Recently I went to see the new version of ‘The Clash of the Titans’, very curious to see what Hollywood had done to the Ray Harryhausen classic of 1981, directed by Desmond Davis. The modern day version’s director, Louis Leterrier, fueled by truckloads of money and a penchant for making overblown action adventures, picked a film that many animation aficionados hold very dear as one of Ray Harryhausen ’s last masterpieces. And he must have known going in, that this new version would be compared to the 1981 classic ad nausuem. Well, I don’t want to disappoint him, so I dragged the old version of T.C.O.T.T. out of the vaults, and compared the two side by side…..
You know, there is something about that jerky old stop motion animation that Harryhausen created, that just creates some kind of wonderment in me. Is it because the very first monster movies that I saw, like ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (made the year that I was born) ‘One Million Years B.C.’ or ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ are indelibly imprinted on my imagination? I mean, the first time I saw that stuff, I was in utter awe, completely blown away, in a state of suspended disbelief, imagination fueled, mind opened to anything.
Today we sit in theatres and watch epic monster movies, scarcely knowing, even if we are seasoned professionals, where the line is between the reality and the slick CGI special effects. Of course, as a practitioner, I make it my business to know where the line is, but listen to kids watching something like ‘Lord of the Rings’. “Oh that’s just CGI” they might quip. Or, “Obviously they did that with computers!” They are skeptical of everything they see, and hyper aware that most violent action sequences produced today are nothing more than a bunch of zeroes and ones. We expect perfection today, and now when I watch my favorite sequences from ‘Avatar’ all I can see is awkward, weightless, less than perfect CGI character animation giving itself away again and again…..The product is SO perfect, that now we see through the slightest technical deficiency, and throw our state of suspended disbelief out the window.
But when I watch the old Harryhausen stuff, somehow, even though it is sometimes terribly jerky and bizarre looking, somehow it makes me feel something that this new CGI product fails utterly to invoke.
I was spellbound, watching the new version, with how beautifully the wings of Pegasus were integrated into the live action horse’s body. Seamless and perfect, this black Pegasus was a marvel of CGI wizardry. But then I watched the Pegasus sequence of the old 1981 version, and I was actually more engaged by the sequence in which our hero Perseus actually rides the flying horse for the first time. It drew me in emotionally on an entirely different level! Even though on a technical level it was crude and primitive, somehow, it had far more heart and emotion it it.
My take on the entire thing, is that, while we have incredible tools for creating monsters and visual effects of mind-numbing quality, our approach to telling the story has deteriorated as we lean more and more heavily on the amazing special effects. Again and again in this new version of T.C.O.T.T. I found myself not really giving a damn. It was cool, yeah, it looked amazing. But a suspended state of wonderment? Hardly.
Perhaps it was the camera happy CGI direction that did it in for me. In many cases, the camera was kept so busy doing spectacular fly byes, rotations and such, that I was never able to see the actual CGI model clearly. While not letting us see a creature clearly can be used to great effect, as in the original masterly ‘Alien’ film, in this case, we are being clobbered over the head with monsters again and again, but the camera is kept so busy we rarely get a chance to savor the design, or really get a clear look at the creature. Medusa? I have no idea what she really actually looked like in T.C.O.T.T. 2010. And the Kraken? Well, the camera was so busy flying in and around his tentacles and arms, that I don’t really have any idea of how this creature’s anatomy was really built. It was spectacular, yes. But somehow, it never really hit home in a satisfying way. I wanted to ‘see’ the Kraken, and I definitely wanted to get a much better look at Medusa, even if it would turn me to stone!
In any case, I know there will be countless stories describing how the effects team of T.C.O.T.T. 2010 achieved all the visual splendor. I see it again and again, techno-worshipping interviews with the creators of these blockbuster films that rarely, if ever, touch on the telling of the story. It’s all about how they did it, not what it is that they actually did. Oh, of course they touch on it, “We felt that this approach was integral to the telling of the story…” kind of stuff. But I don’t recall anyone asking Louis Leterrier why ‘The Hulk’ was such an un-engaging film. My apologies to any of you fans who loved the original Hulk movie, but I thought it was nearly devoid of any touching qualities whatsoever, and a colossal waste of money.
