Friday, January 23, 2009

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

This film is essentially an extensive prologue to Underworld, and serves in that sense quite admirably. As its own story, however, it falters.

The basic plot is this:
In medieval times, a vampire coven under the rule of Viktor--whom we know from the first Underworld to be a tyrant--has bred a new race of werewolves: the Lycans. These werewolves, unlike their more animalistic brethren, are completely sentient and capable of controlling their transformations. The original Lycan, Lucian--who is both a son and a pet to Viktor--is secretly married to Viktor's daughter, Sonja. The Lycans are slaves to the vampires, and eventually this reaches its breaking point. Lucian is forced to rebel against his vampire masters in order to save Sonja's life, and is punished severely. It is at this point that Lucian leads a Lycan mass escape from the vampire stronghold, and forms an army of werewolves to return and destroy the vampire menace.

One of the problems with Rise of the Lycans is that we already know the outcome of the story from what's been told in the previous Underworld films. However, this film does provide for a very strong support of Lucian as a heroic character, something that was severely lacking in the original film. There is no doubt that Lucian and the other Lycans are completely in the right in their rebellion, which casts some doubt on the supposed moral ambiguity of the Vampire/Lycan gang war seen in Underworld.

Another odd thing is the irrationality of Viktor. There are plenty of logical--albeit flawed--reasons to be a stubborn, amoral person, but Viktor appears to be a tyrant for no other reason than... wait, was there a reason?

The violence and sexual content in this film was comparable to Underworld: Evolution, though perhaps less immoral. There was an almost-graphic sex scene in this film, but the characters were married, at least. Furthermore, the gore was seen almost entirely on the battlefield, and was not without purpose.

The visual effects were well-done (the werewolves in particular look stellar), though some of the CG coloring done on Sonja's eyes looked messy. A major gripe with this film is its complete darkness. It is very, very difficult to see what is happening in certain battle scenes. I saw the film in a satisfactorily dark theater, from just the right distance. There was no reason for me to not be able to discern what was happening other than the fact that the film is irrationally dark and confusing.

This film seems to owe a lot to Kate Beckinsale. After all, it was she who essentially made the previous Underworld films profitable--and worth watching. The character of Sonja almost seems too similar to Selene, and I wonder if perhaps the filmmakers would have cast Beckinsale in the role if she had been available. I do realize that Sonja and Selene are supposed to be similar due to a subplot of the series, but it does seem perhaps too strange. Beckinsale actually opens Rise of the Lycans with an exposition monologue--which is perhaps fitting, considering that it was Selene who had discovered this long-forgotten history in the previous films. The film also ends with footage from the original Underworld's opening, with an overlay of dialogue that is semi-relevant to this film's story. It's a somewhat cool moment, but it feels as though it simply panders to fans' nostalgia over the original film, rather than delivering a truly new and original experience. Another problem with the ending is that the overlaid dialogue directly references Selene's past, which is suddenly confusing after considering certain events in Rise of the Lycans. Unless you're well-steeped in Underworld lore and understand the complex chronological rituals of the Vampire elders, you may not understand this seeming plot hole. But hey, we get to see Kate Beckinsale, even if it was archival footage that we already saw six years ago.

I definitely do like many elements of this film, but not enough to recommend it to anyone but fans of the series. If anything, this film serves best as a prologue to the first film, and in that sense, it is enjoyable.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Prince Caspian - Eight Months Later

Last week, I watched Prince Caspian for the first time since its midnight showing. Perhaps because I knew what to expect, I enjoyed the film far more than I did the first time.

I noticed a lot of interesting things that I think I missed on my first viewing. My initial reaction to Caspian had been "what the heck did I just watch?" But after I'd had time to let it all sink in and settle, things became clear.
One thing that only marginally made sense the first time was Aslan's late appearance. While it was rather obvious that the Pevensies and Caspian were supposed to wait for Aslan rather than move on their own, the little details in the dialogue seemed to support this point more than I had originally realized. This blends very well into Prince Caspian's overall theme of "growing up, but not forgetting what you've learned from your childhood." Peter and (to a lesser extent) Susan had forgotten the lessons they learned from Aslan, and were relying on their own strength rather than their savior's. Matthew 18:3-4 says "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." In this instance, Lucy is the humble child that still believes in Aslan, while Peter needs to let go of his pride and remember what he learned in his younger years.
It's true that Peter was not nearly as arrogant and prideful in the original book, but his altered character in the film is both redeemable and important to the underlying conflict. Without Peter's admittedly foolish actions in the film adaptation, the moral message wouldn't have been nearly as pronounced.

