BELATED MOVIE REVIEW: "The League of Extrordinary Gentlemen" (2003)

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I've seen this movie on TV a lot in the last month, and my hate for it runs so hot that I suddenly realized I needed to review it. For the record, I don't hate Trek, though I talk trash about it a lot, it mostly just bores me. I don't hate Galactica, though I am mad at it and disappointed by it at the moment, and we're not talking, but I imagine eventually that'll pass. But I hate, hate, hate this movie. Alas, it's a big-budget A-list film, so I'm reviewing it here rather than in my normal B-movie crapfest feature.

I mean, seriously, who would have thought that a movie about Alan Quartermain, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo, Tom Sawyer, Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde, an invisible man, and a vampire chick could be so boring? By simple virtue of the fictional personages involved, this should have been a fascinating movie even if all they did was sit in a café and argue about the meaning of life for two hours. Think of it as 'My Dinner With Victorian Fantasy.' Alas, such is not to be. Instead, it's two hours of semi-illiterate posturing, plotless adventure, muddy special effects, clueless direction, and anachronisms that would make even a bad episode of The Wild Wild West seem replete with trenchant insights.

Of course this was predictable. This movie is the bottom of a slippery slope of movie tradition that includes such spiritual forbearers as "Jessie James Vs. Dracula," "Jessie James Vs. Frankenstein," "Abbot and Costello meet the Wolfman," and the recent "Rugrats go Wild." Cross-pollinating unrelated franchises on the big screen is a longstanding tradition, almost always with bad, bad, bad results. Even so, I had hopes. Not high ones, but hopes just the same because at root, I'm a geek who's sat through too many B-movies in my lifetime, and I've read way too much Victorian Science Fiction.

To fully understand the disappointment of this movie, it's important to give you a little backstory, which seems only fair since the film itself gives practically none: The audience is expected to know who these people are already and give a damn. Nice conceit, but let's remember that this is America in the summer of 2003; this is a movie aimed at teenagers. How many kids today have really read H.G. Wells? I mean honestly? Hell, even I have a hard time getting through his stuff – the man is boring! Even by comparison to his peers, he's dull. But I digress…

There is one principle difference between Science Fiction of the Victorian Era and that of today, and that is 'immediacy.' In modern times, it's conventional to set our SF adventures in 'the future', a nebulous time and space in which the fantastic elements of the story seem plausible. In the 19th century, however, it was the overwhelming trend to set stories in the then-present. In other words, if Verne's "From the Earth to the Moon" was published in 1865, then it damn well took place in 1865, give or take a year either way, and the text of the book incorporates very slice-of-life 1865 concerns. For instance, in "Moon", the entire space program is started by the Baltimore Gun Club, a bunch of Civil War Army Engineers who have nothing to do in the aftermath of the War Between The States, and decide to go to the Moon simply because it will occupy their time and energies. Likewise, Wells' "War of the Worlds" is set very solidly in the late 1890s in which it was published. If there was tension between French and English empires, as so often happened in the 19th century, then you could be sure such tensions would be reflected – sometimes in great detail – in H.R. Haggard's Quartermain series, or E.R. Burrough's Tarzan (Which is backdated Victorian fantasy).

The idea was pretty much the opposite of our modern conceit regarding sf: to get the audience to accept your implausible notion about Submarines/Travel to the Moon/a Hollow World/Invaders from Mars/whatever, you had to firmly mire your story in the conventions of modern life and then, when you'd established 'business as usual' for your readers, only then would you spring the marvels of precocious technology on them. Usually this includes a lot of exposition to make the heretofore-unthought-of seem plausible. Verne did this the most: he goes on for pages describing the drive system for the Nautilus, and has an entire chapter dedicated to the math for shooting the Columbiad to the moon (Which, incidentally, he botched. Subsequent editions corrected his math for him.)

