Friday, April 2, 2010


The original Clash of the Titans, released in 1981, was the last film to date to showcase the work of stop-motion animation master Ray Harryhausen. It was a loose retelling of the Greek tale of Perseus, slayer of the Gorgon Medusa, with such other mythological wonders mixed in as Pegasus, the Graiai or “Stygian Witches,” & even the Kraken, a sea-monster borrowed from Scandinavian folklore.

It wasn’t Harryhausen’s best movie (that impressive honor, I think, goes to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) but the creature effects were superb nonetheless, & the script, by Beverley Cross, struck a fine fairy-tale tone, playful but not campy. Harry Hamlin played the valiant Perseus, & the cast was full of the slumming likes of Burgess Meredith, Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress & even Sir Laurence Olivier, as Old Man Zeus himself.

The film has been remade, with Sam Worthington of Avatar taking over the role of Perseus, & Liam Neeson stepping into the omnipotent sandals of Zeus.

The remake also features fantasy creatures realized by the computer-generated special-effects technology that rendered Harryhausen obsolete.

Or did it? There are those of us who feel that even the best, most rock-solid-convincing CGI effects (& the best, like those in, say, Jurassic Park, are very good indeed) lack the whimsical charm, & the human warmth, of Harryhausen’s painstaking stop-motion technique. I suppose the attitude is the cinematic equivalent of being a vinyl record buff in the age of the CD, but I can’t help it; there’s nothing like the jerky stylization of stop-motion for me.

Since the new Clash of the Titans movie checks off most of the original’s high points, & since its CGI effects are at the most lavish & extravagant level, it was a nice chance to compare-&-contrast the Old School & New School in state-of-the-art special effects.

Old School wins for me, I’m afraid. The special effects here are grand enough, but there’s also a phantom chilliness about them, a lack of tactility. The original film’s monsters bristled with personality: Harryhausen’s personality. In a sense, he was an actor, performing through his minutely poseable puppets. The creatures in the new film, even though some of them are clever in design, are digital shadows lacking this humanity. There’s an exception to this, a lovely moment in which a giant scorpion, carrying a howdah on its back, slips a little while climbing up a rocky path. It’s the briefest of fleeting details, yet it gives a sense of reality to the fanciful that is lacking elsewhere. It’s a true Harryhausen touch.

These personal preferences aside, the film is solid enough on its own terms. The French director, Louis Leterrier, does much the same job here that he did on 2008’s The Incredible Hulk: impersonal but efficient. This Clash is less of a kids movie than the original, however. It’s been made grimmer, gorier and more macho, in the manner of 300, & it has some patches of nice writing.

The male-bonding banter between the hunks who accompany Perseus on his quest is sort of amusing, & Perseus is given a fine, short-&-sweet pep talk to give the lads before they take on Medusa. The new Clash isn’t a classic, but as a total-immersion fantasy spectacle, I’d say it gave me, on balance, more fun for less of a tired backside than Avatar.


  1. Agreed! There's just something about stop motion (and, I would add, puppeteering and modeling) that evokes actual craft in a way that CGI fails to. It can certainly be argued that CGI is just a new form of craftmanship, but even though there are scores of actual human programmers working on it behind the scenes, the finished product always seems to lack the human touch. I'd almost rather see bad stopmo than good CGI.

    I also wish that CGI was used much more sparingly than it is.

  2. You're right, it can indeed be argued that CGI is just a new form of craftmanship, & there's clearly good & bad CGI. I'm not saying that my preference for lower-tech effects like stop-motion is rational, I'm just saying that it's very strong. It may only be a personal predjudice, but CGI, impressive as it often is, has never quite gotten across a human touch for me.