Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Let loose the Kraken!"

I’ve been experiencing a bit of a movie trend lately. A couple of months ago, I had a hankering for a giant monster movie, so I watched one of my favorites, 20 Million Miles to Earth. Then in February, actor Lionel Jeffries died and I decided to watch my favorite Jeffries performance, First Men in the Moon. Last night, I watched the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans because I’ve been seeing the trailer for the upcoming remake and hadn’t watched the original in many years. All of these movies have one thing in common – Ray Harryhausen, the special effects master who is a beloved icon to people who, like me, grew up watching science fiction, fantasy and horror films.

A good deal of buzz preceded the release of Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen’s previous two movies had been 1974's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and 1977's Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Clash of the Titans would mark Harryhausen’s return to Greek mythology, the subject of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), the movie that many people agree contains his very best work. That, combined with the simple fact that it was a new Harryhausen movie (no matter who directs, writes, produces or stars, any movie that features Harryhausen’s special effects is a “Harryhausen movie”), created a great deal of anticipation.

I saw it the week it opened, and while I didn’t think it was his best work and the movie itself, aside from Harryhausen's effects, was rather weak, I was still entertained. Most of the critics were not and didn’t hesitate to express their disdain. It felt a little like they were attacking a member of my family and I kind of took those reviews personally – probably more personally than I would have taken them if they had attacked a member of my family. Although it was not Harryhausen’s best work, Clash of the Titans unfortunately turned out to be his last.

Watching it today in 2010 is a very different experience from watching it the week it was released in 1981. For one thing, my high school graduation had taken place only days before – I was a teenager and still had a teenager’s perceptions and tastes. For another, a lot has changed in nearly 30 years. Harryhausen’s effects, left in the dust by the digital age, now seem stiff and antiquated. The memory of how mind-blowing they appeared to me in my childhood makes the reality of how they look today rather ... melancholy. But in spite of that, in spite of the movie’s weaknesses, it still delights the 12-year-old boy in me, the kid who used to drop whatever he was doing when a Harryhausen movie aired on TV.

Clash of the Titans has the biggest cast of any Harryhausen movie: Laurence Olivier, Burgess Meredith, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Undress – er, um, I mean Andress, and Harry Hamlin five years before he donned a suit for L.A. Law. Unfortunately, the script by Beverley Cross gives them some pretty creaky dialogue to recite. They do their best, but still, it’s not much to work with.

As I mentioned earlier, Harryhausen’s effects don’t hold up well these days. If you didn’t grow up watching his work and don’t have the sentimental attachment to it that so many of us do, it might make you wince. Even by 1981, it was a bit outdated. But if you’re like me and have childhood memories filled with his Cyclops, his seven-headed hydra, the giant octopus that destroyed the Golden Gate bridge, the Ymir’s rampage in Rome, flying saucers over Washington, D.C., the giant bees on Mysterious Island, the tyrannosaurus rex that menaced a scantily clad Raquel Welch, that army of angry, sword-wielding skeletons – if these are some of the threads that make up the fabric of your childhood, and if you haven’t seen Clash of the Titans in a long time, then I suspect that, also like me, you’ll be pretty forgiving, and you’ll smile a lot.

While watching this movie for the first time in many years, I made some observations I hadn’t made before:

- Why can’t human beings concoct gods that act like gods instead of like human beings? They don’t even act like well-behaved human beings! That has been the case with all of our gods, from the ancients to those worshiped today.

- Is that really Ursula Andress or a somewhat lifelike mannequin?

- This is the only movie ever made in which you can hear Sir Laurence Olivier say, “Let loose the Kraken!”

- Oh, my god, bare breasts in a Harryhausen movie! Where were they when I was a kid?

- Perseus isn’t very bright. But I doubt that gets in the way of his social life.

- Medusa’s tits look fake.

- Calibos bears a disturbing resemblance to a younger, beefier Larry King.

Harryhausen said of his retirement from filmmaking, “The thing that finally persuaded me to quit was that I saw that the nature of the hero was changing. When I was growing up we had heroes such as Cary Grant, Ronald Colman and David Niven, real gentlemen on the screen. Now, all you have is Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and all those people who solve problems with their fists. It's a different world and I sometimes feel I'm not part of it. Say what you like about Hollywood in my time, but they were in the business of happy endings, of escapism. Now, you have to sit through two hours of people dying, you know. Today, everything's so graphic it's rather unnerving.”

This June, Ray Harryhausen will turn 90. I don’t know if he’ll see the remake of Clash of the Titans, but if he does, I hope it’s a pleasant experience for him. Personally, I don’t hold much hope for it. Hollywood has not been making me a happy camper in recent years. I suspect it will be achingly loud, dizzyingly fast-moving, and take itself way too seriously.

There is a conversation with Harryhausen on the Clash of the Titans DVD in which he discusses the influence his work has had on so many. I’m glad he’s aware of it and that it brings him joy. His work has fed the imaginations of Hollywood heavyweights like Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and Mirren. But those are only the famous guys. It also enriched the childhoods of countless millions of regular, non-famous folks who are better people because of it.

Gone are the days of “Dynamation,” which looked so eye-popping back then but now appears stiff and jerky. The new Clash of the Titans will feature seamless CGI in skull-cracking 3-D (soon, everything will be in 3-D -- even you and me!) and will probably do blockbuster business. I wonder if it will lead to a remake of Jason and the Argonauts. If so, I hope they don’t use motion-capture technology to create an army of angry, sword-wielding Keira Knightleys.