprise twist than a logical conclusion of hints laid throughout the narrative, nicely tying together themes and ideas and tugging at the heart strings in a way that seems sincere rather than manipulative.
END SPOILERS
THE LEGO MOVIE overflows with enough summer-style CGI mayhem to satisfy the most ravenous Michael Bay-addict – assuming said addict can handle witty dialogue and unexpectedly clever plotting. From its early scenes, THE LEGO MOVIE offers more than meets the eye. As Emmet goes about his work day, timed to the infectious theme song “Everything Is Awesome,” you realize that the toe-tapping tune is just another product pumped out by Lord Business to keep the populace content with the status quo, like the brain-dead but popular TV program, “Honey, Where Are My Pants?” (“That never gets old!” proclaims one character of the show’s eternally recurring punchline.)
Computer animation is used to create action sequences worthy of a live-action movie, but with a look that suggests actual Lego pieces filmed with stop-motion – an effect enhanced in the 3D theatrical version. Since Legos are all about building objects piece by piece, the film duplicates – and surpasses – imagery from the TRANSFORMERS movies, as characters instantly refashion their vehicles and weapons to suit the needs of the moment. Meanwhile, the soundtrack mimics the explosive cacophony of overblown action movies, except when occasionally resorting to absurd vocal effects (puttering lips to suggest the sound of a motorboat puttering away).
Lego Movie 2014 Good Cop and Lord Business
Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) with Lord Business (Will Ferrell)

The voice cast is perfect, but special notice goes to Freeman for spoofing his “Purveyor of Wisdom” image (seen most recently in OBLIVION) and to Liam Neeson for a hilarious turn as Lord Business’s henchman,  Good Cop/Bad Cop (think of the two-faced Mayor in TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels show up, voicing their characters from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – which leads to the funnies STAR WARS gag ever, after Batman purloins the hyper-drive from the Millennium Falcon (which doesn’t do such a good job escaping that giant slug hidden in the asteroid)
And let’s not forget Unikitty (Alison Brie), a pink kitty with a unicorn horn, who lives in a happy land where sad thoughts do not exist – or if they do, they must be buried in the deepest, darkest place, where no one will ever find them. Her almost Panglossian desperation to always think happy thoughts, even amid the destruction and chaos wrought by Lord Business, is touching – until it becomes ghoulishly funny when she finally snaps and impales a few of Lord Business’s thugs. Go, Unikitty! I need an action figure of you!
As much fun as THE LEGO MOVIE is, it is not perfect. After Emmet is torn from his ordinary life, the satirical bite fades, and the running joke (it’s a blockbuster action movie performed by Legos!) wears thin midway through. Fortunately, just when you think the story has played itself out, it comes back to life for a third act that is unexpectedly thoughtful without becoming maudlin.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store

That sounds like an awful lot of baggage for a movie inspired by toys. Fortunately, writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are Master Builders, whose imaginatively wrought Lego creation is more than sturdy enough to carry the weight.
Still playing in second-run theatres, THE LEGO MOVIE is also available on instant-streaming services and as a two-disc combo pack, with Blu-ray, DVD, and Ultra-Violet copies. Bonus features include audio commentary, outtakes, deleted scenes, and more. You can purchase a copy in the CFQ Online Store.
[rating=4]
Must see for smart kids of all ages

FOOTNOTE

  • Emmet is yellow, but the point still stands.

The Lego Movie poster
THE LEGO MOVIE (February 1, 2014). Produced by Village Roadshow Pictures and Warner Animation Group, distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, from a story by Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman. Voices: Christ Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams. PG. 100 mins.

Battleship & Lovely Molly: The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast – 3:20

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Aloha, Stranger: Taylor Kitsch and Rihanna are somewhere down there beholding the might of an alien invasion force in BATTLESHIP.

