Monday, January 18, 2010

Return to Olympus

In the Interesting Trends In Upcoming Films category is an apparent resurgence in interest in Greek mythology. Well ... I say “resurgence,” but really it’s just two films, which is nevertheless two films more than we’ve seen in some time (since the god-awful Troy in 2004, at any rate).

Behind door number one we have a remake of Clash of the Titans, with a pretty impressive cast of players—and impressive not so much for its “bankable” stars as for the fact that they’re all really good actors. Liam Neeson plays Zeus, Ralph Fiennes is Hades, Danny Huston is Poseidon, Polly Walker (Atia from Rome) is Cassiopeia, and Alexa Davalos (yes, please!) plays Andromeda. Sam Worthington plays Perseus, and the only thing I know about him is that he’s the main guy in Avatar (a film that seems less and less likely I will go see the more I read about it). Also in the film, based on my exhaustive thirty-second internet research, are Peter Postlewaite, Gemma Atterton and Jayson Fleming. So they’ve managed to assemble a pretty promising team.

They’ve also definitively updated the special effects. Remember the kitschy stop-motion animation of the first one?

I have to say it, because it is a timeless truth: giant scorpions are cool. Especially when they sting the ground in time to the soundtrack’s rhythm.

I suspect this film will be a great mindless pleasure—I get to see some of my favourite actors chewing the scenery, in a story where I don’t have to worry about subtlety or nuance. That was what ruined Troy for me—if you’re going to adapt the Iliad to film—and leave out the gods, no less!—have an eye to the story’s details. But no. Fortunately for Clash of the Titans, the original was so cheesy and bad, they can only go up from there.

The second film is adapted from a series of young adult novels in which a teenager named Percy Jackson discovers that he is the son of Poseidon and gets embroiled in the affairs of the gods (along with a cadre of other offspring of the Greek Pantheon). My question is: where were these novels when I was twelve?

Again, the film boasts a pretty impressive cast, with Uma Thurman (Medusa), Rosario Dawson (Persephone), Pierce Brosnan (Chiron), Catherine Keener (Percy’s mom), Sean Bean (Zeus), and the awesome awesome Kevin McKidd as Poseidon.

(Can I just observe as an aside that I think Sean Bean has a weakness for wearing breastplates and/or chain mail? Seriously: Odysseus in Troy, Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring, Zeus, and Ned Stark in the upcoming adaptation of A Game of Thrones on HBO. Does his agent put these scripts in the “automatic yes” pile?)

So, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a little glitzier in its casting, but still pretty solid. And it looks pretty good too, and doesn’t seem like it’s taking itself too seriously:

I’ve been idly thinking lately about a trend in which science fiction is waning and fantasy is waxing—at least, that seems to be the consensus on a handful of literary blogs I follow, confirmed by book sale numbers. I did a public lecture last term about the conservative and regressive tendencies of fantasy as a genre (one of the many things I neglected to blog about), and will be rehashing that it in a guest lecture for our Masters in Humanities program in February. That fantasy is trending up and SF down is an interesting phenomenon at the present moment, and these Olympian films would seem (on the surface) to correspond to this tendency.

My thoughts on this are still somewhat inchoate, and I’ll return to this topic in the future. One suggestion I will make however is that part of what we’re seeing is a disenchantment with technology—not so much in nihilistic terms, such as marked the post-WWI generation, but in terms almost of boredom. I think there’s a certain sense that technology has caught up to, and indeed in some ways surpassed, the imagination of the future. The golden age of SF up through the 60s and 70s was largely enamoured of technology and science’s potential, something epitomized by Star Trek’s utopian vision; what we’re seeing now, however, is increasingly dystopian or militarized SF (think the new Battlestar Galactica), as well as an interesting trend in “literary” fiction to appropriate the trappings of dystopian SF while stubbornly resisting the label (such as Margaret Atwood’s latest offerings, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy).

Again, these are just early thoughts. Does anyone else have any ideas about this trend?


andrew.dewaard said...

well, the 'biggest movie ever' (its still pretty early in its run, considering global markets plus dvd/bluray/demand plus potential best picture win) being sci-fi might end that downward trend. plus there's district 9, another pretty interesting/successful film...

also: DUDE, don't miss seeing avatar in 3d in theatres. ignore the pocahontas/fern gully colonial crap (duh), and the pretty naive story/crappy dialogue (duh again) - the visuals alone are enough. MORE than enough. i'm considering going again with my ipod and just listening to aphex twin or something while staring at the gorgeous mise-en-scene.

also: as a prof of pop culture in some respects, this is a pretty big part of the social text that you would be missing out on...

also: the biotechology of the film, both in the story/world and sitting in the theatre, is pretty interesting...

aaand that's my avatar fanboy rant. from some one who agrees that it's a pretty lame story/film, but an important event/spectacle.

Chris in NF said...

I considered the case of Avatar when writing this post (and when mulling the questions in my mind that led to it), and I’m not sure what its significance is—I’m thinking it may be, in part, the exception proving the rule. But then again, maybe not—maybe it’s the rule proving the rule. I’m not suggesting that SF is on the outs entirely, but that its popularity is down compared to fantasy, and what is prevalent is notably ambivalent about progress and technology. The film seems like the collision of militaristic/dystopian SF with wide-eyed, premodern fantasy. The Naavi (sp?) are an anti-tech allegory, who exist not just in biological but aesthetic symbiosis with their natural world ... and their natural world is itself, from what I’ve seen and read, the principal reason to see this film on the big screen. By contrast, the humans’ technology is violent and UGLY—no aesthetically pleasing weaponry and vehicles, just dull grey monstrosities that, in the jungle setting, inevitably evoke Vietnam. So I think that, in the end, Avatar seems a film that privileges fantasy conventions over SF.

As for District 9, I think it does the same thing—I just watched it recently, and it certainly has a dystopian flavour to it.

As for seeing Avatar for the experience ... well, your point is well taken. But I don’t think my pop culture cred loses much if I don’t go, considering that from what I’ve gathered, having seen the trailer and having seen Dances With Wolves fifteen years ago, I’m pretty much up to speed.

andrew.dewaard said...

fair enough, from a literary/sci-fi vs fantasy standpoint, it's maybe not that interesting. though i would point out that the Naavi are not just an anti-tech allegory, but oddly the opposite as well: there's a great shot where they are in communion with their sacred tree (or some shit) and its made to look like a really complex fibre optic network. in which case, these 'noble savages' who are 'at one with nature' can also be seen as part of a complex technological ecosystem... and the way they 'plug in' parallels the way the hero plugs into his avatar, which of course parallels the way the audience plugs into pandora with its 3d glasses.

similarly, the human military technology is not just violent/ugly/vietnam, though it is all those things -- cameron does his exoskeleton thing again, a la ripley in aliens, but it's far more advanced this time around, even balletic the way the villain dances and fights in his machine.

which is all just to say, yes, it's mostly dumb, but there are some interesting elements, biotechnology especially, and the binaries of good/bad, violent/peace, nature/tech are not as clear cut as some might have you believe -- "binaries are for people who can only count to two" :)