Clash of the Sources

Polly Walker as Cassiopeia sets the story in motion by insulting Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in "Clash of the Titans" 2010

The Greeks turned to their myths not for religious and spiritual sustenance, but for science. The modern mind looks in wonder and amusement at the stories of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, and Poseidon and thinks the antiquated mind something primitive and verging on silly.

That is, no doubt, how the future minds will look back at our religious institutions as well.

For the average Greek of antiquity, their everyday lives were not determined as fully by the will of the gods the way they are believed to be by Judeo-Christians of 2010. Temples were erected, sacrifices made and libations poured, but then the Greek went on with their day. You consulted oracles for prophecies, and turned to the myths to explain the sunset, the spring and winter, and the whistling wind across the fields.

The current creative function of Greek mythology has been given a new makeover in the remake of The Clash of the Titans, based – loosely – on the story of Perseus, half-man and half-god warrior, and his adventure to rescue Andromeda, slaying the Gorgon Medusa in the process while managing to not turn to stone himself.

Inserted in the story is a Nordic monster, the Kraken, who Perseus must turn to stone with the Gorgon’s head. This is not extant in the Greeks, but they had plenty of their own mythic monsters and beasts to stand in the way of their heroes as well, so we won’t quibble.

There is still a campy aesthetic to the Hollywood portrayal of the gods high on Mount Olympus, as there was in the 1981 original. Zeus glitters like he’s in an Abba video, and all the gods are airbrushed like they’re in a soap opera, as they stand and gaze down on their world and the happenings therein, deciding which move to make on the chessboard next.

Ralph Fiennes is probably the best actor here because of his fun relish in the evil role of Hades, Zeus’s brother confined to rule the underworld and be neglected of man’s love and reverence. There is a great scene early on when Andromeda’s arrogant mother, Cassiopeia (played by actress Polly Walker, who I love as Atia in HBO’s “Rome”), brazenly proclaims they, the humans, no longer have need of the gods at all and are more beautiful anyhow. Hades swoops down to wrathfully show her exactly how dependant on the gods they truly are. This scene really sets the whole thing in motion.

Liam Neeson appears in brief snippets as an angry Zeus, but one never gets the true feeling of might and power that comes along with the mere mention of the King of the Gods, wielder of the lightning bolt.

And don’t even get me started on the complete – complete – omission of Athena, the most active of the gods next to Zeus and Hades. Goddess of warcraft and wisdom, she gives Perseus the shield to slay Medusa with, afterward placing the Gorgon’s head on her own shield. Her presence is usurped mysteriously by Io, who in reality – or at least the original myths – was Perseus’s great grandmother many times over and one-time wife to Zeus.

Then there’s a strange episode with huge tarantulas of some kind that made me think more of the original “Star Trek” series than anything out of antiquity. At least the recent epics Troy and Alexander had authentic Greek pedigree and feel.

To be a little fair to the filmmakers, Greek history and mythology is so full of names, marriages, births, families, and stories that it is incredibly difficult, nigh impossible, to render each and every storyline accurately.

But they certainly could have tried harder.

Nothing can replace the specific quality of Medusa’s portrayal in the original film. Rendered in claymation, which lent her an eerie, unnatural appearance, the Gorgon slithered through her candle-lit palace freezing men to stone and chilled me as a child. In this new one, she is all computerized and flying like a leopard over shattered columns and broken men. I would have liked to have seen at least her face be an actual actress.

Ultimately, one does not leave the theater feeling the true majesty of these powerful myths that have endured for thousands of years. They represent mankind’s mental and rational awakening from the dark age of unawareness, as well as a passionate need to understand the mysterious world around them. The result was the evolution of heartbreaking, beautiful, tragic and inspiring characters and stories that still manage to fill our imaginations with more awe than any modern story that has been thought up.

Instead, the new Clash of the Titans gives us something akin to Starship Troopers and 300, testosterone-infused CGI machines; although, I do have to say I enjoyed parts of this new film much more than the latter two.

While I am thrilled that these stories continue to be given cinematic treatment, I would really love to see them done right, giving dignity and respect to the source, and perpetuating the sorely lacking classical knowledge to our youth and increasingly removed men and women who no longer have to brave the mighty seas of Poseidon or face the horrifying Cyclops to reach their modern day goals.

That is what the cinema is there for now.

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