Web standards alert

Account: log in (or sign up)
onebee Writing Photos Reviews About

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is like screwing your sister's drunk half-conscious friend at a high school party on a trip home from college. Conceptually it is a hugely attractive idea, but in its execution it leaves you feeling dirty and more than a little regretful. And on top of that, everything in your being tells you in advance not to get involved, but you can't reason yourself out of what seems like such a good idea. For most viewers, there was probably a lot less at stake here, but I was really hoping for good things.

Joe Rogan of NewsRadio and Fear Factor was a celebrity panelist on the first semifinal episode of NBC's reality program Last Comic Standing. When Rob Cantrell – one of the funniest comedians involved – performed his bit about surfing being the most dangerous sport because it's the only one which might be interrupted by a shark, Rogan told him that every comedian knows a good bit when he says to himself "Man, I wish I'd thought of that." Multiply that by ten and you have the feeling I got when I first heard of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The League is the brainchild of Alan Moore who is largely credited with the reinvention of the comic book in the 1990s. It's a truly brilliant concept. Since the film's promotional material isn't doing much of a job making it clear, I'll sum it up: The League is made up of fictional characters from a handful of well-known Victorian era books. There's Allan Quatermain from his own adventure series (he's sort of like Indiana Jones, but a hunter not an archaeologist); Mina Murray from Dracula (I believe Winona Ryder played her in the Scorsese Dracula); Dr. Hawley Griffin (H.G. Wells's titular The Invisible Man); Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea; and Dr. Jekyll (who brings along with him his alter ego Mr. Hyde). They are brought together by a mysterious man and asked to save the world from the clutches of an evil mastermind. The crimefighters are billed as a group of villains although that term is used rather loosely. "Outsiders" would be a better way to describe them. Some are villainous in their respective books, while others are more or less antisocial.

I think it's a fascinating idea. First of all, there's the ironic anachronism of modern-day super villians and conquests of world domination set in such a different period. They're without all the weapons that we're used to in these types of stories. Plus I've always been a fan of commingling fictional universes. Scenes in Adaptation which are set behind the scenes of Being John Malkovich are as perfect an example of this as recent films can grant. Something about this interweaving of parallel fictional universes simply tantalizes me. Also, the ensemble is relatable because, like the Justice League of America, there's a mix of the supernatural and the merely talented. Murray, Nemo, and Quatermain don't have any special abilities; like Batman, they're just smart people who are driven by what they do.

Moore revels in the period of his story and therefore the artistic style and presentation are reminiscent of the Victorian era. Each issue of the comic book includes fictional "advertisements" much like you'd see in vintage newspapers of the time. And the character development is handled eloquently (partly because of how efficiently ideas can be conveyed in the simultaneously visual-literary world of comics). I haven't read any of the five books from which his League is formed, although I have a varying degree of familiarity with their characters. Clearly, knowing the characters in advance is helpful, but Moore's writing gives them dimension quickly and effectively, so the reader understands the personalities involved without too much time spent on backstory. The plot steams forward, with the group first assembling and then setting off to defeat the treacherous Moriarty and his scheme to acquire a mysterious gravity-defying substance, cavorite, and use it to further his plans of ruling the world. The cavorite angle is brilliant, in my opinion, because it's reflective of the science of the age. At the turn of the 20th century it was still a large and physical world. Electricity was a new concept and still very rare; the wireless telegraph and the automobile were brand new; pneumatics, hydraulics, and steam were the way things were powered and manipulated. Gravity was still a major force – the dirigible and the airplane were still a few years off – in the era before electronics, every pursuit involved struggling against physical constraints like gravity. Cavorite was just the sort of thing a madman would want to get his hands on.

Well, the filmmakers blundered, as Hollywood studios so often do. The endless revisions to the script leave the story fractured and inconsequential. (My first exposure to the concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was in an "Entertainment Weekly" blurb which touched on the hostile atmosphere on set. As much as it saddens me to say, some of these script polishes may have been the result of Sean Connery's insistence that his character be given more screen time.) The ensemble has been tweaked and re-tweaked until it fails to make sense. Murray is made into a vampiress and the invincible Dorian Gray added in order to increase the supernatural aspect. This leaves Quatermain and Nemo as the only regular humans in the League and Nemo is relegated to the role of chauffeur. Oh, and also Tom Sawyer. I almost forgot about him because the movie made me want so badly to. The writers have added the Tom Sawyer character reportedly in an attempt to pander to the perceived inability of American audiences to identify with non-American characters. (Hey, if Americans can't handle a non-American ensemble, why are the summer's most successful films about (1) not just fish but Australian fish and (2) subterranean freedom fighters of the distant future who have no known nationality at all?) In doing so, they subvert the basic appeal of the League and also invent a future for Tom Sawyer which is silly and uncharacteristic – he's now a U.S. Secret Service agent. The oversized League is now unwieldy and the motivations and allegiances of most characters are lost in the struggle to get everyone in, which results in a frequently confused audience.

