The Good: Good pacing, Decent effects, Social conflict
The Bad: A lot of unconvincing acting, Lack of on-screen chemistry between the leads, Fairly predictable
The Basics: Beautiful Creatures looks good, but is melodramatic and unfortunately more stiff and familiar than it is daring.
In the wake of the completion of the cinematic rendition of The Twilight Saga, Hollywood has been desperately looking for the next cash cow to exploit for years to come. It seemed like The Hunger Games (reviewed here!) would be a sure-fire hit, but that did not quite work out for the producers of the film – it was the only film in the highest-grossing films of 2012 that did not make more in the world theater than in the U.S.! – and the surety of the pulp teen fantasy romance genre novel to translate into successful, critically well-considered films was very much in doubt. Enter Beautiful Creatures, 2013’s second of several such franchise-builders (Warm Bodies beat it to market by two weeks!).
I’ll admit; going into the screening of Beautiful Creatures, I had some trepidations. When I recently considered The Twilight Saga (reviewed here!) as a whole, I was forced to acknowledge that the individual films were probably rated higher than I would regard them, especially when viewed one after another. While each film has to stand on their own, I found that my own enthusiasm probably led me to rate the films higher than I might have objectively considered them. I was determined not to make the same mistake with Beautiful Creatures. Fortunately, I had absolutely no preconceived notions of what the film would be before I saw it. I have not read the book and so, this is a very pure review of the film itself; I can offer no comparison to how it stacks up against the novel. That said, Beautiful Creatures feels very much like a beginning . . . and it is.
In the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, Ethan Wate is shocked when change comes to his school on the first day of his Junior year. The change is a new student, Lena, who is remarkable in that she is identical to the girl Ethan has been dreaming about. Soon, the school is abuzz about the strange new girl and her family, who – rumors are – have supernatural abilities. Ethan, however, feels drawn to Lena and almost immediately begins helping her and learning about her. Lena, lives with her Uncle, a recluse on the outskirts of town and was related to the founders of Gatlin. Ethan lives with his virtually absent father and is cared for by Amma, who speaks to the dead.
Lena is living with a weight; her impending sixteenth birthday will see her own magical powers come into bloom. At that time, purveyors of the dark arts and the forces who fight using good magic will both attempt to make her part of their ranks. Ethan suddenly finds himself immersed in a world of magic, women who look shockingly good (especially for their ages!), and powers that should be out of his understanding. But, while the rest of the town follows a mob mentality to rise against Lena and her family (which her mother, the dark Caster Serafine uses against her), Ethan gets closer to Lena and discovers that her struggle involves him more than he ever thought it would.
Beautiful Creatures is well-paced, but it feels pretty familiar in terms of plot. It’s like I Am Number Four (reviewed here!) had superpowers and aliens replaced with magic and supernatural beings and was blended then blended with Twilight and Frankenstein (or, I suppose, The Crucible). Lena is a classic character in the process of becoming and her story quickly dominates Beautiful Creatures. Unfortunately, as far as the character’s journey goes, Lena is at an unfortunate stage in her journey and one that makes her more of a tool for the whims of others than a realized character of her own. Lena quickly falls into the role of a rope in the tug-of-war between Serafine and Macon.
As is the conceit of all of these new genre pieces, there is a romance plot/subplot to Beautiful Creatures. Ethan and Lena move toward a romance with one another with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm in the Southern flatlands. It’s obvious and Beautiful Creatures adds nothing new, special, or different to the concept. In fact, this might be one of the more insulting outings in recent memories as it works to restore the notion that the female protagonist is a damsel in distress who might be saved by love (though Macon’s take on it is that the burgeoning relationship might be a distraction which causes Lena to lose her way, much the way an overprotective father clings to his daughter’s chastity in the antiquated notions of the “good girl”/”dirty girl” dichotomy).
The relationship between Lena and Ethan is hampered on screen by actress Alice Englert and actor Alden Ehrenreich. I promised myself that for the film Beautiful Creatures I would not comment on the blandly, obvious, stereotypical good looks of any of the performers, so to keep focused: Engler and Ehrenreich are fine on their own and they get some decent banter off one another. However, they have less than zero in the way of on-screen chemistry. The characters play off one another well, but when it comes time for physical intimacy or the implication of genuine affection between the two character, both actors seem unusually, tragically, stiff. While such things seldom last, there are innumerable movies where the stars hook up and have off-screen relationships during the filming of their projects and fans invariably respond with, “I’m not surprised!” It would be a shock if Ehrenreich and Englert had any sort of friendship, much less romantic involvement outside the filming, based on how stiff they are in the scenes where the deliver dialogue regarding their character’s emotions for one another.
The real scene stealer is Emmy Rossum (Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons easily falling into the realm of predictable greatness as their powerful characters Serafine and Macon), who explodes onto the screen with an energetic sexuality that reminds one of the potential she had in The Phantom Of The Opera (reviewed here!). Despite her exuberance and the way she oozes sexual energy as Ridley, she never makes it seem cheap or easy, like her Shameless character.
But what truly sunk Beautiful Creatures into the realm of average for me was the mood as it related to the plot. Beautiful Creatures is supposed to be a tense film that has viewers wondering which way Lena will go. Will she fall to the forces of evil or become a tool of great good? The last time the choice was so utterly unconvincing was Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!), where it took until I watched it on DVD with the commentary track on that I realized that George Lucas wanted the scene with Luke on the second Death Star to have fans on their edge of their seat believing he could go over to the Dark Side (for at least one hundred viewings over my lifetime before that, I never got that – it just didn’t land, it wasn’t going to happen). In a similar way, Beautiful Creatures throws out the ideas of destiny, the angry mob, and precedent (in the form of a number of very evil Casters related to Lena and a curse involving a Caster who fell in love with a mortal) to try to sell the viewer on the idea that this girl whose angst seems entirely to be about the possibility that she could be sucked into the dark side will go there.
Viewers are too smart for that. But, as Beautiful Creatures is the first of what is sure to be several movies based upon the books that spawned this series, not all the answers are contained in this film and there are seeds laid for the subsequent volumes. One hopes they will rise to something more remarkable than this.
For other fantasy films, please check out my reviews of:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Harry Potter Saga
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Just My Luck
For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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