RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 19: Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)

The Day After Tomorrow

The Players…

Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ian Holm and Kenneth Welsh, with Emmy Rossom, Sela Ward, Dash Mihok and Jay O Sanders.

The Story…

Something’s a-stirrin’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and it ain’t just the tuna running.

When Jack Hall, a roguish climatologist and his team nearly perish in an ice flow cracking off the Antarctic shelf, he takes this to be a sign (at the very least) that his theories on climate change might be correct. Despite his credentials and impeccable data, Hall’s claims don’t do much to sway the US government into taking action. There’s been evidence for decades that global warming is a very real thing, and all of Hall’s research might be on to the reason why and maybe how to fix it.

And it’s not just all about a drastic increase in greenhouse gasses.

It’s far worse.

The Rant…

If you’ve been paying attention, the subject of climate change has been quite the hot topic—so to speak—in recent years, both in the scientific and political communities alike. Some claim global warming is due to man-made pollution. Others say it’s part of a natural cycle. A few say both. Most stamp their feet and say neither and return to that Game Of Thrones marathon and their Chex Mix.

Me? I don’t know what to think. I’m no climatologist. I’m not a politician, either (thank you and you’re welcome). But I’ll tell you what I know. Say you work in high places, and some Poindexter with multiple PhDs and a particle collider at the ready approaches you with some data suggesting a possible global catastrophe, wouldn’t you, as an elected government official serving the people’s interests, take at least some pause?

I would. And I have only one term limit: my life, and want to keep it as long as possible.

Hmm. I think this might be my first openly political diatribe here at RIORI. Sure, I’ve dabbled in the kiddie pool of partisan social commentary before. Hell, it’s part of this blog’s raison d’être (and movies. Can’t forget about movies). But actually taking a deliberate stand on a social issue? Not sure.

Too bad. I’m drunk and here we go.

Here’s a tale courtesy of the way-back machine. When I was a kid, way back in the bad ol’ 80s, I became aware of this environmental crisis which swiftly became a major buzz during the drowsy end of the Reagan years. Scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. This layer of weird oxygen surrounds the planet serving to deflect most of the sun’s harmful radiation. Without it, all of humanity would be one big, walking melanoma. Down at the South Pole it went missing, and kinda began to f*ck sh*t up.

And the hole was getting bigger.

And later another hole over the Arctic joined the party.

Then Tibet got bit.

What was up? Turned out that all those aerosol cans of Aqua Net, Lysol and Silly String (yes, Silly String) sprayed over the decades were the culprit. Or rather, what made the stuff spray was to blame. The propellant those things used to pssssht were called chlorofluorocarbons. CFCs. They were found to basically eat ozone when their residue reached the upper atmosphere. And this only took—give or take—a little over fifty years to happen. A veritable blink in Earth’s history. All from a few hundred thousand A/C units churning Freon on a daily basis.

When all the research got added up, the US and many other industrialized nations quickly put a moratorium on CFCs. The disuse of said chemicals didn’t halt the damage to the ozone layer, but it was slowed. But the damage was done, and is still there. The consequence has been, besides the Dali Lama’s bros needing SPF 10,000 to work tai chi, an increase in potential global warming.

This was over thirty years ago, and efforts were made to fix it. Thanks in no small part to the vigilant guys in white coats.

So now. It’s thirty years later. Efforts were made back then and the environmental issue of depleting ozone got addressed, including the offensive chemicals being banned. Still global warming exists. Persists. And the majority of our present elected leaders are breaking their knuckles from jamming their fingers into their ears with force greater than tearing a phone book in two drawn between a pair of tanks (go watch the MythBusters ep). Um, huh? The scientists so esteemed then are but witches and goblins these days as regarded by House and Senate. There is no proof. Look at this snowball I brought in to this hallowed hall of government. Well, if said snowball hailed from Phoenix during July then I might be a tad concerned.

Where did this willful ignorance come from? Sean Hannity? Look, if there were any immediate threats to life on this planet, and the nerds came a-callin’ with their clipboards and slide rules to the powers than be and said, “Wait!” Well, you with your doctorate from Georgetown and not MIT, might be wise to take at least some heed.