The aliens have landed! Yes. Again. This time they’ve invaded off the coast of Hawaii, so it’s just like Pearl Harbor, if the attack on Pearl Harbor had included such devastating weaponry as Giant Exploding Pegs and Hot-Rodding Robot Fireballs. Can slacker sailor Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), finding himself in command of the lone, surviving ship and assisted by crewmate Rihanna and visiting captain Tadanobu  Asano (just to prove we’re all over Pearl Harbor), find a way of defeating the enemy? Can Hopper’s fiancee Brooklyn Decker, with the help of (actual) double amputee Greg Gadson, destroy the island-based satellite substation before the invading force can signal their cohorts, even as her father, the Admiral (Liam Neeson), stands on the sidelines, shaking his fist and screaming, “Hopperrrrrr!!!” (not really, but close enough)? C’mon, it’s a movie based on a board game — are these really questions?
Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they debate whether director Peter Berg might have been better served doing a film called CROCODILE DENTIST. Also: Dan gives his capsule review of LOVELY MOLLY, the new exercise in ominous horror by BLAIR WITCH’s Eduardo Sanchez. Plus: What’s coming to theaters.

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Wrath of the Titans & Mirror Mirror: The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast – 3:13

FUUUUNNNNNGUUUUSSSS!!!: Sam Worthington's gonna need a vatful of Purell in WRATH OF THE TITANS.
FUUUUNNNNNGUUUUSSSS!!!: Sam Worthington's gonna need to bathe in a vatful of Purell after this moment from WRATH OF THE TITANS.

In the curious ecology that is Hollywood, a film that’s best known as a poster child for what not to do when converting 2D to 3D and for a declarative that become something of a pop-culture punchline has to, of course, have a sequel. In WRATH OF THE TITANS, there’s no Kraken-releasing, but that doesn’t mean demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) doesn’t have his hands full, what with his brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez) teaming up with his uncle Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in order to sacrifice big daddy Zeus (Liam Neeson) in an attempt to resurrect Kronos, a big-ass lava guy who also happens to be father to Zeus and Hades. It’s a family thing, see?
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons get together to discuss how director Jonathan Liebesman (BATTLE LOS ANGELES) fares in tackling this new installment of the mythological franchise. Then Lawrence French joins them to give his reactions to two other releases: the fractured fairy tale, MIRROR MIRROR, and the ominous horror exercise INTRUDERS. Then Dan weighs in with his thoughts on the low-key cloning drama, WOMB. Plus: What’s coming in theaters.

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Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace 3D & Journey 2: The Mysterious Island – CFQ Spotlight Podcast 3:6

Phantom_Menace_Feature_Image_v01

There was no shortage of curiosity when George Lucas announced that he was converting his STAR WARS features to 3D, and no little disappointment when it was revealed that the first film to undergo the process would be the almost universally reviled EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE. Nevertheless here we are at the longest of those long times ago, back in that galaxy far, far away, watching once more as Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his talented padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) try to rescues Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the clutches of the evil Trade Federation, in the process stumbling upon Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young boy with such formidable attributes — including single-handedly building C-3PO and having just by chance been born of immaculate conception — that he might well be the Chosen One, the one destined to bring Balance to the Force. That is, if instead he doesn’t turn to the Dark Side and become… well, let’s just say the name rhymes with Marth Frader.
Our special guest, chronicrift.com‘s John Drew, joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they revisit the newly dimensionalized version of this “first” installment and discuss whether the upgrade is worth donning the special, “Collectible Keepsake” 3D glasses. Also: Larry and Steve give their capsule reviews of JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. Plus: What’s coming in theaters and on home video.

GOING TO GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE THIS WEEKEND?
TWEET YOUR #WalkAwayReview TO @cfqspotlight
(Please don’t tweet during the movie!)

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After.Life: Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast

After sitting out last week’s CLASH OF THE TITAN’s episode, Dan Person’s is back in the host’s chair this week for a round-table discussion of AFTER.LIFE, the new horror-thriller starring Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and Justin Long, about a young woman who wakes up after a car accident to find that she is in a funeral home – dead, according to the mortician. The independent film is in limited release around the country. Also reviewed this week is  THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND, another low-budget horror film in limited release. And of course, the usual round up of news, home video releases, and random recommendations.


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After.Life (2009)

After.Life (2009)Built around an intriguing premise, this ambitious little horror movie deserves credit for its art house aspirations, focusing on characterization, ideas, and intrigue instead of violence and shock; unfortunately, this is a case when “vaulting ambition” o’erleaps itself and falls victim to its own seriousitude, the heavy-handed approach collapsing under its own weight and generating laughter instead of pathos. A generous viewer could cut the film some slack in this regard, had the film stayed true to its intentions; unfortunately, AFTER.LIFE eventually wimps out on its own premise, shifting from a thoughtful meditation on themes of life and death into a manipulative thriller, with some extremely unlikely (well, frankly impossible) twists and turns. Curious fans of Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and/or Justin Long may want to risk a viewing, even if the film ultimately fails to live up to their best efforts.