These changes not only demolish the original concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen itself but they also lay waste to the key elements of the storytelling style. In Moore's vision, the anachronism is central to the conceit of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen but it succeeds because it is handled in a very specific way. The vigilante crimefighting and supervillain are transposed into the Victorian era context, but everything else stays the same. In the film, there are cars, automatic rifles and sonar, among other maddening technological innovations that had yet to appear at the time. Plus, Sawyer is clearly labeled a Secret Service agent because the FBI was at least a half-decade away from being invented, but until President McKinley's assassination in 1901, Sawyer's responsibilities would have only included fighting counterfeiters, hardly likely to make him an expert sniper. The idea of the comic book is that these characters are advanced in their thinking, but their technology is for the most part contemporary. The inherent drama this creates is diluted in the film by removing all of those challenges and essentially equipping both sides of the fight with a big magical Mary Poppins carpetbag. Clearly, the filmmakers have missed the point and missed it repeatedly.

This makes no sense to me. As a studio, you purchase a property because of its unique appeal. In this case, that appeal consists of a unique style and concept. The comic doesn't talk down to its audience; its characters are built out of classic literature and its drama and interest are built out of a respect for the period setting. If you don't want those things, there are plenty of other stories you can tell about people banding together to fight crime.

Instead, director Stephen Norrington and writer James Robinson (obviously revised by countless uncredited others) hack and twist the story apart, leaving few recognizable elements remaining. Cavorite is eliminated; the motivation of the arch-villain is somewhat unclear, explained only in spinning newspaper headlines. The twist ending is positively preposterous and the events in between are completely unrelated to one another. The script is full of red herrings but it's not the type that make you think "Ah! What a brilliant twist!" instead you're left thinking "Why would any character do that?" "How was that thing possible?" or "Wait, didn't they just say the opposite?" This is one of those movies where the filmmakers came up with a few sequences they wanted and then when they finished filming those they realized that they had nothing to tie them together so they spliced in an explosion here and there to motivate the characters into the next scene. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe they fancied themselves devising an ingenious Christie-like labyrinth of devious characters set at cross purposes and unsure of whom to trust. If so, man did they ever fail. The result is a lurching, directionless story in which, despite all the noise, nothing ever seems to happen.

I'm generally very forgiving in my predilection for giving actors credit for a successful performance when they have a terrible script to work with, but this time they really challenged me. Jason Flemyng does an admirable job with the Jekyll/Hyde duality. I'm an admirer of Connery in any form and here he is basically playing Indiana Jones's dad again only gutsier, so you can't argue with that. The silly motivation that they try to give his character is wasted, but at least Connery knows it. He's primarily an action star anyway, so he just does that. The only other performance of note is Peta Wilson as Mrs. Mina Harker. (The filmmakers refer to Murray by her married name; Moore chose her maiden name. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in the focus group that precipitated that change.) Harker is a widow, a doctor and a vampire, and Wilson artfully weaves the passions and vulnerabilities together to breathe life into this complex creature. It was a dumb choice to make her into a monster, but I almost applaud it because of the range that Wilson brings to the performance. As the only female in the gang – in fact, in the cast – Wilson delivers all the sex appeal while finding time to squeeze in characterization whenever the camera is accidentally left on her for long enough. She has a sly smile and a sparkle in her eye that convey her bloodthirstiness and sexuality at once. (Like Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary and Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element, Wilson garners my automatic adoration because her flashing eyes and bedimpled smile remind me of my sometime temptress Michelle.) A great deal of her screen time is wasted on an unfortunate affair with Dorian Gray that has been absurdly shoe-horned into her backstory, but the rest is devoted to an elegant and subtle performance.

I guess the primary disappointment is that they fumbled the only opportunity. Based on the reaction to this movie, there surely won't be a sequel. And there won't be another adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not for a good long while. First, the movie industry isn't crazy enough to do that – it would be like remaking Seabiscuit. They'd never believe in the possibility of selling the same adaptation again so soon, even if someone could pin the marketing team down and force them to understand the power of the tag line: "Everything the first one should have been." Second, Fox must own the rights to the story for a good part of the future, and they're not going to sell – the rights are the only viable property they've gotten out of the whole mess. We could hope that Moore (who must surely be at least as disappointed as I am) might try to follow in Joss Whedon's footsteps and bring the property to television either in live action or animated form, but this is a long shot because he seems too laid back to want to fight Fox for creative control on this. Why couldn't they have left well enough alone? Hold on to the property until someone comes along who's capable of doing it right.

Your Comments
Name: OR Log in / Register to comment

Comments: (show/hide formatting tips)

send me e-mail when new comments are posted