Previous Story

Welcome Back to the Mailbag

All Features

Next Story

The 30, Week 3: Cardinals on the Move

Atlas Drugged

A trip to watch Wrath of the Titans

This past Tuesday night I took a bunch of Vicodin and went to see Wrath of the Titans, partly because I had fallen down a flight of stairs a few days earlier and needed an escape, partly because I wanted to see if enough painkillers could make me feel like the titans were starring in a Sofia Coppola movie. I kept picturing a thousand-foot-high flame minotaur directing a gaze of numbed-out longing toward the space slightly left of a Cyclops, “Wind Cheetah” by T. Rex kaleidoscoping in the air. Chained to the chalky / chalice of night. I was intrigued by this possibility. My right arm was in a sling and was basically useless.

Vicodin is a weird drug in that, at least for me, it has absolutely no effect, not even the minimum advertised effect of reducing pain, and yet when I take it I become acutely conscious of precisely this lack of effect and develop a feeling of numb acceptance specifically embracing the drug’s utter virtuelessness. It’s okay, I think. It’s so okay that this isn’t doing anything right now. This realization does make me feel somewhat more mellow and washed-out about whatever else happens to be going on, possibly just because it gives me something else to (not) focus on. Which I guess qualifies as an effect, although kind of a watery, intricate one. Someone once told me, and I could understand this, that hydrocodone turned pain into a movie you were watching or, if you were lucky, a song you could hear from the next room. Anyway, as the preceding few lines probably make clear, I’m not really cut out to take drugs of any kind, and for the most part I don’t, but this week I was making an exception.

My wife, Siobhan, who might spend time watching Wrath of the Titans if she were offered a share of the gross, dropped me off outside the theater.

I only saw one other person in the theater, and he worked there, a slouchy, doughy dude whose heather-blue cineplex-issue polo shirt had a pattern resembling 1980s executive carpeting. He looked like a lava lamp. His name tag said: BOB. Okay: BOB. BOB sold me a ticket, and here I ran into a complex and nagging bit of trouble because I tried to use a free-ticket voucher I’d gotten as a reward for participating in this particular cineplex chain’s discount-card program, only it turned out that the voucher didn’t apply to 3-D movies, which Wrath of the Titans was, and BOB, who spoke slowly and with a kind of anxious, mouselike precision, had to explain to me that the cineplex’s concession-counter computer interface would allow the face value of discount-card vouchers to be applied toward a larger order total, but the ticket-counter interface would not, meaning that I could use a voucher for a small popcorn toward the cost of a medium popcorn, but not a voucher for a regular-movie ticket toward a 3D movie ticket, although, BOB told me sadly, “we’ve been hoping for an upgrade for a while.”

Peacefully, I tried to assign this statement a score on the Sofia Coppola Scale of Beautiful Remoteness (SC-BR). It was a four out of 10, I decided.

OK, since you asked: I fell down some stairs because I was wearing socks and carrying dishes and it was late at night and I took a bad step, just one of those stupid things. Trust me when I say that I’d have made a great Marx Brother, apart from the sobbing. But I left the hospital with no permanent damage, just a better-than-average excuse to look up “hematoma” on Wikipedia, plus this arm I couldn’t use for a few weeks. A medium degree of medium-term pain, which I was enthusiastically killing, or at least filtering. Not much compared to the trials of Perseus.

Weird thing about BOB: Maybe eight minutes after he sold me the ticket, after I’d one-armedly hauled my stub and transaction receipt and cellophane-wrapped 3-D glasses and medium popcorn and Pepsi back to Auditorium 6 — moviegoing, it turns out, requires somewhere between two and six hands — and discovered that I was the only person in the auditorium, and started to wonder if possibly I was the only human being in the entire cineplex, not counting BOB, so that Auditoriums 1-5 and 7-8 were airing their explosions and murders and desperate kisses to ghosts, while I was processing all that, deep in the coming attractions, BOB wandered into the theater, carrying one of those orange-cone flashlights that ushers walk around with, and saw me, and did a kind of freaked-out jiggle in place. “Oh shit, someone’s in here,” BOB said, and scurried out.

