Laurence Olivier

Clash of The Titans (1981)

1981

MGM

Directed by Desmond Davis

Written by Beverley Cross

Produced by Ray Harryhausen and Charles H. Schneer

 

Back in the 1960’s and 70’s us movie lovers didn’t have the CGI laden epic  motion pictures that you see nearly every week opening in the local cineplexes nowadays.  In fact, back then the success of a science fiction or fantasy movie largely rested on how good the special effects were.   Special effects back then was truly an art.  Especially stop motion animation which was time consuming and took patience that we attribute to saints.   Or the acknowledged master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.

Today, Ray Harryhausen’s films are rightfully acclaimed as masterpieces of the stop motion animation techniques.   The classic sword fight between three men and eight skeletons in “Jason and The Argonauts” is regarded as the finest stop motion animation sequence ever committed to film.  What makes Mr. Harryhausen’s work even more remarkable is that he did all the stop motion animation in his movies by himself.  He never employed assistants until the movie we’re now discussing.   Mr. Harryhausen retired after he made CLASH OF THE TITANS and I like to think that he saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that the sophisticated special effects techniques that were being developed by studios such Industrial Light and Magic were being embraced by movie audiences and not his hand crafted stop motion.  By the time CLASH OF THE TITANS hit theaters, we’d already seen “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” and movie audiences wanted to see movies in futuristic settings and so Mr. Harryhausen’s mythological based movies were no longer popular.  But if he had to go out, he did it in style.

CLASH OF THE TITANS is a retelling of the legend of Perseus, Harryhausen style.  As a baby, Perseus and his mother Danae are thrown into the sea locked inside of a wooden ark by his grandfather, King Acrisius of Argos.  Turns out Acrisius has made a really bad call here as Danae was impregnated by none other than The King of The Gods, Zeus (Laurence Olivier) himself.  Zeus doesn’t take kindly to his baby mama and his son being treated in such a manner and orders Poseidon (Jack Gwillim) to release the last of The Titans: a fearsome creature of tremendous rage and power called The Kraken.  The Kraken destroys Argos, the kingdom of Acrisius while Perseus and his mother are brought to a safe shore where Perseus grows up to become Harry Hamlin.

And here’s where we get to the best part of the movie; where the gods of Olympus start meddling in mortal affairs.  The goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) in revenge for Zeus transforming her handsome son Calibos (Neil McCarthy) into a hideous man-beast dumps Perseus half a world away in the kingdom of Joppa.  But to be fair to Zeus, Calibos did kill almost Zeus’ entire herd of winged stallions with only Pegasus escaping.

Perseus catches just a glimpse of the supernaturally beautiful Princess Andromeda of Joppa (Judi Bowker) and vows to marry her.  But because of a curse laid on Andromeda by her would-be suitor Calibos, Perseus has to first solve a riddle or be burned at the stake.  With the help of his new found friend, the playwright/poet Ammon (Burgess Meredith) a helmet of invisibility and the winged Pegasus, he manages to find the answer to the riddle and that only makes things worse.  See, he had to cut off the hand of Calibos to do so and that really pisses off Thetis who demands the life of Andromeda in thirty days or The Kraken will be released to destroy the kingdom of Joppa.  And so Perseus sets forth on a quest to find the only thing on Earth capable of destroying The Kraken: the head of Medusa the Gorgon which can turn anyone or anything who looks upon it into unliving stone.

I oughta say up front that I have no patience with those CGI junkies who refuse to watch a Ray Harryhausen movie because the special effects are ‘cheesy’ and the stories are ‘corny’.  The special effects of a Ray Harryhausen movie are nothing less than a true labor of love of a master who gave up time he could have been spending with his family and friends to provide the world with entertainment and I for one appreciate it.  Is CLASH OF THE TITANS his best work?  Well, to be honest, no.  But it is a whole lot of fun if you approach it in the right way and watch it the way it should be seen: on a Saturday afternoon with a whole lot of snacks and friends.

Laurence Olivier has a great deal of fun playing Zeus and his “Release The Kraken!” line is one delivered with a gusto that you can only get from Shakespearean actors playing Greek gods.  Claire Bloom almost fades into the background as Hera and while the idea of casting Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, Goddess of Love is an inspired one, she is given nothing to do with the role.  Maggie Smith as Thetis is the real opponent to Zeus in the movie as she tries to thwart Perseus at every turn.