Anna Tayler (Ricci) is a school teacher whose relationship with Paul (Long) is deteriorating for unclear reasons, apparently some vague angst on her part. After an argument at a restaurant, Anna gets in a car accident and wakes up to find herself being prepped for burial by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), whose reaction is curiously calm as he insists that Anna is dead despite being conscious. Reluctant to take Deacon at his word, Anna tries to escape and contact Paul, who mistakes her telephone call for a sick prank but grows suspicious when one of Anna student’s claims to have seen her standing in a window of the mortuary.
The storyline of AFTER.LIFE follows two tracks. The first presents a vision of how the dead might look back upon their life and loved ones after being unshackled from the earthly cares that weighed them down while alive. Essentially, this is a horror-movie spin on the final act of Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town. Not a bad idea at all, it offers the film a chance to ruminate on themes of life and death with a morbid fascination that at first seems poised on the brink of achieving its higher ambitions.

In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.
In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.

Unfortunately, these ambitions are undermined by the story’s second track, which is more conventional – although, at least initially, handled with some intriguing flair. The question fueling this aspect of the plot is whether Anna is really in limbo, with Deacon acting as a sort of Angel of Death easing her to the other side, or is she really still alive – merely the victim of some bizarre mind game played by Deacon for mysterious reasons of his own? Director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo offers a series of clues that tease the audience with their implications (for example, several hallucinatory scenes offer visual echoes of each other, suggesting that the film may be a post-mortem dream in Anna’s head), but eventually it becomes obvious that she and her co-writers Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk have not thought their story through.
[SPOILERS AHEAD]
After three days on the slab, having finally been convinced by Deacon that she is dead, Anna realizes that she is actually still alive when she sees her warm breath fog a mirror. The fact that she hasn’t eaten a meal during this time – and should be ravenously hungry – does not seem to have occurred to the writers, nor are they concerned with the unpleasant aspect of bodily functions (e.g, relieving bladder and bowels), which should have clued Anna in to the fact that her life process were still fully functional.
By abandoning its core conceit, AFTER.LIFE abandons its its hold on our attention, along with the art house ambitions that would have justified its serous tone and relatively restrained approach to the horror genre. What remains is too mild to work as a gripping thriller and too contrived to evoke audience empathy. Instead of an ambiguous, almost abstract psycho-drama (a la the wonderful 1989 film CLOSET LAND, with Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe), we get sub-prime Lucio Fulci, without the gore or the suspense; and even AFTER.LIFE’s absurdity lacks the charm of Fulci’s (supposedly) intentional disregard for narrative logic.
[END SPOILERS]
On the plus side, there are some clever touches. Just before her car accidental, Anna dyed her hair red (red being the color of blood, which can symbolize passion and life). In the mortuary, Anna’s grieving mother instructs Deacon to restore Anna’s original hair color. When the red dye rinses down the drain, it resembles lifeblood washing away, Anna’s attempt to embue herself with artificial, symbolic life stripped away as she is infantalized, her appearance no longer dicatated by herself but now by her mother.
Neeson and Long deliver good performances, even if the script prevents them from crafting fully realized characters. In the case of Neeson’s mortician, the problem is that the mystery surrounding the character prevents any depth from developing, and as good as he is, Neeson is not the sort who can fill in the blanks with his mere presence. Long’s problem is simply that his character is ineffectual and at times bathetic (at one point, the film indicates his grief-stricken mental state by having him strike a child – a scene that generates derisive guffaws).
Miss Taylor (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against the mortician (Liam Neeson), who insists that she is dead.
Anna (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against Deacon (Liam Neeson), as the film morphs into a conventional thriller.

