Monday, April 19, 2010

Restraining Order

Of all the movies being released this year, one of the few I was really looking forward to seeing was the remake of Clash of the Titans. I’d grown up being solidly entertained by Ray Harryhausen’s astonishing stop–motion animation, and to this day still find myself entertained by the likes of Jason and the Argonauts and the trio of Sinbad movies, but there was always something about the 1981 original, sadly his last film as special visual effects creator, that made me not bother to revisit it after the initial theatrical release.

It certainly wasn’t the animation that was at fault, rather the pratfalls and whistling of that mechanical owl, Bubo, had bugged me all the way through. Blue screen rather than back projection was employed, showing the joins that the new technology brought with it, and the lighting of the scenes that would have the animated creatures inserted into them later on in post–production made the live action look soft and far beyond a second generation copy. Maybe it was simply an age thing as, being in my mid–teens at the time it arrived in cinemas, I was far more critical in my younger days. Although watching it again just recently I was far more forgiving of most of those early criticisms, except of course for the damned owl.

The remake appealed because, since we seem to be in an age where every big movie is almost required to ram computer generated imagery down our throats, classic mythological creatures would be a darn sight better than what usually gets served up. In the different drafts of the script that have been floating around over the last year or so, Tiamat’s appearance in the Great Hall of the Basilica of Joppa is decribed:

Tiamat, Queen of the Deep, floats forward, parting a sea of cowering celebrants. The folds of her liquid cloak billow to the sound of SURGING TIDES. All eyes follow her. Perseus sees his first Olympian.


Tiamat tears off her cloak, which scatters to a fine mist. THE GODDESS STANDS NAKED. The skin of her luscious body glaws with the frigid bioluminescence of a deep sea creature. Swirling fins in lieu of hair. Sublime and terrifying.


Clouds of blank sea–ink swirl and swallow Tiamat, then implode. Tiamat is gone.

And that was before it even got to the Stygian Witches, Medusa, and the Kraken. If animators with only a fraction of Harryhausen’s talent could be employed to create the roster of characters, the end result might have been well worth watching compared to brainless robots bashing the cogs off each other, buildings coming down around the insignificant lead actors, and the load of old bollocks that took place on Pandora. When the teaser was released it actually looked quite promising. But then the second, longer trailer arrived, which started to sow doubts, until finally the damning reviews came, including ones from people whose opinions I respected.

I was happy to write it off like many other movies I was initially eager to see but soon gave up on, but come Friday I found I had some hours spare during the day. A meeting at the BFI Southbank to discuss the feasibility of a future project, originally scheduled for mid–afternoon, had been pushed back to almost the end of the working day. Though the switch had come well in advance, rather than at the last minute, I’d done everything I needed to do and still headed off into town earlier, stopping at the local multiplex on the way in. If I had any sense I would have stumped up to see The Ghost instead.

You can pray that what appears on the page will find its way to the screen, but on this occasion the Gods certainly weren’t listening. The shooting script had changed dramatically, with the final draft obviously written by someone who mainly worked in crayon. And who the hell decided to cast a right plum who had even less charisma than the already charisma–free Harry Hamlin in the role of Perseus? Then there was the treatment of the Gods. Still, at least there were Gods involved, unlike Troy, which eradicated all reference to the deities in Wolfgang Petersen’s worthless adaptation of Homer’s Iliad.

Whereas in the earlier Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen productions had the occupants of Mount Olympus milling around when they weren’t meddling with the fates of men, here the Gods were placed on weird podiums like they were contestants on some bland game show. Having previously portrayed Sir Gawain in John Boorman’s Excalibur, and from the look of it still wearing more or less the same suit of armour, Liam Neeson appeared to be more perturbed that, while he had moved up in the ranks and taken charge, some bastard had snuck in and stolen his Round Table.

I suppose these grievances could have been put aside if the creature effects had been half decent. Amongst the two hours of frenetic nonsense there were a couple of decent scenes – one near the beginning where the harpies coalesce into Hades, and then later there were a few nice moments with Medusa slithering effortlessly through the ruins of her lair – but everything else simply paled by comparison to the original. The scorpions formed from the spilt blood of Calibos may have been far bigger than before but they certainly weren’t better, and though the original Kraken may have looked like a cross between a steroid Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth, it still had more personality than the indistinct collection of tentacles and teeth that rose up in the new version.

Trying to make sense of what I had seen – and days later still wondering what the hell happened to Liam Cunningham’s character – I can’t understand how such an epic story turned into an epic fail. How could they get it so horribly wrong? There were certainly issues with the narrative – and especially how the story was set up, which is perhaps best left for another time – but surely the real problem with Clash of the Titans was down to the ham–handed direction that wildly swung between lacklustre and frenetic, and the equally schizophrenic quality of the effects work.

If Clash of the Titans initially appealed to me it was because with only the one Medusa, one Pegasus, one Kraken, along with the trio of scorpions, the film wasn’t going to be awash with thousands of computer–generated individuals zipping around the frame simply to make up for the lack of character and plot. Of course this also meant that one failing of Clash of the Titans was that there was only the one Medusa, one Pegasus, one Kraken, along with the trio of scorpions. With those creatures the sole focus of their particular scenes the animation had to be top notch, and for the last two creations it sorely wasn’t.

Back when I was young and (even more) foolish, I’d line–tested some animation for Dick Williams. Stepping back and watching the results, I’d made some comment about the character zipping across the screen looking just great. Dick had put me straight by explaining that a fast–moving character was easy. The hard work when into one that was moving at a slow and serene pace. While some of that was evident with Medusa, the damn scorpions looked like the animators who had been manipulated in the computer never once bothered to study the actual arachnids’ motion beforehand.

