THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL * *
Cert 12A 103 mins
When Robert Wise directed the 1951 original about an alien come to warn mankind to renounce its warlike ways, the Cold War had a grip on world paranoia. Scott Derrikson’s update retains the shape up or we destroy the planet plot, but this time, while scenes of civil unrest still show mankind’s propensity for violence, it wears a Greenpeace sticker rather than a CND one.
A perfectly cast blank Keanu Reeves is Klaatu, emerging from the swirly glowing giant sphere that’s landed in Central Park to be met by the customary military reception. Stepping forward to meet astrobiologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) he’s naturally shot and taken to hospital where, peeling away a jellylike outer skin, his humanoid body’s finally revealed.
To cut the interminable preamble short, suffice to say his request to address the world’s leaders gets rejected by the Secretary of Defence (Kathy Bates) who declares him US property and orders his imprisonment, sedation and interrogation. Sensing something important going down, Benson helps him escape and, together with troubled stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), they go on the run.
At which point she learns that, to prevent mankind polluting the rest of the cosmos, he’s there to kickstart the process that will erase humanity and let evolution start over. Unless, that is, she can convince him the human race is worth saving and that (as John Cleese’s physicist believes) we’re ultimately capable of change.
So, when Klaatu sees Helen and Jacob, divided by grief over his father’s death, finding emotional reconciliation in the moment of crisis, he’s persuaded there may be reason not to flush the human race down the toilet. Unfortunately, robot instrument of annihilation Gort has already initiated the clean up.
All of which sounds fine but, translated to the screen it gets bogged down in energy-sapping repetition, plodding pace, inconsistent logic and clunky Biblical references to Noah and locust plagues. The CGI is impressive (Gort especially) and Reeves gives good impassive, but just as he inevitably comes a cropper when called on to register empathic emotion, so the film never finds the edge it needs to quicken the pulse. It’s unlikely the Earth will move for you, either.
INKHEART * *
Cert PG 106 mins
Adapted from the first in a trilogy by German children’s author Cornelia Funke, there’s a terrific premise here. Brendan Fraser plays Mo, a Silvertongue with the ability to make characters in books come to life. Literally. However, when one crosses into the real world, so someone has to take their place in the fictional one. Which is why he stopped reading to daughter Meggie (Eliza Bennett) years ago when her mother, Rosa (Sienna Guillory) vanished. Mo believes she’s trapped in the pages of fantasy novel Inkheart and has been searching for a copy to try and rescue her.
But, just as he finds one, enter Dustfinger (Paul Bettany), a fire juggler from the story. He wants to get back on the page, but Mo’s unwilling to help Which is why he turns to Inkheart’s power-crazed villain Capricorn (Andy Serkis) instead. More than happy with his new existence, lording it in an Italian castle, he certainly doesn’t want to be back in print.
He’s been destroying every copy of Inkheart. All save the one from which his captive stuttering Silvertongue has been reading out imperfectly summoned sidekicks with faces covered in backward text. Now he wants Mo to unleash Inkheart’s demonic Shadow, so they can rule the world. He refuses, but Capricorn’s discovered that the gift runs in the family.
A visually striking but stodgy mix of comedy, fantasy and action, Iain Softley does his best to tie it all together. But he’s fighting a losing battle against a messily underwritten screenplay riddled with flawed internal logic that seems uncertain whether it wants to be The Princess Bride or The Never-Ending Story and ends up perilously close to Last Action Hero.
Playing it with real emotional heart, Bettany is very good as a complex figure who’ll do anything to rejoin his family, even when he knows how his story ends. But Fraser’s resolute hero barely diverges from the one in Journey To The Centre of the Earth, Rafi Gavron is forgettable as the Arabian Nights refugee while Jim Broadbent seems barely awake as Inkheart’s Italian author.
On the other hand, Helen Mirren slices the ham ludicrously thick as Meggie’s eccentric bibliophile aunt. Not, of course, that she can hope to compete with Serkis, a proven past master when it comes to chewing scenery.
Like The Golden Compass, it’s a film you want to work because the ideas are so rich but which, equally, never quite captures the imagination.
DEAN SPANLEY * *
Cert U 100 mins
Possibly the year’s most bonkers film, this features a bizarre performance from Sam Neill as a clergyman who, under the influence of heady Tokay wine, starts recalling a previous life as a dog. It’s adapted from an obscure 1930s story by Lord Dunsany who, in his time, was a leading light in fantasy fiction.
Set in Edwardian London, Jeremy Northam is Henslowe Fisk who, every Thursday routinely visits his curmudgeonly father, Horatio (Peter O’Toole). The latter refusing to mourn for the son killed in the Boer War because you take what life gives you, their relationship is strained and cold. Henslowe also blames him for mother’s death from a broken heart in the face of her husband’s emotional reserve.
During one of his visits, Henslowe takes dad to a talk on the transmigration of souls which the old grouch dismisses, as he does most things, as poppycock. His son, however, is intrigued by audience member Spanley. Enticing him to dinner on the promise of a vintage Tokay, procured with the help of Oz chancer Wrather (Bryan Brown), he’s stunned by the wine’s effects and determines to learn more of the man’s canine past and experiences with ‘the master’.
Once you learn of an incident in Horatio’s childhood involving the disappearance of beloved dog Wag, you’ll see where this is all heading. To which end, the third act is undeniably affecting as father and son are reconciled.
However, despite a mesmerisingly nuanced O’Toole and a singularly eccentric Neill, getting there is such a sluggishly solemn journey that even its barking whimsical charms are unlikely to bow wow wow you.