Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review: Jonathan Liebesman's Wrath of the Titans

Introduction

Let’s face it: I know you’ve all been dying to have me review Wrath of the TitansI know; I hear your cries of desperate desire, and I throw myself in front of the bus for you.

So here’s how it happened: Yesterday morning, for some odd reason, I was struck with an overwhelming desire to be sitting at the café at Barnes & Noble. No idea why, but it stuck with me all day.  So after work yesterday I decided to head down to the Waterfront to do just that, and maybe get some writing done.  For those not from Pittsburgh, the Waterfront is a development that contains a huge shopping plaza there.  I hesitate to call it a strip mall because it’s really not a strip.  It’s more like a full-on mall, just not in a building. There is an AMC Lowe’s movie theater there, which while the most expensive theater in the area, also has the best projection, the biggest screens, it’s just the highest quality theater in the area.  In addition, there’s tons of boutiques, clothing stores, Starbucks (obviously) a ton of bars and restaurants, comedy clubs, even department stores (Macy’s, Target, Lowe’s Home Improvement), as well as Barnes & Noble.

So I kicked around B&N for awhile, took a seat with some coffee, and tried to write.  However, as I discuss over here, I just couldn’t get the words out, so I ended up doing a brief blog post about it, then sat, frustrated, as I finished my coffee.  At some point I decided on the spur of the moment to go see a movie.  Yes, it’s true, though it doesn’t happen that often, I have no problem going to see a movie by myself.

Walked over to the AMC and scanned the marquis.  It was either see The Hunger Games again (which was tempting), or see something I could review.  The only two remotely viable options for that seemed to be Mirror, Mirror or Wrath of the Titans. I couldn’t bring myself to go see the former, as it just looks really horrible. I’m holding out for Snow White and the Huntsman for my grown-up fairy tale fix. Wrath at least seemed like it might be a spectacle.  So that got the call, and $21 later ($7.50 for the ticket, $13.50 for the Overpriced Popcorn), I’m in the theater with a large popcorn and large drink.

Before I start, let me just say that finally getting to see the trailer for The Hobbit on the big screen was worth the $7.50 ticket to me.  Also, I did not spring for iMAX or 3D on this one—I got bit by the bad 3D on the Clash of the Titans remake, so I didn’t risk it for this one. Part of me wishes I had.

As a quick pre-review summary, I wasn’t overwhelmed by this movie, but nor was I really sorry I saw it. I find the idea of a brand spanking new sequel to a remake to be intriguing.  I can’t think of any other property where this has been done (though I’m sure they’re out there). One could argue that The Fly II and Halloween II were that, but I’d argue that these were at least nominal remakes in their own right of Son of the Fly and Halloween II, respectively. The Dark Knight? Again, I don’t think it counts thematically, given that there have been multiple Batman series in the past, and Batman Begins as such doesn’t really count as a remake, per se. Hopefully you get my point. I guess a few screwball comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen or Father of the Bride might count…

Should you see this film? Yeah, I guess I can recommend it if you’re looking for a night out with little else to do.  It’s not a must-see by any stretch.  I think that if you see it on the big screen, I’d spring for the iMAX 3D presentation, just to enhance the experience; otherwise it can probably wait for video.

So without further ado, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about Jonathan Liebesman’s Wrath of the Titans.

The Good
It occurs to me that if you’re into fantasy and particularly fantasy gaming, this isn’t a half-bad D&D film. The story, while pretty rote, is easy to follow and interesting enough to carry you through the flick: the idea (sans any real spoilers) is that the power of the gods is waning. Indeed, they are flat-out dying.  This is due to the fact that mankind is turning away from the gods, and since gods need prayer to have power, their power is waning and with it, their immortality.  Since the gods are losing power, the walls of Tartarus are breaking. Tartarus is presented as a kind of Hell dimension, wherein are imprisoned the Titans, the forebears of the Greek gods. Most dangerous among these is Kronos, the head Titan and father of the major Greek Gods.  If Kronos escapes, he could bring about the end of the world.  The only thing that can stop him is a combination of three weapons forged by Hephaestus and held by Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, respectively. But since the gods are weak, Zeus goes to find his son Perseus to help them out. Perseus, who has been quietly living as a fisherman for ten years with his son Helios (his wife Io died in childbirth) wants no part of it. Of course, when danger shows up on his doorstep, Perseus answers the call, and thus begins an epic quest into the underworld to save not only the gods, but all of mankind.