Politicians are supposed to uphold the public need—the so-called “greater good”—for their constituency. If some well-educated, well-meaning dude—an expert in their field—pays you a call and tugs on your coat about a potential danger to your much-needed voting community, again, wouldn’t you take pause? At least to prolong the lives of the electoral season ticket holders? Some that even work for ExxonMobil or BP? Some that might be lobbyists possibly holding the unedited cut of the Zapruder film?

I dunno, maybe. Just maybe.

There. Lecture over. Please pass in your Blue Books and class dismissed.

*audience rushes towards the exit, some trampled into a molasses-like smear, now unable to catch the latest Michael Bay movie staring Jim Carrey*

Like I said, I’m neither a scientist nor a politician. I don’t know what’s going on, except that something is going on. In the sky and/or in the halls of Congress. But I reiterate, I’m no expert. If I want to get some facts on climate change, I think it best I consult a real expert.

Good thing I got Dennis Quaid on my contacts list…

The life and work of a dedicated scientist can be harsh. The life and work of a dedicated paleoclimatologist (say that five times fast) screams harsh.

Ask Dr Jack Hall (Quaid). He’s been globetrotting for years, lifetimes away from friends and family, all in search of clues. Clues to how our planet works. Clues to how our endless ice ages advanced and retreated. Clues to what makes the ocean currents tick. And after many years, while posted in Antarctica, Jack might have found some answers. Finally. In the form of a vast chasm that nearly swallows up his entire research party.

Wait. The clues weren’t leading up to this. The Shackleton ice shelf is breaking off into the ocean? Like that? Christ. More clues abound.

Hall has been studying the Earth’s ancient past it see if climate change then predicts climate change now. According to his data, the answer is yes but a helluva lot faster than a few millennia. We’re talking decades now. Maybe just decade. No matter when, the issue of global warming demands attention now. But for all his skills and exhaustive research, Hall’s warnings go all but unheeded by a US subcommittee headed by the man himself, veep Becker (Welsh).

With the global economy on his mind, and America’s place in it, Mr Becker recognizes a potential grave matter in a global catastrophe. However there isn’t enough resources going around to just jarring shift the world’s industrialized nations into a realm of tree huggers. Besides, the planet has fared far worse before humans began littering its atmosphere with greenhouse gases. How dire could this matter be? How rapid could these climate shifts move?

In a word: very.

Despite Congress bending an ear backwards, Hall has at least one advocate in the form of Dr Terry Rapson (Holm). Rapson is more or less Hall’s spiritual mentor regarding climate affecting the planet and vice versa, and since taken a shine to Jack’s work. His experience studying the ocean, particularly the ebb and flow of the North Atlantic Current might be pertinent to Hall’s theories. Perhaps it’s not just global warming that’s messing around with Mother Earth, and it might go beyond the polar caps melting at an alarming rate. Rapson warns there’s a distinct chance that rapid climate change could disrupt the planet’s oceans, namely the currents that serve as Earth’s natural thermostats. If the currents begin to shift—or even fail—we could see a precipitous decline of the world’s temperature, heralding in a new, aggressive ice age.

Chilling. Literally. But Hall and Rapson’s theories are just that: theories. Global warming is unfounded. Ocean currents interrupted is the stuff of textbooks. And neither of these are compelling enough to get the world’s governments’ collective heads together and be proactive. Hall and Rapson, frustrated in their acts of environmental futility, bang their heads against the wall and wonder what’s it gonna take to make the powers that be understand a potential ice age is in the immediate future?

Well, the North Atlantic Current failing is a good start. Tornadoes ripping the West Coast apart might work. How about hurricanes the size of Greenland spewing ice, covering the Northern Hemisphere in fatal, white, fluffy stuff?

Maybe someone’ll pick up the phone then. Right after they find their mittens…

A few months back I dismantled another Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down. The movie was a hilarious, unapologetic Die Hard rip-off, with all the hallmarks of an Emmerich big screen clusterf*ck. We had memorable characters spewing chewy dialogue, rife with cheese-tastic one-liners. There were stunts a-plenty that flipped the laws of physics the bird. A bare thread of a plot that strung (heh) the offhand story together. And of course, lots and lots of collateral damage. Let the wild rumpus begin (sorry, wrong movie. Don’t care)!

