Sunday, November 26, 2017
A Review and Defense of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
When I was but a child, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen kinda passed me by. I saw the trailers for it, but for some reason they didn't really interest me. Cut to about a year later, when the movie aired on TV, I decided to tape it. Surprisingly, I ended up really enjoying myself! Not only was it a super fun watch, but it introduced me to some literary characters I wasn't aware of up until that point, which served to greater stoke my growing interest in the classics! Much to my endless shock and annoyance however, this is an EXTREMELY unpopular movie. Fourteen years later and people still despise League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and crack snide jokes about how awful it is. Is it though?...No, it's bloody not!...
The year is 1899, and troubled times are marking the turn of the century, as attacks with advanced weaponry have been waged against several countries, with each one being tricked to think a rival country is responsible. A global war is on the horizon, and the enigmatic British intelligence man M brings together a group of unique individuals in order to locate and eliminate the mysterious villain known as The Fantom. These heroes include legendary hunter and hero of the British empire Allan Quatermain, the charming and powerful Mina Harker, invisible gentlemen thief Rodney Skinner, the feared Captain Nemo of The Nautilus, Dr. Jekyll and his monstrous counterpart, and the shifty Dorian Gray, as well as the later addition of the U.S. secret agent Tom Sawyer. Together, they must use their special powers to find and stop The Fantom at all costs before the world is swept into ruin...
The plot to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen isn't a hugely complex one, but it's sufficiently entertaining, has enough twists and turns, and fun setpieces. The story is more an excuse for all these characters to get together and fight evil, which in no way means it's bad, just that the cast and general aesthetics are given a larger focus.
Throughout, there are little easter eggs and clues, some of which I really liked. One relatively early on actually says quite a lot despite the utterance of just a single word, and you'll only notice it on second viewings...Well, you would if I hadn't just told you, anyway.
The trouble with team-up movies is that it can be difficult juggling all the characters without some of them getting either shafted for screentime, or undercharacterised. Surprisingly, not only do the heroes in League all feel well-rounded, but their characters inform each-other, like for example the relationship with Quatermain and Sawyer. It works on one level with the grizzled but goodhearted old mentor to a brash and eager younger man, but also another, with Quatermain's memories of his own dead son, who he sees in his young protege, and is trying to not make the same mistakes. The same goes for exchanges other characters have, like Mina and Dorian, or Jekyll and Nemo. No-one gets left in the corner with nothing to do here.
Getting more into the protagonists specifically. Quatermain is an old 'soldier' disillusioned with the British Empire, more at home in his adoptive home of Africa than the rainy streets of London. Further character I mentioned above. While we don't find out much of anything about Nemo's backstory, he's not a one-note character I also dug his crew, based on their actions throughout, such as in the aftermath of the attack on Venice. It's small but important details like that that help flesh out out the world of a movie, and make it feel real.
Mina is a total badass. Even when not kicking all kinds of ass with her vampiric superpowers, she has some great lines, zings, and verbal telling-off. Not afraid to make her feelings known or to criticize Quatermain's sometimes antiquated feelings about women, she has a backstory that definitely feels of 'less is more', with us knowing just enough for it to be compelling.
Jekyll and Hyde are used effectively, and while it can be a bit silly that this interpretation of Hyde is a hulking behemoth, it works for what the movie is. His redemption into somewhat of a hero is well-executed too, for the most part. It works in the sense that these aren't really different people, but two facets of the same mind, at different extremes. Making Hyde more of a good guy by the end feels weird in one respect though, given what he's is implied to have done. It's like the writers forgot he was a possible rapist and/or murderer! As for screentime, the duo don't show up until half-an-hour in, but from then on they appear enough and do enough that they don't feel underused by any means.
This story's invisible man is one Rodney Skinner, who stole the original invisible man's formula. This change in character was done because the filmmakers apparently didn't have the rights to the H.G. Wells story. It's in regards to this character that the film is unfaithful to the graphic novel no matter which way you cut it, but this is another one I'm grateful for, as a genuine hero on the team is more preferable to me than an annoying rapist and murderer. Anyway, back to the movie's character, he vanishes for a while, which works when suspicion of foul play falls on him, and you're not sure if you can trust him, and then works for another reason later on down the track, but it is a bit irksome how there is quite a chunk where he's absent.
Tom Sawyer's inclusion is a controversial one, because his character's flat out not in the book, but I don't mind it. While the reason for his presence may have been just to add an American to the cast, he fits in the story, and him being a grown-up secret agent Tom Sawyer does gel with the whole World Newton vibe. Even moreso back when I was under the mistaken impression that the Mark Twain book Tom Sawyer, Detective was about him as an adult solving a seedy urban brothel murder! Plus, he is the only American in the cast, so it's not like they're hogging the spotlight.
