It would be unfair to dismiss Beautiful Creatures out of hand, just because it’s been released at a time when the dust has barely settled around the Twilight saga. Based on a (nother) series of supernatural romance novels targeted at young adults, it might appear as yet another attempt to clone the massively successful franchise, which ended last year with Breaking Dawn Part 2.
Look at the production output of Summit Entertainment, the house that Twilight built. They’ve recently distributed Warm Bodies, as a more snarky take on the sub-genre, and they have The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones coming up in the summer. It’s all uncomfortably reminiscent of the scramble that followed The Lord Of The Rings, which gave us fantasy franchise non-starters like Eragon and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising.
This is more memorable for what it is than any of those films, and the first big difference from Twilight is that it comes as something of an inversion of that formula, at least as far as gender roles are concerned. In the backwater town of Gatlin, which has twelve churches and one library, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a high-school student who’s plagued by dreams of a mysterious girl.
That girl might just be Lena Duchannes, (Alice Englert) who arrives in town when she moves in with her reclusive uncle, Macon (Jeremy Irons). Ethan is quite immediately besotted, and in the course of hanging out with her, he discovers that she and her uncle are Casters (don’t call them witches) and as such, are imbued with magical powers.
More pressingly, Lena is just a few short months away from her sixteenth birthday, and she’s reminded of this by a magical tattoo on her wrist, counting down the days. At this landmark, a female Caster is claimed by either the light or the dark, and with an ancient curse on the female line, Macon fears that the romance between Lena and the mortal Ethan could tip his niece into evil, and bring about an age of darkness for all Casters.
The killer first half of Beautiful Creatures does all of the heavy lifting, to get you engaged in the story beyond the surface similarities to any other movies. A big part of that is our introduction to Gatlin, and its deeply religious and conservative populace. There are lots of nice little background details inserted by writer-director Richard LaGravenese, to firmly establish how a teenager could go crazy here, especially when that teenager is as well read and thoughtful as Ethan.
While he pores over books that have been banned by the state, from Harper Lee to Charles Bukowski, he’s press-ganged into annual Civil War re-enactments, and the only social option is a movie theatre that screens such hot new releases as ‘INTERCEPTION, starring Leo DeCaprio’. The religious element in the townspeople proves cumbersome too, and is epitomised by Emma Thompson’s wickedly over-the-top Mrs. Lincoln.
When Lena comes into this setting, she’s the buoy that Ethan clings onto, lest he be submerged in the town’s boring superficiality and hypocrisy. It also helps that there’s some dynamite chemistry between Ehrenreich and Englert, a far cry from the tepid moping between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Englert’s performance, in particular, should be a real breakthrough.
In one liaison between the two leads, Lena gets excited and sets a road sign on fire with a lightning bolt, in the throes of some passionate macking. And so, quite aside from being more literate and engaging than most of its forerunners, it’s less chaste and more cheeky than other PG-13 entries to the genre, addressing the audience on their own level.
There’s also a refreshing lack of naivete. Ethan’s narration talks about how he’s getting out of Gatlin as soon as he can, and has applied at colleges all over. In one stand-out scene, Macon enchants him to tell his real future, which has a much more depressing ending. It’s a scene that neatly fits in with the theme of the film. You can divert your apparent destiny, but it’s going to take work, and sacrifice- this isn’t one of those films where love alone is enough to save our heroes.
The stakes are always very clear too, but from the early set-up, you might expect that Lena’s struggle with the impending decision over her future would be troubled even further by some kind of witch-hunt. The seeds are sown for that early on, with Lena being ostracised in high-school- the townsfolk believe that she and her family are Satanists.
However, it never really goes that way. Although Thompson’s Mrs. Lincoln continues to have an antagonistic role throughout, it’s not in the way you might expect, and Lena makes the distinctly un-cinematic choice to try and avert her fate by reading ancient texts for a good part of the second act.
The second half goes awry by absorbing some of the tropes and character types seen in Twilight. The introduction of her extended family is particularly similar to the increasing prominence of the Cullens, and it draws focus away from the more entertaining aspects of the opening movements. As the wicked pace slows to more of a dawdle, the film extends past the two-hour mark, and it starts to test the goodwill that was generated in the beginning.
The film is based on the first book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, but its main strength is that, for the most part, it feels self-contained and self-assured, rather than keeping one eye on a sequel. Granted, by the time the credits roll, the door is left open for more. But there’s no great story-arc being set up. It’s a good thing too, because judging by the film’s box office performance in its opening weekend, this probably isn’t going to be the next big series.
An enjoyable first half gives way to a more disappointing limp to the finish, but there’s more than enough to recommend Beautiful Creatures to those who are jonesing for a couple to fill the void left by Edward and Bella, as well as people who were left cold by Twilight. LaGravanese’s script is witty and neatly observed, and the formidable cast make it all the more watchable, even when the story lingers over less interesting details.
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