The tragic irony of Hollywood's latest big, dumb, sword-and-sandal epic
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who really liked 2010's Clash of the Titans remake, despite it earning more than $493 million at the worldwide box office. The movie received a pathetic 28 percent rating at Rotten Tomatoes, and Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, who is known to love popcorn flicks, derided it as a "sham" starring "good actors going for the paycheck and using beards and heavy makeup to hide their shame." Audiences-polling firm Cinemascore graded enthusiasm for it at "B," and IMDb users rated it a mediocre 5.8/10.
So there was not much of a clamor for the 3-D sequel Wrath of the Titans, opening today. Nonetheless, the big-budget machinery kicked into full gear, and the second installment of the warring Greek gods-franchise arrives, complete with grimy, mundane wall-to-wall action and terrible dialogue spouted by Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in long beards and silky robes.
Though it's likely to be slammed by the second weekend of Hunger Games mania, the film appears headed toward a decent opening performance at the domestic box office. While there are no guarantees, the movie should prove successful enough on a global scale to concretely green-light the obligatory third Titans flick that's reportedly being planned. This is big studio business as usual: low-risk and low-reward, favoring a familiar franchise that offers familiar goods. If it works financially, it works, and if it doesn't, oh well.
But there's a deeper tragedy here. Think about how Titans compares with the furor that's greeted another big-budget event movie that opened in March: Disney's John Carter. In many respects, they're similar enterprises. Sword-and-sandals epics set in otherworldly pasts, both films feature heroes on quests to save civilization. They have complex labyrinths, allusions to mortality, sprawling battles captured in wide shots and kinetic close-ups, and universes populated by supernatural creatures and dashing, fiercely independent women. They're fundamentally old-fashioned event movies, structured to offer grand, big-screen escapism.
And yet, before its release, Andrew Stanton's ambitious, imaginative $250 million sci-fi epic had already been written off as a disaster, an overpriced folly. Competing studio executives gleefully anticipated a monumental financial shortfall. And despite some initial hopeful signs, in the form of a strong opening weekend internationally, the skeptics have been proven right. The movie fizzled at the domestic box office, the studio announced a $200 million write-down and—in the public consciousness at least—the film has been condemned to a permanent place in the hall of infamous bombs.
MORE ON MOVIES
But where Titans is a dry, rote affair, Carter embraces bold ideas. It's full of creative touches, offering a loving and affectionate mash-up of genres. Stanton balances tones, effortlessly shifting from tongue-in-cheek humor to stark drama and large-scale action. Drawing on his time at Pixar, the filmmaker stresses the story and his characters just as much as the spectacle. The movie has been derided for its 132-minute running time, which flies in the face of the "keep it short" ethos that's so predominant these days, but the extended length gives the filmmaker the chance to flesh out a creative, full-scale vision that gives John Carter the look and feel of an auteur effort. Most importantly, there's sense of wonder embedded in the work, a gleeful childlike joy in its depiction of the sights and sounds of Mars. It's the sort of earnest adventure, alive to imaginative possibilities, that would have been celebrated in the time of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
And yet these days all anyone can talk about is Carter's $200 million write down.
Wrath of the Titans, on the other hand, is a dime-a-dozen sort of movie, with the familiar muddy visuals, sword-clanging action and poorly explained narrative, in which the giant, fiery demon father of the gods threatens to rise from his underworld prison and destroy the universe. It plays things painstakingly safe, without even the cheesy humor of its predecessor. There's no attempt to offer a bigger, broader picture of life in Ancient Greece and the grubby, indistinct action takes center stage. Beyond the occasional spark of ingenuity, as in a madcap fight between the main characters and giant cyclopses, it's assembly-line filmmaking. And it's been received with far less outrage, far less righteous anger, than the swarm of negativity that greeted John Carter.
There's a lesson here: It might be better to burn out then fade away, as Neil Young famously sang, but not in the film business. If Wrath of the Titans ultimately flops, then, it will do so in the exact form today's Hollywood prefers: safely, quietly, without much of a fuss.