Having said that, here's the publishing dates for the characters that this movie pilfers from:

1. Bram Stoker's Dracula: 1897

2. Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea: 1869 (The sequel, "Mysterious Island" was published in 1873, picks up almost immediately after 'Leagues' ends, takes place in "October of 1865")

3. Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey: 1891

4. Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Occurrence of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde: 1886

5. H.G. Wells' Invisible Man: 1897

6. "Mark Twain's" Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: 1876

7. H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines: 1886 (Though it's only fair to mention that this was a series of books that went through the 1880s and into the 1890s.)

Although not appearing in the movie, Phienas Fogg from "Around the World in 80 Days" (1872) gets a name check, and there's a rather curious appearance by a character from the Sherlock Holmes stories, which were first published in 1891, and the series continued until 1927 or so. You'll notices that the bulk of these stories tend to cluster in or around the 1890s. It really was a kind of a literary 'movement.'

Ok, so getting back to the movie, it's set in 1899. This gives us a couple problems that are not immediately apparent: Dracula was dispatched only two years before. Captain Nemo hasn't been seen in thirty-four years. Jeckyl and Hyde's rampages (Which seemed pretty much ended at the end of the book) have apparently been going on for 13 years. The Invisible Man has been dead two years (Though the movie takes pains to let us know that this invisible man isn't the same one from Wells' book, but merely a thief who stole the formula. Why they should be sticklers about that, but play loose and fast with other characters remains a mystery to me.) Tom Sawyer should be about thirty-six or so. No way of knowing how old Dorian Grey is – the story doesn't give us any fixed dates – however the tale is solidly Victorian from start to finish, so it's conceivable that he's merely as young as seventy or so, but he could be older. The movie implies he's much older – a couple hundred years or so.

I don't remember Mina Harker becoming a vampire, but I could be wrong about that. But even if she is undead, she's only been that way for a mere couple of years. This movie implies that she's been that way for a long time, decades at least. Also, inexplicably, she's a scientist. Dunno where they got that from, but evidently vampires have to have hobbies. Peta Wilson, who I've never been much of a fan of, plays the character as vaguely cat-like and alluring, but this doesn't work well: vampire as vamp vixen. Been there, done that, worn the t-shirt – I've just seen it done too many times. No one has any unease or sense of dread around her. Curiously, she can go out during the day, and does so several times. As the Republispouse pointed out, Mina Harker has more in common with Anne Rice's vampires than she does the traditional bloodsuckers of yore. A nice touch may have been addressing her relative 'newbie' status as a vampirette, still coming to grips with her lack of humanity, but that would require more familiarity with the book, and Victorian lit in general, than the producers of this movie obviously have.

The stuff the producers of this movie don't know could fill a book. Certainly it'll fill up this review.

One of the movie's most striking departure from form - the one most people decry - is actually not one: this movies' take on Captain Nemo. He's a Kali-worshiping Hindu, and not James Mason. On the face of it, this seems a pretty big liberty: Verne's Nemo was a man from an unspecified European country who had intentionally obscured his past. In this movie, Nemo is a retired, semi-repentant pirate. In the book, Nemo was a scientist who's wife and child were brutally murdered by the government of his country in their attempt to force Nemo to build newer and better weapons for them. Nemo is an idealist. He built the Nautilus and targets only warships, in his ongoing personal battle to try and end war completely. He's sworn never to set foot on dry land again until he's won. Many people complain becase un this movie, there's none of that. I totally agree that those elements rob the character, but I don't have a problem with his sudden race-change. (I hear they do that sort of thing in Thailand now) Verne did that himself. See, in the first book, Nemo was pretty clearly Polish, and the oppressing country was Russia. Verne's books sold well in Russia, so Verne's publisher told him Ixnay on the Ussianray Ashingbay. When the time came to write a sequel, Nemo was suddenly an Indian and the oppressing country was England, since Verne's books didn't sell as well there.

