Directed by Stephen Sommers
Stephen Sommers (director and writer – known for directing both Mummy movies) managed to spend a reported $170 million and created a monstrously powerful special effects film with very weak human elements: character development, story, and dialog. Van Helsing has a lot going for it: absolutely wall-to-wall action, beautiful production design and costumes, and, most of all, great special effects. I loved the CG werewolves, the look of the Frankenstein monster, the stagecoach chase sequence, and Igor (Kevin J. O'Connor) -- the sidekick to Dr. Frankenstein who gets roped in by Dracula.
The fundamental problem is that they never made me really care about any of the characters. A good drama should introduce the characters and make the viewer care one way or the other before setting up the action and conflict. Kate Beckinsale’s Anna – the last in a long line of vampire hunters – looked great in her pseudo-19th century costume but the film seemed to just charge into fighting vampires before I got to know Anna. The obligatory romantic subplot between Anna and Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman – not up to the standard he set as Wolverine in the two X-Men movies) didn’t work for me. The Van Helsing character itself didn’t seem to do justice to the source material as I remember it -- the set-up for him was too James Bond-goes-Victorian. Saving the friendly but misunderstood Frankenstein monster failed to give the movie the “heart” that I think they were going for with that character.
I was even a little disappointed in how the fight sequences were handled and the lack of red-hot sizzle from the female vampires – it is obvious that they didn’t want to venture into R-rated territory. That’s a shame but understandable given the realities of spending that kind of money – you need the younger teens’ box office.
Does a high-budget movie aimed at a teen audience have to be dumbed-down with a script like this? I don’t believe so – think of Spider Man and both X-Men movies – you can have it both ways. The only caveat is that, for the young male audience, the action can’t let up for too long or they get bored. But that doesn’t mean that the dialog has to be moronic or the characters underdeveloped.
Overall, I wasn’t sorry I saw Van Helsing nor was I disappointed – I had heard so much negative publicity that I was prepared for a total bust. The film is impressive visually and if that is enough for you then head to the local multiplex – don’t wait for it to come out on DVD since it will lose quite a lot in translation.
Images are copyright Universal Pictures.
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