Thursday, February 14, 2013
Movie Review: Beautiful Creatures
I'm reluctant to use the term "Anti-Twilight" because it has become such a cliche. It's the nature of pop culture phenomenons that we inevitably spend a few years comparing everything to them. The Hunger Games is the Anti-Twilight because Katniss is a good role model. True Blood is the Anti-Twilight because it has "real" (read: more traditional) vampires. Warm Bodies is the Anti-Twilight because it's...you know, good. But I can think of no other apt name to describe Beautiful Creatures, as "The Anti-Twilight" it what it has very intentionally set out to be in the same way that The Golden Compass set out to be the Anti-Narnia.
The story takes place in the fictitious Gatlin, South Carolina, a town which is either a parody of rural South Carolina or was written by someone who only knows the state by reputation. Speaking as a current South Carolina resident, I admit we have more than our share of backwards-thinking, fundamentalist rednecks here, and yes, we have way more churches than is reasonable. We are not cartoon characters however. Our churches don't have banned book lists, we don't hold constant Civil War reenactments, and we certainly don't have accents that make us sound like extras off the set of Gone with the Wind. It's like South Carolina as written by Stephen King.
Our male lead comes in the form of Ethan Wate, professionally discontent teenager and proud owner of the complete Classic Rebellious Youth Literature Collection (Catcher & the Rhye, A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse 5, kid's got 'em all). He meets and falls in love with girl named Lena, a member of a mysterious and reclusive family living on the outskirts of town. Naturally in a town apparently run by the mom from Carrie they are believed to be satanists, but are in fact sorcerers, or "Casters" as they call themselves. Lena is a prodigy with difficulty controlling her powers, and is fearfully awaiting her 16th birthday, on which she will either remain good or become evil, something female casters apparently have no choice in. Do you see where this is going?
It's important to remember that while many criticisms have been levied against the Twilight series, by far the most troubling was its sexual politics. Bella Swan's over-dependence and self-deprecation had an unmistakable tone of misogyny & traditionalist subservience. Beautiful Creatures takes that tradition of sexually repressed obedient women supported by Stephanie Meyer and spits in its face. We are told in the film that unlike males, female casters have no choice as to whether they are "claimed" by good or evil. Lena has a cousin who was claimed for evil, and not only does "claiming" look so much like an orgasm that I'm surprised that got away with it, but the claimed evil girl immediately becomes a sexually promiscuous temptress. There is a curse associated with Lena's bloodline that caused all her female ancestors to turn evil because of a man, and Lena's family are determined to keep Ethan & Lena apart, for fear that if she falls in love with a boy he will invertible break her heart thus driving her to evil. The implication is clear: Magic itself has a virgin-whore complex in this universe. Lena must stand and prove that she is not some fragile women who can't control herself or her emotions.
As goals for a film go, providing a rebuttal to the misogyny of Twilight is an admirable one. And I appreciate how the ending resolution doesn't treat good and evil as bipolar opposites but as two halves of the same whole. But despite its good intentions, the film just isn't very well-written. The characters are broad stereotypes, the mythology is poorly-explained, and the story flows awkwardly. Character's actions rarely feel like a natural progression, they just go wherever the plot requires and get exposited at.
Fortunately the film is salvaged by a wonderful supporting cast. Jeremy Irons may have the least convincing accent in the last decade, but he's a joy to watch anyways. Viola Davis is great as always, and Emmy Rossum delivers a fun, sly turn as the secondary villain. But the real show stealer is Emma Thompson as the main villain. Thompson's one of my favorite actresses, endlessly versatile and energetic, and her performance alone makes the film worthwhile. She fortunately has a good amount of screen time, and her sinister yet somehow quirky and vaguely bipolar monologues are endlessly entertaining.
Despite severe shortcomings in the script, I found Beautiful Creatures to be surprisingly entertaining. It's unlikely to become a franchise, because if the aforementioned Golden Compass taught us anything it's that existing solely as the response to another film won't get you far. But if some fun campy acting and a big middle-finger to Twilight sounds worth your time, then give it a look.