Clash of the Titans (2010)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Adrenaline soaked, fist-pumping action, and a decent moral argument, as well.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Review:  Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion maestro, provided the effects for the original 1981 ‘Clash of the Titans’, and behold, it was very good, in an ’80s cheese kinda way.  It really wasn’t that great, though, and so it was one of those properties that more or less deserved a remake.  The opportunity was there to take the mythology-blending concept of the original and infuse it with a stronger story and better characters.  To my surprise, the new movie does just that — if not totally to the extent it could have.

It’s a tighter, leaner affair.  Instead of humanity simply bowing to the whims of the famously capricious and arbitrary Greek deities, as in the ’81 film, here they reflect the real world 21st century resurgence of humanism and rebellion against the religious norms of the past.  The citizens of the city of Argos are waging an all-out war on the gods, mirroring the overthrow of the Titans by the gods themselves in the distant history, as told in the stars.  The Olympians control the good and bad fortunes of humanity, and to the people of Argos, it has become apparent that they have become a liability to the socially evolving race.  As people get more powerful and intelligent on a personal and societal scale, what need have they of the mercy and favor of the dangerously fickle gods?  Boiling down this cosmic struggle into one man, of course, is the protagonist, Perseus (Sam Worthington), who discovers he is the half-human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and watched over by the ageless, knowledgeable and sexy-cute Io (Gemma Arterton).  There’s nothing particularly Oscar-winning about these performances, or by the rest of the large and very fun supporting cast (including Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Hades), but they fit perfectly with tongue-in-cheek and grandiose nature of the material.  The action is all fantastic, of course, but what makes it awesome is how enthusiastically played everybody is.  No one seems the least bit bored, here.

The great moral statement made by the new ‘Clash’ is the conclusion of Perseus’ story arc, and what separates him from his morally schizophrenic father: Simple humility is the correct response to power.  The gods failed to be better than the dangerous Titans because they saw power as entitlement and superiority rather than a burden or call to serve.  Perseus, the movie seems to say, is what we ought to expect from both the divine and mankind.  “We fight and we die for each other, not for you,” Perseus tells Zeus.  Which, of course, encapsulates the good of humanism, which when properly understood, is in no way antithetical to Christian theology.  “God became man,” says Christian St. Athanasius, “So that man may become god.”  Christ, like Perseus in ‘Clash’, chose to live and die as a man rather than as God, and in doing so elevated mankind beyond our comprehension.  The Christian God is nothing like the domineering Zeus.  Jesus has nothing to prove, except His love, and humbles Himself to achieve that end.

‘Clash’ is a rip-roaring yarn, and great entertainment.  Go see it.

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.