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'Clash of the Titans': Are special effects less special in the CGI era?

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medusaImage Credit: Everett CollectionGetting pumped and ready to review the new Clash of the Titans, I of course went back to watch the original version. It would be fair to say that its special effects have not aged well. Then again, they were touchingly out-of-date even at the time. Made in 1981, Clash was the last movie to feature the special-effects magic of Ray Harryhausen (who produced the film), the wizard of stop-motion imagery whose heyday was the 1950s and ’60s, when he was known for the then-wondrous effects in movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), and One Million Years B.C. (1966). (The latter film quickly found a place in pop culture as an automatic springboard for Raquel-Welch-in-a-loincloth jokes. Her effect was indeed special, though the movie also had some extremely cool dinosaurs.)

In 1981, the special-effects era — by which I mean, the all-F/X-all-the-time era — was just in its infancy, and Clash of the Titans, clunky and backward-looking as it was, had obviously been made to capitalize on the success of Star Wars. It even had a chirpy mechanical owl that was a shameless knockoff of R2-D2. At that point, however, Ray Harryhausen was swimming against the tide. In general, stop-motion imagery, with the grand and glorious exception of King Kong (1933), has a way of becoming almost comically dated with time. When you watch the classic 1964 TV Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it now appears as if those little models of Rudolph, Herbie, and Yukon Cornelius are basically just standing still, with an occasional flash of movement. Harryhausen’s films, seen from the vantage of our era and its impeccably smooth digital imagery, look 10 times more herky-jerky now than they once did.

My personal favorite of his movies was always The Mysterious Island (1963), with its eye-popping parade of giant wildlife creatures (that crab! that rooster! those bumblebees! those fin-backed dino lizards!). It was much more fun to me than any nuclear-accident monster movie. The most stunning of Harryhausen’s films, by almost any standard, is Jason and the Argonauts, with its awesome skeletal armies. Harryhausen’s movies were outsize creature-feature fairy tales designed to bliss-out your inner child. And they did. By the time he made Clash of the Titans, though, his imagery no longer gave you that full, amazing storybook “Wow!” It was now lodged in a zone somewhere between wonder and kitsch.

Yet when I went back and watched Clash of the Titans again, what startled me is how well I remembered its mythical creatures, like Pegasus, the writhing winged horse, and Medusa (that’s her, pictured above), with her primitive face of rage. For 30 years, those Harryhausen visions have stayed with me. And I think one of the reasons for that is that they were handmade. Will anyone remember the new Clash of the Titans 30 years from now? Perhaps. But maybe not in the same visceral, graphic-brain-imprint way.

I don’t mean that as a slur against digital imagery. Much of it, too, has been indelible, from Jurassic Park to Spider-Man 2, from Titanic to The Dark Knight, from The Matrix to Avatar. Yet so many of our popcorn movies are so deluged with CGI that I often wonder if the sleek, untouched-by-human-hands quality, the sheer ease of computer-generated effects now renders them, in some ineffable way, less tactile, less memorable, less there. The example I always go back to is the first Star Wars movie, especially when viewed in relation to the busy-whizzy digital orgies that George Lucas cooked up for Attack of the Clones, etc. Much of the imagery in the latter films was startling — I always thought, incidentally, that the clone army was profoundly influenced by Jason and the Argonauts — but to me, none of it quite stuck. Whereas the famous shot that opens Star Wars (oops, I mean, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), with that spaceship gliding over your head, is something that no one could forget. It was accomplished with far more primitive means (scale models…what a concept!), and I can’t help but think that on some level George Lucas’s imagination was bolstered and freed by that relative technical limitation.

What do you think? Does anyone miss the days of pre-CGI special effects? Or am I just being nostalgic? And what’s your all-time favorite special effect in a movie, either digital or analog?

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