Dorian Gray is another character that wasn't in the source material, but fits in like he was always there. If you're going to add a new character in an adaptation, it's important that you give them important relationships and interactions with the rest of the cast that really inform the story, to justify their presence.
Moving onto the baddie. He's effective, looking interesting and proving himself early on to be a threat, even engaging the heroes directly early on in each of their encounters, which makes him feel like quite a proactive villain. One complaint I do have though is that The Fantom is such a neato villain, but he turns out to just be a disguise for the baddie's true identity, so after the Venice segment, he just sort-of vanishes in a sense. As for said reveal, it was my first exposure to a certain character, so that's cool! It's a bit out-of-nowhere and rushed though, not really playing into anything. It feels like it's just there because it was in the book. The accent switch is also a bit weird, but hey, it'd be classist to assume a professor couldn't be scouse, cockney, or something like that.
Finally, there was one character who was excised from the film entirely! Apparently the daughter of a kidnapped scientist from the beginning shows up here and there to either fight with or against the League. I'm not about the hows and whys, but I guess it was decided early on during production that this character was a superfluous addition in an already packed cast, so she was removed, probably for the best. That didn't stop her from appearing in promotional material though! I seem to recall seeing her in the first trailers.
The acting is good all-round, with each performer bringing something different to the table. Despite reportedly having no idea what was going on in the script (which is odd considering the plot's not that complicated, and these are all famous literary characters he would've read about in his boyhood), Sean Connery delivers a fine performance, while Naseeruddin Shah and Peta Wilson excel as Captain Nemo and Mina Harker, respectively. Tony Curran delivers a great auditory performance, rarely using his face to get emotions and reactions across. Jason Flemyng has to work double duty in his tole, and he does well. To boot, he also has to play Jekyll a bit like a desperate junkie early on, then more in control and self-assured later on. A lot to work with, but he succeeds. Stuart Townsend plays a real asshole very well, while Shane West is good, making the most of a role that some feel was unnecessary. There's some overacting here and there, mainly in the Venice segment. Some of it makes sense given a...certain character shift, but other parts are just a bit overdone.
A lot of the CGI is really quite good, especially for the early 2000s! There's a good mix between digital and practical effects. Some shots look a bit blurry, but most of those are underwater shots, so it makes sense. Others just look a tad ropey though. The Invisible Man is realized really well! At first the movie seemed to get lazy by going from the 'partially invisible with shaving cream' look to just the actor's normal face caked in make-up. It's not like it doesn't make sense, but in the wrong hands it could come across as a cheap get-around. Thankfully the movie never abuses this, and there are many really effective moments regarding invisibility, even something as simple as Skinner taking his hat off. One thing of note is the burn effects near the end. Methinks the design crew got a liiitle bit overzealous with the make-up in that scene. It's like they wanted to have enough scarring so we'd notice an invisible man is burnt, but went a wee bit too far, and gave him a crazy amount of scarring that should be disfiguring and fatal!
The locations we see here are great, from the veldts of Africa to the frozen wastes of Mongolia, the canal streets of Venice to the vast but beautiful emptiness of the ocean. The Nautilus is a neat set too. Basically the team's HQ, it's a submarine with a very Victorian aesthetic, almost steampunk, and the two styles make for a neat combo. The cold industrial factories in the climax make for an effective final setting.
To finish the review, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has its flaws here and there, but nothing major, and for the most part it's a really enjoyable romp, with lots to recommend.
Now, getting into different territory. Over the years, I could never really find out a reason for why people hated this movie so much. Some of the complaints I read really sounded like these people were reaching for things to complain about, like bitching about the target practice scene for not making any sense by having the Nautilus still for a while despite needing to race to Italy, even though it's established that it's stopped to recharge with solar energy, or a recent Cracked article that seriously complained that it 'reduces Moore's strong, confident, and reserved Mina Harker in a vampire', as if her being a vampire somehow automatically reduced any of those qualities, and ignoring that the movie plum doesn't strip Mina of any of those. Eventually I just figured 'Oh, there must be something intrinsically wrong with the film in comparison to the graphic novel, so maybe I'll understand when I read it.'. Well, I've since read the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel, and boy is it a doozy!
Looking at this comic on its own merits, it's pure garbage. The art is sometimes good in a stylised way, but often just plain awful. The story is nonstop action with no substance, barely any story, and very little in the way of characterisation (more on that later). One big problem with the writing is that it just does not stop with the literary references! There's practically one every couple of pages and it gets tired really quickly, especially the really forced ones. It's also full of casual racism and sexism, too, and I don't care if it's intentionally reflective of the period or not, it's still uncomfortable to read, especially in what's meant to be a fun high concept pastiche. As for that term, high concept, it's a tricky thing to live up to, as the wrong step can propel your story from the stratosphere of awesomeness to just being plain stupid. This comic falls very much in that latter category.
