Thursday, January 5, 2012
Analysis: Clash of the Titans (2010)
I didn't expect a lot out of Clash of the Titans. I knew there were going to be some obligatory Hollywood things - the crew-cut bland protagonist who's on his way to Space Marine status, the love interest, the explosions, etc. The fact that I went into the movie essentially glossing over the existence of these things, though, allowed me to be surprised by the fact that there were some things that I legitimately liked about it. So let's talk about those things, and pretend Sam Worthington doesn't exist (not that that's particularly hard).
For reference purposes, here's Clash of the Titans' story in a nutshell. Perseus is a foundling who ends up in the city of Argos after his foster family is killed by the collateral damage of a vengeful God. In Argos, the same God, Hades, states that he will destroy the city for its impudence and its pride. In the film, this stems from the city's rejection of the Gods' rule; in the original myth it's a different city (in Ethiopia) and Poseidon is going to destroy it because its queen boasted she was more beautiful than his Nereids.
Perseus is identified as a demigod through essentially unknown means (we see Zeus and Hades talking about how he is, and then we cut back and suddenly the humans know too). The people of Argos force Perseus to find a way to kill the Kraken that will be loosed upon the city. Perseus sets out with a group of soldiers (including a few veterans) and some monster hunters for hire to find a way to do so. This way turns out to be the head of Medusa, which can turn the creature to stone. The rest seems pretty self-explanatory, so I'll cut it short.
In the past I've talked about "power levels" for characters, and how a character being too powerful, or inexplicably powerful, robs a scene of its tension. As a big ol' blockbuster Hollywood movie, I was expecting all sorts of that stuff from Clash of the Titans, and while it is technically there, I think it's also important to note how it's justified enough that it works.
Point #2: Perseus doesn't travel alone; he's got several groups of companions. First are the soldiers of Argos, who are joined to his quest because, well, it's their city. They serve as the weakest members of the group, apart from a few veterans. Second are the monster hunters, whose job is specifically to deal with the kind of enemies they face. These individuals join the quest because it interests them, and leave when the stakes become too high (which shows a level of actual independent thought and agency, rather than slavish devotion to the protagonist). Finally, there are the Djinn, desert sorcerers who have replaced much of their body with enchanted wooden prostheses. These individuals help Perseus and his group because they wish to subvert the power of the Gods, though only one actually joins Perseus' quest rather than providing passive assistance.
Finally, there are the soldiers. The soldiers are never depicted as being "incompetent", per se. Rather, their enemies are simply powerful beings: giant scorpions or harpies or gods. They die easily, as humans would logically do in such circumstances, but they also give a good fight of it whenever they can. Working in teams, they're able to bring down larger enemies even when they're obviously outclassed. What I appreciate about the soldiers in Clash of the Titans is that they provide a much-needed grounding element. Unlike some movies or games, where the soldiers would be actually weak, the soldiers in Clash of the Titans are normal, which helps illustrate that everything else is strong.
So let's take a look at a short scene from the movie, a fight against a suitably monstrous foe.
Let's list off some things that are notable from this fight.
First off: everyone's moving quickly. "Everyone" in this case includes the scorpions, which gives the scene a sense of dynamic action. The movements of the humans, whether striking, blocking, or leaping, is as fast as the movements of the scorpions, who stab and thrust with their pincers and tails. What a lot of games and movies end up doing to make large opponents more "simple" is to basically slow them down a bunch. Think back to the lazy swings of the Cave Troll in Lord of the Rings, for example. Yet here the speed of each set of combatants makes the situation more tense, because it feels like everyone's giving it their all.
Second, there's impact from strikes, again on both sides of the fight. The human swords tink and clink off the scorpion's chitin, though a two-handed axe strike naturally has more success. Meanwhile, the scorpion attacks in two main ways: a bash from a pincer, or a stab from either a pincer or tail. The former is used more obviously in this clip, but the latter gets used later in the fight and takes down a few soldiers. The threat of the latter also helps reinforce the importance of shields and armor; even though both are pierced by a direct strike, Perseus evades death twice in that clip alone: first by his armor deflecting a jab, and second by holding a shield in front of him to block the stinger.
Third, the presence of the regular soldiers helps to ground the whole affairs in a few different ways. It helps establish that a normal human has to deal with these fast, poisonous monsters in a pretty straightforward affair of blocking and stabbing at vulnerable points. It also means that there's essentially jobbers around: guys who die in order to make the monster more convincing and portray it as being a threat. While that feels fake in scenarios where the "jobbers" in question show no skill and die easily, the fact that some of the soldiers make progress against the monsters makes their deaths more believable and less "oh yeah they're redshirts".
The end result is that the monsters establish themselves as being solid threats, both in terms of their depiction and in the damage they inflict, and also the soldiers present themselves as being pretty solid, too. It's a situation where both sides are actually pretty evenly matched, rather than one side curb-stomping the other, and those who are more powerful are justified in being so. The previously established hierarchy of power explains why Perseus is fast enough to survive while others don't, and yet his weaknesses also show that he is still in danger, thus preserving the tension.
Now here's another fight scene, the climactic battle against Medusa. Medusa is a classic "puzzle boss", as many Greek monsters are, requiring a combination of brains and brawn to defeat. The premise is simple: if you look into Medusa's eyes, you turn to stone. The warriors must defeat Medusa without looking at her while in her own territory. They must track her by sound and smell alone, with only the barest glances at the edge of their vision to help them visually. Also, she has a bow for some reason.
So, naturally the two soldiers die first. They died because they're normal humans in a wholly disadvantageous situation, and reality catches up with them pretty quickly. This leaves Perseus, the Djinn, and the veteran (who's taken an arrow but is still trucking along). Perseus' plan is to make Medusa chase him by winding through narrow areas where she can't shoot at him, hoping the other two will be able to ambush it at some point along the route. Because of the nature of this plan, this isn't so much a "fight" scene as it is a "chase" scene: Perseus is basically just running away, and the physical challenges he endures are more related to sprinting and jumping than swordsmanship.
After his two companions are taken down while dealing damage to the creature, Perseus stumbles upon his famous solution of using a shield's reflection to get a general sense of where she is, and then attacking. I felt this scene managed to be tense despite the somewhat over-the-top jumping decapitation they went with in the movie, because there's still a sense of both exertion and fear on Perseus' part. Indeed, even after the attack connects he is obviously short of breath and shaken a bit. The reason he was able to pull it off is because he's a demigod (and because of his epiphany regarding the mirror) more than because he's a protagonist.
enchanted sword that Perseus receives from Zeus, which is depicted to the right. The thing about that sword is that it's actually pretty simple and standard for common fantasy. However, much like Demon's Souls, the "alien nature" of the sword is made more evident because the rest of the weapons in the film are so comparatively believable. The weapon doesn't look like it was made by human hands, and in most fantasy it would be like "yeah they all do". In Clash of the Titans, that appearance is actually important, because it wasn't. The contrast between a relatively simple human-made blade and an engraved, artistically designed divine blade helps establish a level of magic or sorcery in the setting. There are a few other examples of this coming up as well, such as Perseus replacing his broken shield with a scorpion's carapace, or the general look of the Djinn compared to the dirty, fleshy humans. The thing that I think Clash of the Titans does best, and why I like it despite its flaws, is convey the sense that this is fantasy overlaid upon reality, rather than fantasy with rules separate from reality. It's "real Greece" (to an extent) combined with monsters and Gods. It's what people actually believed life could be like.