All the above are trademark Emmerich popcorn fodder. He’s a master of disaster. His neo-catastophe epics harken back to The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, only with big name stars and better pyrotechnics. His movies are designed to be loud, brash and fun, with zero philosophizing and the barest scintilla of coherence. You gotta be in the right mindset to catch one o’ Ronnie’s movies (namely being unpretentious and unplugged). Sometimes you need Solaris, but other times you want Event Horizon.

Emmerich understands this. His work fills a void in the cinematic universe: big, dumb, explosive fun. IMHO, he is the 21st Century king of the “Saturday Afternoon Movie.” You know. Steamy summer weekend. Bored? Have time to kill? Need to unwind? Stream Independence Day on a lazy Saturday. There ya go. It is here where the proverbial hog rolls in its waller. All we need to complete the scene is a sixer. Or a twelver. Whatever works.

*shakes head with a crooked smile*

For some odd reason, The Day After Tomorrow missed working by a hair. And considering the above criteria of a signature Emmerich boomfest, I think I figured out what was lacking this time out. I think I also figured out why a good chunk of his movies do work.

I mean, let’s face facts. All of Emmerich’s films are derivative. This is the point. Let’s keep and maintain the story at its absolute baseline. Let’s amp up the F/X to a ludicrous level. Let’s play connect-the-dots with story progression. Let’s just have fun, people.

But whatever we get out of his films, let’s not ever do these two things:

  1. Get all serious, and;
  2. Have boring, stock characters.

Day committed both these crimes, and that’s why it swiftly got bogged down resulting in a 2-plus hour long slog.

First things first (and this might be a first). Here’s an action movie with a sociopolitical/environmental message. Been done, and seldom well (Steven Segal’s On Deadly Ground springs immediately to mind, unable to be redeemed even by Michael Caine’s gravitas). It’s a tricky thing to make a mainstream movie with a serious message to get out to the masses. Socially relevant movies are as old as the medium (e.g. Birth Of A Nation) and all over the place. If you take a breath, all movies are socially relevant, from Silver Linings Playbook to the Watchmen adaptation (you can read those reviews here :)). Movies are farting out loud with social issues; the skill is executing such a movie without being too obvious or—heaven forbid—preachy. Emmerich’s movies are at their best when they don’t tax your neocortex too much. When they don’t act as a churchkey popping open a fresh can of paint. We want popcorn. We want jokes. We want boom. Boom, I tell you!

We don’t want the Weather Channel, no matter how well the writers did their homework.

There’s nothing wrong with having a big deal disaster film tackle so prickly a matter as climate change. Al Gore and friends did a pretty good job. If you think about it (something I don’t openly endorse regarding an Emmerich film), Earthquake and The China Syndrome were about environmental disasters, and both achieved what Day failed to: generate interest.

As I’ve said before, the glue that holds a story together and keeps it humming along, be it novel or movie, is tension. For all the chaos seeing Mama Nature at her worst time of the month, Day suffers from an acute lack of urgency. I know. Despite at the outset Hall and Rapson tell us about the ensuing weather calamity, when the sh*t goes down there’s a lot of tripping over feet. Stuttering. Sure, there are a lot of the the key Emmerich touches of crash and wow, but they stagger. Why? Mostly lousy editing.

Day comes across as too self-aware, especially with the heavy-handed environmental message in tow. The self-aware factor in Emmerich’s movies are always there, though. It’s that when it’s winking, it works. The goofiness factor of his films—be it with story, acting or pyrotechnics—make the flaws go down a lot easier. Just a little bit of sugar with the urine.

Day lacks that. It’s a fickle movie, in mood and execution. The film’s whole atmosphere, so to speak, is cranky and pessimistic. The story drags out in a terribly over-serious, PSA kind of way. It’s a cautionary tale with a very large budget and banks of digital tech (over)driving the message home. Now a lot of Emmerich’s films—if not all—have a message of caution. Be it the dread of an impending alien invasion, science going too far or governments sleeping with the enemy, it’s all a hook for his movies. It mostly works, but when his stuff gets too self-aware (read: self-important) as it does in Day, the helium goes out of the balloon. The urgency gets lost in the scuffle, and the actions scenes are like so many bookends encapsulating the message, always with the message. In short, Day got too serious for its own good.

