NOW PLAYING: Van Helsing

Posted: Monday, May 10, 2004

My question is, when did the moviegoing public give the cinema over to the theme-park people? Because that's what it is becoming, and fast. This summer's first blockbuster out of the box is no exception. Van Helsing is a rollercoaster; one series of long climbs, followed by breathtaking falls, loop-the-loops, and hairpin turns. And in the end? Why, you're right back where you started, wondering if you really waited in line for this.

It's sad, really, when you think about it. I mean, I realize that there is nothing new under the sun, and Hollywood certainly isn't looking for it, but at least there is quality material to mine from. Take The Mummy, for example. Stephen Sommers, writer and director of Van Helsing, gave us a servicible, enjoyable film, based very loosely on the earlier horror classic. It was fun, and though a little ridiculous, eminently watchable. It too was a rollercoaster ride, but it had other attributes as well. Van Helsing, on the other hand, has no other attributes. Sommers, in his attempt to rework the other big three movie monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman, gives us thrill after thrill with no subtlety, no drama, and a complete lack of believability.

The story goes thus: Van Helsing, a mysterious assassin working for the Vatican, is called to Transylvania to do battle with one Count Dracula, who may or may not be hatching a plot to destroy the world. The plot, of course, ultimately involves the vicious and mindless werewolves and the sad, and surprisingly well-spoken Frankenstein's Monster. Van Helsing, along with Anna Valerius, the last of a family of sworn Dracula-fighters, must kill the Count, the werewolves, and all other various and sundry monsters that get in their way. Our intrepid adventurer must also try to unlock his mysterious past, known only to Dracula himself. Up, down, around; keep your hands in the car at all times.

For a film that basically lives and dies on the effects, Van Helsing has some good moments. Van Helsing wanders through an array of crazy 19th-Century weaponry pulled right out James Bond's great-grandfather's basement. There's a frightening bit where Dracula's wives terrorize a village which, though the technique is well-done, is repeated endlessly. Overall, however, for a film with a $135 million budget, the visual wizardry one would expect is strangely lacking. Well, maybe lacking is the wrong word. Overflowing is more like it. This movie is so slick, so shiny, that 1888 is lost entirely. Sommers, who loves big computer generated behemoths fighting each other (see The Mummy Returns) goes completely nuts with wholly unsatisfying visions of Mr. Hyde, The Wolfman, and even Dracula himself. It's too much. Effects should move the story, not mire it in such obvious artistry that the time and place are lost. And when did we decide that anything otherworldly (read: something we can computer-generate) should move at the speed of light. The werewolves in this film move so fast that you can never get a fix on them. Not only that, but they scamper straight up stone walls. What is that? I'm all for creative license when it comes to the old legends, but at least give us something to ground ourselves with.

All in all, I did have some fun, and it's no wonder. Rollercoasters are fun. That's why people ride them, ignoring the obvious fact that the car should, by all rights, go careening off the track at 200 miles per hour. But aren't they all the same, when yo get down to it.? There's no room for any real creativity, and this film is no exception. I guess I shouldn't complain, though. These guys who make these movies are under enormous pressure. With the new Disneyworld-brand of movie making, everything has to be bigger and faster than the last. There's no time for subtlety, for silly ol' plot development, or for actual character development. Good ideas are all you need and the studios will run with it. It's no wonder that a movie like Van Helsing feels so rushed, so chaotic, so unbelievable. There's simply no time. Gotta go, go, go. You never know when the other guy is going to make Creature from the Black Lagoon vs. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Well, not for me. I've ridden this ride a hundred times. I think I'd rather spend the day at the movies than at the amusement park. Grade: C-

Van Helsing is rated PG-13 for excessive fantasy violence and sensuality, yet another example of the ratings board deciding that violent death is ok for children to see, so long as no one says the F-word.

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