A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

November 10, 2010

The League of Extraordinary Gentleman

Alan Moore has a history with the movies. We own several adaptations of his iconic works. Most notably the un-filmable Watchmen, but also V for Vendetta and this movie. I’ve loved Alan Moore for years. I discovered him, as so many people did, through Watchmen in the eighties, but it was only the start of a long fascination with one of the strangest and most self-absorbed artisans in the comic world. His complex anti-heroes fascinate me, his obsession with the darkness that inevitably contaminates any person with true power. And of course his intricate plotting and compulsive attention to detail. He blends words and pictures in a way that is rarely to be seen and works in a medium which he himself has largely refined into an almost impenetrably esoteric art form. I loved his early work in the more conventional days of Swamp Thing when he re-created the character and gave an epic and much more powerful sense of horror and wonder to the series. I once owned the collected Marvel-Man books he wrote – which are now sadly almost impossible to find. LXG marks the point, from my reckoning, that he really began to go into the deep end. Alan Moore has lately become so reclusive, so self obsessed, and so caught up in both the worlds of his own imagining and the stranger realms that he has begun to explore that his works have begun to become dense, heavy and almost inaccessible. It started with his lengthy diatribe about censorship and oppression of thought in the Black Dossier (itself nominally a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book, although they hardly play any part in it.) I’ve tried many times to read it and always find myself mired, unable to absorb all that he has thrown at me and skimming across the top glimpsing the depths of the work but unable to penetrate them. This is only compounded when I have attempted to read Lost Girls, his contemplation and celebration of the lost art of erotica. It’s strange that a tome entirely based on sexual discovery can be so thoroughly un-arousing. So, yes, Alan Moore is an artist lost in his art nowadays, and in my mind it begins with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which makes it all the more ironic that this popcorn action flick shares some of the same characters and takes place in a world based on the same idea.

It would be misleading to say that this movie is a comic book adaptation. The rights to the concept were optioned, but it was adapted for film concurrently with the production of the comic books and diverges radically from them. I hesitate to even call it an alternate universe take on the same characters since the very tone itself of the movie is so different from the books. The concept of both is that around the turn of the century a group of characters from popular fiction and from some old monster movies band together to defeat some mysterious force wreaking havoc. Both film and book feature Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, and Mina Harker. Added to the film version of the team are a twenty-something year old Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray.

Right from the beginning, however, the film and books start to diverge. Alan Moore was writing the books as a way to re-examine popular pulp fiction heroes in the same way he re-examined comic book super heroes in Watchmen. His Quatermain is first found slowly killing himself in an oriental opium den. His Invisible Man has convinced the girls at an all women’s preparatory school that he is the “holy ghost” and is pretty much screwing his way through the student body. (It’s quite lurid.) Moore is also much more subtle and playful about introducing his cast. His Mina Harker, for example, hardly ever vamps out and is a proper British woman at all times, albeit a worldly one with a tightly held secret. And a red scarf. It’s a sort of game for the reader to figure out who each character is and catch the many other references that Moore peppers the books with. (Particulalry fun are pictures of previous leagues and speculating about what characters they were comprised of.) I feel like for Moore the LXG are a way of revisiting many of the worlds he enjoyed in his childhood and putting his own spin on them (much in the way that I feel Neil Gaiman did with Books of Magic.) It’s a kind of playground for his own mind. Amanda would say that it’s a kind of self-absorbed fanfic crossover.

I realize that I’m spending a lot of time talking about what this movie is NOT. So just what exactly IS it? It’s a fairly silly adventure story that throws a bunch of characters together and plays with them. It’s got some completely stupid action scenes, some cool special effects and make up, and even some good actors camping it up. It’s a movie that never takes itself seriously and would rather make you chuckle than think.

One thing it has in common with the books is that Captain Nemo completely kicks ass. His astonishing ship, the Nautilus, and all his anachronistically advanced steampunk technology is a joy to observe. I love every shot of the Nautilus and every doodad and geegaw it contains. I love her spacious marble halls and Victorian detailing. I want unabashedly crave that submarine. It’s a pity that Naseeruddin Shah, in the role of Nemo, is almost out-acted by his luxurious beard. It must be hard to act expressively with so little of your face visible between turban and mustache.

Another thing I enjoy is the portrayal of Mr. Hyde. He’s actually a kind of hero in the movie (not a sadistic murdering bastard at all.) Rather than being the horror movie inspired release of every inhibition of the repressed Dr. Jekyl he’s a kind of gentle Hulk who enjoys a ruckus as a roaring good time. What’s even more astonishing about the portrayal is that the film makers chose not to go all-digital with him (as had been done in the same year with Ang Lee’s infamous Hulk – which we’ve already reviewed) but instead put Jason Flemyng in a very articulate rubber suit with a ton of make-up and use forced perspective and blue-screen trickery to make him huge and menacing. I think that the fact that he’s all practical and in-camera makes him a lot more fun.

You can’t help loving Sean Connery as Alan Quatermain. Quatermain is a character I associate with cheesy Sharon Stone movies more than anything else (not having read any of the books of course) but Connery seems to really inhabit the role. He’s a world-weary ex-patriot who only loves his adoptive home of Africa, and a fairly reluctant hero. But at the same time he’s Sean Fucking Connery, so he’s a charismatic old man who gets all the best lines and action. He’s an unstoppable action hero and impossibly good shot with a rifle.

I also really enjoy the roguish and irascible Invisible Man depicted in the film. He’s mostly digital effect work and motion capture, yes, but he’s also a fun character. It’s always fun to speculate about what an invisible man would “look” like, and some of the tricks in this film are a real treat. (My favorite being when he’s slathering face cream on so that he can be seen. It must have been quite a challenge to animate.) Tony Curran’s cockney accent and the great way the character is written makes him fun to watch as well.

Stuart Townsend is great as Dorian Gray as well. He’s so foppishly arrogant and suave that he just lights up the screen. You never really get the sense that he’s as depraved as the character from the story, however. He’s full of himself of course and doesn’t seem to care about anything else, but aside from one line implying that he wants to return to England for some decadence I never got the impression that he was as corrupt as you might expect. (Besides which I never really bought the whole supposedly torrid history between him and Mina – she seems so sensible that I just can’t see her falling for him.)

So there’s a lot of fun in this movie, and the concept of it is infectious. The notion that all these Victorian fictional characters somehow inhabit the same universe is so rich and compelling that I’m willing to overlook just how stupid parts of the movie are. (Like the action setpiece involving trying to prevent the destruction of Venice by blowing up a key building ahead of a domino-like cascade of crumbling facades. It goes so far beyond the realm of plausible fantasy adventure that it boggles the mind.) I guess I like the concept more then the execution most of the time, but I can find plenty about the movie to enjoy even so. It never quite gels, and the plot is absurd, and some of the characters don’t behave as I imagine they actually would… but all in all I guess I kind of like this film. I am just ashamed to admit it.

November 10, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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