[1 March 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There is nothing wrong with spectacle, as long as it delivers visually and can add a minor moment of meaningful subtext, or something like it—and even then, that’s not really a mandate. Indeed, a lot of potential popcorn entertainments get away with being nothing more than empty cinematic calories—a tasty treat, but rather hollow and unhealthy inside. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being vapid or indistinct. To paraphrase a character from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, “empty spectacle is better than no spectacle, right?”
Well, not always. Take the latest from unduly heralded filmmaker Bryan Singer. Jack the Giant Slayer must have seemed like a great idea on paper—update the fairy tale with a post-modern sensibility and lots of CGiants, amplify the action and lower the moral. Unfortunately, the result is a whisper thin excuse for bombast, a bunch of sound and fury which, in the end, signifies nothing more than the loss of $12 and a pointless night out.
Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a poor farm boy sent off by his uncle to sell the family horse and cart. He travels to the kingdom of Cloister in hopes of finding a buyer. Instead, he discovers Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a beautiful if rebellious girl who wants nothing to do with her father, King Brahmwell’s (Ian McShane) plans - including marrying his chief advisor, Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Losing his steed to a monk, he comes into possession of some ancient artifacts—read: magic beans— that soon grow into a towering beanstalk. The destination - ‘that place between Earth and Heaven’ where a race of giants have been exiled. Longing for the taste of human flesh, they are waiting for the right moment to step back on Earth. Apparently, an ancient crown controls the behemoths, and when it falls into the wrong hands, Cloister - and the surrounding countryside—is doomed. It is up to Jack and the King’s guard to save the day.
Like most of today’s mainstream product, Jack the Giant Slayer wants to be one thing while firmly planted in the crass consumer commercialism of the studios circa 2013. While Bryan Singer and his defenders can twist this take on the classic kiddie story into some sort of motherboard supported Harryhausen homage, the truth is far more minor. This is yet another excuse to fill the 3D screen with pointless computer animation subbing for practical F/X, noise and motion taking the place of emotion and excitement. We don’t really care what happens to Jack, if he gets the girl, or whether or not Lord Roderick will get his eventual comeuppance. Everything here is so predetermined, so prefabricated and prepackaged that the conclusions are as given as the set-ups suggest. If contrivances were king, this film would rule Cloister, not Ian McShane.
Not that the actors don’t give it a decent try. Hoult, whose a hundred light years away from this amazing debut in About a Boy, is a nice enough lead, but he lacks the kind of inherent heft to make his quest something more substantial. He was much better in last month’s Warm Bodies. Tucci, on the other hand, is all hambone and histrionics. If he had a cape and a curly moustache, he could be Snidely Whiplash’s brother, right down to the cartoony nature of the performance. McShane seems lost in the limits of his character, as does Ewan McGregor as the King’s lead guard. Even Ms. Tomlinson seems stuck in a different movie (or a wholly familiar one - right Brave?), more attention having gone to the various elements of our monster villains that anything else here. From a lead creature (voiced by Bill Nighy) with a second, mutant head to a shaggy haired hulk who longs for a leadership position, we know more about the meanies than those meant to defeat them.
Singer struggles, showing once again his overall weakness as a filmmaker. When he’s got good stuff to work with, like Christopher McQuarrie’s brilliant script for The Usual Suspects, he seems like a genius. But when given the reigns of something that requires a bit more input, he’s lost. There are sequences at the beginning, meant to signify some kind of interpersonal depth, that just die onscreen. They offer nothing but a stopgap until the giants come calling. Similarly, when we get to the sky-bound land, there is no mythology established, no attempt to explain away the situation except to argue that “legend has become reality.” Really? That’s it? And why is giant world such a sausage fest?
Of course, the overriding atmosphere is one of mid-Winter moneymaking, a otherwise ordinary oasis keeping everyone happy until May delivers the Summer season bonanza. Sure, the wee ones will laugh at the occasional giant gas (both ends are represented) and marvel at the various man on monster action scenes. Adults might even get a giggle out of Tucci’s over the top turn, or the film’s deliberate referencing to fantasy from the ‘60s and ‘70s. You can just see Singer, patting himself on the back as cinephiles struggle to see his supposedly obvious creative callbacks. Indeed, everything about Jack the Giant Slayer seems slick and self-serving - and empty. As empty spectacle goes, it’s not bad. For those expecting or wanting more, it’s meaningless.