Sunday, December 23, 2007

Movie Log: Stardust

Matthew Vaughan, who directed Stardust into a pleasant but clearly dumbed-down version of Neil Gaiman's book, appears to have been shopping at the discount Lord of the Rings store. He bought some off-the-rack circling helicopter shots of people trekking across green hilltops, muscled a loud and obtrusive "stirring" score into his shopping cart, and invested heavily in the kind of fantasy-land scenery that shows no sign of human habitation.

It's that last bit that ended up annoying me the most -- the other two were amusing (especially on a small screen, where the awe factor is low). Once Stardust moves into the kingdom of Stormhold, human civilization consists of:
  • one market town, near the wall
  • the witches' palace, in a crater far away from anything else
  • the King's palace/city, on the top of a ridiculously pointy mountain, also in what seems to be a crater, amid many more sharp and pointy mountains
  • one (1) farmhouse
  • the office of a guy who buys and sells various stuff to keep the plot running
  • and various cart tracks connecting these disparate locations.
Missing entirely is any sign of serious agriculture, such as that which would be required to support all of the people we seen in the movie's penultimate scene. This is the true meaning of "fantasy movie," that the world is empty and green, serving only as a backdrop to the epic story of the Movie People. I could just about buy it in the Lord of the Rings movies, since most of that landscape was supposed to be empty (though Tolkien was well aware that Minas Tirith would require extensive fields around it, and put them in). But Stardust just seems to take place in an empty world.

I haven't read Stardust-the-novel in some years, but my general impression is that every element in Stardust-the-movie is a simplified, movie-ized version of the book element. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it did take a little gem of an illustrated novel and turn it into a big-budget Fantasy Extravaganza, not particularly to its benefit. There are even times when the vast sums of money spent immediately undermine the story itself, such as when the ruby thrown by the King flies into space -- we see the real Earth, we see the stone rise from an identifiable England, and we see it run into something in low Earth orbit, and then fall back down. So the "falling star" is no longer the fairy-tale element it was in the book; we now have to think of Yvaine as a real star, in a SFnal sense, since that's how the movie showed her. (Similarly, when we see two stars in the sky and are meant to go "awwww," I instead thought "What are they, a couple of thousand light-years apart?")

Another example: Robert De Niro is pleasant and personable as that giant whoopsie Captain Shakespeare, but the audience isn't able to forget for a second that they're watching De Niro pretending to be a gay pirate. A lot of the movie is like that, actually -- perfectly nice but ultimately distracting from what a movie is supposed to do: create an alternate world into which we can fall and which we completely believe.

Should I explain the plot? Does anyone who might possibly be reading this not know it? Oh, all right: in mid-Victorian England, a young man manages to get across the wall that separates his town (also named Wall) from the lands of Faerie. He knocks up a captive princess, and finds his son on his doorstep nine months later. Eighteen years after that -- when it's still, apparently, exactly just as mid-Victorian as it was before -- his son Tristan (Charlie Cox) decides to cross the wall himself, to get a falling star for the local girl he thinks he loves. The star is actually a pretty girl, Yvaine (Claire Daines), knocked out of the sky by a magical ruby tossed by the dying King of Stormhold (Peter O'Toole). She's chased by both an evil witch, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the remnants of the King's seven sons (squabbling as they go, since the one who returns with the ruby will rule). Tristan of course finds her, and of course eventually falls in love with her on the journey.

That much is basically the same as the book, but the movie slowly but inexorably separates itself from the novel's story as it goes, choosing a blander, more obvious path in every point where the book had something more interesting or nuanced. The ending in particular is pure Hollywood, the bastard child of a thousand mediocre movies.

Stardust stays resolutely a movie, an entertainment projected up onto a big screen in front of us; there's no moment in which we enter into it. (Unlike the book.) As a post-Lord of the Rings fantasy movie, it's a solid movie. As a film of the Gaiman-Vess book, it's a major disappointment. That fairy-tale tone is very fragile, agreed, and maybe there was no real chance that it could have been transferred to the screen undamaged. Gaiman's prose is supple, quietly powerful, hinting of even more than it reveals; even the greatest filmmaker would have had trouble turning it into celluloid. But I wish Vaughan had made more of an effort than this.

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