Secondly, a great deal of Emmerich’s success relies on his movies’ casting. There’s a lot of awkward wedging of human drama into Day, video feeds or no, which ain’t Emmerich’s typical MO. It’s not organic here like his usual fare, for all its wanton and welcome (and in this case, needful) silliness. So take pause and listen up. I know you’re not gonna like this, and it might want to make you slam the book shut forever. I’m telling this for your own, movie-going good. It is true, but it is not necessarily fair:

Independence Day was a ridiculous film with a scattershot plot lifted from a billion S/F “alien invasion” films. It was derivative. It was obvious. And if you took a nanosecond to pick apart the plot holes, a singularity would occur over your head and all your memories would be transmogrified into the liner notes of a mid-70s Rush album.

But it sure was fun. Vintage Emmerich. Damn the torpedoes!

Why did ID4 work, what with all its contrivances? Casting. The folks at the casting call did their homework when it came to selecting dramatic personae for the mid-ninties update of Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. We had fresh-faced Will Smith in all his winking, charming glory. We had eternal nerd Jeff Goldblum. There was the poor man’s Harrison Ford, stony Bill Pullman. Whack job Randy Quaid, Sage Judd Hirsch. Oscar-winner Mary McDonnell. The late, great character actor James Rebhorn as the irritant. Then piece-of-ass-of-the-moment Vivica A Fox. ID4 even had Commander Data, for Pete’s sake. With that eclectic line-up, how could a summer movie not entertain?

All of Emmerich’s movies feature ramshackle casting; folks you’d never see communing together except at a bar. With the example of ID4, it was a fun film, but not a good film. It was redeemed by its colorful cast. Pitting Kurt Russell and James Spader against the tranny from The Crying Game was great, chewy fun for Stargate (it didn’t spawn multiple TV series for nothing). Foxx and Tatum in White House Down made for a funny Abbott and Costello dynamic. Such casting saved potential turkeys from the sticky cinema floor because it kept the movies engaging. The characters held our attention, and quite well.

The casting aspects never quite gel in Day. It’s not for lacking a great cast, the classic Emmrich ace-in-the-hole. I love Dennis Quaid, and he’s no stranger to sci-fi action films. I remember his roles in nifty B-movie homages like Dreamscape, Enemy Mine, Wilder Napalm and Innerspace. Hell, there was that recent s/f calamity tale Pandorum where he got to play the demented bad guy. His bro did great in ID4. With Dennis’ credentials, he should’ve been a round peg here.

Nope. His Jack Hall, although in reliable Quaid form, is stiff, disconnected. He doesn’t really engender much empathy from the audience. Sure, he’s the pinion on which the plot spins. He’s a got a solid backstory (also derivative, but I’ve already hinted at giving Emmerich a pass about this). He’s got family issues. He’s got drive. And he is wanting for an emotional investment from the audience. The Quaid movies I mentioned above were fun because he hammed it up some. This is an Emmerich film. Isn’t the hero supposed to crack wise with regularity? Not with Hall. It’s all shrugs and worry. Again, I blame the subtle-as-neon message up against the neck. It robs the movie of any potential verve.

Let’s talk about the rest of our players, shall we? Like I intimated, Day isn’t lacking for an eclectic cast. Holm is a delightful character actor, and I remember him best from his role as the psychotic android in the original Alien as well as the fidgety priest in The Fifth Element. His acting chops are terribly underused here. His Rapson was so terribly laid-back in Day, the calm voice of reason and/or herald of impending danger. Sure, it’s nice to have at least someone keeping their sh*t together in the face of impossible odds of survival, but I’ve watched Holm freak out, and it would’ve added some spice here. Kinda like smooth operator Captain Kirk losing his crackers in the original Star Trek ep “The Enterprise Incident” (what? Too abstract? Too bad, film nerds).

What I found rather amusing about the casting in Day (besides trying to accept him as a teenager) was seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in all his pre-Oscar glory. Jeez, Bubble Boy has come a long way. In Day, young Jake doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. His character is terribly awkward, and not because of his obvious geekiness. He appears aware that he was too old to play a teen, and being a young man unable to convince himself of acting so otherwise. That and his Sam is a cipher. Isn’t the whole strained father/son dynamic over and done yet? I know that Emmerich likes to play with classic Hollywood character tropes, giving spin. No spin with Sam. He’s rote, that and totally lacking any chemistry with Quaid, especially when their interactions get mawkish by the third act. It’s a shame what with these two usually reliable actors.

