Testing the limits of special effects in Van Helsing
Writer/director Stephen Sommers has a serious case of ADD. At least that is what one surmises after watching his hyperactive monster spectacle “Van Helsing.” That his movie is a non-stop chaotic, and for the most part thrilling monster mash should satisfy most fans of his previous films especially, “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns.” Just like the reaction to those films, many film snobs will pick apart his latest effort while audiences will embrace it.
The downside of CGI technology is that for many directors it becomes a crutch rather than a tool. Like John Woo’s annoying overuse of slow motion and Quentin Tarantino’s love affair with cyber-carnage, Sommers hasn’t discovered a special effect he won’t use-excessively. Thus, “Van Helsing” for all its relentless energy and impressive sets, almost exhausts its audience with a cacophony of obvious animation, numerous morphing sequences, and digitally created monsters.
But unlike Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” and “The Matrix” sequels, “Van Helsing” overcomes its liabilities. For starters, the film opens impressively with an homage to the original “Frankenstein” films of the Boris Karloff era.
The story transitions to the 1880s (watch for the Eiffel Tower under construction, a nice background detail) where we are introduced to the title character played by Hugh Jackman.
We quickly learn that his character here has several (perhaps too many) similarities with his marquee role as Wolverine in the “X-Men” series. Van Helsing (shout it out with an !) abetted by Friar Carl (David Wenham) hunts Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) who needs Dr. Frankenstein’s creation (Shuler Hensley) to give life to his unborn cocooned vampirettes.
The Wolfman has to make an appearance as one of the big three, and purists may regret the absence of “The Mummy,” another stalwart from pre-WWII horror films-perhaps because of thematic conflicts with Sommers’ previous sarcophagus spookfests.
Van Helsing meets the immaculately coifed Anna (Kate Beckinsale) who with her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) represents the last generation of a family that must vanquish Dracula.
The actors give credible performances here, though the film could’ve used a lot more of the tongue-in-cheek humor that made “The Mummy” so endearing-and Jackman, for that matter, so entertaining as Wolverine.
There’s enough eye candy on display, much of it enormously detailed (note the masked ballroom scene) and scary enough that the film accomplishes its goal. It offers no significant surprises (unlike this summer’s refreshing “Hellboy”) nor do you for one minute forget you are watching a film created in the digital age. Alan Silvestri’s score hammers out scene after climatic scene, each of which comes in overwhelming succession and rarely lasts more than a few seconds.
Directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson know when to hold the audience and when to let them go. And neither lets CGI control him. But not every summer blockbuster needs to be a classic, so “Van Helsing” (shout it out!) gets a decent grade for goofy, ghoulish fun.
Rated PG-13 for non-stop creature action violence, frightening images and sensuality).