Friday, August 1, 2008

Movie Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

In Pandemonium, in the House of the Fly...

Hellboy II: The Golden Army, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones. Universal Pictures (2008). Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is A-III: Adults.

Read other reviews here.

Today, we are joined by a special guest reviewer, Sara, frequent commenter.

D.G.D.: This is a great movie, highly entertaining with exciting action sequences and inventive visuals. And with its romantic subplots, it may be the summer's best date movie for geeks, if only geeks could get dates.

Hellboy II opens when Hellboy, a demon called to earth by a Nazi black magic ritual, is a young boy (Colin Ford) living on Douglas Air Force Base. His adoptive father Dr. Bruttenholm (John Hurt) tells him a story loosely based on Irish mythology: the Tuatha Dé Danann (originally probably gods but later depicted as fairies) are engaged in a battle against the human Milesians, from whom the modern Irish are descended. At the end of the war when the Dé Danann are defeated, the pact is made in which the Danaans agree to live in the invisible Otherworld, the land of Faerie, while the Milesians take the visible world. Made up for the movie is the added detail that the king of the Danaans has the talented smith Dian Cecht build an army of invincible golden robots, but is so saddened by the resulting slaughter that he stops the robots and makes the pact.

The story jumps from there to the present day when Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is the top agent at the secretive Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), where he hangs out with his best friend, the amphibian man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and has domestic disputes with his girlfriend, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who literally blows up at him. Hellboy is sick of being a government secret, and his attempts to transform the BPRD from a covert operation to a public service gain him an uptight new boss, Johann Krauss (Seth MacFarlane), an ectoplasmic being living in a containment suit; this is another character from the comic book series, though he has been altered significantly.

Meanwhile, it turns out the magical Otherworld is located conveniently in New York's sewers where Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) of the Tuatha Dé Danann spends his time brooding and practicing some impressive elvish wire-fu with his expandable magic spear. Finally deciding he'd rather kill all the humans than keep living in the sewer, he dabbles in a little mass murder and regicide in order to acquire the magic crown that can activate the Golden Army. Opposing his plan is his gentle twin sister Nuala (Anna Walton), with whom he has a psychic connection, who ends up helping the BPRD to defeat Nuada's schemes. In the midst of all that, Abe Sapien gets a serious crush on Nuala, inspiring him to guzzle beer and play Barry Manilow, and Liz turns out to be pregnant.

Sara: The introductory scene gives a brief history of the origin of Hellboy, which should be very helpful for folks who may have little or no knowledge of the storyline. I could immediately step into the film and get involved in the story without any knowledge of the history or characters. This makes the movie much more enjoyable, although perhaps boring for those who have background knowledge of the story. This enables the movie to stand on its own. I wish more novels, serials, and multi-part movies had an intro such as this. The bedtime story incorporating the creation of the Golden Army was a nice touch.

D.G.D.: To my eye, the world of Hellboy has changed significantly from the first film to the second. In the first movie, Guillermo del Toro attempts to give Hellboy a backdrop somewhat like H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos; in fact, a fake quote at the movie's beginning cites one of Lovecraft's made-up occult texts. In the comics, Hell is a real place, separate from the Abyss imprisoning Ogdru Jahad, the sevenfold god of chaos, but in the movie, the two places are conflated, essentially removing Hell from the mythos, which strikes me as a monumentally dumb thing to do in a story called Hellboy. The new movie, however, has less science fiction and more fantasy: Nuada actually refers to Hellboy as a "demon," and another character calls him "Son of the Fallen One," suggesting Hellboy II is bringing the movie universe closer to the comics. As a result, Hellboy's existence, and the plot, make much more sense.

Sara: Abe Sapien is a most interesting character. He reminds me very much of C3PO in accent, mannerisms, and the gentle way he perceives the world.

D.G.D.: In the comic books, Abe Sapien comes across as more of a tough guy character; I appreciate the way they've altered his personality in the movie, as Hellboy is more than enough tough guy for one story.

