Summer blockbuster movies (particularly ones with huge budgets, special effects, and over-the-top heroes and villains, depend on people seeing them over and over and over again to make money. As such, they need to do seven things to be successful:
First, they need to have a “wow” opening scene that can stand alone, but also sets the tone for the movie. You can make an argument that Jaws and then Raiders of the Lost Ark were the first summer blockbusters to do this successfully, but really I trace the modern use of the “wow” opening to Batman. Recent movies that have done this well are X-Men (with that great Holocaust prison opening), and I would argue The Mummy, which gave us a cheesy opening, thereby showing us that the movie wasn’t to be taken seriously.
Van Helsing gives us two openings. First we meet the bad guys, as Dracula is working with Dr. Frankenstein to create the monster, (and take over the world; natch) while the townsfolk want to burn them all to death. This scene was well done, with great effects, and quite good. The second opening introduces us to Van Helsing himself, as he fights with Mr. Hyde (looking like a cross between the Hulk and Fat Bastard). This scene, from the tone to the special effects, did not work for me.
Secondly, a blockbuster has to have a plot that you don’t get bogged down in. Batman, Spider-Man; very simple: bad guy mutates and must be stopped; hero will do so, but has baggage. Van Helsing, best I can figure, is the brainchild of a director who loved monster movies, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if all the monsters got together?” This movie has werewolves, vampires, gargoyles, Dracula, his brides, Frankenstein’s monster, and several others. A plot is not needed. Strangely, we’re given one anyway, and it’s pretty complicated. This hurts the movie, because they keep trying to explain the convoluted back-story, and it’s obvious the plot is just secondary. Luckily, the film doesn’t worry about it too much.
Third, you need great special effects. Ever since Star Wars ushered in the age of effects, summer audiences (read: geeky men) have partly judged a movie based on how a movie deliver on this. Van Helsing does a pretty good job here. The opening is spectacular, and some of transformations into monsters are really cool to watch. There’s also a scene involving fire and a werewolf, and one involving the sun…really cool. The rest of it is a mixed bag. The backgrounds are pretty obviously faked; and I wonder why they went to all the trouble not to make it more real. I mean, why not just go for total cheese and make them cardboard?
Fourth, you need lots of humor. This is the hardest part for Van Helsing to pull off. There are several obvious “laugh lines,” and only a couple of them work. One of the problems is that people are speaking too fast at the beginning, with too much noise. There is great scene between Van Helsing and his side-kick Carl, a Q-like gadget maker (in 1887), but many of the jokes are lost in the background of the sound. I would have liked more simplicity to understand them, and more build-up. There is some unintentional humor, or maybe it is intentional, evoking the bad plots of bad monster movies. For example, Van Helsing and this girl (more on her in a moment), are searching for Dracula, and he’s nowhere to be found. Then they think to look in the giant castle overlooking the town—Castle Frankenstein, no less—and there he is! Maybe that was supposed to be funny in a bad way on purpose. I admit I may not have looked at this with the right attitude, but for the most part, I didn’t find the movie very funny, and thought it needed more humour.
Fifth, a blockbuster needs to have a high T&A&V factor (Tits and Ass and Violence). I’m not advocating mindless gratuitousness…well, actually I am. Let’s be honest, the teenage boys and young men who end up making or breaking a movie like this are looking for over-the-top action and sex. I don’t think they get enough of it. There are plenty of stunts, but most involve real people doing Matrix-like moves without any explanation. There are several hot women, including Dracula’s Brides, but while they were scantily clad, they weren’t all the way naked! Far be it from me to lessen North American society, but this movie could have sorely used more pussy. I mean, only one kiss takes place, no one gets laid on camera, and not a single breast to be seen. You can’t tell me that with all those monsters running around (which were always sexual metaphors to begin with) not one of those randy Transylvanians wouldn’t have succumbed! As for violence, I could have used a lot more blood. This is a monster movie, after all, not some after school special.
Sixth, a blockbuster needs to have some signature moments. Besides the opening, movies like this try to have those big moments that everyone talks about. Van Helsing has dozens of those moments, but every single one of them is stolen from another movie. Maybe it’s on purpose, but I couldn’t help scoffing after a while. A tribute to every monster movie; I expected that. But cribbing every recent movie, from Harry Potter to X-Men to Underworld to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (why are you stealing from them?) to Spider-Man? Actually, the Spider-Man one was hilarious, as I’ve never seen Frankenstein have so much fun swinging through the air. Overall, though, I wished I could have seen more originality.
Seventh, and most important, the characters have to be memorable, worth rooting for and against, and ones you’d want to be. The good guys are pretty much a wash. Hugh Jackman is good looking, but plays Van Helsing like a boring Wolverine; I didn’t buy him at all. Kate Beckinsale continues to prove that slutted up is the look for her (after last year’s Underworld), but other than an atrociously bad accent, a corset worthy of Keira Knightley from Pirates, and stunts that Trinity could never pull off, her character doesn’t do anything for me either. The sidekick (Carl the Friar) is played by David Wenham, but a bad haircut and cheesy dialogue can’t mistake the fact that he looks like a Jewish Faramir (from LOTR). He’s a good actor, but this is totally out of his depth.
The monsters are a little better. Dracula to me is somewhat of a bust. This guy is supposed to be irresistible to women, but he seems more excited about being a mad scientist trying to take over the world (and not a good one at that). The werewolves are pretty great, but they just do their wolfy thing, and don’t have any personality. The brides seem like they are having a lot of fun, but immortal bloodsuckers and all that aside, they’re still women, and get annoying from time to time. (And don’t write and tell me I’m a chauvinist until you’ve seen the film. These bitches are always whining.) Far and away the best character, though, is Frankenstein’s monster. Besides swinging like Spider-Man, he has great lines, and just has a blast. He also has great chemistry with Carl, and I wouldn’t have minded a buddy-film with these two.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Aslan got tickets to an advanced showing at the last minute, so of course I was excited, but I was also dead tired, and that might have affected me at the outset. The first hour (after that great opening) was so boring I could barely stay awake).
The second hour was definitely better. The plot convolutions gave way to better set-ups, and there was some great scenery too (There is a party in Budapest that just looks scrumptious). The movie seemed to have a lot more fun toward the end, as well (which, in my mind, coincides heavily with the arrival of ol’ Frankie). By the end I was laughing a good bit, and wondering how they would set up the inevitable sequel (which ended up being obvious and cheesy but not bad). The ending credits were pretty sweet too (although they clearly cost a ton to do, and seeing as how most people don’t watch them, I’d have liked more money spent on the effects in the film).
I certainly can’t recommend you see Van Helsing. While there were some great parts, the movie mostly seemed derivative to me, and not at all fresh. However, it’s quite possible that if I had the right attitude from the beginning (let’s mock the movie along with the movie-makers) I would have enjoyed it more from word go, and you might too.
Suspension of Disbelief Scale (out of 10): do you even need to ask? 10.
Genre Grade: for an Action Movie, or a Monster Movie, I give it a B-.
Pantheon Percentile: of all the films ever made, more than half of them are better than this one. With that in mind, I give Van Helsing a 45.