Now Welsh as VP Becker was a stitch. There was a none-too-subtle analogy going on there with a Cheney/Bush portrait (and Perry King as the bewildered Prez with maybe only one line of stumbling dialogue drove the point home). Welsh was the only interesting character in the whole movie. Sure, he was the “bad guy” and they always get the best lines, but it was how they were delivered that mattered. It’s easy to peg a villain that twirls his mustache. It’s more interesting to try and peg an antagonist who carries themselves so calmly and rationally as an antagonist. Remember Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter? He wasn’t the villain. Ostensibly it was Buffalo Bill, but Lecter was calm and calculating. Bill was clearly disturbed. Who won the Oscar? Now no, Welsh didn’t eat anyone, but he exuded slimy confidence of a dyed-in-wool politician that would never accidentally shoot a hunting buddy in the face. This appeals to me (not the shooting-in-the-face part. Sorry).

Sela Ward was pretty. Moving on.

Enough grousing. There were some aspects of Day I dug. You gotta find the sweet amidst the bitter, right? I think I spent enough time being bitter here for now. Instead, how ’bout those signature Emmerich F/X? As always, strategic and dazzling. The weather effects are great. They’re also totally plausible. Over the top, yes, but the “atmospheric anomalies” kind of reminded me of a Jack Kirby comic. What he drew didn’t exist, but looked like it should. Even those multiple tornado touchdowns in LA could never happen (based on the laws of physics, which are rigorously never adhered to in an Emmerich movie, thank God) looked like they should’ve happened, at least within the context of the story.

Apropos of nothing, I’d be remiss to mention that Day—for all its awesome spectacle—got a lot of flak for so much urban collateral damage so relatively soon after 9/11. This must’ve hurt the box office takeaway. I don’t think any terrorist attack undercurrent was part of Emmerich’s story, but people can be a might fickle regarding a city under siege, be it a bomb or a hurricane. This possible oversight on the studio’s behalf might’ve done some damage to the movie’s rep (but I think the fragile acting might’ve been a more likely culprit).

Day did have another significant thing going for it. My darling, bitchy muse pacing was sated here. Despite the bumbling plot and protracted running time, the movie had a mostly smooth pace. I know, I know. How can that be with all my moaning and groaning about lackluster story and clunky acting? Well, we understand the plot was convoluted and at times felt kind of non-linear (not to mention lacking in following interior logic, but hey again, Emmerich movie), but it strangely all hung together well. The subplots, though generally unnecessary, didn’t muddle the flow of the film. The overall muted acting didn’t distract from the story’s momentum. Despite all the other hiccups, Day rolled along with nary a hitch in context. I think that last bit’s the key. In context. I guess with this aspect, the sum was greater than its parts. If only in this aspect.

Lightening up, let’s not forget the funny. Like with all Emmerich films, there’s a good deal of humor in Day. I’m not gonna get into (again) the whole Bill Shakespeare thing. I lamented earlier that this film needed a healthy dose of silliness. While not on par with the hijinks of ID4Day had its tongue-in-cheek moments. Seems all that overarching self-awareness wasn’t lost on our heroes winking understanding about how ridiculous and surreal their circumstances are. And they are ridiculous. Emmerich hasn’t lost sight of screwiness here, even though it gets all bleary with needless melodrama and an overly serious message. Some comedy is better than none when the entire planet’s atmosphere is malfunctioning, I guess.

I’ve found precious few directors who can so cleanly set up shop the way Emmerich does, making their movies their signature own. Spielberg, Scorsese, Zemekis, Gilliam, Fellini and Kurosawa are others (not to name-drop). Now I’m not placing Emmerich in their camp, not exactly, but you have to respect a filmmaker who knows his station and can sell it so well to audiences. To be so unashamed to lay it so think like so much peanut butter that audiences get all up in that. Like I said in the White House Down installment, Emmerich’s stuff is such silly fun, and not designed to win any awards (barring Best Visual Effects and most ka-booms per frame).

With Day, the man slipped up a bit. Sure, all the nuts and bolts were there to make it another surefire Emmerich blockbuster, but the parts weren’t connected properly. Too many loose ends. Too much philosophizing. Not enough one-liners. No Jeff Goldblum. You hear what I’m screaming.

