When exactly did the gods lose their power? Not necessarily any sway over us puny mortals, but the ability to singularly command our imaginations with tales of their menace, mercy and might. Much in the same way that last month’s Journey to the Center of the Earth sequel cherry-picked fantastical elements which had individually enchanted readers of three different novels for years before, Wrath of the Titans – this month’s sequel to 2010’s remake of 1981’s Clash of the Titans – wedges together the heavenly figures of Zeus, Hades, Perseus, Poseidon and Ares with creatures like the Minotaur, the Cyclops and the Chimera for a more-is-more approach to long-ago legends who still retain some cultural recognition and yet find themselves rendered utterly disposable in the face of the mighty god of commerce.
It’s ten years after the events of Clash, and the gods are in fact losing their power as widespread belief in them falters. Brothers Zeus (Liam Neeson), Poseidon (Danny Huston) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes) grow fearful that they will not be able to stop those titans held within the subterranean walls of Tartarus, and in traveling to the prison of the underworld, they are soon betrayed by Ares (Edgar Ramirez), Zeus’ more neglected son and the god of war, eager to see Hell unleashed on Earth. It falls to Zeus’ other son, kraken-killing demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington), to set aside his single father ways in order to rescue his own dad and effectively ward off the apocalyptic outcome of Ares’ actions.
What follows is your usual modern quest movie, modeled less on classic adventure stories and more on Billy’s dizzying outings in “The Family Circus.” Perseus is forced to couple himself with the likes of Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, capably replacing Alexa Davalos) and Poseidon’s son, Agenor (Toby Kebbell). The latter gets to split comic-relief duties with a winningly hammy Bill Nighy, who gets to send our trio of heroes into a shifting labyrinth of his own design to fetch three godly weapons of his own making, as they alone will combine into a weapon capable of taking down a reawakened Kronos, fiery father to the aforementioned gods.
It’s the post-Pirates blueprint to a T, with oversized foes threatening our heroes at every turn in their nakedly arbitrary pursuit of Important Items. Seemingly written by committee but only credited to three men, Wrath’s screenplay sees our gods pointing out to one another the significance of an underground dungeon with which they are surely already familiar. There is admittedly a noble effort made to string together several generations of daddy issues between gods and men, as Zeus and Hades struggle to stop the father whom they themselves had imprisoned eons ago and as Perseus is torn between protecting his own son and saving his once-mighty father, but that thematic significance neither drives nor defines this well-oiled machine.
We’re talking first and foremost about a framework for mythical melees, on which director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) does not skimp. He impresses with an early tracking shot as Perseus takes to the rooftops in order to better pummel a fire-spewing chimera attacking his village, only to punctuate that beat with a mad blur of mayhem and a fleeting cheat in which the aspect ratio momentarily shifts to make the creature’s fanged tail seem to pop off the screen that much more on a 3-D viewing (the overall quality of which otherwise exceeds Clash’s notoriously hasty conversion). The aforementioned labyrinth sequence may be contrived in its resolution, but it boasts a tension rare to the proceedings, and the lava-slinging climax that pits our hero and his trusty Pegasus against the towering Kronos certainly doesn’t lack for scale; in fact, it’s arguably closer in spirit to the Ray Harryhausen spectacle of yore than Clash could claim, despite its identical plotting.
In between, Perseus faces skirmishes with multiple cyclopses, an unimpressive minotaur and fleet-footed, two-torsoed makhai soldiers, and while an audience’s emotional investment in these endeavors hardly factors in, Worthington remains a good sport when throwing himself into battle with opponents both imaginary and lavishly costumed. Neeson, Fiennes and Huston opt for their default levels of gravitas, leaving Ramirez as the pouty odd man out, while Pike serves as steely-eyed eye candy in an undeniable boy’s club.
The question stands: is it entertaining? Well, that’s a tough call at a time when the bar for modern sword-and-sandal pics has been set so low, with the advancement of digital effects rendering beasts in more realistic and yet less riveting fashion. There isn’t a surprise in sight, nor any real sweep to its craftsmanship, but the film doesn’t drag either in doling out familiar sensations. Does it hold its own against its immediate predecessor? (And did that film hold its own in the shadow of its predecessor?) In a marketplace most recently defined by the popularity of the glossy and garish Immortals and 300, Wrath is about as enjoyable as a film whose every frame is designed to be forgotten could be.
Ye gods indeed.