"Whom Gods Destroy..."
The film Clash of the Titans
is a heroic adventure story derived from the legendary accomplishments of the demi-god, Perseus (Sam Worthington). It is a remake of master special-effects artist Ray Harryhausen’s last film of the same name. I remember Harryhausen’s films with great fondness, as they made quite an impression on my childhood imagination. The image of the hero, Jason, battling an army of skeletons from the film Jason and the Argonauts
is one cinematic experience that I have never forgotten. The new edition of Clash of the Titans
presents the advances in special effects that have been developed since the release of the old version.
Mythological fundamentalists will likely not be pleased with the manner in which the new Clash of the Titans digresses from many of the details of the ancient story. In fact, the older version, even with its own peculiar additions, seems closer in its form to the original legend. In the current version, humanity is in open rebellion against the gods, a dire situation that exposes dissension within the ranks of the gods themselves and a plot to usurp Zeus’ authority as ruler of gods and men (Zeus is played by Liam Neeson). Perseus is a victim in this conflict, watching helplessly as an act of sacrilege is brutally punished by the god Hades (Ralph Fiennes), only to have his adopted family, mere innocent bystanders to the offense, killed. Moments before this catastrophe, Perseus’ adopted father laments the souring of humanity’s relationship with the gods, who demand the love and devotion of humans while at the same time inflicting terrible penalties upon them. In this reading of the relationship of gods and men, a reading not all that far from Hesoid, the gods need humanity, our devotion providing the necessary sustenance by which their immortality is assured. What humanity gains from this are beneficent patrons, beings of incredible power who can act on behalf of their mortal supplicants.
The breakdown in this particular divine and human exchange is the backstory that drives the plot. Humans discover that they have less to gain from this relationship than do the gods. Perseus finds himself at the epicenter of this conflict, and while in audience with the king of the city of Argos, he is the witness to yet more defiance of the gods. This time it is blasphemy, which is, again, met by terrible retribution. Hades reveals to the king and his assembly that the gods will unleash a monster, the Kraken, upon the people of Argos, and such wrath can only be placated by a human sacrifice. The daughter of the king, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), must die. Readers familiar with the thought of Rene Girard will likely be very interested at this point. The writers of the film have unwittingly exposed the mechanisms of all archaic sacrifice as it is demanded by what Girard called the primitive sacred. Threats to the order of things can only be explained and effectively dealt with by assigning a victim, a process of scapegoating that is given divine sanction. Perseus stands against this, and sets about finding a way that the gods can be defeated and humanity saved.
Of course, for a mere mortal to defeat a god, one must inevitably rely on the power of the gods. Perseus is himself a demi-god, but this is not enough to assure his success, and he is given, along the way, divine help to accomplish his quest. He discovers he has allies in his efforts, both human and immortal, one of whom turns out to be his own father, the ruler of gods and men himself, Zeus. Will Perseus succeed? All those familiar with the ancient legend know the answer, and the film does not disappoint in this regard.
What is most interesting about this movie is not the special effects, casting or the story, but its presentation of the gods and their relationship with humanity. The mortal characters in the film are for the most part in rebellion against their divine overseers, a characteristic that the ancient adherents of Greek religion would have found perplexing. This signals to us that the film is not about ancient religious attitudes, but of modern ones, which have been projected back into an archaic setting. Modernity has been since its inception troubled by God, gods and religion, seeing the existence of any as a mitigation of human freedom and potential. This seems to be Perseus’ great predicament in the film, a conflict that is not really brought to resolution, as Perseus must still rely on the power of the gods to accomplish his mission. So it is with modernity, whose claims to autonomy and reason have all tended toward dissipation when not given the supernatural foundation that they inevitably require.
One of the mistaken perceptions concerning Christian revelation in modern culture is the presumption that the gods of the Greeks and the God of Jesus Christ are essentially the same thing. But is this true? The Greek gods are beings in the world, as dependent upon material reality for their existence as we are. Further, the gods of the pagans are, according to Robert Sokowlowski, personifications of the natural necessities and like these earthly and cosmic powers, they are beautiful, wondrous and at times beneficent, but they are also capricious and cannot be entirely trusted. This is so unlike the God of Christian faith who is not a being at all, even a supreme being. God is, as Aquinas put it, ipsum sum esse (the act of being itself), not needing the world at all. Mysteriously (and to our great benefit), the fact that God does not need the world enables him to love us in a manner in which the Greek gods cannot; in a way that is not threatened by either our flourishing or our refusals. His glory is, as St. Irenaeus insisted, “humanity fully alive”, a characteristic the Olympians were never entirely comfortable with.
The God revealed in Christ demonstrates that unlike Zeus, Hades or any of the other gods, he can be trusted because he did something none of those gods either desired or were capable of: taking for himself a human nature and experiencing for himself a real, human life. This act of communion with humanity even included real suffering and real death, experiences from which the Greek gods would flee from in utter contempt. It is this real suffering and real death that accomplishes what Perseus could not: their utter defeat.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.