Even more on the plus side (at least for the male audience), Ricci looks great in the red satin slip she wears throughout most of the film (again, the red suggesting the fire buried deep within her soul, which is otherwise not apparent in her physical appearance, which is dark and subdued). She has the perfect Goth look to convey a character poised somewhere between life and death, which only makes AFTER.LIFE’s brief flirtation with presenting her as “La Morte Amoureuse” all the more frustrating when it is simply abandoned. Even when the script forces Ricci to completely undress for the final act, the visual approach remains impressively non-exploitative (perhaps because the director is a woman), with cool-blue lighting giving the impression that we are viewing something akin to living sculpture, whose form is truly breath-taking.
This may be one of the AFTER.LIFE’s more successful stabs at subtlety: making us view the character as a beautiful object, a soul-less body, just as Deacon is finally convincing Anna that she is truly lifeless, a walking, talking non-entity who merely imitates life out of robotic habit. Had the film fully explored this idea, it might actually have achieved its ambitions.
AFTER.LIFE (Copyright 2009; theatrical release: April 9, 2010). Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo & Paul Vosloo & Jakub Korolczuk. Cast: Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long.
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Cybersurfing: DreadCentral interviews After.Life director

Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson
Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson

DreadCentral.com has posted an interview with Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, the female director of AFTER.LIFE, the independent horror film starring Christina Ricci and Liam Neeson, which will receive a limited platform theatrical release from Anchor Bay this Friday. As far as in-depth information, the interview’s blood runs a bit thin, but Wojtowicz-Vosloo does have a few interesting remarks about what she was trying to achieve with her film, which follows a woman (Ricci) who wakes up on an autopsy slab, where she is confronted by a mortician (Neeson) who insists that she is dead:

“I thought a lot about what happens to the body after death, what happens to your soul, or even what stages your consciousness goes through,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “I wanted to go beyond this idea of death and look at the human experience as a whole. If someone is physically alive but moves along like an empty vessel, is that person truly alive?”

Wojtowicz-Vosloo cites Kubrick’s THE SHINING, Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, and Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS as major influences, and she notes that AFTER.LIFE does not fit comfortably into the current horror landscape, which is littered with remakes, sequels, and torture porn:

“I’m not quite sure that audiences are ready for After.Life since there aren’t a lot of distinctive horror films that make it into theaters these days,” explained Wojtowicz-Vosloo. “Horror fans are smart so I think they will like After.Life if they give it a chance, but I am aware of what we’re up against.”

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Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)Coming across like a mythological hybrid of its official source material and GLADIATOR, the remake extracts the essence of the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS and updates it for the new millennium, enhancing not only the special effects but also the story. Some of the simple, innocent charm of the original is lost in translation, but the benefits are more than ample compensation. The new CLASH strives for greater depth and complexity, and even though it does not fully succeed, the serious approach enhances the entertainment, which is wrapped up in an action-packed scenario that seldom succumbs to the pitfalls of its own higher ambitions. The result is a satisfying adventure movie that manages to strum a few emotional and thematic chords as well.
Almost all the familiar characters are here:* Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus (Sam Worthington), Andromeda ( Alexa Davalos), Calibos (Jason Flemyng), the Stygian Witches, the giant scorpions, Medusa, Pegasus, the Kraken, along with new ones such as Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Io (Gemma Atherton). However,the elements have been reconfigured in an effort to maintain a more mature and sophisticated tone.
This CLASH OF THE TITANS announces its intentions most clearly in a brief throw-away moment when Perseus (Sam Worthington) finds a mechanical owl while prepping for his epic journey. We in the audience recognize it as a replica of the comic relief sidekick that marred the second half of the original CLASH. Its significance eludes the new Perseus, who asks innocently, “What’s this?” A comrade replies disdainfully, “Just leave it.” Thankfully, that is the last time we see the metalic fowl, freeing this CLASH from the antics that morphing the 1981 film from Greek mythology into a kiddie fairy tale. Instead, we get an action-opus aimed at slightly older boys – teens and young adults, who prefer their heros tough, strong, and slightly cynical.
If there is a weakness to this boy’s adventure approach, it is that the female roles are slightly down-graded, with Andromeda pushed mostly off-screen. The script attempts to compensate by inserting Io, a woman cursed with immortality after offending the gods (apparently a variation on the legend of the Immortal Roman or the Wandering Jew). Unfortunately, Io is less of a character than a plot-device, her ageless status qualifying her as an expert on just about everything, allowing her to act as a mouth-piece for exposition. Strangely, Io is ignorant of the one essential piece of information that Perseus needs (how to kill the monstrous Kraken). Presumably, this is just a weak writer’s device, in order to retain Perseus’s quest to find the Stygian Witches, three cannibalistic old crones who will reveal the necessary tactic.
The script occasionally succumbs to its episodic nature, which is reminiscent of a videogame (strange since the original CLASH was made before videogames had quite such a big influence on films). Perseus must go to the witches to get a piece of information, which leads him to Medusa, whom he must defeat in order to use her head against the Kraken, but only after overcoming Calibos. After a strong opening that involves the viewer in Perseus’s plight, the linear narrative eventually bogs down in the middle.
Fortunately, the story revives for a rousing ending, and many of the screenplay’s innovations represent improvements upon the old CLASH OF THE TITANS. For example, the scorpion battle now takes place before – rather than after – the confrontation with Medusa; the scene always felt like an anti-climax in the original.
There is also a worthwhile attempt to inject small touches of characterization into the supporting cast, most notably the soldiers who accompany Perseus on his quest; unlike the mostly faceless extras who die in the Ray Harryhausen production (with little or no emotional impact), each of these characters gets at least a moment to make a small impression. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make their deaths register.

