Clash of the Titans (1981) Review

Though a little late to the party, the original Clash of the Titans is one of those, among Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, that I’ve heard been called ‘a classic’ due to it’s adventurous story, famous cast and special effects work. I haven’t seen the latter two films, both of which released before Clash of the Titans, from start to finish in years so can’t honestly compare them to this one despite their inherent similarities. But I have recently struck a spontaneous interest with these types of films and so figured Clash of the Titans would be a good place to start, feeling it was a more accessible movie due to the myth it is based upon being better known and the fact it obtained a remake in 2010. With all that in mind, let’s dive into the review:

The King of Argos casts out his wife and supposed son, Perseus, upon learning the boy was born of Zeus and renounces the Gods. As punishment, Zeus has the mighty Kraken wipe out the city of Argos and his son safely delivered to an island to live out his life. But Zeus’ unfair treatment of fellow God Thetis’ son, Calibos, and Perseus’ own duel with her son that left him dismembered leads to a divide in the Gods. Resultingly, Thetis commands that Perseus princess bride, Andromeda, be sacrificed to the Kraken or else the whole city of Joda will be consumed by it, as was the case with Argos. So Perseus embarks on a quest to find out how to defeat the Kraken.

Overall, the first half of this film ranges from boring to alright. Though the scenes with the Gods are good because of the drama and unfair power-balance between them, the early scenes with Perseus leave a lot to be desired. He’s not some discarded child, he’s not ever been ill-treated and spends the majority of his time getting unearned gifts from Zeus that even the other Gods in the film seem to detest. Short story: He’s just not that interesting and Harry Hamlin, who play’s the character, doesn’t have enough charisma to make the archetypal hero feel anything more than that. Resultingly, the progress he makes to marry Andromeda feels very unearned and their chemistry is almost nonexistent. The only scene of note in the first half of the movie is when we first meet Calibos who’s not quite the relentless killer we’ve been told he is; he’s certainly without mercy, but is very misguided and has an agenda that pushes him to make others share in his suffering. It adds a bit of depth to the film regarding how the God’s view him, and the harsh reality of his situation. He’s a bad dude, but you do have to have some sympathy for him.

The second half of the film is a different story with more natural rising stakes and a lot more to engage in. Peresus first engages with three cannibalistic witches who can provide him with a way to kill the Kraken. They try to trick him into a trap, but he uses the mechanical owl Bubo (another gift from the Gods), to steal their eye of vision and blackmail the information out of them. For the first time in the film – albiet just past the halfway point – Perseus is finally having to earn his victories rather than have them handed to him, which is largely why I finally started to get invested in his adventure. The witches tell him to get the head of Medusa, a Gorgon who’s gaze will turn him to stone, and then use that to defeat the Kraken.

And Medusa is the highlight of the film as well as, admittedly, a large reason of why I wanted to watch it. The sequence with her is very well done and I appreciate the film’s restraint here. Instead of having a big action set-piece, the whole scenario is plays up the suspense and takes on the tone of a horror movie. Not only in design and execution, but also in sheer on-screen presence, Medusa looks great and, considering she’s a mythological creature, feels realistic in how she’s utilised. Although I do find it odd that Perseus somehow knows her reflection won’t turn him to stone. The witches warned him about her gaze and her poisonous blood, but did not tell him that her reflection would be harmless. So when he says “remember, her reflection is harmless” before entering her lair, it feels kind of cheap. I’d have much preferred to see Persus learn this in the heat of the moment – perhaps he sees her reflection and prepares himself to die, only to realise he is completely safe from her powers.

The final big moment is the fight against the Kraken who doesn’t really do much at the end of the movie. Though he has less screen-time, he feels more powerful at the start of the film when we see the city of Argos crumble under his power. But at the end he walks around some cliffs and can’t even kill Bubo with a single hit, nor Pegasus, despite being one-hundred times their size and weight. The tension from the scene thusly comes from Perseus having to arrive on time to save Andormida which, of course, he does and from then on it’s only a case of whipping out Medusa’s head to win. This is part of why this myth is so odd to me; the structure of the story is such that Medusa and Calibos are the two primary antagonists to Perseus and yet both are vanquished well before the Kraken arrives. I suppose Thetis is also a prime antagonist, considering it is by her decree all this happens, but her lack of physical presence amongst the mortals or the absence of reprocusions from Zeus for taking action against Perseus mean that she feels much more like a background character. The finale does ring a little hollow, therefore.

There are also some other moments I should mention, like the fight against a two-headed dog which isn’t all that impressive, since the real adversary of this fight seems to be the snake Perseus spends most of his time trying to recover his sword from. Then there’s the fight against Calibos and the giant scorpions he summons. This is a much better scene both in terms of special effects and personal stakes – this is the second time Perseus and Calibos fight, only this time Calibos has the upperhand and almost manages to cause the quest to fail by scattering the heros’ horses despite his death. Also the choreography of the actors fighting the scorpions is quite impressive with them attacaking and defending from three directions against the pincers and stinger tails, as well as getting to see them literally slice the monsters apart.

You may have noticed a pattern here; A lot of this film looks cool, feels cool and has cool stuff happen in it, but it has a lack of urgency and stakes despite main plot revolving around overcoming a time limit. Many characters are shallow and incredibly underutilized, especially a soldier who Perseus has a long conversation with at the start of the film and who he mourns for after Calibos kills him despite them having little to no interaction between those two points.

And I will say this – despite having not seen Jason and the Argonaughts the whole way through, I have caught the scenes of the film’s cast fighting a huge metal solider multiple times while scrolling through channels on TV. And I have to say, at least from a technical perspective, it does put the Kraken in this film to shame a little bit, despite it being released nearly 20 years earlier. It leads me to believe Clash of the Titans perhaps had some budgetary issues that shows in it’s effects.

Overall, if you want to watch some really cool monsters fight some half dressed men, or you’re simply interested in what this film was doing with special effects during it’s time, then this is a good watch. But if you were hoping for anything beyond a surface level narrative of “Perseus kills nasty things to save pretty lady”, then you might be better off looking elsewhere for your adventure story. Perhaps I am being too harsh on the archetypal hero we get in this film, considering the archetype was born in the ancient myths this film is based on, but even so I feel just a little more could have been done to make him feel like he earned his victories.

3 thoughts on “Clash of the Titans (1981) Review

Add yours

  1. Been waiting to post my review of this for a while. Don’t know when I’ll get to it. But I agree with much of what you say here, especially with the Medusa scene being the highlight. It’s genuinely scary even by today’s standards.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well this review has been in my backlog since December, if it’s any consolation and I finally decided to slap the publish button.

      This film was a childhood favourite of mine. And I’m glad the medusa scene was more than just my nostalgia amping it up, and that I could be pleasantly suprised by a few of the other action sequences.


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