Beautiful Creatures can’t be dismissed as merely an overlong TV episode meant for the CW, but it never really comes together, either. Richard LaGravenese’s film is another on the tall pile of Young Adult fantasies trying to latch onto audiences now adrift without their yearly Twilight and Harry Potter fixes (it’s based on a series of novels by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, although reportedly the books are somewhat different from the film), and it makes the mistake of being too similar to both its forebears, unlike The Hunger Games, which pursues the same audience with a very different kind of story.
The setting is the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, which has two interests: reenacting its (Confederate) Civil War victory from 1864, and worrying over its extended family of witches (or “Casters,” as they’re called here, “witch” apparently being a perjorative word in this world). The elaborate mythology provides that at age 16, all budding Casters are chosen either by the Light or the Dark for the rest of their lives–except not so much, because for reasons the movie doesn’t even try to explain, male Casters like paterfamilias Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) can live as Light Casters even if they’ve been chosen by the Dark, while female Casters are doomed to whichever force selects them. Naturally our protagonist, Macon’s niece Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), is just a few months shy of her 16th birthday, and since she’s reputedly the most powerful potential Caster to come around the bend in centuries, the whole family shows up when she arrives in town, mostly to urge her toward the Dark. These include mom Sarafine (Emma Thompson), who no longer has a mortal body of her own and has to take on someone else’s when she wants to be seen–and, again, for inexplicable reasons, chooses the form of a local fundamentalist Christian bigot (also Thompson); as well as cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who used to be a nice girl until she was claimed by the Dark and became a siren, able to manipulate men into murder.
The main relationship of Beautiful Creatures, though, as per its Twilight model, is between Lena and a mortal, namely slightly geeky Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich). The two of them have been dreaming of each other–literally–before they ever meet, and it turns out that beyond their love for literature (they bond over Bukowski), they have a connection that traces back to their ancestors and a tragic event that occurred, who would have guessed, on the very day of the Civil War battle that the town reenacts every year… on Lena’s birthday. So it’s not exactly hard to figure out where Creatures is headed.
There are aspects of Creatures that work very well. The romance between Ethan and Lena has some spark to it, without the deadly solemnity of the Edward-Bella-Jacob soap opera (even if LaGravenese can’t resist making them the most literate 15 year-olds in the small-town South), and a welcome sense of humor. Englert and Ehrenreich are an appealing pair, and we root for them to claw their way past all the curses, spells and omens that lie in their path and end up together.
Surprisingly, though, considering what an experienced screenwriter LaGravenese is (his work includes The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County, as well as the more recent Water for Elephants), the movie falters as storytelling. Characters like Sarafine and Ridley make splashy entrances and then disappear from the story for reels on end, while the mythology rules are unclear and arbitrary. An example: late in the game, town librarian Amma (Viola Davis), who basically raised Ethan, turns out to have critical knowledge both about the Casters and the nature of the curses afflicting Lena, and when the teens reasonably complain that she should have mentioned this to them earlier, she says sorry, she’s not permitted to discuss anything she knows unless directly asked. Well, OK then. Also, even though the story has the ticking clock of Lena’s 16th birthday, very little seems to happen for long stretches (the whole 128-minute story would be covered by a typical 45-minute episode of The Vampire Diaries). The tone is uneven, too–sometimes the movie wants to be taken seriously, and other times it’s played for camp (the ultra-exaggerated costumes are by Jeffrey Kurland), unfortunately bringing to mind last year’s Tim Burton version of Dark Shadows.
This is also LaGravenese’s first directing project to feature extensive CG, and whether due to his own discomfort with the area or significant budget problems, they’re remarkably shoddy for a big-studio effects movie. (An extended sequence involving a spinning dining room table looks like it was shot in the mid-70s.) Even though cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is an expert, veteran cinematographer with projects like Interview With the Vampire and Sherlock Holmes to his credit, the sets by Richard Sherman sometimes have a definite sound-stage look. LaGravenese is good with the actors, however, and apart from the young stars, Irons, Thompson and Rossum all make strong impressions when they’re on screen. (Thompson’s two major scenes are so sharply written compared with practically everything else in the script that one can’t help wondering if she was involved in their rewriting herself.)
Beautiful Creatures, as post-Twilight YA cinema goes, is decidedly low in magic powers. It’s far inferior to Hunger Games, and doesn’t even have the original wit of Warm Bodies. It’s meant to be the start of a franchise, but Warners may need a powerful spell to make audiences clamor for another chapter.