Stardust: Second Look

Written by Patrick Z. McGavin

Graphic novels are the new go-to standards for movie adaptations. They seem ready made for translating stories of action-adventure or making visually concrete fantasy worlds. Digital technology and the advent of newer, more photorealistic styles of animation account for the rise of these works.

In pictures like From Hell, Sin City to 300, they have a cold efficiency that appears technically impressive though emotionally, cinematically, somewhat cold. Theres also an unfortunate tendency of a solemn self-importance about the source work that too often turns the resulting move into an ordeal rather than a stylish adventure.

With Stardust, English filmmaker Matthew Vaughn departs significantly stylistically, even formally, from his first feature, the gangster drama Layer Cake. Adapting Neil Gaimans DC Comics work of the same title, the movie is jaunty and stylish and is blessed with some fun stretches. It features some stunning uses of the Scottish locations, particularly sweeping, aerial camera work that floats and rises above the evocative mountain landscapes.

Taken as a whole it feels ordered and close to the book, as if the need to locate a film equivalent of the graphic book panels has yielded all sort of negative consequences. Too much of the pictorial sharpness and inventiveness is lost in the movies chaotic and cluttered narrative line. The adventure feels like a form of punishment, a bludgeoning of styles and storytelling that never quite registers as organic or intuitive.

For atmosphere and setting the movie needs to gather speed immediately to give the fantasy plot a suppleness, beauty and freshness. Opening with an extended prologue, the pace drags right from the gun, and the movie rarely gathers a necessary forceful shape and rhythm. The graphic novel is unknown to this writer, though apparently the screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman is quite faithful.

Tristan (Charlie Cox) is a solitary working class young dreamer living a fairly dull existence in a quiet English village. Hes fallen desperately in love with a local beauty, Victoria (Sienna Miller). Knowing a more prosperous rival has already demanded her hand, Tristan works quickly, impulsively to steal her affection. Witnessing a dazzling bright light hurling across the sky, Tristan promises to retrieve the fallen star as a declaration of his passion and a larger symbol of his accomplishment and worthiness. Victoria gives him a week to complete the task.

Tristans odyssey is governed within a larger story set in the magical, surreal world called Stormhold. (In one of the nice touches, the human realm and the enchanted otherworld are divided by a Wall, sharply illustrated here as a furtive and enchanted world that is decidedly off-limits to the local villagers.) The two worlds collide when Tristan learns the fallen star has materialized in the luminous shape of a beautiful young woman named Yvaine (Claire Danes).

She also holds a Ruby whose possessor is the rightful heir to ascend the throne of the dying Lord (Peter OToole). The adventure story suggests a shotgun arrangement of Macbeth and Richard II. The Lord demands his four surviving sons secure the Ruby, unleashing a murderous reign for succession that leaves two brothers summarily dispatched. The dead sons are now ghosts that form a kind of Greek chorus. The final survivors, Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong), gather rival factions to track Yvaine. The malevolent Lilim witches, led by the brittle, nasty Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), also have designs on Yvaine, believing by sacrificing her they achieve immortality and unlimited power.

The movie indisputably has some sweep and imagination. The way Lamia conjures out of the barren stretch a fantastically detailed trap to ensnare Yvaine suggests a fiendish color and imagination. It also underlines the movies wider problem that the dependence on computer graphic imagery and digital animation deprives the movie of any kind of emotional tension or direct engagement with the plight of the characters. If Vaughns first movie was damaged by its familiarity and his homage to his mentor Guy Ritchie,

Stardust is hurt by the absence of a governing or dominant voice to shape the material to the action.

The movie is too often a kind of empty spectacle that privileges technical resources and production design at the expense of character detail, humor or emotional interaction. Cox and Danes make very attractive leads, though the story turns increasingly episodic and incident packed, allowing very little range or sharpness of expression. As it moves to its inevitable three-way showdown involving the young lovers, Primus and Lamia set in the expansive and decrepit mansion of the Lilim, the movie feels increasingly mechanical and routine.

The filmmakers fail to differentiate the material, either visually or dramatically. At 130 minutes, Vaughn never achieves the right tempo and pace. The movie should flow and dazzle. The imagery is occasionally impressive, even haunting, like an unusually staged death by drowning. The movie has three or four different climaxes, and none of them quite achieve a sense of originality or creative resolution.

It is telling that in this classic construction, the young hero coming of age physically (and by extension sexually), the movies much better in the margins, like Robert De Niros funny, ruffian turn as a sexually ambivalent air pirate whose band of marauders float through the sky in a imaginatively conceived precursor to the Hindenburg. Pfeiffers also a lot of fun. Cast against type, she unburdens herself and powerfully reveals the cruel vanity of a sexually beautiful woman unable to surrender to growing old.

Big, expensive movies like Stardust (with a reported $90 million budget) employ thousands of technicians and specialists. In todays pop world of commercial moviemaking, the compositions are increasingly achieved through digital manipulation rather than artistic collaboration or visual creativity. The spontaneity and freedom that enlivens the best work is strangely absent. The power is as cold and impersonal as the special effects and the result is somewhat strange, even alienating. The sweep and grandeur remain, but the sense of magic and light is thoroughly erased.