Hannibal (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's a safe bet that Ridley Scott's Hannibal is one of the most anticipated motion pictures of 2001. MGM, which owns the North American distribution rights, expects the film to have the biggest opening of any movie in the company's history (beating out The World Is Not Enough). It has taken ten years for the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs to reach the screen (much of the delay due to the length of time it took novelist Thomas Harris to pen the book), and, sadly, it's not worth the wait. Hannibal isn't a terrible movie, but it is a disappointment, and more than a small step down from the level of its predecessor.

Hannbal's journey from the printed page to celluloid has been a tumultuous one. Early on, Jonathan Demme (who directed Silence) bowed out. Producer Dino De Laurentiis replaced him with Ridley Scott. Soon after that, celebrated playwright David Mamet's script was rejected and Steven Zallian was brought in to do an overhaul (as a result of WGA rules, Mamet's name remains in the credits although none of the final product is his). Then, publicly citing a busy schedule while privately displeased with the screenplay, the original Clarice Starling, Jodie Foster, elected not to return. The role was re-cast, with Julianne Moore winning the sweepstakes. The only constant from The Silence of the Lambs to Hannibal is Anthony Hopkins. While that's a sizeable ace in the hole, the advantage doesn't turn out to be big enough.

Having seen Hannibal, I can understand why Jodie Foster wasn't interested. The Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs was a psychologically complex individual who remained squarely at the center of the storyline. Her relationship with Hannibal Lecter was endlessly fascinating, a game of mental chess between two evenly matched players who were drawn together by a perverse attraction. That Clarice is missing in action in Hannibal. The character has been emasculated and reduced to little more than a plot device. This is Lecter's movie; Clarice's role is secondary, and there's little in the way of interesting character development. Almost nothing is done with Silence's most compelling aspect, the Hannibal/Clarice relationship; these two have only a handful of scenes together. Julianne Moore, doing the best she can with the limited material, admirably fills her predecessor's shoes. It's just that Hannibal offers her a far less meaty bone to gnaw on than Silence gave to Foster.

Hopkins' Hannibal is as witty and urbane as ever, but even he seems diminished from his Silence persona. Perhaps it's that the shock value has worn off. Or perhaps it's that Scott and Hopkins have made a conscious decision to tone down Hannibal's creepiness factor. There's none of the slithering/slurping tongue action that was so imitated a decade ago. The Lecter of Hannibal is more of an anti-hero than a villain. Despite some of the heinous crimes he commits, we find ourselves rooting for him to get away in the end.

Hannibal begins with a lengthy prologue detailing Clarice's fall from grace within the FBI. Just when her career seems to be over, a mysterious benefactor comes to her rescue. He is Mason Verger (an uncredited Gary Oldman), whose "family's political contributions aren't enough to buy him a senator, but they are enough to rent one from time-to-time." Verger was one of Lecter's victims - he survived his encounter with the doctor, but at the price of a horribly disfigured face. Now, he wants Clarice back on the case because he plans to use her as bait. Meanwhile, in Florence, an Italian detective, Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini), has seen through Lecter's false identity and is plotting to turn him over to Verger in return for a $3 million reward. However, he, like so many others over the years, has underestimated the cunning of his quarry.

In a way, it should not come as a surprise that the psychological depth of Hannibal is so far below that of The Silence of the Lambs. Scott is known for visual artistry and storytelling prowess (both of which are evident in his three best-known works: Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator), but not character complexity. Consequently, the individuals wandering across Scott's landscape in Hannibal function as mere pawns for the director to move around as he sees fit. Secondary characters like Verger, Pazzi, and racist politician Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta) lack even a semblance of three-dimensionality. Actually, the only reason we see Clarice as a fleshed-out person is because we got to know her so well in The Silence of the Lambs.

Stylistically, Hannibal is everything one would expect from a Ridley Scott film. It doesn't have the claustrophobic feel of Silence, but that lack is compensated for with innovative shots and an abundance of gothic-drenched atmosphere. (My favorite moment is when Lecter turns from the camera and walks away with his cape billowing behind him. It's pure style.) One area where Scott goes over the top is in his frequent use of religious (specifically Christian) iconography, including a scene in which Hannibal appears like Christ on the cross. The problem is that there's no reason for this - ultimately, all of the Christian symbolism is meaningless. It doesn't contribute to the movie from a thematic or story-related perspective.

Hannibal is divided into three segments. The title character is absent from the first, which lasts about 30 minutes, and he and Clarice don't come face-to-face until the third. The bulk of the movie is devoted to Pazzi's pursuit of Hannibal - an activity that occasionally feels drawn-out and a little plodding. The ending, which has been somewhat altered from what happens in the book (a change initially made in a failed attempt to lure Foster to the project), is patently absurd. In fact, it's so off-the-wall (not to mention gory, albeit in a cartoonish way) that it's almost farcical, and it leaves a bad aftertaste. After waiting nearly two hours for the confrontation between Clarice and Hannibal, we are treated to...this. Nothing is more disheartening than the final fifteen minutes.

Fans of The Silence of the Lambs will surely flock to see Hannibal during its first weekend of release, and far be it from me to dissuade them. The movie is not a hack job - it contains moments of genuine suspense, always looks good, and has the virtue of Anthony Hopkins returning to the greatest role of his incredibly diverse career. But there's a lot missing from the sequel, and many of those absent elements are the things that differentiated Silence from so many run-of-the-mill serial killer thrillers. What's left is at times depressingly ordinary and almost never memorable.

Hannibal (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 2001-02-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1