As for the movie's accuracy to the source material, it is and isn't. Firstly, a lot of the plot holes, inconsistencies, and general idiocy of the book have been removed. While the details themselves are different, the story beats are relatively unchanged. Quatermain is reluctantly recruited, he meets the other League members during the mission briefing, and the team goes to Paris to capture Mr. Hyde. They then go to an old city in order to carry out their first mission, but it turns out the point of said mission is a ruse by their handlers, and they've inadvertently given them the ability to enact their master plan. The reveal of who the villain really is also remains.
Missing elements like Fu Manchu and Limehouse were purely superficial anyway, so alterations don't bug me that much. Another part of the book I didn't miss was when the team goes to recruit the Invisible Man at a girls boarding school shaped like a giant ass being spanked, where we're 'treated' to a Polyanna rape joke. No, I'm not actually kidding about any of that.
I spoke before of how the adaptation fixed a lot of the book's problems. Let's start with the big one-The villain's master plan. In the movie, it's to kickstart a World War in order to sell his advanced weapon tech to all sides, and to steal the genetic info and science of the League, to create unstoppable supersoldiers. That makes sense. The book's villainous plan though is to use Cavorite to create...GASP...a flying machine!...in 1898, as if flying machines didn't already bloody exist. The villain's ultimate plan by the way is just to bomb London in order to kill a criminal rival, and that's literally it. He has no other motivation. The heroes also completely fail to stop it, by the way, only winning when half of London's up in smoke. What monumentally shitty protagonists! There's not much reason to root for them when they can't even do one thing right in their whole darn book.
Other things the movie fixed are as follow. The reason for Quatermain's inclusion in the League makes way more sense in the movie, unlike in the book, where they recruited an elderly and frail opium addict for no other reason than he's a famous literary character that the reader will know of. Mina Harker's boosted skillset means her inclusion on the team makes sense. The Nautilus is barely utilised in the comic, making its presence borderline unnecessary, whereas it's a lot more prominent in the movie (not sure how it was able to fit in Venice's canals though!).
Ok, let's move onto the book's cast. Allan Quatermain's character is that he's a next-to-useless opium addict who has a gun. Captain Nemo's only character is that he has a gun. Mr Hyde loves rape. The Invisible Man loves rape. Mina Harker is a schoolteacher with no combat skills inexplicably given the position of team leader, and exists only to stand around doing absolutely nothing, and get molested. You can see why I prefer the film versions! Not only are they much more well-rounded, but the movie's Allan Quatermain for example is way more faithful to the books he comes from, unlike the completely unrecognizable one from the comics, who feels not one iota like Allan Quatermain.
One villain in the book who I mentioned above is Fu Manchu, who isn't in the film, but I'm hardly going to cry foul over that when the graphic novel itself didn't have the rights to Fu Manchu! It was always referring to him as the Devil Doctor or other such workarounds, and never by name. That's hardly a good shield for a lawsuit, and frankly the book has it coming if it's going to be that blatantly disrespectful about copyright. It's made all the more pointless as he says and does literally nothing in the book, just standing around for a couple of panels, completely failing to live up to how terrifying people say he is.
Fans of the book that hate the movie also whine about how sacreligious is is that Campion Bond isn't in it, despite him being a superfluous character in the book that says and does fuck all. It was a good call on the film's part to excise him entirely and just have the team refer to M himself. Plus, that way the betrayal is felt more since the team actually knows their boss, as do we, unlike the book, where we don't see the true villain until the last third.
The sequels are all equally stupid, too, with Moore getting increasingly oversaturative (not a word, should be) and bizarre with the literary/pop culture allusions, such as Billy Bunter, Barney Fife, Thomas the Tank Engine, Mother Goose, the Golliwogs, Noddy, Babar, Wind in the Willows, etc, as well as bloody cheeky about it too (like having a character named Jimmy Bond, who's totally not meant to be James Bond, so please don't sue us, MGM!). All of this culminates in Harry Potter as an antichrist that shoots lightning from his cock. To finish, how the hell anyone can regard the League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics as mature and deep storytelling is beyond me, as is how they can hate the movie so much, despite it legit not being bad, and actually fixing many of the source material's problems! 'Ugh' is my final word on the comics...
Sooo, now that I've gotten all of that of my chest, I heartily recommend that you avoid the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics like the goddamn plague, and that you instead check out the movie, which I promise to be a super fun time, and at the very least a fun distraction for a couple of hours...