Sara: His psychic abilities almost seem to be a hindrance to him at times, as he is privy to people’s private thoughts that he’d rather not be burdened with. His awareness of Liz’s pregnancy becomes uncomfortable as he inadvertently intrudes on a private moment.

D.G.D.: I agree. Abe Sapien is not a psychic in the comic book series; psychic powers are an sf trope I've never cared for, and I didn't like it when they made Abe a psychic (or an empath or whatever they're calling it) in the first movie, but the use of his powers in Hellboy II is minimal but well placed.

Sara: His encounter with the Elf Princess Nuala is a source of amazement and mystery to him, as he cannot read her so easily. She becomes a source of fragile beauty, charm and intelligence as well as the damsel in distress—perfect scene-setting for a heart-ripping romance. The scene when the princess has to choose between saving the world from her brother, or her romance with Abe, is indeed tragic.

In contrast, when Liz begs for the life of Hellboy at the feet of the Angel of Death, the decision is a much different one. She chooses to risk the fate of humanity by saving Hellboy for her own love and that of her children.

D.G.D.: I'm just glad they haven't dropped the issue; a good Hellboy story should always remind the audience that Hellboy is Anung un Rama, the Beast of the Apocalypse.

Sara: The “Tooth Fairies” they fight at the movie's beginning are a shocking surprise. On first appearance they are cute and adorable.

D.G.D.: Really? I didn't think they were ever cute, but then again, I had a good idea of where they were going with that.

Sara: When their true nature appears, they swarm and consume everything alive in their path, they are true monsters with no pity and no compassion. They make excellent little evil angels to accompany the evil Elf Prince Nuada. From then on the sight of them is repulsive. On a side note—there seems to be little compassion from Hellboy and the others when members of their team are consumed by the Tooth Fairies.

D.G.D.: Yeah, but those are Red Shirt characters. You're right, of course, but it would take up a lot of precious story time to weep over characters the audience hasn't even met.

Sara: The relationship between Hellboy and Liz just doesn't click with me. There's no chemistry, the fight between the two of them is not believable, and the discovery of her pregnancy does not evoke the emotional response that it should. Even the encounter with the Angel of Death is not the emotional tug-at-heartstrings that it could be. The whole thing seems very forced to me.

D.G.D.: That's interesting. When I saw the first film, the only deviation from the comics that I liked was the love story between Hellboy and Liz, partly because nobody does love stories with heavy makeup quite like Ron Perlman. I find the squabbling in the new movie entertaining, but perhaps my standards are low. As for tugging at the heartstrings, I agree, but I'm mainly here to see elvish wire-fu, so the lack of emotional impact doesn't bother me.

Sara: The costumes, make-up and props are very realistic, true to scene, and not at all cheesy.

D.G.D.: Not at all cheesy? Well, I wouldn't go that far; they have a troll with a mechanical fist he can shoot at people. This movie does show what del Toro can do with a big budget: as far as atmospherics go, it is a really, really excellent fantasy film.

Sara: The underground marketplace is lively and varied, much like the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars. The costumes for the Princess Nuala are elegant and striking against her fair complexion and white hair. However, I don't care for the elves’ faces. They seem cruel and harsh, which works for the prince but not for the princess. Their reddish eyes are unsettling to me, and the delicate facial structure of the princess is negated by her colorless complexion. Perhaps the evil she was absorbing from her brother deformed her physical beauty. The identical facial scars on the brother and sister is a continual visual reinforcement of the inseparable “twin bond” they share.

The “twin bond” between Nuada and Nuala is more than a little creepy—there is almost an incestuous factor to it.

D.G.D.: That's clearly intentional. If anyone wants an excellent Catholic essay on that particular subject, I suggest The B-Movie Catechism. For this discussion, however, I'll note that Nuada's possible lust for Nuala reminds me of the depiction of Emperor Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus (whew) in Gladiator, which plays up the emperor's supposed incestuous inclinations.

