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Non-Review Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a wasted opportunity. The superb graphic novels by Alan Moore are among the best that comics have to offer, and even the basic concept of picking a variety of public domain character to base an action adventure around has a sort of pulpy thrill to it. It could have been a very witty and a very clever film, or it could have just been an effective big-budget blockbuster. In the end, unfortunately, the film is neither – it ends up feeling more like a waste of effort for all involved.

I feel like shredding this film...

From the outset, it’s clear that this is not Alan Moore’s version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Indeed, it’s sort of the exact opposite. Moore’s take on the essembled cast members – including hunter Quartermain, Mina Harker, Doctor Jekyll, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man – was one designed to deconstruct the romanticism of colonial British fiction. The great white hunter was a hopeless opium addict and a poor leader, the Invisible Man was a rapist and traitor, Captain Nemo was a morally ambiguous pirate with blood on his hands.

These were great icons of fiction, but to Moore they were all very flawed and damaged characters, living in a time that bred monsters. Even Mina Harker stood for all those poor victimised women in pulp fiction like this (used as a pawn between Dracula and her husband), although she proved to be the most effective member of the group without any gifts or powers, against a sexist and misogynistic backdrop. Of course, the film “fixes”this by giving her super vampire powers (because a poor woman couldn’t be expected to hold her own, could she?) and making Quartermain the leader. Huzzah for progress! The key theme seems to have been that we tend to look back with rose-tinted glasses and forget what a horrible place the turn of the century must have been.

Let me put my face on...

The film, on the other hand, adopts the opposite philosophical opinion. It’s a movie that lauds the past and fears the future, without any hint of the subversive charm or questioning attitude that made Moore’s work such a joy to read. In the film, the group are assembled to stop a mad man preparing futuristic weapons (like tanks and automatic machine guns and body armour), as if they are clearly fighting to preserve the sort of classic values of the time. It’s a far more conservative film, anchored in the idea that the past was some kind of utopia, and that we’ve lost something in moving from then to now.

There’s a moment, near the end of the film, where the villain proclaims, “You can’t kill the future!” You can guess what our heroes manage to do. The film seems to only grudgingly acknowledge that times change, striking a note of bitter sadness as the British Quartermain tells the American Tom Sawyer, “May this new century be yours, son, as the old one was mine.”None-too-subtle symbolism abounds, but none of it seems to fit with the core point of Moore’s take. In short, the film seems to lament the coming of a new dawn, and is genuinely terrified of the change that advancements bring. Not only is that diametrically opposed to the source material, it’s also depressing in its own right.

He came, he saw-yered, he conquered...

Indeed, there’s every reason for the film to regret the fact that times change. According to the movie, the nineteenth century got quite the ripe deal when it came to pulp heroes. Quartermain and his crew represent the sort of paragons of virtue that would make most comic book superheroes blush. In fact, the most aggressive accusation Quartermain throws at the Invisible Man is quite telling. “Skinner,” he begins, “I didn’t know that you were such a bare-faced liar.” Dramatic pause. “All that time pretending you weren’t a hero?” See what he did there? He implied that the character’s greatest flaw was that he was hiding how damn heroic he was!

It’s perhaps the most telling moment, but there are plenty. By the climax of the film, the Victorian monster Mister Hyde is in full-scale heroic mode, and there’s never any real indication that he’s just not some misunderstood puppy. There’s a passing reference to the Rue Mort, but he’s never presented as especially villainous throughout the film. After he saves the day the first time, Doctor Jekyll insists, “let’s not make a saint out of a sinner.”However, it’s hard to paint him as a sinner if the only evil or depraved things he has down are only passingly referenced and fleetingly brought up in exposition.

Whoever is responsible for this should be drawn and quartermained...

Then there’s Captain Nemo. On meeting him, Quartermain is surprised to discover that Nemo is part of the group, since he’s a pirate. “I prefer a less provocative title,” the Captain responds, and that’s really the end of that. Despite the sort of moral ambiguity that one might expect of a pirate (especially one with such advanced weaponry), he’s the very pinnacle of heroism for the rest of the film. In fact, he seems to have no major objection to banding together to save the British Empire. This take on him is positively romantic, and also stomach-churning.

This brings us to Quartermain. He really just seems like the stereotypical old-school Hollywood protagonist, to the point where using the name seems a little bit pointless. He’s retired until the latest threat pops its head up and then is in full swing. There are hints of cynicism in his dialogue, but none of this is borne out by his actions. “I’m not the man I once was,” he insists, despite leading a team of heroes and making various impossible shots. He claims to be living in the shadow of “mistakes that cost me someone dear”, but he doesn’t seem too bothered about it. His gruff demeanor and lack of faith in the British Empire isn’t a hint of subversion, but a very superficial trapping to an exceedingly conventional protagonist.

Finding Nemo... oh wait, there he is...

However, these are just the problems with the characters, none of whom really stand out. It’s a shame, because Sean Connery is always fun to watch, even when playing a boring character in a disappointing film, and Jason Flemying and Tony Curran seem to be giving it their best go. That said, I’m not sure Connery is $17m worth of good, but I’ll let it slide since it’s his last film. The problems with the film are far more fundamental than an exceedingly bland take on a collection of cultural icons, but perhaps they hint at some of the root causes.