In the book - both books, really - the Nautilus' only weapon is it's ram – it rams ships to sink them, the torpedo having not been thought up yet. In the movie, the Nautilus launches missiles, evidently ICBMs. In the book, the Nautilus is powered by a fairly clever reciprocal coal engine and electrolysis which Verne goes on about at some length. In the movie, we're told she's solar powered (Really a very bad idea for a submarine that would be underwater and hence blocked from the sun for most of the time). In the book, Nemo is pretty solidly middle-aged, which, in 1899 would make him 70 or 80 or so, however, in the movie he's perhaps 50. Perhaps. In the book, the Nautilus was not that huge: perhaps 150 to 200 feet with a crew of 24 or so. The 1950s Disney Movie with James Mason as Nemo caught that feeling perfectly. In this movie, the Nautilus is huge. Seriously huge, much larger than any submarine that has ever sailed. The thing is at least the size of an aircraft carrier, and yet it's able to sail up the seine to Paris, and cruise through the tiny canals of Venice, and ride a river all the way to Mongolia. One wonders if the damn thing has wheels on the bottom to help it over the shallow bits. Clearly one of the many things that the producers of this film knew nothing about (even though clearly Jules Verne did) is submarines.

Mister Hyde is transformed into a poor man's version of the Hulk. This is a case of simply doing something because you can, not because it makes any kind of sense. However they manage to handle this in an offhand way with far more eloquence than that same summer's actual Hulk movie does: Jeckyl and Hyde have imaginary conversations with each other. Jeckyl sees Hyde's reflection whenever he looks in a mirror, likewise, whenever Hyde catches his reflection, it's Jeckyl he sees. This is nicely done, and provides glimmers of the good stuff this movie could have aspired to. "You want it, Jeckyl," Hyde says regarding the transformation to Id, "More than you want her, you want it." A simple realization like that could have saved us two hours of the big green guy stomping around in Ang Lee's movie. Indeed, the two halves of Jeckyl and Hyde actually manage to come to a kind of rapprochement of sorts, even though this is only to save (both) their life (Lives.) "Let's not make a saint out of a sinner, folks, he may not be so helpful next time," Jeckyl later says. This is in keeping with the spirit of Stevenson's original, and quite well done.

Much has been said of how Dorian Grey appears to be trying to channel the as-yet unborn spirit of Johnny Depp, and I'd pretty much go along with that. Grey comes across as a bored, immortal playboy, a prissy fop who sashays around even in the middle of a swordfight, and manages to stop just barely this side of faggy. I'm unclear if the inspiration was Percy Shelly's whole romantic ethos, or perhaps a sly look at Oscar Wilde's own open homosexuality, but Dorian is one of the movie's better performances. "What are you?" one assailant asks him while dying. "I'm complicated," he breezes as the man passes on.

Tom Sawyer seems to have lost any boyhood charm he may have once had. He's too young to be in this movie anyway, but if Tom met Alan Quartermain, one might have imagined them to hit it off well, swapping stories of Tom's adventures on the Mississippi and Alan's on the Nile and so forth. But no: we see none of this. Sawyer, I'm told, is not in the comic book that this movie is based on. He was tacked on to the movie to appeal to American audiences, and it shows. There wasn't even a token attempt to make Tom even remotely southern (He's from Missourah, y'all!), instead he owes more to Owen Wilson from Shanghai Noon than he does to Twain's book. Actually, that wouldn't have been so bad, really. I like Owen Wilson. Sawyer is passed off as a surrogate son for Connery/Quartermain, who's real offspring died offscreen several years prior to the outset of the film. Their total lack of chemistry really makes me pine for other B-movies, like Highlander (1985), where Connery seemed to make the surrogate son thing work so easily. Here, well…no such luck.

Mark Twain once said he was going to write two mutually contradictory and sequels to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: one in which Tom became President of the United States, and another in which he was hung for horse thievery. Clearly the third option presented in this movie – a cheesy Xerox copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of James T. West, US Secret Service – is one Twain would probably not have approved of.