While it plays extremely fast and loose with Greek mythology (keeping pretty much only names and a few basic concepts), the story is fun and engaging enough.

By far the highlight of the film for me was Bill Nighy’s performance as Hephaestus.  He sinks his teeth into the role with a great deal of relish, and plays the god as a half-mad fallen deity who talks to his broken inventions and is only barely in the world anymore. Nighy is great in almost anything, and his performance in Wrath is no exception—he steals almost every scene he’s in and watching him play the role alone is almost worth the price of admission.  I wish I could say as much for the rest of the cast. Toby Kebbell’s performance as Agenor is also quite entertaining; he plays the role of your typical D&D rogue extremely well.

The Bad
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast’s performances are not as impressive as Nighy and Kebbell.  The film for the most part plays out like the cast signed on and then was handed a disappointing script that they were contractually obligated to perform. The performances, by and large, seem mailed in.  Liam Neeson as Zeus says most of his lines with very little emotion; this I suspect is partially due to the fact that the gods are supposed to lack human emotion (his character is constantly taunted by others to “cry like a mortal”), but it ends up just feeling flat.  This type of delivery extends to the “mortals” in the cast, and as such there is no emotional impact whatsoever in a scene at the end of the film that should really be a tear-jerker.  Likewise, the love story between Perseus and Andromeda comes off about as stilted and out of the blue as that between Aragorn and Arwen in the Lord of the Rings novel.

Ooooh, I know: that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble with Lord of the Rings fans, but let’s face it: as classic as that novel was, writing a love story was NOT Tolkien’s strong suit, and Arwen really doesn’t even show up till 2/3 of the way through Return of the King. Hers and Aragorn’s story is never developed in the novel proper, only in the appendices, which you read after the novel. It’s similar here: the love between Perseus and Andromeda isn’t really developed or explored—it just kind of happens in the last 10 minutes of the film, as an afterthought.  Indeed, it’s almost like someone at the studio saw a rough cut, and went, “You’d better have Perseus kiss a girl—how about Andromeda?  Isn’t he supposed to end up with her anyway?”

The story itself, as interesting as it is, also has some pretty major inconsistencies, such as villains suddenly turning good (including a very bad Star Wars ripoff line—“I know there is still good in you; I feel it”) for no apparent reason; as such the sudden rise of the heroic former villain comes off with little punch, though it does lead to some fun to watch sequences.  Also, Bubo from the original shows up again, but this time he’s somehow been miraculously transported to Hepaestus’ lair and forms a sort of idol with which Hephaestus argues (though being broken down, Bubo doesn’t argue back).

Length and pacing are another downfall here.  For a special effects spectacular, the movie was quite short, clocking in at just over 90 minutes. Some critics feel this is a benefit; I personally would rather see a 3-hour epic, given how much I pay for movies these days.  And yet, even for as short as the film is, it really does drag in some places.  There’s not nearly enough fighting in this movie; there’s a lot of classic D&D-style dungeon traps and running, though.  I kept thinking of Doctor Who while watching it: “We ran, you and me.  Didn’t we run?”

My final “the Bad” is about the gods themselves—specifically, There weren’t enough of them. What happened to all of them?  We’re told early on that they’re dying off, or at least becoming mortal, and at one point Hephaestus says that Andromeda reminds him of Aphrodite, but we never see Aphrodite. Or Hera. Or Apollo.  Or Hermes. Or Athena. Athena, for cripes’ sake!  If ever there was a need for a goddess like Athena, it was in this movie, though I can’t say why without revealing major spoilers.  I would’ve liked to see more gods.

