Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Eragon (2006)

Eragon wants to succeed to the mantle of both Star Wars and LOTR

From our vantage point in 2006, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien qualifies as a landmark film. Not only does it stand out from all other movies made in its day, it pioneered a movie genre all by itself. And like all landmark films (Star Wars for the space opera, The Matrix for the sci-fi kungfu drama, Tim Burton’s Batman for the second wave of superhero movies), its passing has heralded a procession of imitators and honest entries eager to follow up on the LOTR craze. It is predictable that few will manage to fill huge hollow space in the hearts of cinemagoers, and a huge hollow space in the pockets of movie moguls – witness the competent but flat rendition of the Chronicles of Narnia last year, for example.

This season, the newest contender for the LOTR crown is Stefen Fangmeier’s adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s fantasy novel Eragon. With a name like “Fangmeier”, one’s hopes of seeing a great fantasy movie are instantly bolstered; could he be the Rob Zombie of the fantasy epic? Fangmeier has never directed a feature film on his own before, but his years of experience as a second unit director and special effects director on films like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Galaxy Quest, and Master and Commander should guarantee a wealth of experience that makes Eragon a decent visual experience.

And indeed, Eragon boasts of very competently designed sets, from rustic villages, the respective strongholds of the evil king Malkovich, sorcerer sidekick Carlyle, and the heroic resistance movement, costume designs, the action scenes with CGI and/or lots of extras. Every second of the film convinces you that you are watching an epic fantasy, and an action flick. Now, that’s an achievement since Paolini’s book reads as though a typical teenager stumbled upon Tolkien and Star Wars, tried to write a fantasy epic, only to have readers exclaim that it’s a formulaic, barely original story positively dripping with fantasy stereotypes and lacking depth, sophistication or real drama. No offence meant to the young man, for I think however borderline imaginative his novel was, there still had to be a spark of genius or craft that reached out to his over-increasing legions of fans.

What I find really annoying is the scriptwriters (studio interference resulted in 2 other uncredited writers) didn’t manage to lift the movie’s dialogue and narration above the prowess of Paolini. In fact, they make it far more banal and inane, another feat in itself. It’s not the horribly inappropriate comic-book dialogue of 300, or the “nice scenery, bad dialogue” style of Hercules: The Legendary Adventures. These had bad style, but were stylish in their own fashion. Here, Buchman and his colleagues look as though they didn't know what inspiring lines to put in everyone’s mouth, so they used generic placeholder dialogue that would be replaced once they came back from lunch break. And it seems they never came back from that lunch break.

It’s a pity, because the film looks very acceptable if you bring a pair of earmuffs to the cinema. Or, you could have fun smiling and smirking at how the lines veer from cheesy to stock to very expository. Either way, Eragon the movie shows how easy it is to make a book written by a 15-year-old look worse: just hire a first-time director who’s familiar with how to make action scenes but not string together dialogue into a feature film. In fact, every 15 year-old has written or dreamt up their own private fantasy epics, and Eragon shows that why they eventually didn’t publish these works, or make them into film. Even the Bronte sisters wrote voluminous novels populated in fantasy lands when they were children, and never published them.

What I’d like to see, though, is a more competent director and writer handle Paolini’s novels (including an Eragon remake), and to read what the young man writes in 10 years’ time.

First published at incinemas on 21 December 2006

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