As audiences get set for the update of "Clash of the Titans," many hardcore fans of the classic fantasy film are letting loose with that familiar cry of heresy. Sure, digital effects can look more "real" than the rubber and clay monsters created by legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen for the 1981 original, but better? "Better" is a subjective term.
Ask "Star Wars" geeks which Yoda they prefer. When Luke Skywalker landed on Dagobah in 1981's "The Empire Strikes Back," the Yoda he encountered was a foam and latex puppet, voiced and manipulated by Frank Oz. The "real" Jedi Master would continue through the first "Star Wars" prequel, "The Phantom Menace," but by 2002's "Attack of the Clones," Yoda was a fully-CG character, now able to leap through the air and have an unintentionally hilarious light saber battle with Christopher Lee's Count Dooku. Very few fans of that series thought this was an improvement on the clunky puppet who physically pinched Luke's arm in his first appearance.
A similar case could be made for "King Kong." Merian C. Cooper's original 1933 film features some of the most groundbreaking effects in film history, and while Willis O'Brien's stop-motion monkey showed visible handprints from the manipulating animators, the impact on the stupefied audience was monumental. Seven decades later, Peter Jackson's 2005 remake didn't just feature a Kong so realistic he was bug-infested, the movie was littered with enough fully-realized CG critters to choke George Lucas. Despite… or perhaps because of effects overload, that movie was met with little more than a shrug from critics and audiences. To cineasts, the original Kong remains King.
Producers looking to remake beloved special effects films need to heed the warning of Jeff Goldblum in "Jurassic Park." To paraphrase that film's chaos theoretician, Jackson and his team of visual effects artists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should. Or perhaps, they should've spent more time thinking about what else they could do in terms of STORY.
One of the most successful Sci-Fi remakes of all time is David Cronenberg's update of "The Fly." Granted, 1986 was still pre-CGI, but effects technology had come leaps and bounds since the crude (and minimal) work done in the campy but iconic 1958 original. But what made the new version so terrific wasn't simply that the genetically altered Brundlefly was far more monstrous than the simple head-and-hand swap of the original. Cronenberg deconstructed the whole story, making it a metaphor for the often unpleasant degenerative process of aging (not to mention the goopier aspects of propagation). Some feel the whole thing is an AIDS metaphor, but the point is, "The Fly" doesn't just feature better effects, it's a smarter film.
Contrast "The Fly" with Tim Burton's 2001 "Planet of the Apes." Burton may be David Cronenberg's cinematic antithesis, an auteur who is ALL style and NO substance (he's even been known to point out that storytelling is not his strong point). But even by Burton's standards, this muddled mess of a remake of the classic 1968 film is as pointless an exercise as Gus Van Sant's "Psycho." Yes, the simian overlords look more like real monkeys than Roddy McDowell in a chimpanzee mask. Who cares. The plot, action, drama, suspense and, well, FUN are all substandard in this remake.
The thing that Hollywood needs to keep in mind is that today's tech-savvy audiences are rarely wowed by visual effects, "Avatar" notwithstanding (and I'll be a heretic here and say that I was far less impressed by the Na'vi and the Toruk than I was Pandora's lush, alien flora). In 2010, we demand far more out of a Superman movie than simply being able to "believe a man can fly" (as that film's tagline boasted). (Chris Nolan, take note). The sad fact is, "movie magic" has been replaced with "movie science," and, for better or worse, nobody ever asks, "How did they do that?" anymore.
So, the new "Clash of the Titans" had better have more going for it than more believable snakes on Medusa's head if it wants to have a lasting impact anywhere near that of its predecessor (and with Bubo the mechanical owl reportedly reduced to a mere cameo, we're skeptical). At this point, only one thing is certain: In a clash of the hair, Harry Hamlin beats the snot out of Sam Worthington!
Story by Karl Heitmueller
Starpulse contributing writer