2010’s Clash of the Titans was an absolute mess. The story made no sense, the movie wasted its cast, and the film was clearly cut to hell with perhaps a more interesting tale left on the editing room floor. The problems were compounded by thoughtless action scenes and atrocious 3D. Wrath of the Titans solves the confusing-story problem by making the plot stolid and obstinate. The action scenes are just as big but even more pointless, and the 3D looks fine but adds nothing to the experience. There are some brief, glorious moments where strong performances peak through, and we get a glimpse at some imaginative designs. These few moments help the sequel barely clear the low bar set by its predecessor.
Wrath of the Titans picks up ten years after the last film. Perseus (Sam Worthington) is now a single father after the death of his wife, Io (sorry, Gemma Arterton!), and is trying to live the quiet life of a fisherman. However, trouble is a-brewin’ as the gods are losing their power since people have stopped praying to them (apparently, everyone decided to become an atheist). The gods need their powers not just for unleashing krakens, but for keeping the titan Kronos imprisoned. Zeus (Liam Neeson) beseeches Perseus to help him save the world, but our hero promised his dead wife never to pick up a sword again, so tough luck, humanity-including-me-and-my-son. Zeus then goes to Hades (Ralph Fiennes) for help, and he’s betrayed by the lord of the underworld (you know, the guy who betrayed him in the last movie) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez), the god of war. Hades and Ares want to suck out Zeus’ power to wake Kronos, so the titan’s reign of terror will make people pray to the gods again (getting petty revenge on Zeus for being power-hungry eons ago is a bonus). As Kronos awakens, mini-monsters begin to shower the Earth, and Perseus realizes, “Hey! If I want to save my son, I have to pick up a sword and save the planet! DURRRR.” Perseus sets off to get the help Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and then they discover they have to get Agenor (Toby Kebbell) so they can get Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) so they can get the super weapon to defeat Kronos.
To be fair, the movie manages to burn through its set-up fairly quickly. Unfortunately, it’s a set up that makes only slightly more sense than the last movie. But in good faith, we try to set aside the shortcuts because we understand that Wrath wants to break free of the idiocy of the first movie. While character motivations now make sense, they don’t provide Perseus’ quest with any momentum. Perseus, Andromeda, and Agenor are reactive characters stuck in a repetitive plot. Their quest is: Go here. Find this guy. Fight monster. Go here. Find this guy. Fight monster. Go here. Find this guy. Fight monster. The only reprieve we get are when we drop in on Zeus and Hades, and are shocked to find real characters struggling with emotional conflict. Then we come back to the human characters where if I asked you to name three personality traits for each, you couldn’t do it.
The relationship between Zeus and Hades is when we’ve wandered into a better movie where characters deal with emotions, and great actors find the beating heart buried underneath an avalanche of CGI. Wrath tries to ditch most of Clash‘s story, but it makes the wise decision to carry over Hades’ betrayal, and Zeus’ attempts to forgive his treacherous brother. If you can ignore Ares sulking in the background (the film is a waste of Ramirez’ talent), there’s a story between Zeus and Hades that matches the grandiosity of the special effects.
But then we return to our bland trio of Hero, Love Interest, and Comic Relief. The best moment in their quest doesn’t come from any personal revelation or growth. It comes when they’re swallowed up by a spectacular maze on the way to get the super-weapon. It’s moments like this, like when we’re in Hephaestus’ workshop, or seeing the chains of Zeus’ wrists burn away his flesh that there’s a wonderful spark of imagination in the film’s design.
Sadly, that imagination never carries over to the protagonists or the monster battles. There’s never any emotional stakes or even much sense to when a battle comes along. The monster fights happen because a timer went off, and it was time for another set piece. Like he did with Battle: Los Angeles, director Jonathan Liebesman shows he has mastery of sound design when it comes to crafting the set pieces. However, in Wrath he never figures out how to choreography his fights. When he keeps the camera still, the set piece lacks momentum, and we know we’re watching CGI fly around with little impact. When the camera starts shaking, we don’t know what we’re watching. These problems could have been circumvented by making us care about who’s doing the fighting. Instead, we’re wondering why Perseus is fighting a Cyclops, and why it’s so poorly staged.
Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans think that all audiences want are humans fighting big CGI monsters. Perhaps that’s true. Maybe audiences even want Wrath‘s 3D, which looks better but still adds nothing. Like the 3D, all of the improvements are minor and don’t significantly change what was wrong with the first movie. Perseus is still boring. The story is still lifeless. The set pieces are still dull. But maybe audiences should keep turning out for the Titans movies. At this pace, the ninth movie in the franchise is going to be excellent.