Van Helsing Movie Review
The summer season begins. For some, that is good news, and for others, it is a sign to stay away from theaters until October. Van Helsing is almost entertaining enough to satisfy the former group. Almost.
To begin things, Van Helsing is written and directed by Stephen Sommers, who, really, is not that good of a director. While he is fairly decent at making entertaining movies, he really sucks when it comes to making any kind of high-quality film. The computer graphics that accompany his movies usually fall into the category of being very extravagant but not very realistic. Someone else should write his screenplays. Oh, and if you don't know who Sommers is, he is the one that made it big with The Mummy, then obliterated his reputation with The Mummy Returns and eventually made The Scorpion King, a spin-off that was much better but still lacked much substance.
To be fair, I liked The Mummy and The Scorpion King. Sommers intentionally builds camp into his movies, and these two had a fair amount of cheesiness without going over the top. Still, just because the movies are decent does not mean that the director is the best choice - his over-use of CGI along with some really imaginative (that's not a good thing) action sequences can gnaw at even the most open-minded of individuals. Some people usually become upset when critics ravage a movie for being simple and entertaining but not deep; I like a fun action movie as much as the next person, but there's a limit to what I can handle.
In Van Helsing, Sommers does a fairly good job of keeping the story moving at an extremely fast pace and blasting the audience with action, but a little more content and a little less over-the-top action would have been very nice. There is hardly a moment in the entire film that a monster isn't coming out of somewhere, but is that really what we want? A frenetic, fast-paced action movie is typically good, but by the end, after having seen so much CGI action, things begin to get a little dull.
Basically, at the end, Sommers did what he did at the end of The Mummy Returns, and that is have a lot of special effects and not much else. We have Dracula fighting the Wolf-Man (or some incarnation of the Wolf-Man), Kate Beckinsale swinging impossibly long distances over impossibly deep cliffs and so on and so forth; it just is a bit much. It is one thing to be intentionally cheesy, but somehow I doubt that Sommers believes that he is being as cheesy as he is.
There are two things that really bothered me in this movie. One, the rope swinging. There is so much cheesy escapades on ropes that I felt as though I were watching a circus. Just about every character jumps and grabs a rope, swings on a rope or does something else with a rope; very little of it is even remotely believable. The scene where Kate Beckinsale swings from one castle tower to the next (what, a quarter-mile distance?) and grabs a vial that is tossed to her mid-swing is especially bad.
The other really bad scene is actually shown in the previews, where the horses - pulling a carriage, no less - jump over an impossibly wide gap in a bridge. Somehow, these horses are able to rise up and make the leap, but it just looks stupid.
Another problem with Van Helsing is the acting. While acting is not all that important for a film like this, the actors are quite excruciating to listen to at times. More than anything else, the blame should be laid on the script, but the actors aren't all that great, either. Kate Beckinsale isn't very effective as our lead heroine, and Richard Roxburgh as Dracula is a bit over-the-top (he has the goofy accent and everything). David Wenham, who played the very heroic Faramir in The Lord of the Rings, is funny but not spectacular as Carl, Van's sidekick. As for Hugh Jackman, who has the lead, he isn't anything special. Some people have hyped him as the next best thing - while I think he has the potential to be huge, I do not feel that he has lived up to it yet. He is great as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, but in his other films, he has just been ordinary. It is the same here.
On the other hand, there are some things that I really liked. Dracula's brides are very effective, although at times they too are a bit cheesy when laughing or hissing. Frankenstein is especially well done - it is the most creative Frankenstein I've seen to date. Van Helsing's weapons are also quite neat.
As a summer action movie, Van Helsing is fairly entertaining. Still, I dare Sommers to make a movie that does not rely on (often-times cheesy) special effects to make his movies. The CGI gets in the way more than anything else, and the sooner Sommer realizes this, the sooner he'll be able to make something that is really worthwhile.
DVD Review (C)
If you are a big fan of Van Helsing - and I doubt you are - then you may want to purchase the DVD, but for the rest of us, a rental will be more than enough. Van Helsing was an entertaining if not ultimately so-so film and the special features do little to enhance the experience.
On top of the first level from the Xbox game (of course, only Xbox owners can play it), two different commentary tracks and some DVD-rom features, the special features include a 360-degree exploration of Dracula's castle, outtakes and three differente featurettes. Most notably, I was extremely disappointed by the "Explore Dracula's Castle" feature. Honestly, when I read the description I thought that I would be able to navigate through the castle, go into various rooms and find all kinds of neat things. In reality, it is nothing more than a very rigid program that never lets you "explore" the castle. The motion isn't fluid and cheesy narration adds little to the effect.
"The Legend of Van Helsing" is equally uninteresting. This featurette claims to look at the evolution of the character of Van Helsing over the last hundred years, but after a short introduction that takes a look at previous theatrical versions of the character, it quickly becomes nothing more than another format to talk about Hugh Jackman. Little insight is given into "the evolution" of the character.
"Bringing the Monsters to Life" is a better featurette; it takes a look at the visual effects process. These are usually very interesting and this one is no different, as the entire movie is basically CGI. It is most interesting to hear some of the crew talk about how these special effects are better than anything out there, when, in reality, they don't even come close to, say, Lord of the Rings.
"You Are in the Movie" also gives a slightly unique look at the movie as we view various scenes through "behind-the-scenes" cameras that have been placed in random areas on the set. It is sort of fun watching the actors and the crew do their work simultaneously, though I don't think these secret cameras make the interesting featurette the studio was hoping for.
The visual effects featurette and the outtakes are worth taking a look at, but otherwise the special features are nothing to scream about. The castle exploration feature is especially disappointing.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.