Whether this below par animation had something to do with it or not, the whole muddled scorpion sequence that failed to establish where anyone was at any given time looked like it had been sliced together by a four–year–old with advanced ADHD. In fact the direction overall was generally awful, and the distinct lack of film grammar only made any kind of sense when I later discovered that the maroon in charge behind the camera had previously inflicted upon the world The Incredible Hulk – a retched load of nonsense whose only saving grace was that it was slightly less retched than Ang Lee’s earlier Hulk.

With more and more technology available, it’s become more and more apparent that there are film directors out there who shouldn’t be allowed to get their grubby little mitts until they can prove their worth by making movies that don’t rely of spunking bone–headed CGI nonsense all over the screen. Luckily there are some directors who use limited amounts of computer imagery in the service of the story without making a song and dance about it, but as for the rest, they should be rounded up and herded into an empty underground bunker with the words SHOW RESTRAINT painted on every wall. Only when it sinks in and they finally get it will they be allowed out to go about their business.

Back in the 1980s I was really taken by Tim Burton’s early films like Pee–Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. In fact I saw the Pee–Wee Herman movie twice in previews before it went on general release, and now that I think about it the second time around was my very first date with The One That Got Away. Once his talent was embraced by the major studios and given bigger films with bigger budgets it all went to hell. It was easy to see coming. Having started out as a junior animator at Disney, it was evident Burton was far more interested in kooky characters and quirky production design rather than niggling things like a serviceable plot. While the outrageous stop–frame animation of those earlier projects had a certain charm to them, once he bought into the computer technology employed in the making of Mars Attacks! there was no holding him back.

The same can be said for James Cameron. Smug beyond belief about all the new technology he has had a hand in directing, it still can’t disguise the fact that his best film is still Aliens. Avatar may have won the Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects – and, bizarrely, Best Achievement in Cinematography, which had to be the most public pity fuck in human history – but Ripley in the powerloader suit, angrily trading blows with the Queen Alien, was far better than the climactic standoff between Quaritch in his ridiculous ampsuit and the Giacometti smurf.

That’s not to say the props should henceforth come out of the Blue Peter studio, having been cobbled together from empty washing–up liquid bottles, the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls and a couple of coat–hangers, all held together with sticky tape and string. But less money and practical effects require filmmakers to be more creative rather than simply kicking back and let the pixels take the strain. Pissing around with motion–capture animation may have been all fun and games to Robert Zemeckis but when his films, with their freakish character designs, didn’t bring home the bacon Disney pulled the plug on ImageMovers Digital, with its eventual closure putting 450 people out on the street.

Maybe a tighter lease and a couple of zeros knocked off the end of the studio cheque will make a number of once decent directors stop acting like kids that have run riot in a sweet shop, scarfing down everything they could get their hands on and having a massive sugar rush that sends them batshit crazy, and get their act together. Although if the scenario took place I wouldn’t doubt Burton, Cameron and Roland Emmerich – whose films are about as entertaining as being cracked in the face with a breeze–block – would end up starving to death in that bunker while everyone else learns a valuable lesson.

And when that’s sorted out we can turn our attention to this bullshit retro–3D process. Gussied up after the fact like an ingénue thrusting her new implants in our faces to get herself noticed, instead of 3D it should be labelled 33DD, with the audience appearing as the biggest tits of all for paying the extra to get an eyeful of the unnecessary enhancement. Before leaving home I’d been rooting around at home for a clip–on bunny tail – which is a whole other story in itself – and found a number of the eye masks Virgin Atlantic give out to passengers who want to sleep through the long–haul flight. Frankly I wish I had taken one of those along with me on Friday afternoon instead.


At 6:39 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Thanks for the warning. And let me know when you're going to see The Prisoner so I can lash down loose objects and hide under the table with the dog.

At 10:12 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Admittedly it was a bit of an angry growl, but damn it was a really lousy movie and such a waste of time and money. Then again, it was my own fault for going because everyone said it was a complete and utter stinker.

Somebody needs to tell these clowns behind the camera that the odd master shot is quite useful, rather than a succession of brief close-ups lashed together that don’t tell us anything. The scorpion fight was such a confused mess that I rely couldn’t tell what the hell was going on.

Watching it makes you soon realize that, after all these years, nothing has come close to Jason and his fellow Argonauts battling the skeletons born from the hydra’s teeth.

There was a preview of The Prisoner, with a Q+A afterwards, at the BFI Southbank last week, but I didn’t bother to go. One of the chaps that was meant to be at the meeting – and has written extensively about McGoohan’s original – had been to the event and his absence meant that we were spared him going on and on and on about it.

The first episode was shown on ITV1 on Saturday evening. Not exactly being the greatest fan of the original version, I gave it a miss. So you’re safe.

At 9:20 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Sound like 'Michael Bay' editing, where you don't cut to make story points but only to refresh the screen as frequently as possible. I remember a scene in THE ROCK where some Ninja threw a guard to the ground (or something like that) and that one fall was covered in four shots, with not one of them putting the camera in the right place.

I saw the first two episodes of THE PRISONER on Hulu when it launched last year. McKellen shines, but it's a Fisher-Price version without any of the original's style, pace, anger, or energy.

At 9:15 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I have to admit I do have a soft spot for The Rock. Of course it looks rather retrained compared to some of Bay’s later work. One of the most badly shot films I remember being dragged along to see was the execrable Stallone movie Cobra, which at one point used three separate shots to show him entering a convenience store or suchlike.

It’s quite astonishing how many new directors haven’t got a clue about where to put the camera or any knowledge of basic film grammar. It may work for a Nike commercial, but not a feature.

I didn’t doubt The Prisoner lacked the style of the original, but I’m surprised it doesn’t have the energy or the anger – especially the anger. Oh, well.


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