Ralph Fiennes as Hades
Ralph Fiennes as Hades

The script is aided by some strong casting. Postlethwaite especially shines in a brief role; as Perseu’s adoptive father, he makes you understand Perseus’s defiance of the gods even better than Worthington does. Worthington himself is solid as an action hero, but he doesn’t quite have the charisma to portray a demi-god: when he insists on acting as a human, you don’t feel he is denying another part of himself; he is simply stating what is visible to us. Mads Mikkelson (CASINO ROYALE) makes a memorable impression as Draco, initially skeptical of Perseus, and Liam Neeson cuts a fine figure as Zeus, by turns angry and forgiving (as Freud said, God is the ultimate father figure). But the stand-out performance comes from Fiennes as Hades: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, he is not only threatening but insinuating; resentful of his devious treatment by Zeus, he even engenders a small amount of empathy.
The character relationships have been reconfigured in an effort to tighten up the plot threads and to develop the thematic undertones. For example, the mis-shapen Calibos is no longer a suiter of Andromeda but the former King Acrisius, struck down by the gods for casting his wife and her child, Perseus, son of Zeus, into the ocean, from which the boy is rescued by fishermen Spyros (Peter Postlethwait).
In effect, Perseus is given three father figures: a god (Zeus), a mortal (Spyros), and a mortal who has been touched by gods (Calibos). The only fully sympathetic one is Spyros, and his death at the hands of Hades (collateral damage when Zeus decides to humble arrogant humanity) fuels Perseus’ desire to challenge the dictates of the gods. The irony, of course, is that Perseus’s only chance of succeeding is that he is himself a demi-god, who receives an occasional bit of divine intervention on his behalf; although allegedly acting of his own free will, he becomes a weapon in the fued between Zeus and Hades, and eventually has to reconcile himself to his own personal God, the Father.
If this sounds a bit theological for an action pic, we should remember that the ghost of the idea exists in the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS, in which mortal heroes were able to triumph as much in spite of as because of the gods, human courage serving as a marked contrast to the petty infighting of the inhabitants atop Mount Olympus. This echo of a theme underlying Wagner’s Ring operas even led to the film’s own suggestion of a “Twilight of the Gods,” with a closing narration suggesting that the legend of Perseus’s deeds would outlast the gods themselves, turning the hero into the true immortal.
The new CLASH OF THE TITANS infuses this idea throughout the narrative, beginning with Spyros’s refusal to thank the gods (whose whims have led to nothing but hardship for him and his family), leading eventually to Perseus’s full-scale defiance. The anti-religious tone is at once engaging and amusing – it’s obviously safe to spit in the eyes of the Greek pantheon without risking too much back-lash from conservative Christians, even though the screenplay is obviously the one as a stand-in for the other. (Perseus, son of a god, is at one point referred to as “our savior,” and his life as a fisherman reminds us of the occupation of the New Testament apostles, who Jesus made “fishers of men”).
Ultimately, the film backs off from its apparent intentions, settling for a more moderate, less radical thematic statement. Zeus, who is initially angered by Perseus’s defiance, has an off-screen change of heart (presumably motivated by the need by a combination of paternal love and a need to defeat Hades) and lends a helping hand to his would-be mortal son, appearing to him initially as a cloaked figure, rather as Wotan appears to Siegfried in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. The scene in the opera represented the end of the authority of the gods, as Seigfried shatters Wotan’s staff; in CLASH, on the other hand, Perseus learns to accept the help of his heavenly father, even as that father admits his own mistakes and encourages his son to be “better” than the gods have been.
The message may ultimately be a bit muddled (one wonders if this is the result of rewrites to tone down possibly controversial elements), but it’s strong enough to give a sense that CLASH OF THE TITANS is about something more than a monster battle every ten minutes – even while the film serves up all the special effects action that any monster-loving kid could ever want.
The computer-generated effects display a dynamism missing from Harryhausen’s old stop-motion work – which, fine as it was, tended to be staged in proscenium arch style, with the camera at a safe distance. Here, the viewer is right up in the action, nose to nose with mythological beasts that may lack some of the personality of Harryhausen’s unique creations but offer instead greater speed and agility.
The action and special effects are “enhanced” by 3D this time around, but at least in the Real 3D process, the enhancement is minimal. There is some small sense of depth to the image, but the effect is hardly immersive. For example, the flying scenes with Perseus riding the winged horse Pegasus are nicely handled but lack the visceral thrill of similar 3D scenes in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and little would be lost by watching the film in 2D.
For the most part, even hard-core Harryhausen fans should be pleased by the new approach. Pegasus, seen less often, displays more power, the stead canter of the original replaced with speed and agility. The Kraken, especially, is a big improvement, conveying immense size and raw power of an apocalyptic nature that far exceeds the original beastie (who never quite lived up to his build-up in the ’81 flick). It’s also amusing to see the harpies from Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS show up here and there – a nice nod from the filmmakers, indicating that they are knowledgeable fans of the retired special effects artist, not just paid hacks cashing in on a pre-existing property.
The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon
The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon

