Beautiful Creatures (United States, 2013)February 13, 2013
Beautiful Creatures is the latest attempt by a Hollywood studio to cash in on the popularity of a YA (Young Adult) series. In this case, instead of vampires and werewolves, it's witches and warlocks. When it comes to romance and interpersonal interaction, Beautiful Creatures is on solid ground, with director/adaptor Richard Lagravenese crafting a well-worded voiceover and offering his young leads dialogue that pops and crackles. Unfortunately, the supernatural goings-on in the fictional town of Gatlin, South Carolina aren't as effective. The epic battles between light and dark Casters (the non-pejorative term for "witches") underwhelms, seeming obligatory and derivative. The conclusion is somewhat muddled and, despite attempts to provide a satisfactory stopping point, it's obvious Beautiful Creatures is intended as the first chapter in a longer saga. Novelists Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl wrote four volumes; only a poor showing at the box office will prevent the movie series from churning out at least several sequels.
The decision to cast relative unknowns Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert as Ethan and Lena marks an awareness on Warner Brothers' part that, when it comes to a saga that could have multiple episodes, it's best to start out with actors who come with a cheaper price tag. As Twilight and The Hunger Games have proven, significant salary increases accompany box office success. Ehrenrich and Englert are both very good and possess the key element that any YA romance needs: chemistry. Beautiful Creatures' best scenes by far are the ones that depict Ethan and Lena falling in love. The exchanges between the two, especially early in the film, are sharp and smart. Recognizable stars fill supporting roles: Jeremy Irons as Lena's uncle, Macon Ravenwood; Emma Thompson as Mrs. Lincoln, the religious zealot; Viola Davis as Amma, Ethan's housekeeper; and Eileen Atkins as Lena's grandmother.
Beautiful Creatures starts out strongly but loses steam as it progresses. When things become more narrative-driven, the appeal of the well-constructed interpersonal relationships and gothic atmosphere moves from foreground to background. The central story relates to a cosmic choice that faces Lena. On her sixteenth birthday, her true nature, whether dark or light, will emerge. Her uncle and many other members of her family are trying to shepherd her to the light, while her mother and cousin are advocating that she embrace the dark side. There's also a curse involved and Ethan, as a mortal, is a most unwelcome fly in the ointment. Lena's passion for him makes him a target.
The romance is developed with a less generous heaping of cheese than the one in Twilight and that's part of the reason why Beautiful Creatures is likely to result in minimal eye rolling for non-devotees. The movie also isn't as coy and conflicted about sex. Do Lena and Ethan do the deed? What happens just off screen beneath a burning sign would argue strongly in favor of a "yes." The old Hays Code (like current parents of tweens) would approve of such restraint.
The dark Caster/light Caster choice/struggle didn't exactly bore me but it's so familiar that it seems to be running on autopilot. It's The Force by another name, repackaged for an audience that skews female and probably doesn't care much about Star Wars. (Not that I'm arguing The Force was original in its time, either.) All of Beautiful Creatures' tension is related in one way or another to Lena's relationship with Ethan. The film occasionally skates close to doing one or two edgy things but never commits to them. A lot of what happens near the end, especially as it relates to the curse, is accomplished with smoke and mirrors. It leaves a bit of a bad taste.
The biggest problem Beautiful Creatures may ultimately face is a lack of fervor among movie-goers. Twilight and The Hunger Games both energized a sizeable fan base; the same thing doesn't seem to be happening with Beautiful Creatures and the film isn't strong enough to draw in a large group of those who aren't fans beforehand. Richard LaGravenese has a solid pedigree (he was nominated for an Oscar as the writer of The Fisher King) but his script is likely to play to the converted and, while that's fine for YA titans, it's less certain for a lower profile title. The weaknesses of Beautiful Creatures ultimately outweigh the strengths but the conviction of the central relationship is good enough to keep things from becoming laughably bad, even if it all comes apart toward the end.
Beautiful Creatures (United States, 2013)
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
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