[FoRK] "A sinking feeling sets in within minutes." [was: Gabrielle]

Joseph S. Barrera III joe at barrera.org
Fri May 7 17:52:46 PDT 2004


    'Van Helsing' a monstrosity of a movie
    Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
    Friday, May 7, 2004
    ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

    Van Helsing: Action. Starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. 
Directed by Stephen Sommers. (PG-13. 140 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)

    "Van Helsing'' may be ambitious in scale, but it's unambitious in 
every other way. Writer-director Stephen Sommers ("The Mummy'') throws 
together plot strains from various horror movies and stories and tries 
to muscle things along with flash and dazzle. But his film just lies 
there, weighted down by a complete lack of wit, artfulness and internal 

    So it's a disaster -- a big, loud, boring wreck -- but to say that 
isn't enough. "Van Helsing'' has the look of a failed experiment, as 
well, and that makes it almost interesting. Almost. What Sommers tries 
to do here is use action as the only means of involving an audience. So 
story is sacrificed. Character development is nonexistent, and there are 
no attempts to incite emotion. Instead, Sommers tries to hold an 
audience for two hours with nothing up his sleeve but colored ribbons, 
bright sparklers and a kazoo. What he proves is that this is no way to 
make movies.

    A sinking feeling sets in within minutes. Van Helsing is in Paris 
tracking down Dr. Jekyll who, in his Hyde mode, is computer generated. 
(Imagine that, a potion that turns a man into a computer graphic.) They 
get into a battle -- who knows why, or cares? -- atop Notre Dame 
cathedral, with virtually every moment of every shot artificially 
created, the soundtrack blaring all the way. The juxtaposition of Van 
Helsing and Hyde has a random mindlessness to it, and it's soon followed 
by other random juxtapositions (the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, Dracula) 
best suited to an Abbott and Costello farce.

    But no, we soon catch on: This is no farce. Sommers is serious. And 
oh, no, we also realize: There's no one on deck here who can write a 
story. From then on, we know "Van Helsing" promises to be one long slog. 
In that way, and in only that way, the movie fulfills its promise.

    What can Hugh Jackman do? He stalks the film in what looks like a 
turtleneck from Old Navy, playing a man with no recognizable 
psychological structure. The vague glances at a back story make no 
sense. We're told he's a contract killer, working for the Vatican, 
killing evil entities. He doesn't remember his past, but it has 
something to do with Transylvania, and so he takes an assignment to kill 
Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), who's acting up. Jackman has nothing to play 
but blank good looks.

    Ditto for Kate Beckinsale as Anna, the woman at the head of 
Dracula's hit list. The movie outfits her with pirate boots and a 
Romanian corset, but past that, she's on her own, a pretty actress doing 
her best to maintain dignity, vainly trying to craft a feminist 
statement from a filmmaker's whimsy.

    The movie is numbingly hyperactive. Here, vampires can attack day or 
night, and they do, relentlessly, particularly Dracula's three wives, 
merry female bats who delight in taunting their victims. In between bat 
attacks, the slender yet convoluted story doesn't exactly unfold. It 
just gets announced now and then, as the characters state the premise of 
scenes to each other as though at a pitch meeting.

    Dracula wants two things. He wants to kill Anna, and he wants to 
find the Frankenstein monster. Apparently, Frankenstein contains the 
secret of life, and Dracula wants to create life. He wants lots of 
little Draculas out there, depopulating the earth of humans and 
competing for an ever-decreasing blood supply. Obviously, Dracula hasn't 
thought this through. But why should he? Sommers didn't even decide if 
Dracula should be a funny or serious character. The film veers wildly in 
tone, from mirthless comedy to bland drama, caught in a dead zone, its 
writer-director out of control.

    The Wolf Man makes several appearances, alternately ferocious and 
forlorn in the usual Wolf Man way, and it's an odd thing. Today, the 
technology is there to make the transformation convincing, and yet 
seeing it means exactly nothing to us -- so much less than when poor Lon 
Chaney Jr. would struggle in those old movies, trying to hold onto his 
humanity even as he sprouted fur all over his body. I suppose when 
there's no humanity to begin with, there's nothing to hold onto, and 
thus no loss and no drama.

    Still, it's daunting. To think of all the tools Sommers had at his 
command -- all the money, all the computer wizardry -- and yet his film 
has no more art than what a chimpanzee might do with an Etch a Sketch. 
Throughout the movie, Dracula tries to re-create life from without, as 
though high-voltage technology could replace that which comes from 
within. Talk about metaphors. Once they believe that lie, mad scientists 
and filmmakers will get in trouble every time.

    Advisory: This film contains shootings, stabbings, Wolf Man violence 
and vampire sensuality.

    E-mail Mick LaSalle at mlasalle at sfchronicle.com.

    ©2004 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback | FAQ

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