The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Full review behind the jump


: Stefen Fangmeier
: Screenplay by Peter Buchman, based on the novel by Christopher Paolini
: John Davis, Wyck Godfrey
: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich, Garrett Hedlund, and featuring the voice of Rachel Weisz

What’s in a name?
Eragon, the screen adaptation of the fantasy novel sensation written by Christopher Paolini (15 at the time he started the first volume), features a hero whose name sounds an awful lot like Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And both occupy a fantasy realm of dragons, magic, and innumerable humble villages with thatched roofs begging to be torched.

But this is no rose that smells just as sweet. I have not read Paolini’s novels, so my words are addressed only to this movie version – which plays exactly like one’s worst assumptions of a fantasy novel written by a 15-year old. The dressings are Tolkein, but the story is pure George Lucas, a point-by-point re-entactment of plot events from the original
Star Wars movie almost absurd in its scrupulousness.

The first
Star Wars captured audiences with pop enthusiasm, even its sorrowful moments had a neat-o prettiness to them. And The Lord of the Rings showed a similar unabashed pride in its tone of adventurous heft – it took its emotions seriously. Eragon, their self-doubting offspring, is a movie that seems afraid of being taken too seriously, of getting its actors too dirty, of making its monsters too scary. There’s one moment where we achieve a visual of (literally) fiery majesty, and in spite of the movie’s failures I’m ready to be aroused by wonderment just in time for the climax. And immediately afterwards, Eragon (newcomer Ed Speelers, who could win a Mark Hamill look-a-like contest if such contests were held) says “I’ll take that as a yes”, one of those maddeningly arch lines writers always think sound cool, but only serve to undercut our eagerness to actually feel something. It’s like that old schoolyard game where someone lunges at you, then punches you for flinching.

The story goes that in the kingdom of Alagaesia, everything used to be wonderful, and the peace of all the realms was watched over by the dragon-riders, whose bond with their flying, fire-breathing mounts also gave them magical powers. But then, a dark and treacherous one of their number named Galbatorix (John Malkovich) turned the dragon riders against each other so they could be wiped out and he could reign supreme. But there is a prophecy that a new rider will emerge and stand against him, which is why he’s been jealously guarding the last dragon egg, so it might never hatch and find its owner.

Well, the egg does get stolen, and it does find its way to Eragon, a simple farm boy (sound familiar?) living in the middle of nowhere with his uncle, his parents gone for mysterious reasons (sound familiar again?) Eragon doesn’t imagine he could ever actually be part of something bigger, but he does dream of adventure, and listens raptly to the stories about dragon-riders told by the wily Brom (Jeremy Irons), who everyone thinks is just a crazy old man. And if you’ve already figured out who Brom’s parallel is, I don’t need to tell you anything else about what his character does, or what happens to him, because you’ve seen it already.

There’s another, less-talked-about tradition that Star Wars helped create, which was paying large sums of money to distinguished thespians to lend their aura of credibility to the proceedings. Academy Award-winner Irons has shown he is not at all shy about this, providing one of the all-time greatest examples of rip-snortingly elocuted Hammy Acting in Dungeons & Dragons. And although as Brom so many of his scenes boil down to wandering around the woods with Eragon explaining the plot, he finds a way to inject some sly verve. Malkovich, newer to this world of gravitas-whoring, fares less well, spending what I swear couldn’t be more than four minutes of total screen time making tetchy pronouncements of villainy in front of the same stone wall. A sharp line producer could have had his role in the can before lunchtime.

The bulk of the evil-doing, then, falls to Robert Carlyle in the role of dark wizard Durza, who has kidnapped a Princess (Sienna Guillory) and is holding her captive in a giant fortress. Eragon has a vision of her that inspires him to dash off on a rescue-mission with his newly-grown dragon Sephira, who is basically a Millennium Falcon that can talk. And with the saucy voice of Rachel Weisz, I am not one to complain.

There are clashes with sword and staff and spell; one-on-one fights and vast battlefields. There’s computer-generated creepies and lots of swooping shots of beautiful scenery. Eragon is a movie that understands all the gestures of its forbearers but none of its heart.

It’s a spectacle that lacks resonance or depth, and looks suspiciously like the result of producers grabbing for source material that, although it sounded an awful lot like those other money-making movies, didn’t have enough of its own resonance or depth to draw from. Between Peter Buchman’s indifferent dialogue, and visual effects supervisor-turned-first-time director Stefen Fangmeier’s unfocused direction, there’s the overriding sense that they realized this, and because of it, no one felt like really working very hard on this story. And if they can’t be bothered to feel wonder and passion, why should we?


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