Sam Worthington leads the new 3-D take on the 1981 cult classic

Sam Worthington hated the owl. In fact, the guy who acted opposite a 10-foot-tall indigo girl in Avatar despised the mechanical bird in Clash of the Titans so much that he tried to get it fired from the film. At one point, he even threatened the scene-stealing fowl with physical violence. ”Sam couldn’t stand the owl,” says director Louis Leterrier. ”He wanted to destroy it. He kept threatening to drop it. He’d say, ‘This is ridiculous! This is a ridiculous thing to have in the movie! You’re going to ruin my career with that owl!’ And I would say, ‘No, Sam, I’m not trying to ruin your career. I’m just trying to damage it a little bit.”’

We’re thinking Worthington won’t get dented up too much. In Clash of the Titans, a remake of the 1981 toga party, the Australian actor stars as Perseus, mortal son of Zeus (played by Liam Neeson, in gleaming armor), who gets sent on an odyssey to discover his destiny. (See the EW review here.) Along the way he rescues a beautiful princess (Alexa Davalos), battles flying Harpies and other supernatural beings, and saves mankind from Hades, the dark overlord of the Underworld (Ralph Fiennes, Neeson’s old Schindler’s List costar). The PG-13-rated film, opening April 2 in both 3-D and 2-D, is filled with familiar faces from ancient Greek mythology, such as a certain snake-haired villainess so ugly her glance will turn a man to stone — although, frankly, she looks like she’s had some work done recently. The new Medusa bears an uncanny resemblance to Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova, who did performance-capture posing for the character.

In the original Clash of the Titans, Perseus was played by a pre–L.A. Law Harry Hamlin, while Laurence Olivier slummed it as Zeus, and a bevy of famous actresses portrayed the goddesses. (See more below.) The old film, like the new one, wasn’t much of a stickler for historical detail. Nowhere in ancient Greek legend, for instance, does one encounter a giant, city-destroying sea monster called the Kraken (for that, you have to look to Scandinavian folklore, although it also pops up in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). Nor, for that matter, does an adorable motorized owl named Bubo appear in any of the ancient scrolls of Homer or Hesiod. Even back in the 1980s, the movie was considered by many to be a B-grade hunk of feta. Still, it turned a lot of young moviegoers into Greek freaks — thanks mostly to F/X master Ray Harryhausen’s giant stop-motion scorpions and other trippy animated creatures — and became a cult classic.

”The original movie is very dear to my heart,” says Leterrier, the French action auteur behind The Incredible Hulk and Transporter 2. ”It was the first fantastical adventure I ever saw as a child. I absolutely loved it. I remembered the scene with the witches. And Medusa. And the sea monster. But when I watched it again after they called me [with the directing offer], I was like, ‘Oh, wow. It was a better movie in my memory.’ But these sorts of projects come around once every 20 years. So I thought, ‘I’ll try to make my version of the movie — the movie I want to see.”’

Had history taken a different turn, Titans might have been the movie Sam Raimi wanted to see. Or the one Robert Rodriguez wanted to see. Over the years, the project has passed through more hands than Dionysus at an orgy.

Once Warner Bros. finally gave a green light to the remake, in 2008, and Leterrier went searching for gods, it wasn’t hard to find actors who could picture themselves on Mount Olympus. Liam Neeson all but begged to play Zeus. ”We got a phone call from Neeson’s agent,” recalls Titans producer Basil Iwanyk. ”This was right before Taken came out” — and before Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, passed away suddenly after a brain injury — ”and he wanted to meet with us. He was like, ‘My kids are nuts about Greek mythology. If I played Zeus, they’d think I was so f—ing cool.”’ Neeson remembers the meeting slightly differently: ”My first thought was, They have to get Sean Connery for Zeus,” he says.

Finding the right actor to play Perseus was more difficult. ”The studio said, ‘You don’t need Brad Pitt, but find somebody interesting,”’ says Iwanyk. ”We interviewed every really thin actor in his 20s, but we kept asking, Can these guys swing a sword? Can these guys jump on a horse?” Worthington had recently finished shooting Terminator Salvation and Avatar, so there wasn’t any question the rugged 33-year-old could handle a weapon while riding a flying stallion. But the actor didn’t know if he wanted the part. ”I wasn’t very familiar with the original movie, so I had to make sure it was something worth rebooting,” he says. ”Sometimes you can remake something when the original is fine. But when I looked at the 1981 movie, I knew straightaway we could improve on it. Especially the visual effects. Stop-motion was great in its time, but I thought we could ramp it up a bit.”

