[29 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Be afraid, Twilighters, be very, VERY afraid. A certified franchise killer is coming your way, and it is not a swarthy group of Comic-con nerds complaining about your Beatlemania like overrun of their yearly San Diego geek-off. No, in a surprise move that Hollywood is still haggling over, Bryce Dallas Howard has been hired to replace Rachelle Lefevre as the evil vampire Victoria in the spinster/single gal phenomenon. Initial reports cite “scheduling conflicts” as the reason for the switch (the movies are being shot in rapid, near back-to-back, succession) while others use Ms. Howard’s increased profile and semi-star status as an excuse to up the series’ already ample commercial clout.
But there is another, more sinister possibility out there, a variable that should have everyone on Team Edward and Team Jacob shaking in their sensible shoes - Bryce Dallas Howard is a murderer of movies. She takes established cinematic dynasties and destroys them. Not completely, mind you. Tinseltown never completely buries something it can eventually reinvent, re-imagine, and more or less continue to exploit financially, but given her track record as a performer, Ron Howard’s daughter is clear creative poison. Need proof? Let’s look back at her brief ten years before the camera and see whose legacy she’s saved, and whose she’s left drifting in artistic limbo…
Her first victim probably deserved it. After coasting on the success of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable for far too long, M. Night Shyamalan was in desperate need of a muse to inspire his post-Signs career sputter. Seeing the red-haired 23 year-old as a possible Tippi to his mannered multicultural Hitchcock, he cast Bryce as Ivy Walker in The Village. Shyamalan’s Rod Serling Lite look at the secrets behind a turn of the century community was ripped by fans and the faithless alike. It was dull, stagy, and argued rather successfully that the man once called “The Next Spielberg” was, in truth, the phoniest of naked emperors.
Undeterred (solid tickets sales will do that), Shyamalan proceeded with his most ambitious project yet - a modern day fairytale about magical creatures, belief in oneself, and the end of the world. Once again casting Ms. Howard in the lead role, The Lady in the Water was poised to become the undeniable popcorn masterwork of the Summer 2006 season. It was to be the culmination of everything Shyamalan stood for as a creative genius. Instead, it ended up becoming the anti-auteur’s commercial swansong. Sure, one could point to the preposterous plot, the filmmaker’s decision to cast himself as a kind of literary messiah (a man destined to save the world with the mere power of his pen), or the left field bitterness which saw film critics converted into a nasty nebbish character who is torn apart by angry wolf-like monster.
Yet what many didn’t see at the time was that Bryce Dallas Howard was, in truth, a cinematic succubus. While clearly talented and attractive to boot, the up and coming starlet was clearly gifted with the ability to bring out the worst in her motion picture mentors. Instead of reeling in their ambitious, she fuels enough ego to spawn their own self-destruction. It was a trait she offered early on near the start of her career. She almost killed her daddy’s creative carte blanche when she played “Surprised Who” in Ron’s horrible live action Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and she even upended Lars Von Trier’s “America - Land of Opportunities” Trilogy when she replaced Nicole Kidman as Grace Margaret Mulligan in the Dogville follow-up, Manderlay. But M. Night was Ms. Howard’s first real recognizable casualty. The proof? Look no further than the stillborn sci-fi of 2008’s laughable The Happening.
Next on our red-head’s hit list? Peter Parker and Sam Raimi. Acknowledged by many as the moment the comic book superhero movie finally found its footing, Spider-man (and its superior sequel) introduced the man responsible for the amazing Evil Dead movies to an entire fanbase who would have otherwise ignored this splatter horror comedy icon. It turned Tobey Maguire into a household name, delivered Kirsten Dunst into adult female fortunes, and fueled a real resurgence in the DC/Marvel titles. When it was announced that Spider-man 3 would feature both the Sandman and Venom, devotees were chuffed. Even better, Ms. Howard was tagged to play Gwen Stacy, yet another fetching female for every frothing fan-boy’s favorite web-slinger.
While the results are up for debate, Spidey’s third big screen adventure clearly pales in comparison to the previous two. It is hedonistic and unwieldy, the introduction of the alien “black suit” an excuse to see Raimi indulge in some rather lame cultural commentary. From Parker’s sudden desire to go Emo to the underutilized talents of Thomas Haden Church and Topher Grace as the villains, Spider-man 3 is a mess - and it was almost the end of the franchise for all involved. Almost. While M. Night and his fetid flights of fancy are completely out of favor in Hollywood, caped crusaders and iron men action heroes are still molten lava blistering. Raimi is back crafting Part 4, though it will take a lot to revive the series’ artistic fortunes.
And still Ms. Howard pressed on. After minor turns in two forgettable independent efforts, her next victim landed, quite literally, in her lap. With Claire Danes refusing to reprise her role as John Connor’s famed future wife Kate, the search was on for an actress to play the all important role of savior’s spouse in the long awaited Terminator take, Salvation. Charlotte Gainsbourg was attached, but then had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts (sound familiar?). Enter the bubbly Bryce. As the part was reconfigured to accommodate the growing import of Christian Bale’s take on the resistance leader who eventually defeats Skynet, our series destroyer simply sat back and did what she does best. What could have been a high-powered spectacle instead coasted along creatively on the back of director McG’s Michael Bay like bombast. A wealth of scathing reviews and a mediocre box office run later and Ms. Howard had yet another notch on her sputtering franchise belt.
So fans of Stephenie Meyers’ Anne Rice revamp better take heed. You’ve got New Moon to look forward to before Bryce brings her special kind of reverse Midas touch to Eclipse. If her past track record is any indication, she will add very little to your already established dynasty while chipping off huge chunks of its future commercial capabilities. Remember, she’s driven bigger and better franchises to the verge of complete collapse - what’s to say that Bella and her brood are immune? While you already have enough to be angry about (messageboards are burning up with pro- Rachelle Lefevre sentiments) the possibility that Twilight may permanently tank should have you equally upset. The studio suits can argue all they want to about ‘business as usual’ and the bottom line, but when Bryce Dallas Howard is involved, one needs to tread lightly. The casualties strewn along her career path should be reason enough for such caution…and concern.