Moviemakers bank on audience's desire to escape
By Susan Wloszczyna
When Liam Neeson's Zeus trumpets, "Release the Kraken," out comes the Norse sea-beast that once again terrorizes citizens in far-away Greece in the box office-quaking remake of 1981's "Clash of the Titans."
As for the gods of Hollywood, they are unleashing a dizzying myth-mash of derring-do upon moviegoing mortals.
As the nation struggles through recession, ongoing war and divisive politics, apparently nothing provides relief like the spectacle-filled genre that kept the muscle-bound likes of Steve Reeves steadily employed in the '50s and '60s.
Consider that Focus Features, best known for such tony offerings as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Pride & Prejudice," has decided to enter the myth-based action arena for the first time with this fall's "The Eagle of the Ninth," which centers on the disappearance of a Roman legion.
"Something clearly is in the air," says Focus chief James Schamus. "We Americans are wondering about just what phase of our own empire we're in. And those anxieties certainly fuel mass culture's fantasy life."
Not since the Reagan era, when "The Beastmaster," "Conan the Barbarian" and the original "Clash of the Titans" invaded multiplexes, has there been such a battalion of Greeks, Romans, Vikings and assorted other sword swingers swarming the big screen.
The year began with the kid-targeted "Percy Jackson & The Olympians," the Bible-influenced antics of "Legion" and the serpent-studded "How to Train Your Dragon" — and that's just the tip of the saber. The summer lineup is fairly bulging with warriors of yore.
Projects in the early stages include at least two Arthurian tales, "Excalibur and Pendragon"; a version of "Paradise Lost"; "Young Caesar" (a working title), based on Conn Iggulden's four-volume history; "Odysseus" and "Hercules," both about Greek strongmen; a 3-D "Arabian Nights"; and a possible update of "Jason and the Argonauts."
Mel Gibson, no slacker when it comes to valiant blood-letting, recently told the Los Angeles Times of his efforts to achieve his adolescent dream of directing a Viking epic. His choice of star: Leonardo DiCaprio.
SOME SERIOUS FUN
He's not the only filmmaker who gets giddy over the sight of burly men in ancient military regalia. French director Louis Leterrier ("The Incredible Hulk") couldn't resist the chance to do his own "Clash of the Titans," a childhood favorite. "I love these fantasy movies, even the bad Italian copies," he says. "I was brought up seeing and loving these films, going back home afterwards with friends to put on costumes and play the parts. Now that I'm working as a director, it's the stuff I want to do."
So much so he already has story line plotted out for a possible Clash trilogy.
Buzzcut-sporting Sam Worthington's Perseus is more of a working-class hero than Harry Hamlin's disco-haired demi-god in the original. But he shares Leterrier's childlike zeal for dressing up in a man-skirt and rubber armor while facing off against such fictional beasts as "scorpions the size of dump trucks."
While "Clash" touches upon serious themes of family, duty and destiny, Worthington and Leterrier wanted to avoid any sense of a history lesson. Says the actor: "It's a boisterous family film. Bright and light. We take our jobs seriously so that the audience doesn't have to take it seriously."
Still, the resurgence is rather mystifying, given the epic fatigue after a string of big-budget calls to war fell short at the box office in the past decade, including "Troy," "Alexander," "The Alamo," "Cold Mountain," "Master and Commander" and "The Last Samurai."
However, like Poseidon's trident, the reasons behind this comeback appear to be three-pronged.
• The post-"300" effect. Gianni Nunnari, a producer on 2007's surprise hit "300," denies that the highly stylized and ultra-violent account of the historic battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is partly responsible for the rediscovery of such cinematic toga parties.
"It's totally responsible," he says with a laugh. The saga, based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of how a small contingent of self-sacrificing Spartans held off thousands of Persian invaders, took in $450 million-plus worldwide. Quite a few tickets were bought by women, the genre's toughest crowd, who were attracted by the film's strong queen character and a parade of fleshy beefcake. Naturally, a follow-up is in the works.
"We overcame the odds," says producing partner Mark Canton, whose newly retitled "Immortals" — a cataclysmic conflict led by half-deity Theseus that recalls "Clash of the Titans" — starts shooting this week. Thanks to its inventive use of digital effects that continue to advance, "it changed the landscape of film. What is needed are stories that are large enough, epic enough and entertaining enough to make use of that technology. It takes a big canvas to make a meal everyone wants to eat."
• The hunger for escape. For the first third of the year, two films have dominated the public's imagination: the paradisiacal realms of "Avatar" and the surreal splendor of "Alice in Wonderland."
"During tough economic times, people go for escapism — we're proving that every weekend with the box-office numbers," says Contrino. "And nothing is better suited to escapism than mythology, when you are taken to another time and place."
Jerry Bruckheimer, the mega-producer who churned out such harder-edged, reality-based war epics as "Black Hawk Down" and "Pearl Harbor" has switched to such breezier offerings as "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" as his choice of summer event movies.
• The need to feed the 3-D monster. Domestic box office rose more than 10 percent last year to $10.6 million, an increase largely boosted by the premium prices for 3-D showings of films such as "Avatar" and the growing use of the technology.
But in order to capitalize on the added depth, there has to be a sense of spectacle onscreen, such as in "Alice in Wonderland" and the computer-animated hit "How to Train Your Dragon." And what better place to find such visual teasers than in myth-based epics?
While "Avatar" was shot using director James Cameron's cutting-edge 3-D process, most films with live-action scenes are opting for the less-prohibitive transfer process, which can still add up to $10 million to a budget.
Jeff Robinov, president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, says it made sense, both economically and content-wise, to decide weeks before "Clash's" release date to convert to 3-D.
"We thought the movie worked well in 2-D," he says. "But when we saw the film with its creatures like Medusa and the swordplay, it made sense."