Which leads me to my major problem with the movie: Perseus really isn’t much of a hero.  He’s got all the breaks right from birth.  He’s the son of Zeus, which makes him half-god.  He’s handsome and he’s given magical weapons to accomplish all of his deeds.  Weapons which he treats with utter carelessness and either loses or is destroyed.  There really isn’t anything Perseus does to deserve being the hero outside of the fact he happened to have the right daddy.

In fact I actually felt sorry for the bad guy in this one.  Yeah, Calibos messed up and should have been punished for his misdeeds but when his own mother even turns his back on him after Calbos has humbled himself and pleads on his knees for forgiveness and justice…it’s a powerful scene and one you wouldn’t expect to find in what has been dismissed as ‘a kiddie movie’.  It’s a scene that’s just as good as the one where Perseus confronts Medusa.  She’s stalking Perseus and his men in a ruined, dimly lit temple, picking them off one by one with her bow and arrows.  All they can hear is her slithering along the ground and the deadly twang of her bow as she fires the arrows.  And Moly Hoses, whatever you do, don’t look her in the face…

So should you see CLASH OF THE TITANS?  By all means, yes.  If you call yourself a movie fan then you should have already seen this movie and if you haven’t, put it on your Netflix queue or wait for it to show up on Tuner Classic Movies.  Ignore the annoying metal owl Bubo and the plastic acting of Judi Bowker and just take the movie for what it is and you’ll have a good time.  Enjoy.

118 minutes

Rated: PG

 

 

 

Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow

2004
Paramount

Produced by Jon Avnet
Written And Directed by Kerry Conran

In doing my research prior to writing this review I discovered that Kerry Conran originally wanted to do this movie with unknown actors and break it up into ‘chapters’ and present it as if it were a lost serial from the 1930’s that had recently been discovered. I would really have liked to see that version of SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW since I think he could have pulled it off. As anybody who’s read my work knows, I’m a full out geek when it comes to the blood and thunder pulps of the 1930’s and 1940’s and Saturday morning serials and 90% of my work is written in the tradition of the pulps. As I watched SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW I realized that I had a spiritual brother in Kerry Conran. I don’t often recommend that people see a movie just for the way it looks but SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is one of those movies. It’s an out-of-body experience that truly takes you into another world and despite what I think are some flaws that prevent it from being quite as good as such great pulp inspired films such as The Indiana Jones movies “The Rocketeer” “The Phantom” and “Buckaroo Banzai” it’s an astounding adventure movie that proves what I’ve been saying for years: pulp action adventure is alive and well and if presented in the right way, people will eat it up.

The look of the movie is achieved through the means of almost total CGI. Except for the actors, their costumes and some of the sets, nearly everything else is a digital creation and the results are simply astounding in evoking a 1939 that only existed in the pages of pulp magazines and serials and could only be realized now. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the best way to visualize a world of the past is by means of a futuristic technology but it works. Boy, does it ever work.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW takes place in an alternate Earth where the Second World War has apparently never happened. We can tell that right from the beautiful opening sequence where The Hindenburg III docks at The Empire State Building. That huge tower on the top was designed exactly for that purpose in our reality but after it was built it was discovered that the high winds would make dirigibles move around too much and make it impossible for passengers to disembark. But in this world they’ve obviously overcome that problem. Aboard The Hindenburg is Dr. Vargas (Julian Curry) who is on the run from sinister forces who have been kidnapping the world’s leading scientists and he’s next on the list.

