With this week’s release of Paramount/MGM’s “Hercules,” featuring Dwayne Johnson in the leonine mantle and laboring overtime, Hollywood drops yet another Greco-Roman spectacle on entirely suspecting audiences. One might even count this year’s second big-studio take on the ancient übermensch as stipulation that the movie biz is a little short on new ideas.
The concept, of course, is sound – “Work from the classics, what could go wrong?” At least they’re off to a more proven start than when adapting some forgotten TV series or whatever graphic novel is hot this week. Then why are so few of the resulting films classics?
In the last 10 years alone we’ve seen “Clash of the Titans,” “Wrath of the Titans,” “Immortals” (pre-Superman Henry Cavill as Theseus), “Minotaur” (pre-Bane Tom Hardy as Theseus), “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” and its sequel, “The Sea of Monsters,” “The Spirit” (which features the Golden Fleece and the blood of Heracles as major plot devices), this January’s “The Legend of Hercules,” any number of television and cartoon appearances of Hercules and Wonder Woman, and, of course, “Troy.”
Laurels are hard to come by, however: The Rotten Tomatoes average critics’ rating for those features is a horrid 31 (audiences were more generous: 44). Although, the ones for which grosses are available did average more than $227 million worldwide, so ... break out the vases!
The 2010 “Clash” remake gets a hideous 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning it’s about as therapeutic to gaze upon as Medusa herself. Its 3-D conversion is one of the poster gorgons for the slapdash, quick-money variety. Perhaps the film was unfairly treated by those revolting against revolting 3-D conversions – such as director Louis Leterrier. He told the Huffington Post, “It was absolutely horrible, the 3-D ... it was just a gimmick to steal money from the audience.”
What would he know? He’s only the director. Star Sam Worthington told Moviefone, “I think ... we kind of let down some people.”
Perhaps the film should have been called “Crash of the Titans.” This writer, however, will note that his kids loved the movie. They’re 6.
None too surprisingly, Leterrier was not around for the sequel, the similarly lowly regarded “Wrath” (2012; 25 percent). Now, this film had issues – including the convenient mortality of Zeus and company. The effects were clearly better, though, and this writer will stand up for Ben Davis’ fine cinematography. It made $305 million, a precipitous drop from the first one’s $493 million, which might finally sink this Titanic franchise despite whispers of a third chapter, “Revenge of the Titans.”
When it comes to Heracles, however, there have been somewhere around 80 films featuring or related to ol’ Magic Muscles, depending on how wide a net one casts. These include the two late-’50s Steve Reeves movies that started it all, the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” fodder “Hercules Against the Moon Men,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s debut in “Hercules in New York” and “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.” Sure, he’s essentially Superman in sandals, but that’s a lot of flicks for a guy whose origin is keyed to a divine rape and the hero’s murder of his own children as a result of Hera-driven madness.
So of course Disney got into the act with its 1997 animated take, a kind of Looney Tunes-meets-En Vogue “Hercules.” The well-reviewed film caused a stir in Greece, where the studio’s bid to hold its premiere at a historic site was rejected by the Greek government following a reported media backlash over the animated musical’s reimagining of the legend.
One expects a certain Disney-izing when it comes to any subject – the keepers of the Victor Hugo and Hans Christian Andersen flames were less than thrilled about the studio’s treatments of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Little Mermaid,” respectively, and “Pocahontas” may be a slice of American history, but the thinnest possible slice. Looking over their “Hercules,” however, one thinks the detractors kind of have a point.
Starting with Hera transformed into his doting, pining mother and finishing with the demigod hurling the proto-gods, the Titans, into space – where they explode – Disney probably shouldn’t have asked to premiere it at the Pnyx.
This spring saw the release of “The Legend of Hercules,” starring “Twilight’s” Kellan Lutz and directed by Renny Harlin (“Cutthroat Island”). It failed to make back its $70-million budget and currently holds an epically low 3-percent rating.
So apparently even this heroic template doesn’t guarantee immortality. While it’s hard to imagine the new film reaching the underworld-like depths of “Legend of,” the studio isn’t screening its Brett Ratner-helmed “Hercules” in time for advance press. Still, of the more than 80 movies Rotten Tomatoes lists with “Hercules” in the title, the five with critics’ ratings average an abysmal 31.4 percent – and that includes the Disney version (82 percent).
After all, Hercules/Heracles isn’t exactly the easiest guy to root for. No underdog, he’s actually the son of a god, and not just any god: Jupiter/Zeus, the BMOC of Olympus.
Yet his is one of the most recognizable of the hero’s thousand faces. His redemption-through-labor covers four of the Christopher Booker Seven Basic Plots (“Overcoming the Monster,” “The Quest,” “Voyage and Return” and “Rebirth”). And the new movie is even based on a graphic novel, so Yahtzee!
Which leads to probably the greatest Greek-myth movie of all, 2004’s “Troy.” The inexplicably maligned Brad Pitt-Eric Bana adventure earned a lowly 54 from critics (74 from viewers), yet it’s an intelligent and imaginative retelling of the siege of Troy that removes magical elements to recast the story as a war fueled not by gods, but men in the name of gods. It’s Greek mythology without the myths.
And it’s proof that retelling even the oldest of stories – this one around 2,800 years in vintage – can still fascinate when charged with intellectual and creative energy.