I wondered about this, at the time, way less than I should have. My immediate reaction was to look at Facebook on my phone — clearly the no-cell phones rule didn’t apply when you were the second-to-last person on earth — where I saw that back in Oklahoma, a high school friend of mine had uploaded a photo of her kids, and in the background of the photo, behind her two sons, you could see a piece of art she’d hung on the wall. It was a giant poster that read INSANITY IS MERELY AN OPINION.

I think the Vicodin had mostly come online, at this point.

I have a dumb affinity for cornball sword-and-sandals epics: thus Wrath. For cornball fantasy in general, really, although like all nerd-snobs I have somewhat particular taste. I prefer stuff that’s actually good (the Elric novels) but am also often happy with stuff that isn’t (the original Conans, the old dear world of the pulps) as long as it seems to reflect somebody’s weird extruded vision rather than just, like, orcs. Wrath was a sure bet to be terrible, but possibly terrible in a way that I would enjoy by accident. A lot of the time getting by in the world requires outguessing your own intentions.

During the opening voice-over, during which we learned that the time of the gods was passing and that the dark times lay ahead (which, duh), I texted Siobhan to say that I had the entire theater, and possibly all the theaters, to myself. “So lots of room for the WRATH,” she answered.

So, the WRATH. It was a mixed bag, SC-BR-wise. Whether because of the chemicals, or the effect of solitude, or the fact that BOB had screwed up the volume on Auditorium 6’s surround-sound interface, the whole thing came at me in a sort of numb, murmurous rush, through a faintly buzzy sheen of overexposure. On the other hand, shit kept breaking that plane of coolness — violent, mythic shit that tended to erupt right when I was expecting a big zoom-out followed by a Pastels song. Perseus (Sam Worthington) would be talking to Zeus (Liam Neeson) about what Hades (Ralph Fiennes) said to Ares (Edgar Ramirez) about Phrygian dating sites, when suddenly Worthington (Perseus) would be snatched up into the air by a two-headed fire-breathing demon-dog (MacBook Pro) and hurled into a marble column (Doric). Beast-swarms of various descriptions kept pouring out of the mouth of Tartarus, right toward me, in 3-D. There were monsters in the depths. The SC-BR membrane wasn’t strong enough to keep them out.

They take a lot of damage, these heroes. Having recently experienced a meaningful degree of blunt-force trauma myself, I wasn’t entirely prepared for how it would feel to watch half-naked, very vulnerable-seeming human bodies go crashing through stone walls, or being thrown into temples, or falling to the ground from 50 feet in the air. One thing you can say about the old Greek myths is that they’re often astonishingly beautiful about killing people. My favorite moment in Bulfinch’s Mythology comes when Perseus (Worthington), the selfsame hero of Wrath, is denied hospitality by the giant-king Atlas. This makes him furious, so he whips out the head of Medusa, and

Atlas, with all his bulk, was changed into stone. His beard and hair become forests, his arms and shoulders cliffs, his head a summit, and his bones rocks. Each part increased in bulk till he became a mountain, and (such was the pleasure of the gods) heaven with all its stars rests upon his shoulders.

Which is a 12 out of 10, obviously. Like reality, though, Wrath of the Titans mostly sticks to hurling people into very hard objects. And occasionally lighting them on fire, impaling them on a trident, snapping their necks, electrocuting them, choking them to death, and transforming them into disintegrating sand sculptures.

At the same time, though? Nobody feels any pain. The heroes are mainly demigods, which is like being on oxycodone at least. They’re anesthetized by their own awesomeness. By and large, Wrath adheres to the timeless law of damage in teenagery action movies, which is also the idea the NFL dined out on for years — that slashing can wound you but concussive force can only move you around. No deep-tissue bruising for Perseus after being flung around like a private wrecking ball by the splintery-horned ogre that jumps him in the labyrinth of Tartarus, only a razor-thin cut where its horn-shard grazes his pectoral. Everything is sort of numb, although the Jesus and Mary Chain is nowhere to be heard and the only whispered personal revelations are between Heston-bearded gods played by aging male Oscar-winners. It was okay, I decided. I had a fucked-up elbow and a complicatedly dislocated shoulder and the entire back of my thigh looked like a map of ancient Greece, but I felt fine, and Perseus & Co. kept getting hit by comets, but they felt fine, and we were all just sort of floating in the dark, waiting for the thousand-foot fire-minotaur to show up, feeling fine together. Pain is merely an opinion.

