CLASH OF THE TITANS – Blu-ray review

“Let loose the Kraken!”

You might wonder why Warners released this 1981 MGM fantasy to Blu-ray disc, considering it is not the greatest movie in the world and doesn’t have the best audiovisual qualities. Just as a piece of information, then, let me remind you that the studio has a new 2010 version of the story they’re promoting. I thought you’d understand.

The trouble with stop-motion animation is, well, it looks like stop-motion animation. “Clash of the Titans” was the last hurrah for the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen, and it’s unfortunate he went out on a less-than-perfect note. Not that his creations are ever less than worthy; it’s just that his type of animation was already passé by the time “Titans” arrived on the scene, and it wouldn’t be long before computer-generated graphics would take over. Nor are today’s CGI images perfect, by any means, but they are usually an improvement over the somewhat herky-jerky movements of the old technique.

Mainly, though, “Clash of the Titans” suffers from a mediocre script, too much wooden dialogue, and too much stiff acting. Oh, well, it’s still fun for kids, I’m sure, and for anyone suffering terminal nostalgia.

I can still remember my own excitement seeing a Harryhausen picture for the first time: “It Came From Beneath the Sea” in 1955. A giant octopus was tearing up San Francisco, and because I’ve always lived in the S.F. Bay Area and was familiar with the City, it was thrilling to watch the monster have his way with familiar landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ferry Building. The special effects were hardly the most lifelike things in the world, but to a fifth grader they looked entirely genuine. Then came the real Harryhausen treasures: “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956), “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957), “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), “The 3 Worlds of Gulliver” (1960), “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963), “First Men in the Moon” (1964), “The Valley of Gwangi” (1969), “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1974), and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (1977), among many others.

When it came to “Clash of the Titans,” screenwriter Beverly Cross based much of the story on Greek mythology, more or less mixing and matching the legends to produce the tale of gods, mortals, and monsters she was looking for. She creates a “Hero’s Journey” that would make Joseph Campbell proud, a quest wherein a young protagonist must answer his fate by overcoming a host of obstacles to marry a princess and rule a kingdom.

The monsters are the most interesting characters in the film, outclassing the gods and mortals by a country mile. The gods, you see, are a petty, jealous, squabbling lot, playing with the lives of humans like chess pieces on a game board. The head of the gods is Zeus, of course, and what better actor for the greatest of the gods than one of the greatest of actors, Sir Laurence Olivier. He chews up the scenery, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; at least he invests his character with a modicum of life, something most of the other actors seem reticent to do.

Zeus’s adversary on Mt. Olympus is Thetis, played by the indomitable Maggie Smith. It seems that Zeus has ticked off Thetis by changing her mortal son, Calibos (Neil McCarthy), into a monster, and she is getting her revenge by thwarting Zeus’s attempts to help his own illegitimate son, Perseus (Harry Hamlin), achieve his destiny and wed the Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker).

Among the other gods are Claire Bloom as Hera, Zeus’s long-suffering wife; Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, naturally, the goddess of love and beauty; and Susan Fleetwood as Athena, goddess of wisdom, fertility, and warfare. Except for Zeus and Thetis, however, the other gods don’t have much to say or do but stand around and attempt to look godlike. Probably the most thankless job of all goes to Jack Gwillim as Poseidon, whose only duty is to hold his breath under water.

Down among the mortals, Hamlin tries his best to bring some vitality to a virtually humorless, colorless role, but he never succeeds. The best he can do is look handsome, maintain a heroic posture, and wait for his long-running stint on TV’s “L.A. Law” to come along. As his girlfriend, the young Englishwoman, Ms. Bowker, is sweetly attractive but hardly a force in the movie. Burgess Meredith fares better as Ammon, a playwright and poet who befriends Perseus in his quest. He’s a little squirrelly and always a touch mischievous, adding a bit of spark to an otherwise listless story. Finally, there’s Siân Phillips as Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, at first a seeming harpy but later turning out to be a pretty nice old gal.