And in my final estimation, the most recent stab at lame assed Hollywood “Let’s recreate a technically triumphant version of a timeless classic” is nothing more than an enormous waste of resources. Another incredibly big budget, blown on yet another remake. I don’t have to list them here, from the ‘Chipmunks’ to the ‘Flinstones’, to ‘The Time Machine’ or ‘The Flash’, Hollywood is on a serious roll of making the most imagination-less, trivial and pathetic celluloid junk-food it can possibly serve up to the public.
Avatar was widely criticized for having a story that’s ‘been done before’. Well hey people, at least not literally! It was a spin on an archetypical myth, a hero’s journey, a classical, timeless story that stands to be told again and again. But at least it wasn’t a tired remake of a cartoon, or a Harryhausen classic. Give Cameron a little credit, even if there is going to be an Avatar 2 eventually, and Terminator 2, a sequel, can be considered one of Cameron’s greatest works…..
Perhaps something positive about T.C.O.T.T. 2010 needs to be said. It was cute the way that they gave the 1981 Harryhausen film the nod when Perseus asks what the little mechanical owl is for, and it gets unceremoniously thrown out for the rest of the picture. That little mechanical owl was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in a film, for sure. Never quite knew what to make of that.
But I wanted to take at look at this film, T.C.O.T.T. 2010, from the perspective of, “What are we doing with the incredible CGI animation tools at our disposal today?” And the answer in this case, is, wasting colossal amounts of money on mindless entertainment. Nothing new, of course. And I am sure that Louis Leterrier will have no trouble scaring up another cool 150 millions buckaroos for a re-make of ‘Enter the Dragon’. surely we can improve on Bruce Lee’s martial arts prowess, and fix that lip synch while we’re at it eh? Imagine what a digitally enhanced Bruce Lee look alike could do?
Frankly, I don’t care. Old classics are old classics. Their greatness is not measured by the complexity or technical perfection of their visual effects. And Hollywood would do well to at least attempt to come up with something original for a change. I’m all for a rollicking roll through memory lane, but it’s very, very tired, the remakes already. Stop Hollywood, please!
I even read that the recent ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ was quote: “An Avatar for simpletons” (read my last blog here)  Well, it was at least an original cast in an original setting, with some very fresh perspectives. Perhaps the ‘critic’ who wrote that gem is just too busy looking for connections with other films, or has a sore spot that can’t quite swallow classic archetypical mythology. With all the re-makes of old junk that we are being fed, I’d think that critics might at least welcome an attempt at originality, and not be so quick to claim a story is just a rehash. I’ll take a rehash of a timeless archetype any day, over yet another wasteful remake of another ageless comic book or classic science-fiction film.
And then there is Ray Harryhausen ’s personal take on all the new CGI remakes. When I was lucky enough to meet him in Annecy in 2004, and actually spend quite a bit of time just talking with him about movies in general, he was very candid about his take on slick CGI animation. For the most part, it leaves him feeling cold and unrewarded. (ditto) And he couldn’t imagine working on a ‘model’ that doesn’t even really exist in true 3D space. Virtual computer generated models that can’t be held or touched. This was great news for me, as I had been atop my soap box yelling for an end to the ‘3D’ status of the new CGI phenomenon since it emerged in the 80’s and 90’s. ‘3D’ is something you can hold or touch. It is real. Virtual 3D projected on a screen is still just virtual 3D. And anyone who has done real stop motion animation can tell you that.
I’ll never forget Ray’s take on the internet either. When I asked him if he spent any time ‘online’ he said, “Well, I think there are years of time to be wasted online, and at my age, I don’t want to waste what time I have left exploring some virtual digital world that doesn’t really exist. There are enough incredible places to see and amazing books to read, for me to waste my time online!”
Ray Harryhausen  is a classic himself. A well-read, intelligent, intensely creative man with a sharp wit and sense of humor, who never took himself or his work too seriously. (I’m working on developing that quality ;-) And his wife, Dianne, an absolutely sweet woman, funny as hell too…..Bless them!
By the way, I enjoyed Clash of the Titans 2010 thoroughly….it was quite a ride!