The film's message certainly has flaws, however. While the concept of "God waiting for us to trust him" works in an allegorical sense, it does not work in a literal setting. Why did Aslan allow the Narnians to be attacked and hunted to near-extinction, then let half of those survivors die in a foolish attack on a castle? Was it really all simply to teach the elder Pevensies a lesson? In the Bible it is often stated that the Israelites were conquered or punished in some fashion because they fell into sin, but there's nothing stating that the Narnians did anything to deserve being slaughtered. Of course, perhaps the dead Narnians all went to Heaven after their deaths (some sort of uber-Narnia?). Aslan's absence seems to be more fitting in an allegorical fantasy book, but live-action film constantly makes the viewer see the realistic side of things, and unfortunately highlights some very odd inconsistencies.

The Chronicles of Narnia is a book series that essentially captures the feeling of a young child's imaginary fantasy, while mixing in mature Christian allegory. Unfortunately, some of this doesn't quite mix when put into film form. C.S. Lewis wisely kept the battle scene in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe unseen, thus keeping a common tone throughout the story. The film adaptation of LWW shows the battle (and rightly so), but unfortunately sacrifices the steadiness of tone by suddenly shifting the main characters (who are children) out of their gentle fantasy journey and into a vicious war. That's not to say that it's not still enjoyable, but the abrupt shift does make for a technically weaker narrative. Make no mistake, I would gladly sacrifice narrative cohesiveness in order to have a great Narnian battle, but there's still a part of me that screams "this doesn't naturally follow!"
Prince Caspian has a similar problem in that it is far too dark and violent to be considered a real "family" film, yet is too tame to be anything else. The film maintains a steadily flowing narrative in that it focuses entirely on war, which is ultimately a good thing. The children (with the exception of Lucy) are all grown up and completely prepared to fight, perhaps to a fault. As stated before, this film is about growing up. However, in order to grow up in a wise manner, Peter and Susan had to essentially become children of Aslan again, yet use the greater maturity they've gained with age to fight a deadly war. This symbolizes the way that Christians must remember the lessons they learned as children, applying them to the constant struggle of adult life. Indeed, this is perhaps literally stated in the end of Caspian, as Peter and Susan are said to have "learned all they can" from Narnia, and now must return to the natural world, applying the wisdom gained from their Narnian adventures in the real world.

Speaking of the end of the film...
Much has been said about the Susan/Caspian "romance." This is perhaps the most annoying complaint I've heard, as it honestly doesn't matter. The film's plot isn't at all changed by this flirtatiousness, and in some ways it actually makes sense. We know from The Last Battle that Susan eventually becomes materialistic and shallow, so it isn't a stretch to say that she'd flirt with a handsome prince in a fantasy land. Her kiss to him may have been more of a goodbye to Narnia itself, as Caspian--being the King of Narnia--was essentially Narnia incarnate in handsome-man-form. (okay, even I can't help laughing at that designation) They didn't "fall in love;" they merely flirted and kissed once before never seeing each other again. Heck; Susan was the only foreign girl Caspian had ever seen (and probably the hottest girl in the entire realm), and Caspian was the only guy around that wasn't Susan's brother. In such a stressful time, why wouldn't they be attracted to one another? Sheesh, purists. Get over it.

The childlike/mature dichotomy is a complicated one, and is perhaps Caspian's biggest fault. As stated earlier, the film is too mature for young children, yet perhaps too bland for older audiences. However, it still manages to capture the feeling of a young boy's imaginary adventure, and, in that sense, it works very well.
Looking back on Prince Caspian, I feel that I can safely give it a good rating.