It’s better than the first one. That’s what we all wanted to hear about Wrath of the Titans, and the filmmakers used it as their stated ethos when approaching the project. Though 2010’s Clash of the Titans made a pile of money, everybody pretty much acknowledges that it’s not what it could have been. Hence, Wrath appears as a kind of make-up exam, its creators eager to get it right and collect a hefty paycheck in the bargain. In fact, they almost try too hard at times. It seems to flaunt its simplicity in the face of the first film’s convoluted acrobatics, it improves the 3D to little dramatic effect, and those silly “talking” parts become supercargo in favor of basically shotgunning monsters straight at Sam Worthington.
That’s the purpose of the exercise, of course, and if you accept Wrath as just a mindless effects-fest, it works pretty well. It also embraces a semi-apocalyptic tone as its Greek gods pass into obscurity and struggle against their coming doom. We’ve not seen that notion before, with the formerly powerful Zeus (Liam Neeson) contemplating a world beyond his rule and the crafty Hades (Ralph Fiennes) scheming to cheat the fates. His plan involves freeing their father Kronos and the other titans: imprisoned millennia ago and now itching to get out and extinct themselves some humanity. With Zeus captured and offered up as a sacrifice, it’s up to the half-god Perseus (Worthington) to come out of retirement and deliver the smackdown to the forces of hell.
All well and good, at least for the money shots. The script explains each new development in shockingly straightforward terms, and director Johnathon Liebesman delivers some interesting locales in which to stage his CGI brawls. They include a game of cat-and-mouse with a giant chimera through a small fishing village, an underworld labyrinth protecting the gates of Tartarus, and the climactic battle with Kronos, which attains the kind of Saturday matinee thrills that we’re all presumably paying our money to see. Imaginative staging compliments the solid effects, and while Worthington isn’t anyone’s idea of a master thespian, his earnest effort is bound to win some sympathizers.
Problems arise whenever they divert from the formula. Wrath doles out plenty of supporting characters – along with their backstory and reasons to be involved – which create little more than narrative dead weight. The beautiful Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) accompanies Perseus on his quest, providing an unstated romance the resolves itself in the laziest manner possible. The various forms of wacky comic relief do even worse: specifically the son of Poseidon (Toby Kennel) and the disgraced god Hephaestus (Bill Nighy). The former thrashes around hopelessly with some cut-rate Russell Brand material, while the latter dusts off his eccentric kook routine in an effort to pay the bills. Neither of them distinguish themselves in any manner, though it’s easier to blame the material than their understandably listless performances. Neeson and Fiennes fall into the same trap, though they remain compelling presences nonetheless. Their dilemmas provoke a lot of clichéd sibling discussions and the kind of pained dynamics usually reserved for third-tier Oscar bait. (Worthington at least gives it his all.)
Beyond that, Wrath still manages to bungle its narrative from time to time, despite the dumbed-down simplicity to which it clings. A minotaur shows up in the aforementioned labyrinth, for example, but its purpose for being there and exact powers are almost deliberately obtuse. Then there’s the question of various familial relations – Perseus and his son, Perseus and Zeus, Zeus and Hades, etc. – which receive plenty of attention but absolutely no conviction. Human relationships don’t exist here, just mechanistic plot justifications. While that isn’t necessary to enjoy the copious bread-and-circus shots, it gets in the way an awful lot.
Wrath further suffers from a po-faced lack of humor. Full-bore satire would have been disastrous, but a few more twinkles in a few more eyes could have translated to a much more buoyant atmosphere. As it stands, we have to wade through dour conversations and ponderous end-of-the-world speeches when we should be just sitting back and enjoying the giant monster attacks. None of its flaws touch the basic purpose of the exercise, but they slowly build up as the film goes on until they poison the otherwise harmless fun on display. It’s a near thing sometimes and if you happen to spot the film on the Superstation some lazy Saturday afternoon, you could do worse than tuning in. Better doesn’t necessarily mean good, however, and Wrath of the Titans ends up sabotaging itself too often for comfort. “A” for effort, o noble warrior, but Harry Hamlin still eats your lunch.