Thursday, December 21, 2006

REVIEW: Eragon

Let's be clear about one thing: The critical drubbing "Eragon," a studiously average teen-targeted action movie, has taken has (likely) more to do with it's genre than it's own merits, or lack there of. The mainstream critical press, by-and-large, has always looked, looks now and will continue to look down it's collective nose at the fantasy genre. The unprecedented undeniability of excellence in three successive genre-franchises, "Lord of The Rings," "Harry Potter," "Narnia," have made some converts and drawn largely grudging respect from more, but make no mistake: As a composite-being, The Critical Press is still wholeheartedly in agreement with Hugo Dyson's famously to-the-point "LOTR" critique: "Not another f*cking elf!" They've waited patiently for a weaker genre offering to emerge so that they can vent their simmering distaste, and now with "Eragon" the knives are out.

This isn't to say that "Eragon," a semi-loose adaptation of a novel primarily famous because author Christopher Paolini was only 17 when he wrote it, ought not be criticized. It should be. It's not a great film, and in spots it's downright lackluster. The script is dumbed-down, shallow and frequently lazy. The characters are, for the most part, thinly-sketched, and it resembles other better films FAR too closely. In other words, it has all the same problems as any other average, unspectacular film. It's just okay. It's not a keeper. But for me, here's the bottom line: Between a so-so movie with a dragon and a so-so movie without a dragon, with-a-dragon will win every time. And "Eragon" has a pretty kickass dragon, a statement which summarizes both the strengths and general plot of the movie.

Eragon, for the record, is our main character: A poor boy living on a farm with his uncle who dreams of joining the rebellion against the tyranical overlord oppressing his far-flung fantasy world, soon to realize that he is heir to an ancient but recently-decimated order of supernaturally-powered heroes, in this case magic-using "Dragonriders." And if that sounds a little familiar, it get's better: He'll need the aid of a wise elder teacher (Jeremy Irons) who was also a Dragonrider, who has personal history with the evil overlord (John Malkovich) the great betrayer and destroyer of the Dragonriders. You'll also find a rebel base, a semi-butch action-heroine princess and a pre-finale side-trip to rescue said damsel from the baddie's fortress.

So, yes, it's a little bit like "Star Wars." Okay, it's exactly like "Star Wars." Annoyingly-so, even, though the idealist in me mostly wants to give Paolini and his adapters the benefit of the doubt, and presume that this is more a case of Joseph Campbell being right once again than outright semi-plagiarism. Though it must be said that the shot of Eragon looking longingly up at that sunset makes it really difficult to do so...

The film lives and dies by it's dragon, Saphira, an (interestingly) female beastie that probably represents the best live-action realization of it's species since at least "Dragonslayer." The action scenes featuring Saphira in flight are the highlight of the show, and she gets all the snappiest dialogue (with the voice of Rachel Weisz, no less) via ESP voiceover. The slightly "off" relationship between Eragon and his steed is, in fact, the most interesting thing going on, though the film is either blind-to (or unwilling to explore) how just-this-side-of-creepy it veers with what what is, in the broader strokes, an unusually close relationship between a decidedly young man and what amounts to a more worldly, willful but ultimately-submissive older woman. Or maybe it's just me being an easy mark for any scenario where in Rachel Weisz continually demands to be ridden...

I don't know if this story gets any better in the (promised) next-installment, but for now what we have is a so-so, not-bad genre effort. No prizes for originality, but the dragon scenes are fun and Robert Carlyle seems to be enjoying himself as a waaaaay over the top vampire-like evil wizard. Not bad, not great, moving on.

FINAL RATING: 6/10