Now, as I said, this is based on a Comic Book which I'd never heard of prior to the media blitz for movie started back in '03. I've made no attempt to read it, since I tend to judge movies based on books – comic or otherwise – unduly harshly, and I figured it would be better for me to go into this one blind back in the day. I'm assuming that some of these liberties taken with the characters are explained in the book. However, the author, who wrote "The Watchmen" and "Killing Joke" is well known for re-thinking beloved pre-existing characters, and generally does so interestingly. Nemo's race-change seems consistent with his traditional Modus Operandi, and I don't find it nearly so disturbing as some have, simply because most of the people complaining about it obviously haven't read "Mysterious Island," the sequel to "20,000 Leagues," but I have. Seriously, folks, of all the many many many many things to complain about in this flick, that isn't one of 'em. Strange how people obsess without bothering to try and figure it out, isn't it?

Basically, what we've got here is a sort of strip mining of late Victorian characters, which should make for a very nice absurdist play, but which instead is a near-mindless adventure movie which inadvertently functions as a capstone to several franchises that were deliberately left open-ended back in the day.

The plot is pure froth: a deformed, masked madman called "The Fantom" (sic) brings the world to the brink of war by staging a fake German attack on a London bank, and a fake English attack on a Berlin zeppelin factory. Each side accuses the other, and appear willing to start World War I fifteen years early. In Kenya, an aging, dispirited Alan Quartermain is recruited and sent to London, where he meets a man named "M." (At first I took this for nothing more than a James Bond in-joke, but I was wrong.) M – evidently not the same M who had a big hit with the song 'Pop Music' in 1979 – tells Alan that there is a secret League of Extraordinary Gentlemen that has been convened in times of great peril to use their singular skills to save the Empire. This is done in a large gaslit library with lots of Masonic symbols all around, so I guess we're supposed to take it at face value. Already recruited in this incarnation of the league are Nemo and an (but not the) invisible man, and Mina Harker.

They take Nemo's car to go pick up Dorian Grey. This is a pretty bitchin' ride, it makes the batmobile look like a beater. Seriously, it's the coolest car I've seen in a movie since Alec Baldwin's kick-ass Taxi in "The Phantom." This thing looks a bit like a roadster version of a mid-30s Rolls Royce Phantom on mega-steroids. It's cool. It's also completely out of place. Aside from some filigree on the front bumper, there's nothing to make this look at all Victorian. It just looks like a cool car from the 30s. So although they came up with a sweet car for Nemo to cruise around and pick up chicks in, they completely failed to utilize the 'victorianize' it. Nor is it noticeably Indian in design or affect. But it's sweet.

They pick up Grey, then board the Nautilus, which appears able to hide in the Thames. This is just stupid. The sub violates the laws of displacement every single time we see it. It's also not at all streamlined, and looks rather like a rapier-blade. This, too, is completely non-Victorian in look. As opposed to Disney's intentionally claustrophobic Nautilus from the 50s, which was all brass lions and huge steel bulkheads and drive shafts and air vents crammed in every bit of available space, this one looks and feels like the inside of a good Indian restaurant. Never for one instant did it feel like we were inside a huge warship.

Then it's off to Paris to pick up Jeckyl and Hyde, and then off to Venice to stop The Fantom (sic) from blowing up the city his final masterstroke to begin his World War. Despite being a thousand or so feet long, the Nautilus is able to negotiate the narrow canals of Venice with no real difficulty. No sooner are they there when the bomb goes off and the city starts to sink. Everyone who's seen the movie seems confused about what happens next, but I'm pretty sure I've got it straight, so I'll explain it to y'all: Quartermain and Nemo immediately reason that there's only one bomb, and the city is sinking because of the 'shockwave effect.' If they can get ahead of the shockwave, and blow up a key building, it will create a chasm the shockwave can't jump, and the city on the far side of the building will be safe. Pretty much anyone on the other side of it will be S.O.L. of course. Tom Sawyer takes Nemo's car which he can drive despite the fact that he's only seen it once before, and that from outside, and careens around the streets of Venice (Which doesn't have any streets) rushing to outrun the shock wave while Nemo tracks him so he can get coordinates to launch his ICBM that will then save the city. Simple, right? Got it? Good. In the process, Sawyer trashes Nemo's car, which is as close as this movie comes to evoking an emotion from me: truly, it was a bitchin' ride. Sad to see it go.