Why such a detail is in Hellboy II isn't clear. As in the first movie, where the monster is named Samael, Hellboy II draws names from mythology with no particular concern for the myths themselves. Nuada Airgetlamh in Irish mythology is a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In the myth, Nuada loses a hand and has Dian Cecht replace it with a silver one; in the film, however, the one-armed man is Nuada's father, who also has Dian Cecht build the army of invincible robots. I haven't found anything about Nuada having a sister, so that appears to be an invention of the movie.

Sara: Nuada and Nuala know each other’s thoughts, moods, even location, with an intimacy that affords very little privacy or individuality, even though they were separated for eons by Nuada’s self-imposed exile. It seemed to me like they were one individual split into two bodies—the Prince representing all that bad and evil, reflecting in his personality and demeanor (even in the scene on top of the hotel he takes on a very Satan-like persona, tempting Hellboy with riches and fame), and the Princess representing all that is good. However—in her case there seems to be a constant struggle to keep the bad vibes from her brother from overwhelming her goodness. This constant struggle shows up on the scars on her face and the coarseness of her beauty. She tries to compensate by dressing in lovely clothes and admiring the poets and artists. In the end, the only way to overcome the grip of evil that is her brother leads to both of their demise. In her last few moments she and Abe have a personal psychic intimacy of pure goodness that she has never been able to express fully without the constant grip of her brother’s evilness.

D.G.D. Yes, but Nuada isn't purely evil. Mike Mignola, who created the comic book series, has said that he always tries to give his villains understandable motives and to avoid cardboard monsters. The Hellboy comics always contain a certain sympathy for the devil; even though Hellboy smashes the villains up, the reader can always identify with them to some degree, and there is always a sense that by wiping out various monsters, Hellboy is making the world a safer place, but is making it a duller and less magical place as well. There is also a sense in which Hellboy by fighting supernatural evil is killing his own kind; at the end of the story "Box Full of Evil," he admits, "I just do my job, which usually involves me beating the crap out of things a lot like me." The first film doesn't manage this effect, but the second does. Though Nuada is quite nasty, his anger at the humans who have destroyed the forests and driven his people into the sewers is understandable. His attempts to lure Hellboy are consistent with the comics as well, in which many of the villains Hellboy encounters try to tempt him to use his Right Hand of Doom to unlock the Abyss and free Odgru Jahad.

Anyway, I will make a brief comment on one little gag in Hellboy II. Shortly after the movie begins, Hellboy, a state secret in the first film, becomes a household name overnight, only to find himself disliked and distrusted by everyone he meets; a guy even walks up to him on the street and says, "You're ugly." Along with the other PR problems the BPRD faces, the discovery of the relationship between Hellboy and Liz leads conservatives to suggest the BPRD is eroding traditional morals with "interspecies marriage."

Okay, that is kind of funny, but decidedly off the mark. The Hellboy universe is a universe where folklore is real, and Christian folklore is replete with men marrying swan maidens, women marrying beasts, men marrying elves, and even lusty demons. All that stuff was ours before del Toro showed up. Men marry beautiful, ethereal fairies and women settle for monsters: this is actually in tune with traditional morality because it's a good metaphor for how marriage goes in real life. Besides, if Christians found out that the government employed a demon who had gotten a woman pregnant, I think we'd be too busy worrying about the possibility of a real-life Rosemary's Baby to be discussing interspecies marriage.

And lastly, I just want to say this: Anung un Rama suggoth abal. Obdith jug Jahoor. Anna mem suggor athrama un Rama.

Sara: I greatly enjoyed the movie. Two thumbs up.

Content Advisory: Contains action violence, mild language, drunkenness, I mean some really hilarious drunkenness, child endangerment, good cigars, poor hygiene, a premarital relationship, at least I think it's premarital because that's kind of ambiguous, a conventional plot, and Ron Perlman in creature makeup

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Hellboy II: The Golden Army:

Myth Level: Medium (it's got some mythological reference worked in there, great fantasy creature designs, and a conventional but likable plotline)

Quality: High (solid directing, great visuals, and an excellent cast)

Ethics/Religion: Medium (frequent Christian imagery, occasional propounding of love and free will, one premarital sexual relationship)
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