Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Movie Review: Eragon

Ouch.

That's the first word that comes to mind, and it's hard to know what to say after that. I knew something was wrong when the movie opened with a drab narration followed by the image of a moody guy in outlandish makeup sitting on a throne that looked like the result of a high school art class, saying in a voice part geeky, part whiny, and part bored:

"I suffer without my stone. Do not prolong my suffering."

If the word were "with" instead of "without," he'd sound for all the world like a man talking to his doctor about an upcoming gall bladder surgery.

This is King Galbatorix, a cardboard evil emperor saddled with one of the silliest names in literature or film history. In the right mouth, this goofy line could be menacing, but John Malkovitch apparently doesn't want to put in the effort. Awful as it is, I was amused by this scene because Malkovitch, in his evil makeup, sitting in his dark throneroom, reminded me of David Hemblen as Lord Dread in Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. I guess that's not all bad, but Captain Power was a campy 1980s TV series, and Eragon, for all its high budget, looks more than anything like a made-for-TV movie.

Malkovitch's opening line is perhaps the most imaginative in the film. Through the rest of the movie, we're subjected to classics like, "If you had been here, you would have shared his fate," or how about, "Tomorrow will come before you know it." Ugh. I don't remember the dialogue in the novel being this bad. Most amazing of all, it took four writers to pen this. Couldn't one of the writers look over the other writers' shoulders and say, "You know, I've heard that line in about five or six movies before this"?

The movie's plot is a sketchy outline of Christopher Paolini's novel, which borrows its own plot from Star Wars: Eragon (Edward Speleers) is a farmer boy living with his uncle until he encounters a mysterious blue stone that turns out to be a dragon egg. In a motif borrowed from Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, the dragon (voiced ludicrously by Rachel Weisz) forges a psychic connection with young Eragon, making him the new Dragon Rider destined to end the rule of the evil Galbatorix. Fortunately, Eragon encounters Brom (Jeremy Irons), an Obi-wan Kenobi who explains the ways of the Force, or rather, of Dungeons&Dragons-style magic-casting. Then Eragon and Brom are off on a romp through the Middle Earth-like world, trying to join forces with the Rebel Alliance, here called the Varden. On the way, they rescue a spirited elf princess (Sienna Guillory) and meet up with a jaunty freedom figher (Garrett Hedlund). In the act of finding the Varden, they inadvertently draw Galbatorix's orc-like hordes of urgals (in the movie, chunky guys with black lines painted on their faces stand in for the monsters) to the hidden fortress, forcing Eragon and his dragon to join in a desperate battle. In the novel, Eragon passes out and wakes up elsewhere whenever Paolini isn't sure what to do with him. In the movie, they only have time for that once or twice.

The movie manages to be simultaneously drab and rapid. The characters rush through everything. The few brief scenes given over to sentiment or character development are so cliched that nothing emotional or otherwise worthwhile happens. It's an A-list movie, but it's hard to figure out where the money went. The sets, at first quaintly rustic, stay quaintly rustic the whole way through. The final, brief, dull "epic" battle takes place on a set that looks as if it were cobbled together out of planks, though for some reason it morphs suddenly into a gigantic castle when Eragon hops on his dragon and starts flying around.

The elves and dwarves promised early on are AWOL, and Galbatorix's evil legions are basically shirtless fat guys. For the final battle, Eragon and his princess/future girlfriend don laughable armor. Eragon's looks like a turtleneck covered with metal. Princess Whatsername's breastplate looks as if it were designed to emphasize the breasts it's supposed to plate, and--oh, look! She's holding her hairdo together with an armored comb! Isn't that darling? This couple would be a hit at a costume party, but in a real battle, I think they'd get their butts kicked. All the special effects budget apparently went into the dragon, which looks good, but perhaps they should have found some cash for creature makeup, set design, and costuming.

Contrary to what many reviewers, such as Lawrence Toppman, apparently think, Eragon's psychic connection to the dragon Saphira is not original to Paolini. The idea comes from Anne McCaffrey. At the same time, many viewers may unfortunately get the idea that the teenage Paolini was a less competent writer than he really was. Though highly derivative, Eragon the novel is both exciting and surprisingly complex, considering that it was written by a teenager. The film version is neither exciting nor complex.

Let's speak a little of the review by Eric D. Snyder. I'll begin by clearing away an odd comment made in response to his review (scroll down the page of the link above to see it). He has one commenter who claims Paolini ripped off Jeff Smith's comic epic, Bone. Now, I know Bone. I love Bone. I want to marry Bone. Paolini didn't touch Bone for this novel. He ripped off just about everything else, but the only things Eragon shares with Bone are unlikely heroes, dragons, lush environments, sword-wielding princess babes, and close friends of different species. You can pick up any one of these at the Fantasy Plot Device Clearinghouse. Such vague similarities are not borrowing.

Speaking of which, I loaned Bone volume 4, The Dragonslayer, to a friend a while back. He said he'd return it in a week, but it's been over a month. I'd better call him up: "I suffer without my Bone. Do not prolong my suffering."

Now for Snyder's remark about Paolini's educational history: a few commenters on his site have already read him the riot act for suggesting that the movie is a pipe dream born out of social awkwardness resultant from homeschooling, but I'd like to make a few additional comments. First , Snyder should have realized that it's unsafe to criticize the author of a book because of the awful movie someone else derived from that book; however bad some people might think the novel is, most will agree that it's Pulitzer material compared to the film. Second, there's nothing about Paolini's unexpected rise to fame that suggests social awkwardness. Besides writing a lengthy epic in his tender years--not a feat of genius by any stretch, but at least impressive--Paolini made the novel sell through his parents' tiny publishing house in large part because he went on a massive publicity campaign, if I remember rightly. It was enough of a campaign that Knopf took notice and took the book. Okay, Paolini didn't do that all by himself, but you don't do that at all if you're afraid of people or can't interact with them.

Now for a final comment on Eragon the novel. This isn't in the movie (not much of the book is in the movie), and so it has nothing to do with the subject here, but considering the nature of this blog, I can't resist.

Paolini, as is to be expected, makes a lot of mistakes in his first novel. One thing he demonstrates is the peril of placing a satire in a work that otherwise isn't satirical. Putting the questionable artistic quality of his novel in mortal jeopardy, Paolini has Eragon and Brom visiting a city dominated by a religion that worships a big rock with three spikes on top. The temple of this religion is called a "cathedral," apparently because Paolini thinks this is a style of architecture rather than a Christian church with a bishop. The members of this religion spend all their time, Paolini tells us, arguing about which of the three spikes is the greatest, and about whether or not they ought to worship a fourth, lower spike.

Satire, to be effective, must be cutting, and to be cutting, it must be precise. This is neither. The rock with three points is apparently the Trinity, but I've yet to hear a debate in Christianity over which member of the Trinity is the greatest. The metaphor really breaks down with the fourth spike. Presumably, this is meant to represent bickering between Protestants and Catholics over Marian devotion, but I've heard no one suggest Mary should be considered part of the deity except a few far fringe liberals, and they were so vague that I'm not sure they were saying it, either. At any rate, Paolini's blundering attempt at ironic criticism should remind us all of what we look like to outsiders when we allow our serious disagreements to disintegrate into petty squabbles. Since this is apparently how Paolini really views Christianity, something must have happened to give him such a negative impression.
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