Postmodern Pegasus

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The opening of “Clash of the Titans” on Easter weekend seemed strangely appropriate. This is a movie in which a half-god, half-mortal hero fights the powers of darkness. It’s a movie that demands a human sacrifice for the sins of a community. Indeed, the film offers a strange mingling of figures from sev- eral mythologies, including the Norse Kraken, the Arabian jinn, the expected pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, a reference to Christianity’s “redemp- tion by blood,” and even winged mon- keys from Oz.

Despite its mythological under- pinnings, however, the film adopts a hubristic tone of skeptical humanism. It almost seems as though the filmmakers were afraid they might lose the blessings of the Hollywood gods if they acknowledged the virtue of faith, even faith in the Olympian deities. The result is simply ridiculous. The filmmakers may be trying to update the story for modern mortals, but come on! You can’t tell a story about Greek mythology without acknowledging that the mortals of that era valued their gods and goddesses and believed in the efficacy of worship.

The original “Clash of the Titans” (1981) had its own problems. Its formerly state-of-the-art special effects became woefully out of date, and the story, once considered exciting and dramatic, dragged for later audiences. When I showed it to my mythology class last semester, the students sighed,

“Couldn’t you just give us a lecture about the gods and goddesses instead?” Clearly, despite its star-studded court of Olympian gods led by Sir Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom, Ray Harryhausen’s famous stop-action animation, and Harry Hamlin’s curly locks and muscled legs, it was time for a remake of the campy 30-year-old classic. Fans of mythology in general and “Clash” in particular have looked forward to the release of the new version, updated with 21st-century CGI graphics.

Unfortunately, the new “Clash” is even worse than the old one. The special effects simply aren’t special enough, and the new story contains a mythological mishmash that knowledgeable viewers will find exasperating. For example: in the actual myth of the hero Perseus, his mother Danae is a beautiful mortal. When an oracle tells her father Acrisius, king of Argos, that if Danae bears a son it will result in his death, Acrisius locks her away inside an impenetrable chamber to prevent her marriage and thwart the prophecy. No baby, no grandparricide. Nevertheless, the randy Zeus comes to Danae in the form of a golden rain, and she becomes pregnant. Enraged and frightened, Acrisius casts daughter and grandson into the Mediterranean, sealed inside a coffin-shaped box. Zeus gently guides the box to an island, where mother and son live peacefully until Perseus grows up.

In this new film, Zeus (Liam Neeson comes to Danae (Tine Stapelfeldt) in the form of Acrisius, who is her husband, not her father (how’s that for an Elektra twist?). Perseus is the result of that union. In mythology, however, it is Alkmene, not Danae, who receives Zeus in the form of her (betrothed) spouse, and the resulting hero is Herakles (Hercules in Roman myth), not Perseus. In the new “Clash,” Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), not Danae, is the daughter of the king of Argos, and her mother is the one who boasts of her beauty, saying, “My daughter is more beautiful than Aphrodite.” Those are fighting words for Olympians (Arachne was turned into a spider for daring to claim that her weaving was better than Athena’s), yet Aphrodite never appears in this film except as part of the backdrop in the Olympian court. So much for Olympian justice, or vengeance.

That is just one of the many instances of muddled mythology in this film. Another is the character Io, who follows Perseus as his protectress, almost like Moses’ sister Miriam when he was set out on the river Nile to escape the death edict of the Pharoah. I have no problem with the guardian character, but why name her Io, an important person in mythology, the mother of Egypt and Thebes, and the namesake of the Ionian Sea? In mythology, Zeus seduces Io in the form of a dark cloud, then transforms her into a cow to protect her when his wife, Hera, suddenly turns up. Why not give this protectress an innocuous name like Alexa? And don’t even get me started on the title of the film itself — these aren’t Titans, they’re Olympians! The Titans were a race of gods and goddesses who predated the Olympian Twelve. Moreover, the Kraken is not Poseidon’s pet sea monster but a creature from Norse lore.

The first “Clash” film focuses on a conflict between Thetis (Maggie Smith), a minor goddess, and Zeus (Laurence Olivier ), leader of the Olympians. Her son, Calibos, has been cursed with ugliness while Perseus, a favored son of Zeus, leads a charmed life. As is often the case with mythology, mortals are used as pawns in this rather trivial contest between the gods. Eventually Perseus must fight giant scorpions and bring back the head of Medusa in order to rescue the princess Andromeda from sacrifice to Poseidon’s pet Kraken, all through the magic of Harryhausen’s stop-action and with the help of a magical sword, helmet, and shield given Poseidon by the gods.

In the new film, Perseus rejects his biological father, Zeus, and refuses to accept his help, including special weapons, even though it is mighty Hades, Zeus’ brother, who has caused the tidal wave that drowned Perseus’ adoptive family — and even when it means that other soldiers will die. The film rejects the idea of individual heroism, insisting that Perseus bring along a community of soldiers to help him fight Medusa. I suppose it takes a village.

In this new film the conflict is much more existential than that of two gods arguing on Olympus. The local Argosians are wrestling with more existential angst: what makes a god a god? Can gods exist if mortals no longer worship them? Are gods mere figments of a weakened imagination? If all Argosians agree to reject the gods, will life be better? These postmodern philosophical arguments might be more convincing if Zeus and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) weren’t standing right there in their immortal flesh, bellowing in the humans’ faces. It’s one thing to question the existence of an unseen god, and quite another to reject a powerful god that one can see and hear — especially right after one of these gods has destroyed half the community.

The most serious sin in Greek mythology is hubris — the kind of pride which may assert that one has no need of gods. Such pride is always punished. But in this film, we are expected to cheer for the foolish Argosians who purposely bring doom upon themselves and their countrymen by willfully refusing to acknowledge the gods. Returning to the Moses comparison, they are like the Israelites who refused to look up at the serpent on the staff, when they were told that this act could save them. They would rather die than look.

Zeus and Hades continue the argument begun by the mortals, and adopt the mortals’ views. Zeus admits that he thrives on human love and is “fed by their worship”; Hades boasts that he thrives on fear. Which is stronger? It doesn’t matter. Both are cockeyed. The Zeus of mythology cares about respect and obedience, but not about mortals’ love. And Hades is not the fearsome devil of the underworld, a la Satan and Hell. Hades rules over all of the afterlife, including the heaven-like Elysian Fields. He isn’t evil, and he doesn’t chase after mortals to capture them and drag them to hell. (Except Persephone. And that was a marriage proposal.) He’s more like the benevolent character in Emily Dickinson’s poem: “Because I could not stop for Death /He kindly stopped for me.” By contrast, the Hades in the film is demonic, and definitely not Greek.

At the end of the movie, it’s mainly hubris that remains. Perseus, who has beheaded Medusa, vanquished the Kraken, and sent Hades back to the underworld, says, “Let them know that Men did this.” He wears a black tunic instead of white, and he rides a black Pegasus. When told to pray to Zeus in order to heal his poisoned shoulder, he answers defiantly, “No!” He would rather die than ask the gods to help him. This is indeed a myth for the 21st century — thin, uncompelling, unconvincing in its attempt to derive its glamor from the authentic myths it spurns.

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