In so many ways I define cool but in at least one respect I am a total nerd: I absolutely love learning new things. Last week I learned about something called Steampunk. Go ahead and try to guess what it is. I'll give you a minute.
I'll even give you a hint. Steampunk is a genre of art. If you guessed that much, you're pretty cool yourself.
Okay, I can't wait anymore. (Besides learning new things I also love teaching new things) Steampunk is a genre that puts science fiction in historical periods, examining how accelerated technology (up to and often surpassing what we have today) might have changed history; or as Douglas Fetherlin put it, "How the past would have been different if the future had happened sooner."
The word itself comes from two sources: Cyberpunk, which is a genre that looks at dystopian futures, usually ruined because of technology run amok, and Steam, which is supposed to evoke the Victorian age (where a lot of this new genre is set), although Steampunk could be in any past era.
The best (and probably first) example I can give you is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. In this book we're taken in to the awesome world of Captain Nemo's Nautilus, a ship that surpasses anything we have today, or probably will have in the next 50 years. Another example (although this time not a good one, quality-wise) would be Wild Wild West, and that monstrous spider thing Kenneth Branaugh's character Arliss Loveless creates (not to mention the train). Come to think of it, the train in Back to the Future III-as well as any of the Back to the Future movies-would qualify under the Steampunk heading.
So, you get the point. Why do I bring this up? Well, besides the whole nerdy-learning-is-fun thing, I saw League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (hereafter known as LXG) Saturday night, which definitely fits under the heading.
The concept of LXG is a pretty cool one, or pretty terrible, depending on where you're coming from. Based on a popular British Graphic Novel (that's "comic-book" for the folks in Delaware), LXG imagines that several of the great characters of 19th Century British literature were actually alive-and this is the either cool or grotesque part-fighting crime like superheroes.
The problem for the movie-at least for American audiences-is that many of the characters will only be vaguely familiar; if Americans have heard of them at all. Sean Connery, the only guy you're likely to recognize, plays famous explorer and adventurer Allan Quartermain, who's enjoying life in Kenya in 1899 when he's called back to help Mother England. It seems someone calling himself the Phantom is using unheard of technology to threaten a global war.
Quartermain is recruited into this "League," which we're told has existed for centuries and fights evil whenever necessary. With him are Captain Nemo (from Verne's 20,00 Leagues), Mina Harker (who had an interesting experience once in Transylvania), The Invisible Man (not the original, but you probably haven't read it anyway, so why dwell there?), Dr. Henry Jeckyll/Mr. Edward Hyde (looking like a cross between the Hulk and Fat Bastard), Dorian Gray (looking like a feminine Johnny Depp...well, a more feminine Johnny Depp), and added for the Americans, Tom Sawyer as an American Secret Service Agent (who looks eerily like Jack Black on a starvation diet).
All right. So, you get the idea. This League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and one girl) has to save the world from the evil Phantom guy and blah blah blah; no one really cares about this part. Because, let's be honest: if you buy all these literary characters as real and working together, you really don't care that much about the paint-by-numbers bad guy. What you do care about if you're watching LXG are two things: how cheesy is it, and how much fun will you have watching it?
Well, there's no getting around the cheddar factor; LXG is very cheesy. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I would be very suspicious if LXG took itself seriously; how can you with such a ridiculous premise? So, in this case, the cheese factor actually helps a bit. There are some awful literary-puns that had me laughing so hard I was afraid snot was going to fly out my nose at projectile speed. The more you know about the books these characters are drawn from and other prominent 19th and early 20th Century works the funnier the jokes will be. For you guys, that means probably a lot of laughs, but I do worry about the general populace. But, the important thing is that for the most part the movie has a sly wink to it. At least, I hope it does. There are some scenes that are so god-awfully bad that they had to have been in the script. Anyway, I'm choosing to believe they did it on purpose. I don't want to ruin all the good jokes, but I will relate one howler: a boat/submarine bigger than the Titanic "ghosting" through the canals of Venice unnoticed.
Secondly, will you have fun? I certainly did. I laughed in spite of myself. It will help a bit to go with friends and be in a good mood (see Hyperion's rules for movies). In other words, you have to be in the right frame of mind. Unlike Gangs of New York or Dude, Where's My Car?, this is not a movie to look for subtleties.
What else do you need to know? The acting is fine, if a bit overblown, but that's the point. The editing is a bit choppy and dark for me, but if you think Michael Bay has a light touch you'll be in heaven. The story, like I said, makes no sense whatsoever. In this movie you kind of just go with it, but it wouldn't have hurt them to have had a little more exposition as to what's going on. Not the worst sin in the world, but a little bit of structure would have helped. The special effects are passable at best-definitely not what you're used to for blockbusters-but again, high production values are not why you want to see this movie.
Besides which, the effects that are really eye-popping are not the Computer stuff, but the simple concept of all that scientific hardware back in 1899. And here's where the whole Steampunk thing comes in. (I am the King of tying things together. Just ask my ex.) The opening scene gives us a huge tank. Nemo steps up to the plate with cool-ass cars and a ship you have to see to believe.
And the characters themselves are quite unique. Vampires are old hat these days but Mina Harker is still interesting and fresh. The Jeckyll/Hyde thing is nicely done, as is the Invisible Man. Dorian Gray (for those of you who don't know, he's immortal as long as he doesn't look at his own picture) is charming and sexy, and steals quite a few scenes. His immorality gives him a great sense of humor. Better yet, there's a love triangle with Gray, Mina Harker, and Tom Sawyer, who doesn't have any powers but is such a dork you'll love him in spite of yourself.
So, would I recommend this movie? I'm not sure. It's certainly not going to win any awards, and with the British literary characters it may have a hard time gaining a loyal following in the Americas. But people still love Sean Connery, and if he can live long enough (he's 73!), there may be sequels (the movie itself certainly hopes so). As for this one, if you can put a smile on your face, and be prepared to laugh at both good and groaningly bad, I think you'll enjoy this.
Ratings: As per my #121, here are the grades:
Skepticism Scale: 9. Park your inner Hey!-Wait-a-minute! at the door.
Genre Grade: For Big Action Popcorn flicks, this gets a C+/B-. For Campy Action flicks I'd move it up to a B+.
Pantheon Percentile: 55, and that's probably generous. At least 45% of all movies ever have been better than this (that's how the Percentile thing works), but dammit if I didn't enjoy LXG anyway.