Dark secrets will come to light.
Based on the best-selling book, Beautiful Creatures takes the “teen supernatural romance” thing and combines it with the “Southern gothic” thing. Will it satisfy the book’s legions of young fans, or will it succumb to darkness?
Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich, Stoker) lives in the middle-of-nowhere town of Gatling, South Carolina. He loves literature and he longs to leave and someday make a new life for himself in the big city. He meets Lena (Alice Englert, Ginger & Rosa), the new girl in school, who’s a fellow social outsider. At Ethan romances Lena, he meets her unusual family, including larger-than-life father figure Macon (Jeremy Irons, Dead Ringers) and cruel, manipulative cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum, Shameless). Also in town, there’s Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson, Sense and Sensibility), a conservative Christian who believes Lena’s family is up to no good. Ethan soon discovers there are supernatural forces at work, not everyone is who they appear, and it all has to do with Lena’s upcoming 16th birthday, in which her fate will be decided. She must join either the light or the darkness.
The novel Beautiful Creatures is based on is the first in a series, and the filmmakers are no doubt hoping this will kick off a movie franchise. As such, the film suffers from “origin story” growing pains. There’s an overabundance of exposition. Scene after scene after scene, there are lengthy explanations of the characters’ back stories, how the fantasy aspects of the story work, and more. Sometimes it works, as the exposition is also Lena and Ethan opening up to each other, thus strengthening their relationship. Mostly, though, it’s just “Stop, we have to explain this to the audience before we can move on.” Knowing this is part of a series, a good chunk of the movie feels like mere setup for future movies.
Even with a movie frontloaded with exposition, things get confusing. Fantasy writers like to throw around the phrase “magic system.” We love magic in fantasy tales, because magic bends the laws of reality and makes the impossible happen. Nonetheless, writers must establish rules for magic, a.k.a. the “magic system,” so the magic makes some sort of logical sense and so the magic-using characters have limits to their powers. Otherwise, they’d be gods, twisting and reshaping reality at will. If there is a magic system at work in Beautiful Creatures, it’s not made clear. There’s mind control, weather control, telekinesis, illusion casting, prophetic dreams, prophetic waking dreams, and the classic movie wizard lightning. The internet tells me that different characters are meant to have different powers, like something out of X-Men, but this too is unclear, as magic-using characters have various powers depending on what is required for that particular scene.
Let us pause for a moment to consider writer-director Richard LaGravenese. In the 1990s, he burst onto the scene in a big way with two truly outstanding sceenplays, wowing us all with the magical realism of The Fisher King and the biting dark comedy of The Ref. After collaborating with Barbara Streisand on The Mirror Has Two Faces, his films as either writer or director have mostly been adaptations of others’ works, generally in the “dramatic tear-jerker” category, including Freedom Writers, The Horse Whisperer, P.S. I Love You and Beloved. While I’m sure he’s thrilled to be given the reins to what could be a multi-film blockbuster franchise, this guy is incredibly creative, and I can’t help but wonder what original worlds he could come up with instead of being beholden to someone else’s overly complex mythology.
Enough complaining. Did I like anything about the movie? Yes! Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert are saddled with most of the exposition, so their performances are more low-key, but when they get a few really intense dramatic scenes, suddenly we see just how good these two are. Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum, meanwhile, ham it up big time, going as far as they can to make their characters quirky and outrageous. The movie has a nice sense of visual style as well. I like how the interior of Lena’s house looks different every time we see it, transforming from stark white to warm colors to forest-like, complete with trees sprouting from the floor. It’s a good illustration of the shifting reality of magic her family lives in, and how they’re so separated from us measly humans.
The movie is filmed with style, making the most of its Southern gothic trappings, and that all translates nicely onto the Blu-ray. The deep, rich greens of outdoors South Carolina (or wherever it was filmed) really jump off the screen. Nighttime scenes are captured with a cool blue color scheme, and this is done without sacrificing any detail. The audio is good as well, most notably in use of the toe-tapping score, created by rock band thenewno2. For bonus features, we’ve got a series of short promotional featurettes, some deleted and alternate scenes, and trailers.
A mixed bag. Beautiful Creatures neatly checks off all the boxes on the paranormal romance checklist. On the other hand, it’s so overstuffed with exposition and characters that it feels like you should be taking notes rather than just sitting back and enjoying the movie.
Just as the foreman was about the read the verdict, the defendant vanished in a flash of lightning. Better luck next time?