Ok, so by this point I already knew who The Fantom (sic) really was. How did I know? I don't really know. Probably it's just because I've seen too many bad movies in my life. Maybe it was because every reviewer has drawn attention to M. in the beginning of the movie, a very small part to draw attention to, indeed. Maybe it was just that the movie kept fairly stinking of the fact that it was going to betray the League. Who knows. In any event, I already knew that the bad guy was M. I honestly think I knew that before the movie had even started.

Anyway, when Connery saves Venice (Sort of – it looked like about 3/4ths of it sank into the sea), M. gets away, and Dorian Grey is revealed as a traitor from within. He steals a goofy-looking hubcap-buzz saw mobile from one side of the Nautilus and takes off. ("My Exploration Pod!" exclaims Nemo, "I intend to catch it!") At this point the movie had become so ludicrous that I was half-expecting the freakin' Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to pop out, but no. I can not express how goofy looking this "Exploration Pod" is. If the Nautilus itself makes no nautical sense in this movie, it's because it's the product of a Production Designer who's more interested in looks than in logic. Well, if that is true, then the "Exploration Pod" must be the work a production designer who is completely unaware of the existence of water itself.

But I digress.

Nemo gives chase. A phonograph record is found on the sub which explains M.'s evil scheme: he wants to start a war and sell weapons to all sides, thus making a fortune. He'll also sell the secrets of the League itself – invisibility formula, hulk – er – Hyde formula, the schematics of the Nautilus, etc. In fact, there never even was a League prior to this one, he made the whole thing up. Then bombs go off, and the Nautilus sinks, but Mr. Hyde gets in touch with his feminine side and saves the day, and they head off to kill M. and Dorian, sailing all the way to Mongolia (Which is completely landlocked.)

A bunch of fighting ensues, with the typical face-offs between the members of the team and their counterparts, all intercut together. This looses points since we haven't met any of these counterparts except for M prior to the actual battle, so it's not like we're aware of who these people are that the League is fighting or anything. Aside from a pretty funny fight between Doran and Mina, who are both immoral and invulnerable ("We'll be at this all day!") It doesn't matter. It's really only to fill time until the final face off between Quartermain and M. The invisible man burns to death.

Ok, so I knew who M. was, evidently by psychic precognition, before the movie began. Fine. But I don't pretend to know the significance of why M. was the villain. Textbook script writing says you have to reveal this in a one-two punch kinda' thing: halfway through the movie, reveal that Goodguy A is actually Badguy B. Then, in the climax, again pull the rug out from under the audience by revealing that Badguy B is in actuality Significant Person C. Then kill him.

I confess to not having any idea who the identity of 'Significant Person C' was, but I knew it was coming. Structure of B movies demanded it. I was sort of anticipating it being one of Hitler's ancestors or something like that, but I was wrong. Honest to God, when I first saw this film in the theaters seven years ago, I started laughing so hard that I missed the next couple lines of dialog: Quartermain snuck up behind M, put a gun to his neck and said, "That will be quite enough, M. Or should I say Professor James Moriarity?"

Forget that there are no scenes of Quartermain sleuthing this out, no clues about it whatsoever. Beyond that, there is absolutely nothing about the plot of this movie that would require the essential Moriarityness of the bad guy. Other than strip-mining another Victorian character, it served no purpose.