Oh, they ramped it up, all right. If nothing else, Clash of the Titans will make you believe a horse can fly — especially if you are watching the winged Pegasus in 3-D. And the Kraken has definitely been hitting the gym since Harryhausen’s time: It’s grown from an ordinary-size sea monster into a 60-story-tall, multi-tentacled behemoth that can destroy an entire village with a flick of his tail. ”The Kraken was the biggest challenge,” admits Nick Davis, the F/X artist in charge of monster design. ”How do you make this great big beast not look completely stupid? Obviously, in reality, no creature could exist that size. He’d eat most of the contents of the ocean in a few days.”

The effects were done with CGI, but Leterrier took pains to make the greenscreen experience as realistic as possible on soundstages outside London last summer. ”They would build half a scorpion on the set, or put a guy in a green-stocking suit so that I could hit him,” says Worthington. ”I learned from Avatar that you need something to react to. You can’t act with just a tennis ball in front of you. Your body and mind react differently when there’s actually something there.” According to Gemma Arterton, who plays an angelic guide helping Perseus, Worthington was almost too good with invisible costars. ”Sam’s done so many of these big movies,” she says, ”I think it’s probably easier for him than working with real people. He’s a great guy, but we may have got on his nerves.”

To make things even more real for the actors, Leterrier picked some inhospitable spots for shoots. Parts of the scorpion battle, for instance, were filmed on top of a volcano in the Canary Islands. ”Nobody had made a movie there since 1966, when Raquel Welch did One Million Years B.C.,” says veteran producer Richard Zanuck. ”It was almost as bad as shooting Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard. It was freezing cold and windy, with sand flying all over, and with only one little road going up to the top.” Even worse was the abandoned quarry in Wales where Leterrier shot the Underworld. ”We shot hell in hell,” Leterrier says of that jagged pile of rocks. ”It is the coldest, wettest, most dangerous place on earth. The crew made me promise to shoot Clash 2 in St. Barts.”

Leterrier, by the way, had no idea while he was filming giant-bug battles and winged-pony rides that he was making a 3-D movie. It wasn’t until five weeks after he’d wrapped photography that Warner Bros. told him they wanted to retrofit his footage with an extra dimension (Avatar was making 3-D a must even before its release). But the director says he wouldn’t have filmed a single frame differently. ”I shoot very much coming at you,” he explains. ”Like the way the Kraken’s tentacles come at you, creating these tunnels, so you feel like you are almost on a theme-park ride. So when they offered to do it in 3-D, I was like, No way! This is what I’ve dreamt my entire life. I’m the guy that wants the total experience at the movies. I’m the guy who wants to bring back Smell-O-Vision!”’

He’s also the guy who wanted to bring back that mechanical owl — at least for a cameo. Early in the film, Perseus and his band of soldiers gather in an armory to prepare for their journey, to find the lair of the three Stygian witches and learn the secret to defeating the Kraken. ”What’s this?” Perseus asks, digging into a chest of dusty treasures and plucking out a familiar-looking metal bird with spinning pinwheel eyes (an exact replica of the bird that appeared in the original movie). ”It’s nothing,” one of the guards tells him. ”Just leave it.”

That’s it. That’s Bubo’s big scene. In the 1981 film, the owl played a much more heroic role, all the while providing comic relief with humorous beeps and chirps. Not surprisingly, he’s many fans’ favorite character. But Worthington felt the owl struck too silly a tone for the new, more muscular Titans. If he had his way, it wouldn’t have been in the film at all, not even for a 15-second cameo. ”I don’t care how much trouble I get into for saying it,” Worthington says, still adamant about the bird. ”That owl did not deserve to be in our movie. It had its own movie. It had its own time. This is our take on the myth.”

Clash of the Titans
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 106 minutes
  • Louis Leterrier