Silver Screen: Beautiful Creatures *1/2
While Safe Haven exists to service the traditional-romance crowd, Beautiful Creatures aims to seduce younger ladies, who, as told by marketing lore, get hot and bothered for the supernatural. Boris Karloff must be cursing in his coffin-- born a century later and he’d be a tween idol.
The blatantly imitative Beautiful Creatures, a Twilight knockoff about love between a mortal and a member of a family of superpowered sorcerers, is far more likely to get you bothered than hot. Even in a world where Teen Paranormal Romance has its own shelf at Barnes and Noble, it feels dumbly commercial.
There’s something particularly annoying about terribly written films that buttress themselves with literary references. Within the first few minutes of Beautiful Creatures, the dopily charming romantic lead Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) establishes his disdain for small-town life and his greater ambition by reading Kurt Vonnegut and mooning over copies of books by Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs. Later he and his spooky soulmate Lena (Alice Englert) bond over a collection by Charles Bukowski, and she showcases her unique decoration technique featuring quotes from poets like William Blake and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The filmmakers seem to suggest that the characters, and by proxy the movie, is smart by dint of association with various great works of literature. These classic books are used as signifiers of intelligence without any of their intellect, insight, or influence being incorporated into the story itself.
Ethan is a restless former jock eager to escape the uncultured confines of his small southern town. At night he dreams of a shadowy, dark-haired girl he believes to be his soulmate, who turns up in his class one day. Lena is immediately labeled as an outcast by the high school’s upper class of prudish, bitchy Christians, led by Ethan’s ex- (Zoey Deutch), because of her family ties to the mysterious Ravenwood clan, who are rumored to be Satanists or witches.
Shows what those stupid girls know, because in reality... well, okay, Lena is a witch descended from a family of sorcerers, although they prefer to be called Casters, perhaps because some jargon provides the guise of novelty. Lena is staying with her spooky uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) while she awaits her sixteenth birthday, when her powers will ascend and she will become either a white or a dark witch. Lena has no choice in whether she becomes good or evil, for no reason the voluminous exposition seems to explain.
Ethan is convinced they can find a way for Lena to choose her own fate, but not everyone in her family agrees. While the eerie but well-intentioned Macon hopes for the best, her wayward cousin (Emmy Rossum) shows up to hasten the transition toward the dark side, and her evil mother possesses the body of a shrill Christian evangelist (Emma Thompson).
Bad as it is, Beautiful Creatures is fleetingly entertaining, at least when it rushes at breakneck speed toward nowhere in particular. Its best moments are a hysterical mashup of mostly disparate genre tropes that include voodoo fortune telling, Confederate ghosts, and secret libraries of arcana. Irons and Thompson play their eccentric characters as broadly as possible, to great effect. But when the movie slows down-- and boy does it ever slow down-- the strained dialogue and flimsy, nonsensical plot become impossible to ignore. Though Thompson and Irons are the film’s most special effects, director Richard LaGravenese leans heavily on bland action scenes spiked with ugly computer-generated imagery.
Beautiful Creatures does one-up its shoddy progenitor in a few notable ways. Unlike Twilight, it at least espouses a more inspirational message than “be stupid and get knocked up by your high-school boyfriend as quickly as possible,” and though it’s steeped in gothic melodrama it’s not leaden and somber. That said, its one-dimensional portrayal of Christian zealous seems calculated and disingenuous, more a pose than a stance, and smacks of West Coast condescension. There might be a substantial chunk of a good movie buried in here somewhere, but maybe it’s best the whole thing stays buried.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.