The one exception, perhaps, is Medusa. The gorgon’s scene is now augmented with sinister, mocking laughter that adds an extra shivery layer of fear, and her snake-like appearance is obviously inspired by Harryhausen’s design. The problem is that the filmmakers lack the wisdom to know that just because you can do something different with computer-generated imagery, doesn’t mean you shoulddo it. The 1981 Medusa is a perfect example when the limitations of stop-motion were actually perfectly appropriate for achieving the desired effect; her  scene is a model of slowly building suspense. The new Medusa is a super-charged serpent that moves with the speed of a champion thoroughbred hopped-up on amphetimines, hurling her body over chasms in a gravity-defying manner that simply screems “CGI!” She is not quite as bad as the snake in ANACONDA, but the problem is similar, the lack of inertia reminding us that we are not watching something real, not even watching something stylized; we are simply watching something digital.
The original CLASH OF THE TITANS was a bit of an auteur piece – uniquely, not from a director but from a special effects supervisor. The film as a whole is imbued with Harryhausen’s personality, for better or worse, making it an artistic statement that should be read as the culmination of a long and fruitful career (it was Harryhausen’s swan song in cinema). The remake is more of a studio effort, with various craftsmen brought onto to exploit a pre-existing property. Fortunately, love of the original shines through powerfully enough to render this new CLASH as something more than a soulless exercise in mass-market filmmaking.
If the original was somewhat schizophrenic (suspended somewhere between spectacular epic and kiddie fantasy), so is the remake (talking out of both sides of the mouth regarding whether we are better off with or without the gods). Neither is perfect, but both have their own kind of integrity, pitching themselves toward their intended audience with satisfyingly entertaining results. The new CLASH OF THE TITANS aims higher than the original, and even if it does not fully ascend to the intended Olympian heights, it does manage to reach the clouds.
The Kraken rears its ugly head
The Kraken rears its ugly head

CLASH OF THE TITANS(April 2, 2010). Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 film written by Beverly Cross. Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason FLemyng, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Mads Mikkelsen, Liam Cunningham, Vincent Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, Elizabeth McGovern.
FOOTNOTE:

  • Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, and a giant vulture are nowhere to be scene in this CLASH OF THE TITANS.

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Clash of the Titans: Liam Neeson Video Interview

Actor Liam Neeson discusses his role as Zeus, King of the Gods, in CLASH OF THE TITANS. The film stars Sam Worthington (AVATAR), Mads Mikkelsen (CASINO ROYALE), and Ralph Fiennes (THE AVENGERS). Louis Leterrier directed from a screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, based on the Beverley Cross script for the 1981 film, which featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
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