When I think of witches, I envision women with long black hair, moles on their faces, broomsticks in their hands and curled fingers adjusting pointy black hats. I think of phrases like “Double double, boil and trouble,” of cackling laughter and of leaning over a foggy, simmering pot with some evil brew inside. I do not think about over sexualized teens and twenty-somethings deep in the South who seem to have nothing to do with their time except sleep with, insult and outdo each other. So you can imagine my excitement when “Beautiful Creatures” showed up from Warner Brothers a little while ago.
“Beautiful Creatures” is based on a novel of the same name written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. It came to theaters with a hefty $60 million budget and some recognizable actors and actresses in its cast. Richard LaGravenese, who has a solid filmography to his credit, wrote and directed, but his work is far from polished in this particular swing and miss. “Beautiful Creatures” fails because it feels a bit too much like other dominant titles in a genre that many hope will have its fuel needle hit empty sooner rather than later.
Given the depth to the story, you’d expect a romantic fantasy like this to bring performances to the table with equal depth and detail. Instead, “Beautiful Creatures” leans on leads who mainly overact and don’t add much beyond their physical presence. It also requires its audience to drop kick its sense of disbelief into next year rather than simply suspend it for 124 minutes. Even if I liked doing this, I would argue that “Beautiful Creatures” asks an awful lot and doesn’t deliver very much on the investment you make.
In rural South Carolina, Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) opens “Beautiful Creatures” as a young man with a mission: to get out of his dreary small-town life and make it in the real world. He shows up after summer break for the first day of junior year to a former girlfriend, Emily (Zoey Deutch), who tries to get him back to no avail. A new student, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), has caught Ethan’s eye, more or less because he’s been dreaming about her for a few weeks. More on that later.
Anyhow, through a few rainy afternoons and stories about troubled pasts, Lena and Ethan grow quite fond of each other. Their behavior is extremely off putting for the high school’s other students and the small town’s families, as they believe Lena’s reclusive uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), to be an evil hermit, and, by proxy, she to be a witch. Undeterred, Ethan grows fonder of Lena each day, and eventually, the two begin a romantic relationship. Shockingly, Lena reveals that she is a witch (although she makes it clear she prefers the term “caster”) and will soon turn 16, when, apparently, her true nature will be revealed as either light (good) or dark (evil).
Lena’s uncle reaches out to Ethan’s family friend Amma (Viola Davis) to try and keep the human and caster separated, but it’s too late. As is usually the case, when it rains, it pours: Lena’s dark/evil cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) shows up, along with her mother Sarafine (Emma Thompson), and together, they try to sway Lena toward evil. The film wraps up with a few tricks and twists that make you scratch your head more than anything else, and you’re left wondering if all witchcraft is this sleek and riddled with special effects.
Most high school junior males who I know would probably either head for the hills or laugh hysterically when told by a woman that she’s a witch, but Ethan holds on tight and doesn’t want to let go. The reason why might be what the film is really all about, and I sure as heck don’t have an answer. Perhaps it goes back to his opening narration and wanting to get away, with Lena symbolizing a version of escape. Perhaps he really does love her, an emotion that is picked apart by most of the elder casters in “Beautiful Creatures.” Or perhaps Ethan believed that his involvement with Lena was a way to better impact the relationships future humans would have with future casters. Whatever the reason, you can’t help but wonder why these two wound up together.
The film’s back story would have you believe that a historic Civil War battle is the reason humans and casters started to intermingle, but if you ask me, it’s because vampires were getting all the thunder for quite some time (and still are, depending on who you ask) and witches needed a little pick me up. With too many similarities to things like “Twilight” and other CW television programs, “Beautiful Creatures” can’t successfully match their moxie. For one thing, its performances are much less polished. Englert is a reasonably strong female lead, but Ehrenreich over does it and seems a bit too outlandish. Rossum is a sexy diva who looks the part but otherwise just takes up space, while Irons and his many talents are hardly utilized. It’s almost as if you can tell that the cast doesn’t really believe the story they’re charged with bringing to life.
LaGravenese was charged with whittling over 550 pages into a little over 2 hours, and not having read the novel, I can’t comment on his success or failure. Based on just the film, I was disappointed that so much effort seemed to be put into developing a plot that ultimately made me feel unfulfilled and flustered. Thankfully, there are several other books already out, likely with more to come, so more opportunities abound. From a dollars and cents perspective, however, it hardly makes sense to go down the “Beautiful Creatures” road again (the film raked in a mere third of its budget at US box offices), but this may not matter if demand is high enough. I hope it isn’t.
With lackluster performances and a story that rips the envelope open rather than pushing it to its maximum, “Beautiful Creatures” isn’t good enough to warrant watching or owning, but nor is it bad enough to leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. Instead, consider it dull, forgettable and a title that you shouldn’t feel bad stating you haven’t seen when someone asks you if you have.
Presented in a 1080p High Definition 1.77:1 aspect ratio, “Beautiful Creatures” looks fine but doesn’t exactly impress. It’s an unsurprisingly dark film, and the emphasis on greys and blacks is fine if you were to remove the grain. Clarity is evident when the filmmakers use natural light (which isn’t really all that often), but otherwise the images are moderate at best and below average at worst. There are also moments where the special effects blend in with the image on screen better than others, further adding to the image inconsistency I feared early on when I noticed the coloration confusion and grain gaps.
No real issues here with the film’s English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack, but remember that “Beautiful Creatures” takes place in the deep South so the spoken words all have a bit of a twang. There are moments where the vocals are difficult to unscramble, but the quality of the music and also the sound effects are great. There are plenty of soapbox speeches where one individual character lectures others, and in most cases, the raw emotion he or she bears isn’t hard to pick up on thanks to the audio. Additional language options are French and Spanish, while subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish.
The Blu-ray combo pack includes a standard definition DVD as well as UltraViolet copy, with over 30 minutes of bonus features like deleted scenes, theatrical trailers, featurettes talking about alternate worlds and witches and the transition from book to screen. It’s all surface level stuff that doesn’t really contribute much to the viewing experience.
A Final Word:
I’m probably not the best person to offer advice on titles like this, but regardless, I feel safe in not recommending “Beautiful Creatures.” It’s lacking in too many ways has very little to offer. My guess is that fans of the books will be disappointed, and if that’s the case, they should show their loyalty to the literature by not endorsing the film.