Oh, and also: why is it that every single female lead role has to be a badass these days? Did we really have to make Andromeda a warrior for her to be a strong character? Wouldn’t her being a wise and powerful queen be enough? I’m just saying, there’s plenty of ways to create strong female characters without making them all wear armor and expertly wield swords.

The Ugly
Wow, there’s a lot of FX in this movie.  As I said earlier, I’m kind of sorry I didn’t pay for the 3D, as this flick was clearly made to take advantage of 3D effects; there are sequences left and right that probably look awesome in 3D, and while they are of the, “camera zooms through a tunnel” gimmick, they aren’t of the stupid, “someone throws something at the audience” gimmick that I hate. For the most part the effects look very cool; the Chimeras look great, the erupting volcano and Kronos effects are cool, the look of the gods’ powers looks great.  My only complaint about the effects are the Cyclopses, which look very CGI.

The camera work in this film is a bit frenetic and schizophrenic, jumping between standard Steadicam and “documentary-style” handheld shots.  The latter are not well done at all and during the initial Chimera battle at the beginning I had to close my eyes a couple times to avoid getting dizzy and ward off headaches from the sheer motion of the camera. Seriously, I didn’t even get sick watching Cloverfield, but that scene in Wrath gave me a pretty hardcore case of motion sickness, and during a scene I really wanted to enjoy.

Overall the fight scenes are well done, action-oriented and easy to follow and get into, and it’s in the fight scenes that the film shines.  These are well-choreographed, expertly shot and edited, and the performances during the battles are as good as they get in the film.

Aside from the frenetic camera work in the handheld sequences which added to a degree of visual schizophrenia, I don’t have a whole lot of problem with the look of the film overall.  Again, since it seems to have been shot specifically to take advantage of the 3D effects, and I didn’t see it in 3D it’s really hard to give a good, complete breakdown.  I do feel that it loses something if you don’t see it in 3D, which in and of itself could be problematic. 3D used properly should enhance a film, but the film shouldn’t rely upon it for its visuals, and I suspect that Wrath does, in many ways.

Conclusion and Summary
Liebesman had something of an Herculean task (pun intended) with this film: it’s no small thing to attempt a brand new sequel to a film that was a remake, and a film that, while it made a lot of money, was also pretty universally panned by critics and audiences alike. So I give him absolutely an “A” for effort, here.  It was definitely an intriguing experiment, and it does succeed to a degree, though certainly it is not a universal success. Flat performances by most of the cast, combined with schizophrenic camerawork and an over-reliance on 3D FX detract from stellar performances by Bill Nighy and Toby Kebbell and a fun Dungeons-&-Dragons-like plot.  I can recommend this film as a moderately engaging time-killer, but if you see it in the theater make sure you’ve got money to burn because it’s only worth a theater jaunt if you’re going to see it in 3D IMAX, which between the ticket and the Overpriced Popcorn is rather expensive. Otherwise, catch it on HBO.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Popcorns.

3 comments:

  1. We just caught "Immortals" on TV recently and it sounds like a lot of similar plot elements.

    This does sound like more of a "rent at home" sort of deal.

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  2. Nice review, Jason! I wasn't that keen on the Clash remake...not because I had some special reverence for the original, but because I just didn't think the remake was all that good. Seeing the super-busy action scenes of Wrath in trailers made me question if I wanted to see this one at all. More than anything, the 90-minute run time is my big reason for waving off. Unless it's a comedy or a slasher film, 90-minute films are often the result of there not being much story to hang a movie on. A 3-hour epic might be too much, but 1:45 at least, please. I'll probably catch this on NetFlix. But first, I have a copy of Immortals waiting on me, and I have a feeling that one will *really* leave a bad taste in my mouth...

    P.S.: Digging your reviews. Might you consider rating movies "3 our of 5 kernels" rather than "popcorns?" Just a thought.

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    Replies
    1. Actually, I kind of dug "Immortals." It was a lot of fun. Certainly better than the Clash remake. And "kernels" it is, from here on out--I was just thinking about that when I published this review, actually.

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