Still and all, it’s the monsters that rule the film. Among the non-Harryhausen creatures we find three blind Stygian witches played by Flora Robson, Anna Manahan, and Freda Jackson, who are somewhat amusing; but Harryhausen’s constructions are the prime objects of enjoyment. They include a vicious two-headed dog, Dioskilos; a mechanical owl, Bubo; the snake-headed, snake-torsoed ogre, Medusa; the flying horse, Pegasus; several gigantic scorpions; and the sea monster known as the Kraken, actually a legendary Norse creature said to have caused whirlpools off the coast of Norway, but who’s counting?

In order to win the hand of Andromeda, Perseus must visit the three witches, cut the head off Medusa, and defeat the Kraken. All in a day’s work for a Greek hero. But as to the Titans mentioned in Greek mythology–Coeus, Crius, Cronus, Hyperion, Iapeus, and Oceanus–there’s nary a trace. Maybe the filmmakers meant for the “Titans” of the title to be figures of speech. Besides, Kraken sounds better than Iapeus. “Release Iapeus” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I liked the Mt. Olympus scenes in particular, with their high, misty, fairy-tale quality, as well as the many matte shots of spectacular Greek cities and temples. I also enjoyed Perseus’s fight with Medusa, the only segment in the film that generates any excitement or suspense or that demonstrates much imagination. Blame part of the film’s lack of creativity on director Desmond Davis, who worked mainly in television; blame part of it on the script; and blame part of it on the actors. No one seemed especially keen on making this campy tale much more than a mundane exercise in grade-school mythology.

The Warners video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to transfer the movie’s 1.85:1 ratio image to disc, saying on the keep case “this film has been remastered utilizing state-of-the-art digital technology, while maintaining the visual appearance of the original theatrical release.” That might be something of a backhanded apology, implying that any deficiencies one may see in the picture are attributable to the condition of the original print. Fair enough. I suppose we should be grateful the studio didn’t filter the heck out of it.

The thing you have to remember is that 1080p high definition will emphasize any imperfections in the source material. Some of the image here is quite good–sharp, detailed, and colorful–but most of the good stuff is swimming in a sea of grain and noise, which Blu-ray disc reproduction only exacerbates. Likewise, the dark, often murky photography doesn’t help, the picture seldom clearing up except in scenes of brightest sunlight. Age spots can also pop up and mar the screen on occasion, making for a disappointing viewing experience given what most of us are used to in the Blu-ray high-definition medium.

The sound comes to us via DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo, and it, too, is of variable quality. Sometimes it produces a remarkable effect in the rear speakers (when using a receiver with Pro Logic IIx or equivalent surround enhancements). Other times it seems like ordinary monaural. The sound remains generally clean and quiet, which is good, but it is never particularly dynamic, robust, deep, or wide ranging, and it can sometimes be downright bright and edgy. Mainly, the sound keeps to itself, never distracting us from the movie but, likewise, never intensifying it much, either.

The bonus items on the disc are mostly what you’d expect from an older release, namely few. The two primary bonuses are the same ones we found on the DVD edition of some years ago: a twelve-minute featurette, “A Conversation With Ray Harryhausen,” which is self-explanatory, and a “Map of Myths and Monsters” gallery, which takes us to various parts of the movie with Mr. Harryhausen’s commentary on Calibos, Pegasus, Bubo, the scorpions, Medusa, the Kraken, and Droskilos.

In addition, you’ll find a promo at start-up for the 2010 version of “Clash of the Titans”; thirty scene selections; English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, German, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Most important, though, the disc comes housed in a Blu-ray Book, a Digipak that includes a forty-odd page hardbound book, lavishly filled with pictures and text set between handsome, embossed-metallic covers. I don’t know for how long, either, but my copy also came with a free ticket to the new movie version of the story and a small pamphlet of information on it.

Parting Shots:
I wish I could generate more enthusiasm for the 1981 “Clash of the Titans,” given my admiration for Mr. Harryhausen, the man largely responsible for producing it and creating its fancies. Lamentably, the movie was not his finest hour. Worse, though, “Titans” never quite comes to life as a movie-watching experience, being a more lifeless affair than one would think, considering the many great talents involved.

“Release the Kraken!”