I repeat, Emmmerich is the modern day king of the disaster film (maybe the only king), a sub genre that’s been more or less absent until his rise to power with ID4. We need chaos and creation like his. We need stupid stunts and even stupider jokes. We all need to sit back, get all comfy with our Slim Jims, turn on one of his films and let them delta waves do their thing. It’s just that simple. And Day was not. It was a fantastic, visually-rich disappointment. It was also a movie of contradictions in execution. Smooth pacing, jerky storyline. Great cast, lame acting. Interesting plot, preachy story. Again, screaming.

If there was one message I got from Day—besides the subtle-as-neon enviro one—it was this. One for Emmerich, actually: You be you, so don’t make us think. Keep that ID4 sequel nice and goony and maybe I’ll return your calls, just so long as a colossal electric storm doesn’t drop over the Eastern seaboard and generates enough amps to create an EMP to wipe out all the cell towers from here to Venus.

Don’t forget to recycle!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Sorry, folks. If you’re looking for style over substance, look elsewhere. Just watch out for the storm front first.

Stray Observations…

  • I really dug the opening credits. Cool camera work.
  • Emmerich sure likes to do a lot of globetrotting in his movies.
  • Nice touch with the tree flick in the foyer.
  • Erasing the Hollywood sign? Roland you sly devil, you.
  • “So much for one in a billion…”
  • What was Tomita up to between here and Karate Kid 2?
  • “Terrible weather!” “Tell me about it!”
  • Amazing service that lady in the library has.
  • “We’re all gonna need it.”
  • “There’s a whole section on tax law down here we can burn.” Come to your own conclusions.
  • “Just dropped in to do a little shopping.”
  • Thank you for not showing Sanders’ impact. A rare display of restraint on Emmerich’s part.
  • “Have you ever seen the sky so clear?”

Next Installment…

Disney leads Pixar Studios into a Brave new world, and the results are rather pretty. Maybe too pretty.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 12: Albert and Allen Hughes’ “From Hell” (2001)


The Players…

Johnny Depp, Heather Graham, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane and Ian Richardson.

The Story…

It’s London in the late 1800’s, and a vicious murderer is on the loose. He preys on the women of the night, cornering them, slitting their throats, eviscerating them. There is no clear motive. There are no proper clues. Save a few odd letters from the ghoul that taunt the authorities, the deeds might as well been committed by a specter. Scotland Yard charges one of their best, brightest and rather unconventional inspectors to the case. He is put to task investigating these grisly murders revolving around a new, different and baffling breed of criminal altogether: a serial killer.

The Rant…

In college, I came across a novel that I found myself tearing into from the prologue. It was The Alienist by Caleb Carr. Perhaps a few of you know of it. I lapped the thing up. A serial killer mystery in late 1800’s New York, chock full of seamy atmosphere, proto-noir, remarkable characters and sense of urgency that if the killer could not be found (by employing the woefully primitive forensics of the day) in time, a new victim would surface at every chapter turn. Needless to say, great book. Read it like three times in a year. It even had Teddy Roosevelt in it as a cameo. Really.

I’ve read other serial killer novels that also took my fancy. The Silence of the Lambs, of course and its prequel, Red Dragon. Robert Bloch’s Psycho. Some others tales of no consequence. I’m not exactly a voracious reader of the oeuvre, but the notion of the hunt that appeals to me. The hunt for clues and the hunt for the man. And it doesn’t hurt when the stakes are very high. A trail of bodies that’ll lead to an even longer trail if something isn’t done to stop the nutjob with the meathook and daddy issues. Like I said, high stakes. Makes for a good mystery.

I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that you know the unsolved Jack the Ripper mystery is the fountainhead where all such tales of grue flow. It’s the original cold case file. A spit back I covered a film analyzing the hunt for one of Jack’s contemporaries, the Zodiac. That film adaptation was a clean, clear, concise and equally gripping story as any based on the Ripper mythos. But that’s just the thing. No other serial killer, real or from an author’s imagination has created a mythos; a set of attitudes and tenets based on the romanticized notion of what a killer could be. The closet relative is f*cking Dracula. And the Ripper was indeed a real person, but somehow not as scary as Arthur Leigh Allen (or whoever the Zodiac was—is—whatever).