Honestly, it would have been every bit as random and useless and nonsensical if Connery had said, "That will be quite enough, M. Or should I say Kaiser Von Bismarck?" or perhaps "That will be quite enough, M. Or should I say King David Bar Jesse, famed tenth-century BC ruler of Ancient Israel?" So, his identity revealed, what does Moriarity do? Does he gloat about Holmes – 'I schooled his ass reeeeel good!' – or say anything of interest? No, just babbles about surviving the fall from the falls (Which actually probably hadn't happened yet, since this story is set in 1899) and on about how he'll just rebuild his factory after he defeats the League. Dullsville.

After an interminably long fight, Quartermain is stabbed and Sawyer kills Moriarity, and the world is saved. Well, until 1914, anyway. As Quartermain dies, he – Sean Connery, Sir Sean Connery, Knight of the freakin' British Empire – tells Sawyer that the future is his, and by extension, Americas, and that it's pretty much over for England. By way of denouement, Nemo mentions his desire to go and 'see the world.' Suddenly the Invisible Man shows up, surprisingly not dead and evidently not even burned.

The end.

Technical stuff:

Performances are, on the whole, pretty good. Sean Connery is actually pretty believable and likeable as the world-weary Alan Quartermain, a man who's outlived every one he cared about, and really doesn't want to go on living, but doesn't know what else to do. It's actually vaguely reminiscent of his performance as the disillusioned, middle-aged, war-weary Robin Hood in the excellent, and overlooked "Robin and Marian" (1974). Jeckyl, as I say, is nicely done, with a twitchyness that suggests something akin to a drug addict. Nemo is interesting simply for his odd presence that is completely unexplored. Dorian is interesting as a very bored libertine. Conversely, Tom Sawyer is just awful, as is the Invisible Man. Mina is simply there. She's got a nice rack, but no presence. She should go back to made-for-cable TV shows.

Direction on this movie is really weak, particularly in the action sequences, where it's hard to tell what's going on, even if it's just two people fighting. Every action sequence in this movie takes place at night, or in a darkened room. This is just a gloomy looking movie, presumably to hide the shamefully bad CGI (The explosion of the explorer's club in Africa is particularly embarrassing) and miniature work (Venice is particularly cheesy, as is a cyclorama view of London).

It's confusing about Venice itself. As I said, Venice has no streets, and at no time in 1899 did 4/5ths of Venice sink into the sea. Or are we supposed to believe that Venice was once five times larger than it is now? And that portion had roads? Go figure. It's just sloppy storytelling is what it is. And using all these characters opens up a grab bag of logical problems: for instance, Verne wrote "From The Earth To The Moon" in 1865, and as we all know, the world was invaded by Martians in 1897. Did those things happen in the universe of this movie? Or are we picking and choosing. (Incidentally, "Dispatches from the Front" is a series of really good short stories set during the '97 Martian invasion, involving real-life characters like Teddy Roosevelt et al. Worth a look, if you can find it.)

Finally, we come to the subject of wonder, and this movie's utter lack thereof. The appeal of the writings of Verne, Wells, Burroughs, et al was in their unabashed, wide-eyed wonder in things that didn't exist yet, but were plausible and likely. Their enduring charm is not that they were accurate, but that they were such faulty prognosticators. Yes, Verne sent people to the moon from Florida, but he used a 900 foot long cannon to do it. Yes, he had a submarine as an effective war machine, but he had absolutely no weapons on it, and could only ram his enemies. These remain fun because they got wrong more than they got right, and this reveals a naïve but charming mindset.

By contrast, this movie shows us cars, submarines, phonographs, and missiles, and expects us to be impressed by stuff that is passé in our own world. Not only does it not show us anything amazing, it doesn't show us anyone being amazed by the stuff they're seeing. Nor does it take any opportunities to cast an authentic late 19th-century sheen on the subject matter. The Wild Wild West (The TV Show, not the awful movie) did a better job of showing 19th century spies encountering 'futuristic' technology and being flummoxed by it.

So in the end the film leaves barely a ripple in the mind to mark it's passing, despite its aggressive ignorance and singleminded determination to insult its audience. Honestly, it would be hard to build a worse big-budget film if you tried.

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