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To Helsing and back (kitchen sink CGI)
A film review of VAN HELSING by Camus
 
"Truthfully, I have a hard time classifying this movie..."
Stephen Sommers, Writer/Director Van Helsing

 

Truthfully, I had a hard time watching this movie, though I did laugh out loud twice and I'm pretty sure I wasn't meant to. Seeing Stephen Sommers' latest über-hyped period action/horror effort was like being screamed at for two hours plus. There was not a single scene in which two characters looked at each other, exchanged a few words without then immediately falling to what would be their deaths, or being morphed into their CG 'synthespians' as they fly ludicrously through the air. Where is it written that werewolves can defy gravity? It was as if Sommers trusted the entertainment value of his dialogue so little, he felt the need to stage CG attacks as punctuation. It is a frenetic mess with so little drama, I thought I was watching a showreel for ILM, a showreel incidentally that would have had me on the phone to WETA, New Zealand. For all of its dominance in the last decade, ILM seems to have been saddled with FX assignments that were almost doomed to fail. It's Sommers' CG ambition that also elicits ILM work that I'm sure would have better luck being effective (and believed) if it stayed in the shadows. There were parts of The Hulk that were among the best FX work I've ever seen. But then the jolly green giant went outside and threw tanks around...

Oh, look. It's a man with stubble and a hat. Sommers has 'paid homage' to Spielberg before. The Mummy's Rick is pure Indy-DNA with added pantomime. Jackman's Van Helsing is underwritten, colourless, and bland. It's a shame as Jackman is effortlessly charismatic and as this is primarily a vampire movie, it's odd the star has nothing to get his teeth into. Jackman pours more humanity into one claw of Wolverine than in Van Helsing's entire body. He's a cipher, a character as a means to a universe of Universal horror. Spielberg and Lucas will gleefully admit that Indiana Jones is of course an homage to an era of quota-quickies in which each cliffhanger packed 'em in for next time. Sommers can't rely on such an excuse. Van Helsing is so derivative of what passes for the action hero these days, it's a chore and a hard one, to prise him apart from Mr. Jones.

Van Helsing, as to be expected, is an all-out festival of computer generated imagery and yet the film appears (or 'feels') cheap. Even when there was no digital trickery, your eye scouts the sides of frames just in case. We are introduced to the milieu via a black and white prologue in which the early Universal monster movies are visually quoted. It's either a testament to Sommers' devotion to the originals or Mel Brooks' talent that made me think of Young Frankenstein and the brilliance of Kenneth Mars's comic performance; "You weel roooo the dae that youwerborn a Fra-kensteen!" We introduce Richard Roxburgh's take on Dracula and, well... Inexplicably, the marketing people have focussed heavily on this fresh interpretation of the classic Count. He's so damn ordinary in the role, you wonder what aromatic fuel the marketing is powered by. Roxburgh's juvenile spats as 'showing rage' (especially with 'thet ecksent') are risible. There is a scene with his three brides at which I laughed out loud. The acting (which had to be a director communication thing) was supremely concentrated panto-land and I've seen Roxburgh in other things and as an actor he is no slouch. Subtle is not a Sommers' trait. Not that it needs to be. I'm watching a movie designed for, moulded around and squarely aimed at teenagers and if my beaten up 30 year old clothes don't fit me anymore, is it a mystery? I've passed into the netherlands of mainstream movie going. It's On Golden Pond for me from now on. I may start to believe that if Van Helsing hadn't been so bloody superficially dull.

So, the plot. Whatever, as the Americans are fond of saying. Dracula wants to extract the essence of life from Frankenstein's creation to give birth to his bat spawn. As you do. The Wolfman and Mr Hyde both pop up. Hey ho. There are no surprises in Van Helsing and the CGI is pretty damn corny. It's funny how Dracula's brides lose their nipples and any sign of genitalia when they morph into naked bat-like winged demons. They have been sanitized to, well, to undeath. Sommers also re-invents and frankly buggers about with the myths and legends built up not only from Stoker but Whedon too (not that Buffy's creator bent too many undead rules). In Van Helsing, Dracula walks the walls like he's communing with Escher's subconcious. It's ridiculous and makes Dracula into a clown. Sommers also steals a great gag from Polanski and stages it half as effectively. If you can, catch Dance of the Vampires and compare it to Van Helsing. Oy vey!

There is also a disturbing trend in action films that Van Helsing is guilty of in almost every scene. The posters warn you about it – they call it 'fantasy violence'. It's an interesting term. It's violence that is 'impossible'. Problem with violence, fantasy or otherwise, is that it undermines drama somewhat if you know that huge falls from on high never seem to injure our human heroes. How can you care when danger is only relative to how high you are in the cast list? Kate Beckinsale as the gypsy Anna (an anonymous performance, who is she? Character or actor?) seems to betray physics on a regular basis. It's not that I mind watching people smacked into walls or falling to a ground that in real life would paté them, like a huge sack of vegetable soup exploding on concrete. It's the casual acceptance that human action heroes can survive ridiculous beatings and falls. I used to accept it (in Die Hard, McClane dies for certain at least eleven times) but now I am bored by the whole thing and that robs a film of drama.

Kate Beckinsale dies in the end – so what? As far as I could see she'd died at least six times already so... Again, there is no caring, so there's no investment. All there is, is CG. Does anyone remember the thrill you got watching old Sinbad movies, waiting in anticipation for a Ray Harryhausen creation to step out of the shadows and knock our socks off? How did he manage it? Nowadays it's two weightless CG monsters slugging it out and who the hell cares? The 'climax' of Van Helsing is a ludicrous battle between a werewolf and a vampire demon and it's a joke.

It would be remiss of me not to mention what the second big laugh in the film was – unintentional again, I suspect. The only actor who has a chance to make any emotional connection is the oft-electricity put upon Schuler Hensley playing Frankenstein's Phd project. OK, his head tends to split in three and this makes him a little testy but he's a 'nice guy' under all that monster make up and soon bonds to Van himself. In stopping one of the brides making sushi out of the heroine, he urges Anna to go and save Van Helsing. Anna manages two words – "Thank you..." I swear the score suddenly slipped from bombastic meta-orchestration to lyrical calm as we are invited to admire the creature's humanity. He gives her a look of such obvious "Hey, you recognise my humanity and for that I am grateful and sad and..." and WHAM, the score obliterates the moment. Just as well, as the moment made me bark with glee it was so misjudged, like watching the best footballers in the world in an egg and spoon race. Stephen, you're just not going to manage emotion or any real eliciting of any kind of feeling. Carry on up the CG if it makes you happy. It certainly seems to make your target audience happy.

And that's what's important.

Isn't it?

Van Helsing

USA 2004 5
132 mins
director
Stephen Sommers
producers
Bob Ducsay
Stephen Sommers
screenplay
Stephen Sommers
cinematography
Allen Daviau
editors
Bob Ducsay
Kelly Matsumoto
music
Alan Silvestri
production design
Allan Cameron
starring
Hugh Jackman
Kate Beckinsale
Richard Roxburgh
David Wenham
Shuler Hensley
review posted
9 May 2004