I thought about a piece Tom Shone wrote about Humphrey Bogart, which made note of all the ways he died in his movies: “In his first 34 pictures he was shot in 12, electrocuted or hanged in eight, blasted out of the sky, killed by hand grenade, mauled by lion, and beheaded by Mexican bandits.” The idea was that Bogart’s toughness, old-movie toughness, was a matter of what the actor/hero seemed capable of enduring, whereas new-movie toughness was a matter of “body counts and kill ratios,” what the actor/hero could make other people endure. That seems absolutely true to me, one of those fundamental changes that you don’t think about until someone points it out and you instantly wonder how you missed it. The subtitle of the book about this transformation would mention, I guess, changing perceptions of war experience and the rise of computers in filmmaking and the blockbuster and the cultural saturation of video games, among other things. (Tentatively, I’d guess the shift was complete right around the moment that every theater got a micro-arcade in the lobby.)

Still, compared to, say, Schwarzenegger, who mostly just avoided bullets (think of the ’80s cliche of a star sprinting through a clearing with machine-gun fire plinking at his heels), the demigods of Wrath arguably represent a further development of the trend. They don’t avoid damage; watching them take it is even a key part of the draw. It’s just that it doesn’t faze them; they pop right back up. I don’t know. Maybe the Bogart corollary is that you can’t really be tough if you can’t experience pain, which is the mental equivalent of having infinite hit points.

Which either is or is not related to the fact that every time Agenor got used as a city-dismantling tool by some enemy, at the same time as I was thinking, We’re okay, we’re fine, I was also thinking, I remember the moment my shoulder came out of its socket, and it was like stair no. 3. What’s happening to these characters would Fuck. Anyone. Up. Forever. Why do I want to watch this?

But that was barely a thought, really; it was nothing, it was a whisper. Something Bill Murray murmured to me once when we were in Tokyo, drifting apart.

Anyway, we floated there, Zeus and Andromeda and I. By any standard of human achievement predating about 1900, Wrath of the Titans is a deathless miracle, a visual wonder you could escape into for days — the sight of Cronos, the father of the gods, lumbering across the plain, this living mountain of brimstone, would have upended civilization in Queen Victoria’s day. The Goya painting of the same character is terrifying because it’s an expression of mad, almost will-less appetite, a wide-eyed gory animal driven to consume its own child. The version in Wrath, by contrast, is simply a malignant machine — no feeling, no fear, hardly even the capacity for desire, just a numb, annihilating force rolling forward, leaving nothing feeling behind.

By any applicable standard from almost any prior point in human history, it was absolutely amazing to look at. By today’s standards, it was just a shitty, fun-enough thing, a minor example of the influence of Shadow of the Colossus on movie-monster scale. Where we’re at, I want to say, the implacable machine has long since swept on by. I thought about tweeting that, but it would have hurt to get my phone out.

Afterward, the lobby was totally deserted. Not even BOB was around. He must have found a place no one was in, and stayed put. The lights had been dimmed, though the mini-arcade was still 8-bit-bleeping in its corner, partying contentedly in its medium-tech ghost town. I genuinely believe that I was the only customer at any multiplex in America at that moment, and that BOB was waiting for me to leave so he could close all of them. I hoped that somewhere, maybe in a bigger city, he could try out his upgraded interface.

I adjusted my arm in its sling, tried unsuccessfully to put my jacket on, and called Siobhan to come and pick me up. We live five minutes away, so I had five minutes to kill in the (empty) parking lot. I thought about anesthetics, how they differed from analgesics — painkillers — how you could trace that through the words’ Greek roots. I didn’t know which one to file this evening under. You could make the case — people had — that American culture itself was now mostly one or the other. But that, too, was merely an opinion, and I didn’t know whether it was mine.

In my case the Vicodin wouldn’t wear off for another couple of hours, if it was even doing anything. Then, possibly, I would take some more. I looked up and the stars looked back down like an interested audience. Chained to the chalky / chalice of night. The moon was as white as a bone.

Filed Under: Movies, Wrath of the Titans

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 369,651 other followers