...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Day 2499: The Dark is Rising


This film is SO POPULAR that EVERYONE in Great Britain has already seen it. Surely that is the ONLY explanation for me and my daddies being the only ones in Cinema One at our local multiplex for today's matinee!

[R: whispers]

Daddy tells me that it was at number SIX in the UK movie charts last week. So there must have been SOME cinemas even EMPTIER!

Here is Daddy Richard's review – since the book has been out since 1973, expect spoilers. Not that the plot has much to do with the book…
It ought to go without saying that the success of "The Lord of the Rings" and the "Harry Potter" movies was always going to spawn a slew of imitators, as other studios reach for the children's bookshelves in search of the next hit franchise.

"Star Wars" was followed by a generation of "space" movies – does anyone remember "Battle Beyond the Stars" or "The Last Starfighter"? The idea was that you could take a bevy of classy (but not too expensive) actors, play around with the new special effects and it would make a decent movie. Inevitably, it was always proved wrong.

Here, Christopher Eccleston is terrific as the Dark Rider, spearhead of the Dark, a force of evil intent on bringing a literal Darkness to the world, illustrated by a rather good early effects sequence. Eccleston is dark and brooding in his Rider persona, and camp as Christmas in his "disguise" as the local doctor, with an outrageously fake posh English accent, so cod you could batter it and serve it with chips, so hokey it practically screams: "This is why Doct'r Oo was from t' NORTH!" (And yes, our hero's mother does get to say "Hello, Doctor" to him.)

But he can't, on his own, make up for the shortcomings in the plot, or the low ambitions of the producers.

Were it not for the digital effects – obviously way too high-budget for the telly – this could be described as very TV Movie. And there's a sense that it might have been better served, shown on BBC1 for Sunday teatime in six or eight weekly episodes, as this year's "Box of Delights".

It wasn't helped by the titles, all yellow Helvetica, looking so like all those seventies dramas where the titles end with the words "based on a true story". Here the titles ended with "based on a much loved children's fantasy" and with about as much basis for the words "based on".

So, Susan Cooper's original story of Will Stanton coming of age on his eleventh birthday, discovering he is, as seventh son of a seventh son, one of the Old Ones, and then recovering the six talismans or signs of the Light that will turn back the Dark is used more as inspiration than guide for the movie. Finding the Sign of Stone in the church becomes an exciting Indiana Jones-esque action sequence, all crypts and snakes. The Sign of Water is found from the thaw – but it is a flood of the evil Black Rider's making, and conflated with a rather wasted side-story about Will's crush on local girl Maggie who turns out to be in league with the Dark and, for about five seconds, a witch.

The book's subplot about "the Walker", a local tramp, is also lost. Badly used by Merriman centuries ago, he betrayed the Light and was cursed to immortality to guard the Sign of Bronze in punishment; this in an early clue that the Light can be as hard and cold as the Dark is implacably evil.

Instead, we get a gratuitous step back through time to an attack by Vikings (well, more accurately it would be Danes) probably a reference to the appearance of a chieftain's longboat in the flood at the end of the book. Will accidentally brings along his young sister Gwen who rescues a cute kitten. Oh, the humanity.

Perhaps most controversially, the Sign of Fire is replaced as the Sixth Sign with a "soul freely given" – no Doctor Who fan will be able to avoid thinking of Princess Astra in the "Armageddon Factor" and her transformation into the Sixth Segment of the Key to Time. When you're writing a sub-Bob Baker and Dave Martin knock-off, you should know you're in trouble. And "A soul freely given" – as Alex says – suggests sacrifice rather than apotheosis, so the "and now he's a super-hero" ending also seems like a cop-out.

The other very big change is to give Will a (minutes older) lost twin brother Tom, kidnapped and never found with terribly tasteless Madeleine McCann overtones. In the book, Tom is, or would have been, the oldest Stanton brother and none of the other children knew – explaining how he could never be mentioned. Here, it seems inexplicable that no one has told Will about his lost brother. And the "oh, he lives" ending is just too twee.

I don't, in fact, mind that the central character Will Stanton has been aged up from eleven to fourteen, to make him a bit more turning of age, nor that he has become an American (a slightly unmemorable Alexander Ludwig, who is actually Canadian), along with his family, all iPods and flatscreen television. It's a shame that it loses much of the "English myth" strand of the original: Herne the Hunter, John Wayland Smith and almost all the Arthurian references are excised from the plot – although the character of Merriman Lyon remains (played by an underused Ian McShane), there is no hint that "Merry Lyon" is in fact Merlin. But there's nothing intrinsically bad about the Stantons being translated to America and rediscovering their English roots; it adds to some of Will's sense of alienation. When Lady Greythorne (Sylvester McCoy in amber glasses and frock) tells him he's an Old One, she's as good as saying "young man, you are English!"

I do baulk at the idea that Will's father is a professor of physics who was developing a thesis about the battle between forces of light and dark, the very ludicrousness of which bastardises both the mythology and the physics. And why should he also, handily, be an expert in fractals? A fractal is an object described by Chaos Theory, a branch of mathematics more closely associated with statistical predictions (weather forecasting) than physics. Not that the animated spirals that Will sees actually are fractals, pretty though they may be.