The most obvious problem is how annoyingly superficial the film is. Moore’s fictional world was crafted with references both explicit and implicit with such depth that companion novels have been printed explaining each individual homage to another work. On the other hand, the movie just seems to enjoy throwing in all sorts of crass references that its audiences will get, expecting that to stand-in for depth. We’re supposed to laugh when the Invisible Man remarks of a dive, “This is a charming spot, does Jack the Ripper live here?” See, because there really was a Jack the Ripper? It’s supposed to be charming when Quartermain dismisses the Phantom’s alias as “very Operatic.” On being told he got to London in good time, Quartermain replies, “Not as good as Phileas Fogg.”Boom – to paraphrase Alec Baldwin, you just got meta-fictioned!

Nothing to Hyde...

The problem is that there’s no depth or subtext to these references. There’s no thematic resonance. There’s no way to look at the references and divine some sort of cleverly-observed point the movie was trying to make. It just clumsily jammed stuff in there because it thinks they belong. The problem is that none of it really resonates, and none of it helps to create a sense of scale or context for the adventure that we’re going on.

Even if the film passed up the opportunity to be as smart as its source material, it should still manage to be solidly entertaining, in a trashy pulpy sort of way. I mean, it’s the greatest pulp fiction heroes in the history of the printed world against a steampunk backdrop. How on earth do you mess up something like that? The film manages it with a sort of efficiency that would be endearing if it wasn’t so disappointing.

Snow good...

There are several problems, and most rest with the script or the key performers. The most obvious fact is that nothing is ever really as straightforward as it needs to be – there’s always tonnes of clunky exposition provided. There’s a great bit when Venice itself is collapsing, and our action heroes seem to debate what the most practical solution is. There’s a whole host of sequences like that, with lost of needless dialogue which exists to outline incredibly convoluted character or plot dynamics. Add to the fact that the plot isn’t exactly so complex that it needs such convoluted explanations, and you’ve got the root of your problem – the story is predictable and borderline trite, if only the cast did more than stand around and talk about it.

The movie also has a weak link with its villains. I won’t spoil their identities (they’re easy to guess), but I will note that they are two of the weaker performers in the ensemble cast – which is a shame. You’d imagine a big blockbuster like this could use a cheesy, scenery-chewing villain, but instead it seems that neither the script nor the performers have the energy to provide it. When the villain goes through the numbers to the point where they explain their villainous plan to the heroes even though (despite what the claim) “the game is not over”, simply so we can have even more exposition.

Perhaps they should have studied the source material...

It’s a shame, because there are some nice elements here, even if they don’t amount too much in the grand scheme of things. I love the production design. Even the CGI, which is hardly “polished”, looks cartoonish enough that it fits with the steampunk vibe – I especially like the Mister Hyde and Invisible Man effects. It feels like something almost self-aware, like something out of vintage Hollywood. It’s just a shame that everything happening within those surroundings is so damn generic. And, indeed, there are quite a few moments when the quaintness of the film leads to camp, like British police officers trying to baton a tank.

There are hints of some intelligence buried within the script, for example in the villain’s evil plan to duplicate the characters for his own personal gain. “He’s stolen us,” Jekyll remarks, “and we let him.” It seems to allude to the movie’s use of intellectual property, based around these iconic character who might have wandered into the public domain over the years. Perhaps there’s something questionable about taking these iconic characters and using them to make a profit, like the villain hopes to. Or perhaps it’s a commentary on how the original idea can be diluted by countless copies over the decades. “Anymore like me,” the Invisible Man suggests, “and I lose the franchise.” It’s a clever idea. It’s just a shame it doesn’t go anywhere.

And the people who made this attrocity get off Scot free..

It’s a wasted opportunity. Not just because of the source material, but because of the fantastic premise. Imagine a movie where Quartermain, Doctor Jekyll, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray, Tom Sawyer, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man fighting to save the world. No matter how idealistic or cynical your slant on it may be, it’s probably infinitely better than this.

Don’t let the terrible movie put you off reading the books, which are actually quite good. Check out our reviews of the Absolute Editions:

2 Responses

  1. Wasted opportunity indeed. I think what makes the comic so good is that Moore seems to grasp who these characters are and employs them truthfully enough as to respect the source material he’s borrowing from. Not so of the film, which makes Hyde into a big huggy teddy bear and, more inexplicably, gives Mina Harker kung fu skills and bad, stereotypical vampire characteristics. Every moment she has to do something is intolerably painful, and frankly I think a huge disservice to strong female characters competing in male-oriented entertainment. When I talk about the bizarre urge to “make women act like men”, this is one of the movies I specifically have in mind. It’s nauseating, and more implausible than the concept of vampirism itself.

    And Norrington directs it like he’s directing Blade, which makes it feel technically indistinct from that picture by retreading all of the tricks he used for it. It’s lazy and sloppy junk.

    • I think you’ve a point. Blade worked because it was really the first modern superhero film, even if it wasn’t seen as such by the general public. And Mina was treated appaulingly.

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