Why does the mystique of this case endure? Is it because the Ripper case was never solved? Well, neither was the Zodiac. Is it because of the gruesomeness of Jack’s slaughter? Jeffery Dahmer’s acts were far more perverted. Is it the time and place? There was the Devil in the White City, HH Holmes, who worked in a similar time and space while Jack picked off his vics, and Holmes had dozens more than the Ripper’s. I say none of that matters. What really matters is that there’s a great story behind Jack the Ripper, real and/or imagined. A story only history has steeped into the collective memory of all of us (hell, it even popped up in an episode of the original Star Trek). We’re talking staying power. Enough to entrance moviemakers time and again…

London, 1888. The Whitechapel district. The Tenderloin of the seamier, skuzzy, sh*thole asscrack of Albion where the depraved come to practice their trades, learn them or simply succumb to the filth that just happens to be hangin’ ‘round. Because that’s all any of it is good for. You wanna good screw? Go elsewhere. You want to get f*cked, get thee to Whitechapel. You’ll blow your load and lose your billfold on so much sh*t tub booze and honeyed words from the local, willing bang-tails. Maybe you’ll even be relieved of the end of your nose if you’re so fortunate. Good times, good times.

For some better times than others, for there is a killer on the loose in Whitechapel. And not your average cutthroat out for money or fulfilling a vendetta. No. This ghoul works in and is of the shadows, snapping his victims out of the dreary, sordid streets of the demimonde and eviscerating them, bloody and savage as if God wasn’t watching. His works of butchery are found to have a certain grace however. These aren’t the knife gouges of your common street tough, but rather concise work of a skilled surgeon. The victims bodies have been relieved of their innards, disemboweled by the likes of an artisan, and the focus of the incisions being of the genitalia.

Despite the grisly nature of the crimes, they don’t really draw much concern from the denizens of Whitechapel, you see. The victims have all been prostitutes, common corner-walkers. Whores. Transient wayward women who come and go in the distract as the gardyloos run down the gutter. What’s another dead trollop in a neighborhood awash with depravity?

A mystery, for one. And a fever dream for one Inspector Frederick Abberline (Depp) who can’t just let such cases go. It’s a curious case, one bets, but not nearly as curious as how Abberline goes about his detecting. He has “visions” of sorts, aided from endless nights chasing the dragon at a secret opium den or alternately chasing the green fairy with a bottle of absinthe, a few well dripped baubles of laudanum and nice hot bath. He “sees” the crimes happen before they happen, but the details are always hazy. The Ripper case is a particularly juicy one to bite into, as it appears to point in a pentagram-like compass rose to many halls of the British social structure.

A political case, you say? What does the insane practices of diseased butcher have to do with the social climes of Victorian England? Abberline wants to know, needs to know. Away from his usual haunts and mostly lucid, Abberline realizes he needs and inside man within the halls of Whitechapel to follow down a lead. More accurately, he needs an inside woman, whom he finds in the form of the rabble rousing Mary Kelly (Graham), who was close to several of the Ripper’s victims. She knows the streets even grimier than what Abberline ever accessed, and if these murders are not random, not quite sociopathic, but political in nature, why, the Queen herself would be up in arms. The slaying of whores as remonstration up against a political identity that has served the Empire well for generations?

Some are not willing to let go of this case for many reasons. But Abberline has only one: to stop a madman…

Heh. This was a fun one.

Remember the old 1985 movie Clue? That was also a fun one, and not just because it was funny. It was based on a game after all, and the story kind of flowed out like a game, tongues firmly in cheek. From Hell has that same vibe, but without the humor. No matter, that. But there is a game afoot. Let’s case this joint.

The opening montage is just great. Everything you need to establish the atmosphere is put into place. Snuggle up, we’re gonna be here awhile. Better get comfy. It’s sometimes a bit of a challenge to set the stage for a “period” film without resorting to stereotyping. Since this movie was based on a graphic novel, such staging used it not only reflective of the comic but how the story flows as well. From Hell has good story flow from the get go. Like I said before, the first 12 minutes. Got my attention.

The camera work here sort of plays out like a graphic novel, too. Very cool editing, deliberate and sound. I’m assuming that From Hell is not as immediately recognizable as, say, Watchmen in the Alan Moore catalogue (I’m noting this as a sort of PSA for the under informed). But it is noteworthy in how exhaustively researched it was with the Ripper case. The framing of shots here flow in a panel-to-panel progression. I find that neat. Here’s a comic book adaptation with a high sense of style.