Dad Stanton is portrayed as a weak man, undermined by unspoken guilt about losing tiny Tom the twin. In fact, his story is never properly resolved, in as much as Tom is returned at the conclusion by Will's efforts not his father's and we don't see him overcome his guilt or inadequacies. Not even by Will’s efforts – Will does the effort for his brother, then forgets about him, then Sylv sighs, consults the script outline to see what’s not been done yet, and announced ‘Look who I’ve found!’

Rather better-handled is the strand concerning Will's second oldest brother, Max, who is unexpectedly home from college for the festive season and has taken over Will's room, banishing the youngest brother to the attic faster than you can say: "Harry, go to the cupboard under the stairs!" Max is the "cool" brother with a secret, and falls under the Rider's evil sway. The scene where he tries to stop Will reaching the fourth Sign is genuinely creepy, nicely mixing Max's voice with Christopher Eccleston's, even if it ends with the ol' "punch up with your brother and then go and have a man-to-man talk with dad" cliché, I'm afraid.

It is often said that evey American movie is about a son learning to say "I love you" to his father. At least here the unresolved father-son tension in the movie is mostly the father's guilt and weakness and worry about his son rather than the other way round.

But by now you should have spotted what the problem is – and why this would work better on television. This film is all sub-plots.

Possibly interesting developments – Max's turn to the Dark side; the mystery of who might be the Rider's cloaked contact; Will's teenage hormone-driven infatuation – are used up and tossed aside too quickly. Unnecessary and unsatisfactory additions – dad's guilty secret; what really happened to Tom; oh look, Maggie's a witch; Vikings! – are bolted on haphazardly.

In a television series like Heroes, which also features a standout performance from Christopher Eccleston, the tangle of subplots actually serves to give each separate episode its own unique story and the fact that the through-plot is obscured actually seems rewarding to the viewer. Episodes translate into "chapters" in Heroes, emphasising that the reverse transition, from book to screen, also works more easily.

Alex expands on this idea, pointing out that a further advantage of the TV series is that we learn interesting things about a range of different characters; in "The Dark is Rising" movie, there really only are two characters, and one of those – the Rider – is kept deliberately obscure, (or just hissably evil, take your pick). Other characters exist only in as much as they orbit Will; there is no sense of them having a real life separate of him. Even Max, who gets most to do, ceases to play any role once his story's impact on Will has been resolved.

In a film, you need a much clearer, more linear narrative. The usual "quest" type narrative involves just a single McGuffin to find, not six and especially not six with mysterious complication about what the sixth actually is. Here Will does not go on the traditional "journey" collecting the signs as he goes; instead he goes and gets a Sign, comes back, goes and gets another Sign, comes back, etc. It's a stop-start narrative that undermines the "dramatic W" in the same way that editing together episodic Doctor Who into "feature length editions" does. It's not immediately obvious but you can sense that there is something wrong with a story that comes in lots of little climaxes instead of a beginning, middle and end.

It's not that any of this is bad, as such, it's just that – in spite of often quite amazing visuals – it looked ordinary.

It certainly wasn't helped by the fact that it was preceded by the trailer for (do I need to say "makers of the 'Lord of the Rings'") New Line Cinema's "The Golden Compass", all Nicole Kidman in head-to-toe gold frock, Daniel Craig with James Bond swagger, and Sir Ian (do I need to say Gandalf) McKellen as a talking polar bear. (Actually we spotted "Sir" Christopher Lee among the magisterium too – do you think they signed a six-book deal by mistake?)

There was scope to make "The Dark is Rising" an epic battle across history, visiting crucial events in time and space and linking the local to the global. But instead, the power to "walk through time" is used for no more than history-based stop-and-gawp action sequences, of the dressing-up box variety. Very nice dressing-up, don't get me wrong, but ultimately pointless.

This story is about a millennial war between the Light and the Dark. The book, actually second of five, is staged as a small but important battle in that war. Will is destined to be a powerful agent of the Light, and the Dark take a risk striking at him when he is weakest in order to try and gain unprecedented advantage. It doesn't pay off because, with sacrifices, the Light holds the Rider back. But the book ends with the Dark still rising, the war still to be won, and the Light – and their new warrior Will – in desperate need to recover their old powers and weapons if they are ever to meet the Dark when it reaches its full might.

By making itself more self-contained, the film becomes both to big and too small. The threat of a global Darkness, while excellently realised, does not match up with the small, family-scale drama – a lost twin, a mixed-up brother, a cute kitten – that the events of the story actually portray.

I actually enjoyed "The Dark is Rising", there's a lot of fun among the confusion, but I really wanted to love this, because I loved these books as a child. But "The Dark is Rising" is never more than an okay movie. For all Christopher Eccleston's efforts, he just couldn't raise it enough.

Awards to watch out for: Most Gratuitous Use of Snow-Globes in a Movie since David Bowie's Goblin King in 1986's "Labyrinth" (a film which makes much better use of the "the power was with you all along" ending).

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