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Non-Review Review: Wrath of the Titans

Wrath of the Titans is effective spectacle, and certainly nothing less. It offers a large-scale canvas for director Jonathan Liebesman to offer us large-scale set pieces involving lots of mythical monsters, tonnes of fire and some decent action sequences. I’m one of the few people who enjoyed Clash of the Titans for what it was, and Wrath of the Titans isn’t an especially different beast. It offers the same level and quality of sound and fury helping distract from some storytelling problems. There are, of course, differences between the two films, both nothing especially drastic. While I wasn’t always engaged with the film, I did enjoy for what it was.

Giving the old man some stick...

Liebesman seems to be stronger at offering spectacle than Leterrier was, and I think that the visual design of the film, its look and feel, is generally superior to its predecessor. However, Liebesman also lacks Leterrier’s wonderfully kinetic vision. Leterrier was never the clearest storyteller, but he had a way with action choreography that made his confrontations seem more visceral than most of his contemporaries. While the film might look a little bit better – the design of Chronos, the sweeping journey to the underworld – the action sequences do lack a certain urgency.

The script is considerably tighter this time around, and certainly more consistent. While Perseus does end this movie as a little bit of a hypocrite, renouncing the values he tried to instill in his young son with relative ease, it doesn’t feel quite as surreal as Perseus denouncing the gods and asserting man’s independence while riding off on a Pegasus. It seems that the writers this time around have grasped that it sees a little strange to indulge in the trappings of a fantasy version of Ancient Greece while at the same time renouncing those trappings.

A head on a Pike...

The religious subtext this time around does feel a little less inherently contradictory – indeed, I actually think the film’s theology might be a bit smarter than it seems. I’ll discuss it at length elsewhere, but the sequel actually makes a thematic point about the tendency towards filtering classic Greek deities through a decidedly Christian world view. Scholars of Ancient Greece won’t be any happier that Hades is presented as Satan with a big bushy beard, or that he rules over a land that looks remarkably like the Judeo-Christian depiction of hell, but the script almost makes it seem like this is intentional. It seems almost as if the movie is taking these old gods and converting them into archetypes more recognisable to the modern world – and that this evolution is somehow a character arc for them. I actually think that’s very shrewd.

On the other hand, the plotting and character work is pedestrian at best. I described the script as “efficient” above, but “lean” might be more apt. Far from working with a platoon of paper-thin characters, brought to life by veteran actors, Perseus instead has two paper-thin companions who really do very little to define themselves in terms of personality. Obviously one is “comic relief” and the other is the obligatory major female character, but the film has little or no interest in them.

What? The Devil?

Sam Worthington is solid in the leading role. I’m still not quite convinced that he is a leading man in his own right. I think the best performance in Avatar came from Zoe Saldana, and I’m struggling to think of a truly iconic performance that the actor has given to cement his place as a leading man in his own right. He’s not bad as Perseus, but he’s not exceptional either. He’s not working with the strongest script, but we never really emotionally connect with the demi-god over the course of his quest. It’s a bit of a shame, because Worthington actually does an efficient job in terms of an action movie protagonist – he works very well with the special effects, and looks good running and swinging – but he can’t seem to find a character at the core of Perseus.

On the other hand, the movie does well with its supporting cast. After all, it’s possible to improve any movie by employing a bunch of veteran actors to chew on scenery in the most grand manner possible. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are having great fun when they’re together, and it’s quite enjoyable to watch them playing off one another. Bill Nighy joins the pantheon with a big bushy beard and a strange Welsh accent, but he manages to upstage the leading trio in every scene where he appears. Rosamund Pike is given nothing to do, but still manages to deliver that stoic stiff-upper-lipped performance that one expects from a good actor in a low-key supporting role.

We are not Worthington...

That said, it’s hard not to feel a bit sorry for Toby Kebbell, cast as the movie’s comic relief. It seems like his role was written for Russell Brand, and Kebbell was cast as a similar enough substitute, right down to the hair. The problem is that Brand is an acquired taste at the best of times, and nobody does Brand like Brand. So Kebbell is stuck trying to be equally obnoxious and charming, a bit of comic relief and yet strangely alluring. It doesn’t really work, and it feels like his character’s very clearly set-up arc is never truly executed.

The 3D is surprisingly effective, with Liebesman embracing it as a gimmick. The first film came under fire for its notoriously dodgy post-conversion 3D, but Wrath of the Titans actually looks quite good. Liebesman knows that people attend a 3D movie like this in order to see things coming out of the screen, to see mythical creatures flying, and he uses it well. It’s not a brilliantly innovative use of the technology, but its effective – especially during a tracking shot into the underworld, with rocks literally falling out of the screen at the audience.

Oh my gods...

Javier Navarrete provides a rather powerful soundtrack, and I suspect that a lot of Liebesman’s style would be lost without it. The music has a tendency to make the action unfolding seem much more impressive than it might otherwise be, but Navarrete is careful never to overwhelm the film. I think it lends the movie a touch of class.

Wrath of the Titans does what it sets out to do. It doesn’t do it in an exceptionally creative or innovative way, nor does it offer enough depth to allow it to stand out. On the other hand, it is an efficient little film that doesn’t pretend to offer anything more than empty and yet effective spectacle. To confuse my Greeks with my Romans, the bread might lack a hint of substance, but the circus is actually fairly impressive.

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