Peter, Peter, where hast thou gone?
Writer-director Peter Jackson began his filmmaking career with strange, outrageous, mostly bloody little films like “Bad Taste,” “Meet the Feebles,” and “Braindead” before moving on to more mainstream but decidedly odd movies like “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners.” Then came his epic “Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong,” and he assured himself a place in cinematic history.
So where did “The Lovely Bones” (2009) come from?
While “The Lovely Bones” is a technically accomplished piece of filmmaking that exhibits flashes of Jackson’s idiosyncratic taste, it is frequently sentimental, softhearted, and diffuse. It’s a murder mystery that isn’t really a mystery, and a crime drama where the victim is essentially always with us, telling us her story. At least those parts of the film show promise. It’s the rather slow, sometimes plodding narrative, the vague, often nebulous setting, and the wholly predictable nature of the events that prove stumbling blocks even for so skilled a filmmaker as Jackson.
Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, the movie concerns a fourteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, acquitting herself quite nicely in the role), who’s dead when the movie begins and whose body is missing. She tells us immediately in a voice-over that somebody murdered her. Shortly after that, she tells us who murdered her. So there’s no mystery here, no police or detective procedural involved. What we get instead is a story about the girl’s attempts from the next world to communicate to the living and tell them where her remains lie and possibly the identity of the person who killed her. And therein lie the problems.
First off, it’s never a good idea to try to make the afterlife too literal. Practically everyone has his or her ideas on the subject, and no film director is ever going to satisfy everybody’s imagination. You could call the movie a fantasy except that polls show that a majority of people in the world do, in fact, believe in some form of afterlife, so the movie tries to depict what a lot of folks already believe in. It’s just that filmmakers have never satisfactorily described that afterlife, and Jackson, no matter how imaginative he may be, doesn’t do any better at it than filmmakers before him. Remember recent movies like “What Dreams May Come” or “Constantine” that attempted to replicate visions of heaven and hell? Those conceptualizations turned out pretty hackneyed, and so does the afterlife Jackson creates. In fairness, the afterlife in this movie isn’t really a heaven or a hell but a sort of halfway house, a waiting area between worlds, but it’s still all idealized lakes and hills, soft, pastel beauty, sweetness and light, augmented by plenty of CGI special effects, just the way every other writer and director has envisioned it. Nothing new here.
Apparently, according to the film’s narrative, certain of the recently deceased can’t move on to their final reward until they finish up business down here on Earth. Susie must somehow reach out either to her parents or to anyone among the living who will listen to her before continuing her eternal journey. And that’s about all there is to the movie: Susie trying to figure out where she is and what she needs to do to move along, and her parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), especially her father, trying to figure out what happened to her. Yet, despite the simplicity of the story line, it doesn’t stop Jackson from extending things to about two-and-a-quarter heart-tugging hours, which is a good thirty minutes and several heart tugs too long. (The keep case announces the film’s length at 130 minutes, but my Blu-ray player insists it’s 135. Then, to confuse matters further, IMDb lists the theatrical length at 121 minutes. Only Jackson probably knows for sure. It seemed like about six hours to me.)
To fill out a rather vacuous plot, the writers (presumably starting with the novelist) provide an assortment of peculiar, quirky characters. Chief among the supporting cast is a creepy neighbor, George Harvey, superbly played by Oscar-nominated Stanley Tucci. If the film had portrayed everyone and everything in as realistically a low-key manner as Tucci handles his role, the movie might have had a chance to fly instead limp sluggishly along. Tucci is brilliant as the solitary neighbor whom practically nobody on the block knows. He reminds one of Anthony Perkins as the infamous Norman Bates–quiet, reserved, mysterious, and scary.
The other characters are mere window dressing. Mark Wahlberg’s obsessed, overwrought father rings true only to a point and then begins to annoy. Rachel Weisz’s part as the mother is more nondescript than the father’s and an annoyance even earlier on.
In addition, we meet Susan Sarandon as Susie’s boozy grandmother, who is downright bizarre, a kind of Auntie Mame caricature who seems thrown in for an extra but unnecessary boost of eccentricity. Next is Ruth Connors (Carolyn Dando), a girl the students at school think is weird because she sees things other people don’t. Think of Winona Ryder’s character in “Beetle Juice.” Then, we have Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie), a too-good-to-be-true English boy Susie likes; Lindsey Salmon (Rose McIver), Susie’s younger sister, on whom the murderer next sets his sights; Holly Golightly (Nikki Soohoo), a fellow traveler in the in-between place who exhorts Susie to let go of her old world and move on; and Detective Len Feneman (Michael Imperiali), the officer investigating Susie’s disappearance.
Maybe you’ll like “The Lovely Bones” more than I did. I hope so. I watched it on disc twice over a period of a few months and didn’t find it any easier going the second time around, despite the high-definition picture. For a Peter Jackson film, it is oddly maudlin and syrupy, making even the most extravagantly saccharine moments in “The Lord of the Rings” seem positively Shakespearean.
Jackson used a variety of conventional film and HD video cameras to shoot “The Lovely Bones,” so expect to see some differences among the various scenes. Personally, I found the bright, oversaturated colors Jackson favors for most shots rather irritating, even if the director meant them to imbue the film with an otherworldly, fairy-tale quality. For me, much of the movie looked cartoonish, with faces too pink or too orange and hues too intense. The effect works well enough in the otherworldly sequences, but not so well in the real-life scenes. If you just look out your window, you’ll see that the world is not as brilliant, gleaming, or glossy as much of this picture is.
DreamWorks engineers transferred the 2.35:1 ratio, high-definition image to a dual-layer BD50 using an MPEG-4 codec, probably achieving as good a video quality as they could. That does not, however, mean that I have to like it. Definition is fine, and there is little or no evidence of transfer tinkering. When the PQ is good, it’s splendid; I just wish Jackson hadn’t bathed so many scenes in glaring, golden, Romanticized glows.
As the movie went on, I became more and more impressed by the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio. It exhibits terrific clarity and dynamics, with a natural-sounding midrange, perfect for the voice-over narration. There’s an expansive stereo spread involved as well, with an excellent use of the surrounds for ambient noises and musical bloom. Combine those elements with a wide frequency response, extended highs, and room-rumbling bass, and you get a soundtrack worthy of one’s attention.
Disc one of this 2-Disc Special Edition Blu-ray set contains the feature film; twelve scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, also a high-definition, dual-layer BD50, contains a three-hour documentary, “Filming The Lovely Bones,” on the making of the movie. Peter Jackson offers a brief introduction to it, and the doc itself contains three major sections: “USA Principal Photography,” “New Zealand Principal Photography,” and “Visual Effects Photography.” Basically, Jackson says he wanted to do something different from the usual behind-the-scenes feature, so he did a fifteen-week diary of events as they transpired during the shooting. Interestingly, in the clips we see, the colors look far more realistic than those in the finished movie, so I assume Jackson intended the film’s hues to appear excessively intense. Can’t say I agree with his decision.
I never read the novel “The Lovely Bones,” so I have no idea if it is as tedious as Peter Jackson’s movie. Certainly, much of the film’s slender story line and characters seem derivative. There’s even an element of “Ghost” in the climax. Although I have no objections to a filmmaker wanting to expand his horizons and tackle new projects, new techniques, and new genres, I hope Jackson returns before long to the fantasy and tongue-in-cheek horror he does so well. Another “Lovely Bones” and a lot of folks, myself included, may be less likely to extend him the benefit of the doubt, no matter how much we’ve enjoyed his previous work.