He’s come to New York to warn his colleague, Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) who in turn contacts the crack reporter of The New York Chronicle, the wonderfully named Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and informs her that he was once a member of a mysterious group known as Unit 11 who worked for a Doctor Totenkopf (Sir Laurence Oliver in archival footage) on projects that were “too horrible to speak of” It’s during their meeting that New York is attacked by an army of giant flying robots that proceed to steal the city’s generators. There’s only one chance for the city to survive and the call goes out for Joe Sullivan aka Sky Captain (Jude Law) to come and save the day in his customized, pimped-out P-40 Warhawk which he does in a breathtaking sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Turns out that Sky Captain is the only hope to find out where these giant robots are coming from and why they’re attacking cities all over the entire world for their generators. Sky Captain is ably backed up by his own private army and his faithful sidekick, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) who judging from his speech patterns and technological genius must be an ancestor of Stark Trek’s Mr. Spock. Polly insists on going along the adventure and it turns out that she and Sky Captain had a wild romance in the past that resulted in her sabotaging his beloved plane.   That led to him being held in a prison for six months so there’s a certain amount of friction there that leads to some entertaining banter between the two as they go off on a world-wide quest for Tontenkopf’s secret base to stop his mad schemes. They’re followed by The Mysterious Woman (Bai Ling) who is Totenkopf’s enforcer and seeks to stop them. Along the way Sky Captain and Polly get the help of Franky (Angelina Jolie) the eye patch wearing commander of a fleet of aerial aircraft carriers and they assault Dr. Totenkopf’s island fortress in a last ditch effort to save the world.

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW is a great movie for those of us who love the pulps and those of us who have no idea of what the pulps were and want to know. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie do an absolutely bang-up job in their roles and considering they were working on sets where they had to imagine what they were seeing, they do a great job. I really liked Angelina Jolie’s work in this movie and I bet if you ask her she’d admit that she’s a fan of Jim Steranko’s “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” since her role is practically a 1930’s female version of that character. There’s a fantastic scene where she and her squadron of ace pilots dive into the ocean and we see that their planes can also become submarine fighters that had me jumping up and hollaring like a maniac. And I won’t even tell you the scene that happens after that when she has to take out a giant robotic crab monster protecting Totenkopf’s island.

But SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW does have some major flaws. First is that even though Sky Captain is the hero he never has a real enemy to face off with. Dr. Totenkopf is played by Sir Laurence Oliver who died before the movie was made and so only appears either in footage that has been CGI’ed. And The Mysterious Woman looks as if she might be a formidable enemy but she and Sky Captain never have a real emotional or physical conflict. Near the end of the movie, The Mysterious Woman and Sky Captain square off in a battle that looks as if we’re going to get some real ass-kicking action but it doesn’t happen. It’s resolved in a manner that had me saying; “That’s IT?!”

Another thing that had me puzzling over is that early in the movie it’s said that the nations of the world have to rely on Sky Captain and his private army to find Totenkopf since their armies are engaged in other conflicts. Well, if in this world there’s no World War II then what conflict is going on that would prevent the world powers from sending their armies after Totenkopf? And I also didn’t like how near the end where Sky Captain and Polly have been busting their asses to save Dex for nearly 30 minutes of the movie’s running time Dex shows up to save them and he explains how he escaped in an unconvincing offhanded manner.

And the movie doesn’t have the headlong adrenaline rush of the Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom”. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong but I have the feeling that the director is more in love with getting the look and feel of the movie right more than the action elements.  But when we do get action, it’s worth the wait. You just can’t beat the scene in New York with Sky Captain fighting the robots and that simply incredible underwater scene with the amphibious planes. Stuff like that is what a pulp fan like me lives for and I certainly got it. But there’s a curious lack of headlong action that doesn’t carry you along in a rush that I attribute to the director. Kerry Conran is good, yeah, but he’s not a major action direction who could have torn up the screen with material like this.

The performances in the movie are also worth mentioning. SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW was part of the Jude Law Film Festival of 2004 where it seemed as if every other movie that hit the screens that year starred Jude Law. He’s really good in this one as he plays it absolutely straight. His daredevil pilot Joe Sullivan would have been right at home in a Howard Hawkes movie like “Only Angels Have Wings” and I loved how during the underwater fight scene Angelina Jolie grins like a kid on Christmas while wearing a helmet I’m positive was inspired by Wally Wood.

So should you see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW? Without a doubt. It’s an excellent movie simply on a technical level in that it brings to life a world of pure pulp adventure. I would advise you to see The Indiana Jones movies or “The Rocketeer” or “The Phantom” if you want to know what the action and energy of the pulps and Saturday Morning serials felt like but see SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW if you want to know what the pulps and Saturday morning serials looked like.

106 minutes
Rated PG