In ancient Greece, as best we can tell, 2,500 years later, mythology mattered.
It had an important job to do. In that barely civilized society, it had lessons to teach. Its gods may have been formed in the image of humans, but, super powers or not, their exploits steeped in rage, jealousy and petty emotions were instruction manuals for humans to do the right thing, and become better beings.
In 2010, mythology is still around. It just has a new job to do. Namely, sell more 3-D movie tickets.
"Clash of the Titans," sitting atop the box office charts for its second week, is based in ancient Greek mythology. Actually, it's part of a more recent tradition. Following "Avatar" and then "How to Train Your Dragon," it's the latest film about joy riding in the sky on the backs of big winged beasts.
This time it's Pegasus. It his day, a majestic flying horse was as great as imagination got, capable of filling a whole lifetime with fantasy. In this slapdash film epic, it's more like the special effect du jour. A flying horse, you say yeah, so?
Ancient mythology or not, multihundred-million-dollar budget or not, iconic stars like Liam Nesson and Ralph Fiennes or not, "Clash of the Titans" is the dumbest movie I've seen in a long time.
Considering that it's a remake of a 1981 camp classic starring Laurence Olivier and Ursula Andress, and that the special effects are the real stars this time around, director Louis Leterrier and his writers don't work very hard on telling the story.
Why bother? For generations who have grown up knowing Nike as the ultimate brand name, weathering decades as a running shoe, a basketball badge of honor, a to-die-for hip-hop status symbol, a Tiger Woods sponsor, it seems pointless to try to explain that in ancient times, the name originally belonged to the winged Greek goddess of victory.
So the movie doesn't try to explain anything. While it occasionally drops in the stars of the original version - snaky haired Medusa, say, or Hades, lord of the underworld, this film's audience will recognize him as the guy who plays Voldemort in "Harry Potter" and leave it at that.
Worse, director Leterrier doesn't put any extra effort into making the action coherent. Not having a clue what's going on is bad enough; not having a clue due to inept film-editing is worse. Having the actors look and sound like they just stepped in off the beach at Malibu doesn't help.
Casting "Avatar's" Sam Worthington in the lead role of Perseus is an inadvertent reminder that for every actual screen genius like James Cameron who actually cares about what he's doing, the industry is full of hacks engaged in cinematic grave-robbing, and calling it "screenwriting."
"Clash of the Titans" is the second movie in as many months to share the same script. The first was "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief." That one was a modern-teen take on the same material, but it at least got today's audiences up to speed on the whole mythology thing - not to mention being a lot more fun.
This sense of cinematic deja-vu - as though you've seen it all before - is running through movie trailers these days. It feels like there are only about three scripts at any one time in Hollywood, and the studios trot out their variation on the theme the way Detroit automakers used to unveil this year's car models.
The latest theme is accidental heroes - from the normal dork pretending to be a superhero in "Kick Ass" opening this weekend, to Katherine Heigl as computer tech turned assassin-wife in "Killers."
Tina Fey and Steve Carell make an appealing entry into this crowded field in "Date Night." They play a New Jersey couple trying to escape the midmarriage blahs with a glamorous night in Manhattan. Unfortunately, a case of mistaken identity puts them crosswise with the Mob and the cops, setting off what used to be called a madcap romp.
Aside from shirtless, scene-stealing Mark Wahlberg as a security expert who comes to their aid, and James Franco and Mila Kunis as a pair of hilarious low-lifers, there's nothing you haven't seen, many times before, in the film's car chases, goons-with-guns gags and the climactic strip-club finale.
What you don't see all that often is the chemistry, and the comic gifts, of its two stars. Amidst the dumb action, they're warm and wonderfully smart performers, ingeniously reminding the audience of truths of married life that ring as true as the plot rings silly.
While Tina and Steve have won comparisons to the great witty couples like William Powell and Myrna Loy of Hollywood's golden age, in those days the plots used to be as smart as the dialogue.
Like "Clash of the Titans," "Date Night" winds up being one more reminder that we want, and need, our stories back.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.