But wait, there’s The Standard to follow…

We got highly stylized everything here. The costumes, the acting, the staging, the lousy accents (seriously, Depp and Graham would’ve fared better speaking in their natural voices. They both sound like outcasts from a Renaissance Faire), the period atmosphere is all a bit overwrought, sometimes bordering on cartoonish. I know this was supposed to be a comic adaptation, but there’s nothing deliberately comical about the story. However the Hughes’ bros were never shy about being stylistic. Who says you gotta stay in Compton in order to flash violent flair? Then again, the gore in From Hell can be stupid at times, comical. There’s a balance the Hughes’ are trying to reach here, between mystery and historical fiction (as well as probably trying to do Moore justice) but it’s barely left of center.

There’s a touch too much melodrama in From Hell, which can make the film feel hollow here and there, like the balloon might be popped at any moment. Again I know it’s supposed to be a period piece, but that doesn’t mean we gotta get all stereotypificated here. You can safely lay that pratfall at the feet of our leads. There was nary a hint of chemistry between Depp and Graham. Depp’s Inspector Abberline feels as if he’s spent way too many nights “chasing the dragon,” a slave to his “visions.” He often seems on the verge of boredom, despite the grisly urgency of the case. And there is urgency; the Hughes’ keep things moving at a good clip with very little slushiness. What slushiness remains is provided by the caricature Graham provides. The streetwise hooker with a heart of gold is an all too common device, which in the right hands works really well. Um, it didn’t work with Graham. Along with that accent, bleah. Mary Kelly and her brood just showed up in the film to slow it down.

On yet another hand (and here goes that durn balance trying to get established) the interplay of the characters, especially the supporting cast (and an exclamation point to Ian Holm whose laid back presence throughout the film really hit the finale home) created a nice Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy going on. There is this subplot of class warfare in the movie I didn’t particularly take a shine to, but it did make for a pretty nifty take on how the other half lives in late Victorian London. Here the balance was achieved.

Upside: the movie’s a good mystery. Downside: I think I figured it out too soon. There was an element of predictability in From Hell, albeit a small one. I’m also kind of on the fence of having the mystery solved. According to my records—*rifles through pages*—the Ripper case was never closed. It’s probably the longest cold case ever. The again, it’s quite hard to gage the film version against the comic. I never really read the book so I can’t tell if I’m ahead or behind the curve as plotting goes. I know Moore was writing historical fiction, but one of the greatest aspects of the Ripper case is that was never solved, thus adding to the mystery and mystique. Wrapping it up robs the story of some its punch.

Despite all my carps, I did dig the movie. From Hell was fun. What’s neat about this film is how easily it makes the mystery aspect interactive. The audience sniffs for clues as Depp sniffs for clues (note: in Whitechapel, clues smell a lot like beer farts). It uncurls, twists and turns again as we scratch our collective heads with an air of…well, whodunit? It plays out to the cinematic version of a game of Ocarina of Time. Not too hard, not too easy. Goldilocks zone. Nice balance actually achieved there,  too, perhaps what the Hughes’ were aiming for along the way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go chase me some fairies (Zelda or absinthe reference? YOU DECIDE).

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s got a pleasurable charm for the graphic subject matter. But at its core, for all the gore and sociopolitical folderol, From Hell‘s a good, old-fashioned whodunit. One plus two plus one plus one; that’s six. 😉

Stray Observations…

  • I love the sound effect when the brougham’s steps are deployed. It cleverly replicates the sound of…well, a blade being unsheathed.
  • “You won’t get any sense out of her.” “I’m used to that.” Both smirks are priceless.
  • In college, I was vice prez for our chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity. Most of its rituals came from those of the Freemasons. I learned that despite the accolades the Masons earned in helping found our country, a lot of their sh*t stank. Perhaps the mention of it in the movie is a warning to both invest in and suspect an outside, secret belief system. In simpler terms: don’t be quick to trust anyone simply because they have “connections.”
  • A lot can be done on a small movie lot. If this sounds like a small anti-CGI screed, it’s not. I just appreciate efficiency in cinema in all its guises.
  • Ah, the absinthe ritual. “Let me commune with T.S. Eliot!”

Next Installment…

Linear. Vertical interval. ABS-EBU embedded with digital audio. Burnt-in. CDI. MIDI…You know, types of Timecode.