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The impending release of a new version of Clash of the Titans prompted this Blu-ray of Ray Harryhausen's 1981 feature, his last Dynamation special effects extravaganza. Frankly, Savant didn't even go see Clash of the Titans when it came out, having been disappointed by the lack of entertainment value in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad seven years before. I'd been a devout fan, dutifully lining up to see all of Ray's work from The Three Worlds of Gulliver at age 8, to The Valley of Gwangi in college. But I finally had to admit that I'd outgrown the kiddie aspects of Harryhausen's fantasies -- they just weren't making 'em like they used to.
Remastered in HD Blu-ray, Clash of the Titans looks as good as it can. Most of the pizzazz of Harryhausen's earlier work is absent, but the story is sound and some of the production well done. It's certainly better than his previous two Sinbad films, and not a bad note for Ray to retire on.
The story actually tries to be faithful to Greek legend. Furious because Zeus (Laurence Olivier) has impregnated his wife Danae (Vida Taylor), King Acrisius (Donald Houston) sets her adrift at sea with her infant boy. At Olympus, Zeus intercedes on the baby's behalf. Zeus claims he wants to punish the cruel father, but his wife Hera (Claire Bloom), Aphrodite (Ursula Andress), Athena (Susan Fleetwood) and especially Thetis (Maggie Smith) know he's just showing a favoritism he denied Thetis' son Calibos (Neil McCarthy). Calibos was transformed into a monster for his mortal crimes.
Kept safe by Zeus' intervention, the baby grows up to be the handsome Perseus (Harry Hamlin), whose adventure begins when he meets an old poet, Ammon (Burgess Meredith). With Olympic gifts of a magical sword, shield and helmet, Perseus finds his destiny -- to win the beautiful hand of Andromeda (Judy Bowker). The kingdom of her mother Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) is beset by a curse levied by Thetis, as retribution for the ill fate of Calibos, who now inhabits a haunted swamp. Calibos sends a giant vulture to fetch Andromeda during her sleep, in the hopes of winning her favor. Normal suitors for the hand of Andromeda are being burnt at the stake regularly, for failing to solve a riddle that would win them both the princess and the Kingdom.
Perseus confronts Calibos and solves the riddle, but only sets further havoc in motion. Thetis demands that Andromeda be sacrificed to the giant Kraken, a colossal sea monster no man can defeat. Perseus sets out on an even more perilous quest to save her, and must face (indirectly) an even more impossible foe -- the hideous Gorgon Medusa.
On the surface, Clash of the Titans has everything previously denied Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer: top-flight actors and a budget enabling them to shoot in four major locations across Europe. The symphonic score by Laurence Rosenthal is a pricey rarity as well. But there's still a lot missing.
Clash of the Titans can boast Ray's last great set piece: Perseus' encounter with the serpent-like Medusa in a fire-lit cave. Stylized with great mood lighting, beautifully blocked and directed by Ray, the sequence is a beauty of slithering menace.
There are plenty of other impressive effects in the show, but none are as consistent as the Gorgon encounter nor anywhere near as innovative. We're left with a bunch of tame repetitions like the vulture and the scorpions, and some attractive animation with the flying horse Pegasus and the two-headed dog. The model and live-actor Calibos combo at first don't mix, but the animation is so smooth, we forget about the cheat. With the exception of the Medusa (itself a retread of the snake woman from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) the design of the new monsters is lacking. Even the Kraken is an unwieldy mix of monster shapes. Its head is yet another variation on the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth and its body is one of those patchwork jobs, with hands on the end of tentacles, etc.. It seems like a better-sculpted version of one of the sloppy creatures from Jack the Giant Killer. The less said about Bubo the better. The comedy relief mechanical owl wasn't as offensive this time, but in 1981 it seemed that someone had decreed that Perseus needed an R2-D2 robot sidekick. Savant wasn't buying.
What's really missing is a unifying visual look or directorial style. The direction throughout is pedestrian and the actors break through the bad dialogue only intermittently. They were obviously cast to stack a powerful billing block, not because the show needed them. Of the entire Olympic bunch, only Olivier and (briefly) Maggie Smith get to say much; poor Ursula Andress mostly stands like a statue and nods. Olivier certainly rolls some nice expressions from his face, but Niall MacGinnis, Honor Blackman and Michael Gwynn were much more developed in Jason and the Argonauts, with half the effort.
Visually, Clash of the Titans is flat and dull. The locations utilize so little real construction that far too many shots are opticals, resulting in a grainy, 2nd generation look. Every location looks much the same as any other. Moving from a beach to a mountaintop to a real Roman ruin doesn't conjure anything special if the filmmakers don't know how to create a mood. The mythological story is clearly plotted, but poor Perseus' quest reminds more of the dull journeying of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger than the surprises of Jason or 7th Voyage. There's some interest in the concept of showing the Gods to be moody, selfish, and rebellious to Zeus' imperial caprices, and Olympus is never dull, even if the direction up there is just as stiff as on Earth. Toying with mortal destinies by playing with clay action figures, Zeus comes off as the ultimate Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master.
Harry Hamlin is an acceptably good-looking Perseus and the charming Judy Bowker makes a classy Andromeda. The script allows nobody to express anything really affecting, however, and the story doesn't yield much suspense or surprise; it's just too straight and un-poetic to break through and really become memorable. Critics often prodded the Harryhausen films for being too old-fashioned; Clash of the Titans doesn't have the classic visual sense of Ray's old shows (or the classics he based them on) and doesn't compensate with a new or interesting approach.
In the final analysis, Clash of the Titans is prestigious but tame. Its relative success allowed Ray to retire after three uniformly solid box office performers in a row. I prefer to remember it as a couple of fabulous scenes that Ray really cared about, with a Just-Okay movie wrapped around them.
Warner's Blu-ray of Clash of the Titans is difficult to give an enthusiastic review. The movie was always grainy and the special effects sequences even more grainy. Poorly designed optical shots often float a tiny figure in the middle of a large miniature (even underwater). After the already filtered image is duped, the composites just don't look good. Harryhausen lamented the fact that the background plates for the Scorpion scene were dull because of overcast skies on the day they were filmed. Clearly this more expensive production was still rushed, at least from a special effects viewpoint. This HD transfer improves some color and clears ups some damage seen on the older DVD release, giving it a slight quality edge.
The Ray Harryhausen interview extras appear to be a repeat from the older disc. Ray hasn't much to say about the film but he does acknowledge the animation help from assistants Jim Danforth and Steve Archer, and the modeling work of Janet Stevens, heretofore given credit only in fan articles. That's very generous of Harryhausen, and atypical of glory-magnet effects people in other home video interviews. An interactive "Myths and Monsters" gallery allows Ray to comment on his creations, monster by monster. The book-like packaging houses the single Blu-ray disc with an attractive 40-page color souvenir booklet and an announcement of the new CGI-laden remake. The disc, of course, opens with a gaudy promo for the new film, which seems to have been designed to look like 300 with a generous helping of monsters.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Clash of the Titans Blu-ray rates:
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