Friday, April 2, 2010

CLASH OF THE TITANS 2010: "Atlas Flinched"

"Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." -Friedrich von Schiller

Five minutes into Clash of the Titans, I was already noting the difference between the original and the remake, but decided that it wasn't fair. I love the original, but decided to judge this one on its own merits. But when Perseus pulls a replica of Bubo the Owl out of a chest, and is told to "forget it," well, I was dared to compare it to the original. And at first I was miffed; I liked Bubo! But when I saw why they they did this...far from being arbitrary, I realized that there were thoughtful changes fundamental to the story, and a challenge to the ideas of "the gods themselves." (So I reluctantly let Bubo go...). And for most of the movie, I was about to award victory to the upstart.

If only I had left before the end.

There were hints of disappointment to come, but I wanted to be sure, because, for a time, the remake was impressing me. Not for its CGI excess, which still doesn't compare with the grandeur of the original, neither in acting or in visuals. (I'll put Harry Hamlin's Perseus against Sam Worthington's, or Laurence Olivier's Zeus against Liam Neeson's, any day.) But speaking strictly about the story, about the theme, this was potentially a thoughtful and daring clash between remake and original, a clash foreshadowed in Zeus's final words from the original:
"Fortune is ally to the brave and clever. He defeated the Kraken. He defied the power of Thetis. He dared to face the might of the gods and win!...No more sacrifices, no more belief, no more need to depend on us for guidance. We would no longer be needed. Mankind would learn to deal with the universe by himself...
There's more to that quote, but, for a moment, the remake's Perseus, and the film's creators, seemed to be out to prove this, not just by defying the gods, but defying the need for gods. The story goes so far as to challenge the hero cycle itself, as it's commonly understood through Jungian/Campbellian interpretations. (See my own challenge here.) When Bubo is dismissed from the story, it is not just because he is seen as a "camp" relic...Originally, Bubo was a gift of wisdom from Zeus, via Athena, in addition to a sword and the Aegis of Zeus himself. All of these things are rejected by Perseus, who denies his demigod heritage and chooses to be, make that Man. The rejection of the god's boons are a rejection of the hero myth formula itself, and the film starts to find its stride, and its own identity. A Titan against the Titans, indeed...

But unlike Atlas, Perseus doesn't shrug...he flinches.

For reasons not at first fully justified by the plot, Perseus comes to accept his demigod status, first by accepting the help of the Jinn (an unnecessary intrusion of Persian myth into the story as it was), and by his unexplained willingness to accept the help of Pegasus, while rejecting the sword and shield. Originally, Perseus had ample justification to defy the gods, who were responsible for the loss of his human family. But eventually he is persuaded to use the godly gifts to defeat Medusa and the Kraken, and gains audience with Zeus himself. The first time they meet, Perseus states his manhood in no uncertain terms. But the second time, they accept each other: Zeus accepts Perseus, not just as his son, but equal, and Perseus accepts his godhood. Metaphysical issues of supernatural beings arise, but if we accept (within the story's logic) their existence, then this might be acceptable, only it doesn't make sense within the hero's context.

Since this was initially a story about man rejecting fate and servitude to the gods, there's a sense of "bait-and-switch" by what happens after the defeat of the Kraken: Perseus refuses to become a king, which might seem logically consistent for one who defies the gods. And again, this is a rejection of the Jungian hero cycle, where too often, the hero becomes the very tyrant he seeks to dethrone (for an interesting classic tale on this theme in the Greek myth tradition, see Mary Renault's The King Must Die.)

An earlier version of the script reveals that a more consistent ending was planned; compare the completed version with this:
(Zeus): "Do you reproach Zeus?"

(Perseus): "No. I thank have freed me. I will not be a pawn for Men or Gods."

(Zeus): "Does that absolve you suddenly of your responsibilities?"

(Perseus): You've made me understand that my responsibility is to myself. So it is with all of us."
This, I submit, would have made the movie. (It would have made a nice companion piece to Ayn Rand's fairy tale "Kira's Viking": "A viking had lived, who had laughed at Kings, who had held, sacred and inviolable, high over all temples, over all to which men knew how to kneel, his one banner-the sanctity of life.") But this does not make it into the final version; when Perseus is warned that mankind will see him as a god regardless, the alternative is offered in his reasoning that he can serve mankind in other ways. And that's when the film lost me, because all I could think about, at that point, was the way Communism replaced religion with the State, and instead of offering true freedom, merely secularized the tyranny of the gods, and substituted the whims of Olympus with the whims of the masses.

Some might say that the ending was not that specific. Yes, the sacrifice of Andromeda to the Kraken is thwarted, and the men who were willing to sacrifice her for the needs of the many were depicted as less than heroic. Besides, Perseus could have meant anything by that: maybe he meant he would bring science, or reason, or logic to mankind. And maybe horses fly. The problem with that is that words mean things, and in their usage here, the best-case scenario is one of philosophical confusion. When Hades proclaims to Zeus the power of fear and "selfishness," the context is set up to explain the deliberate use of the word "serve." If the plot didn't set up Perseus to find common ground between the gods and Man, that one scene more than explains it, so that instead of "shrugging," man "flinches," and puts the weight of the world squarely back on the shoulders of the heroes, fulfilling the rest of Zeus's quote from the original's end:

"For the moment, at least, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth, and mendacity rampant on Earth to last for some time."

Too true, and too bad...for a moment, I thought that moment might have passed. I thought that this was to be a movie rejected the need for gods, a movie that stood up for mankind as needing no apology for existing. Nope. Nice try, almost had me there. But until that prophecy is fulfilled, I'll stick with the original. And Bubo.

"Until the Gods are no more..."