It’s gotten to the point where studio period and fantasy epics are as ubiquitous as sequels, remakes, and superheroes. This of course creates a paradox in that the entire reason for the existence of these films is their flash and spectacle. If Wrath of the Titans, a sequel to a remake focusing on a mythological superhero, has taught me anything, it’s that it might be time for these movies to vanish to the ethereal plains…at least for a little while. The latest in a string of underwhelming, despite themselves, period epics, Wrath is a tedious chore as messy in its visuals as it is frustratingly poor in its construction.
The story here is that Perseus (Sam Worthington), having saved the world from both Medusa and the Kraken, is called into hero service again when his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) is taken prisoner by Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez). The two conspirators plan to use Zeus’ power to release the sinister father of gods: Kronos. I use the word “story” loosely because whatever moments in the film aren’t the chapter distinctions in “How Not to Write to Write a Screenplay” are simply cribbed from Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology”; more accurately from someone reading “Baby’s First Edith Hamilton” picture book. The screenwriters flipped through it, carelessly flopping their fingers on the most eye-catching beasts, exclaiming, “this one, and this one, and this one…put them all in there.” At this point, one intelligent assistant offered, “guys, those aren’t even Perseus stories.” That assistant was then fired.
So many of the set pieces of Wrath are simply regurgitated piles of whatever Greek mythological beasts weren’t in the last film, but have been featured in countless others. It’s a real shame, because I was really hoping the fact that they weren’t confined to the story of the ’81 Clash meant that they were going to do something original and, God forbid, interesting. Instead we get reheated myths surrounded by a poor recreation of elements we’ve seen in other epics. I’m not suggesting that Wrath outright stole these elements, but it’s obvious just how little care was put into giving this film its own distinct identity.
(Some spoilers ahead.)
Judging a film like this based on its writing may seem like judging the wine selection at a NASCAR race, but in the case of Wrath, it does sully the more id-pleasing aspects typically found in fantasy epics. Example? What is Perseus’ motivation? Is it his son Helios? He doesn’t seem to care one iota about him at the end, awkwardly sitting in separate tents like they’ve just broken up and earlier barking orders at him like a servant; not the least bit pleased to have saved his life. Incidentally, this theoretical motivation is further muddied by a basic filmmaking flub early on. There’s a shot of the Chimera coming between Perseus and Helios. We see the beast turn and breath fire in the direction of Helios, everything slows a bit and gets dramatic, and then Perseus slays the Chimera. He then goes immediately into the hut and we no longer see Helios. Any reasonable human being would assume that Helios is dead, but he comes walking back into shot and Perseus seems utterly indifferent to his presence; taking it for granted that the audience somehow psychically knew the boy had lived. If director Jonathan Liebesman had any modicum of talent as a filmmaker he would know that he needed just the briefest of insert shots to show that Perseus had actually saved his son and therefore the heroics of his deeds wouldn’t feel squandered.
So if not to save his son, is Perseus’ motivation to save the world? Maybe, but then why does he only use his demigod powers once, at the very end of the film, and at no other point? It’s not as if those powers were influenced by where he was when he finally used them or some mystical artifact. Zeus literally says, “come on, use your powers” and he does. I’m sure the corpse cobblestones in his wake, formerly his compatriots, would have appreciated his using these powers sooner. So saving the world seems like an unsupported claim, how about other familial ties? He does keep referring to having to save his father, Zeus, but that makes absolutely no sense. In the first film, Perseus’ mortal family was killed by the gods and the entire conceit of the film is that he is rebelling against them as a result. So why all of a sudden is he all lovey dovey with both his deity father and his uncle Poseidon? Yeah, okay, Perseus, you HAVE to save Zeus. I guess we’ll just overlook the fact that the last time you saw him he tried to kill you by RELEASING THE FUCKING KRACKEN! I guess they hashed out this violent feud over beers between the two movies and we don’t need to know about it. Just further evidence of the utter laziness of this script.
Because we don’t really know his motivation, we don’t really care about his journey and therefore whether he succeeds or not. Just like in the first, Perseus is such a passive hero, and I’m tired of passive heroes in fantasy epics. This desperate clinging to monomyth is a big reason why all these flicks are beginning to congeal together and lose distinction. I wanted to see Perseus the monster-hunter, a roaming badass who frees the people of the tyranny of Greek mythologies’ innumerable beasties. If they were going to cram the movie full of all remaining titans and monsters anyway, let Perseus have a more active role. Then at least there would have been a buildup and a power behind his titanic showdowns as monsters began reigning down en masse. Speaking of which, to the people of Perseus’ village, what in your history, in Perseus’ tales, or in your own goddamn religion makes you think it’s a good idea to stand at the impact crater of something that just fell from the sky? It’s like you’re trying to get killed, which makes me indifferent as to whether Perseus saves you.
On the acting side of things, there is barely a performance to be found in Wrath of the Titans. Most of the characters are directed to stand and deliver lines as “epically” as possible, even when the lines don’t make any goddamn sense in context. A character will stand in the glimmering sunlight on a battlefield, turn toward the camera, and say something like, “we can’t go home.” Meanwhile, there has been no attempt to explain to the audience why it is that they can’t go home. Not even the slightest hint of subtext that would allow us to infer just what the hell the character is talking about. So what we end up with are essentially dirty, but regal-looking, cardboard cutouts in lieu of actual characters. Oh, and no one even tries to disguise their various accents anymore. Worthington is full Aussie, while nearly the rest of ancient Greece seems to reside smack dab in the middle of the current United Kingdom. Blimæ! The only two real performances per se are both from characters designed to provide comic relief. One such performance, that of Bill Nighy as a senile Hephaestus, works quite well and pokes the sole vent of fresh air in this otherwise suffocatingly average affair. The other is Toby Kebbell doing an apparent Russell Brand impression as the rascally Agenor. I may not have liked his choices, but at least he made a few.
I’d probably forgive all of these problems, and I mean all of them, if the film weren’t so freaking dull. Again a byproduct of its slapdash writing, the movie wades through its own tired, perfunctory setups to the detriment of our interest. The action sequences are far from what I would call exciting, leading to more watch-checking than visceral reactions. The Ares fight sequences are among the weakest in the film. You’d think the god of war, the being whose entire existence is predicated upon battle, would be able to summon a decent fight. As per the standard of the day, it’s mostly tight shots and handi-cam, which works doubly well in a 3D movie, right? Oof. Would it have ruined the film to have a couple of establishing shots if only in the fight sequences for the main blasted villain who’s the god of bloody war? Bugger, British slang? I must be going Greek too.
Most of the effects are polished and adequate for the purpose of the movie, but not at all spectacular. Honestly, I felt more connected to the world of Clash of the Titans ’81 even with Harryhausen’s stop motion monsters than I did with this. I think it’s because of the 3D. I will admit that the quality of the 3D has vastly improved from the 2010, while everything else unfortunately got worse. It doesn’t help, however, that so much money was spent on creating the CG baddies and more than a few bucks were spent on effectively integrating them into the scenes. There was a great deal of practical dust-kicking to try and force this poorly executed illusion upon us; it’s the digital equivalent of shaking the trees. On top of that, the god-erosion effect is uproariously terrible – like SyFy Channel terrible.
Upside: The 3D is better.
Downside: The story is moronic, the effects underwhelming, and, criminally, the overall result is not even entertaining.
On the Side: Gemma Arterton could not reprise her role as Io because she was filming Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunter.