Film

As Empty Spectacles Go, 'Jack' is Just OK

Everything about Jack the Giant Slayer seems slick and self-serving - and empty.


Jack the Giant Slayer

Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane, Bill Nighy, Ewan McGregor
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Brothers
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-03-01 (General release)
UK date: 2013-03-01 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

5

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image