It is difficult not to now approach Jason and the Argonauts as much as a technological curio as a work of art. It dates back to pre-2001, pre-ILM, pre-CGI times; its stop-motion (‘Dynamation’ as Ray Harryhausen coined it), rear-projection effects cannot help but seem primitive and ‘fake’ compared to the sophisticated effects of today. But here’s the rub: define ‘today’. Back in 1978, Harryhausen’s movies seemed quaint and old-fashioned to my twelve-year old self, bedazzled as I was by Star Wars. And yet here in 2017, those same effects of Star Wars seem pretty quaint and old-fashioned compared to the effects wizardry of, say, the recent Ghost in the Shell or this year’s crop of Marvel and DC movies. Who knows where things will lead, and how fake the effects of 2017 may seem in 2030?
And yet some might suggest there is an inherent ‘soul’ in those Star Wars miniatures from 1977 that is lacking in the virtual cgi worlds of today’s effects wonders. An artistry born of the limitations of effects technology of the time created beautiful shots that easily match the dizzyingly kinetic spectacles of today. Just because you can sweep a virtual camera over an impossible arc over a plain of tens of thousands of virtual combatants in a Lord of the Rings movie does not mean it is any more successful than a locked-down matte shot involving a few hundred extras. Very often such sweeping impossible shots, impressive as they may be, actually only serve to pull me out of the movie, a distance instilled from knowing the shot is impossible, the stuff of a sophisticated box of pixels. Maybe thats because I grew up with those locked-down matte shots, but I’d rather think that, no matter immersive a film may be, it can still pull you out of it by being too wildly unreal. Peoples mileage may vary, but there’s always a point at which it all just seems too much. The effects no longer serve the story; rather the story is simply serving the effects and spectacle. Even the most photo-realistic effects can have the whiff of a cartoon if they are losing any grounding of reality.
Jason and the Argonauts cannot help but feel dated. Ray Harryhausen was attempting stuff never seen before, bringing mythological creatures to life the only way he could, with his hands, one frame at a time, with the magical sleight of hand provided by a camera and projector. Shots are locked down, the filmstock becomes grainy, miniatures slip in and out of focus as they try to maintain depth of field. But every shot has a magic all its own. You can sense the time and imagination and skill of Harryhausen over hours, days and weeks in some shots, a craft and soul rather devoid in the cgi wonders of today, as amazing as they might seem. Its something of the smell of old pulpy paper in old paperbacks and books, worn by sun and time. Its almost tactile.
Its old. Its rather fake. But it is also glorious. Its why we can watch the 1933 King Kong and fall in love with that ape- and there’s another Blu-ray I need to watch soon.
This Blu-ray edition of Jason and the Argonauts, presently an HMV exclusive here in the UK, is a damn fine release. The benefits of HD are not immediately clear, as the effects shots by their nature bring with them pretty monstrous leaps in grain but some of the close-ups of the armatures etc (the skeletons in particular) really do display impressive detail and creative artistry. And the non-effects sequences generally look great with the boosted detail and colour range. The extras are especially fine, with two commentary tracks that I really need to sit and listen to (the one with Harryhausen a historical document, surely) and a number of featurettes, one of which, The Harryhausen Chronicles, is a great hour-long doc narrated by Leonard Nimoy no less. Its an overview of Harryhausen’s life and career with lots of footage from the films he made. Brilliant stuff and something of a tease of many of the Blu-ray discs of Harryhausen films due this year (the Sinbad films first, then Mysterious Island and First Men in the Moon afterwards- I have the Twilight Time disc of First Men and its excellent; if Indicator surpass it then thats another double-dip).
The weird irony of this film is, after all the whining I do about modern films not having ‘proper’ endings and instead just teases for others, I’d forgotten how abruptly Jason and the Argonauts ends. Suddenly after the fight with the skeletons the film closes, and Jason never returns home to take his rightful place on the throne (the point of the whole adventure). It just suddenly ends with Zeus teasing further adventures for Jason. Due to the films (inexplicable) poor box office, those future adventures never materialised. Its almost incredible that Harryhausen only ever made one Jason pic considering how well it performed over the decades since on tv etc. The gods of Greece are indeed cruel, Jason.