Yesterday we planned to go to the beach, hit the library and head downtown to watch SORCERER’S APPRENTICE. The weather report promised us that the day would be mostly cloudy, leading to a drizzle at the end of the day. Being Seattle-ites, we headed to the beach anyway. Being Seattle, the day turned clear and beautiful. And me without my sunscreen.
We played Frisbee golf (more like Frisbee putt putt), built driftwood shelters on the beach, took photographs at low tide, (Oh, look! a bald eagle in flight!:
The full but rather small set is on flickr here. ) ate a picnic, dropped off and picked up books at the library, then… the movie!
Non-spoiler version: Fun but unsatisfying. Nic Cage was better than he’s been in a big-budget film in a while and Jay Baruchel really sells the nerdy hero character he’s signed up for. But while individual scenes and sequences are a lot of fun, the movie as a whole doesn’t add up. Like too many films that involve stopping bad guys from casting a world-ending spell, it feels like watching a game of Calvinball where everyone goes home before the end.
SPOILER VERSION: Sorry, but this got long
First of all, the beginning of this movie was a disaster. All the exposition that they should have saved for a scene in the third act gets dumped on us–with voiceover–in the first few seconds. There are opportunities here to be indirect with the plot, to make the audience think something simple is happening but instead peel back layers just like the nesting doll that everyone is fighting over, but someone (I’d guess studio development people) didn’t trust the audience to bear up under a bit of mystery. Everything had to be explained right away, long before we had any reason to care.
As a result, only Baruchel’s character is left out of the mystery, and he doesn’t even know it for most of the film. That’s a lost opportunity.
And that Calvinball thing? One of the dangers of writing fantasy is that audiences will find the plot utterly arbitrary and ridiculous. How many separate macguffins are they after? Has the dangerous danger that will come at the end of the film been shown at all in the early parts of the film? Are the things the villains have to do to accomplish their goal something that the audience already has a connection to?
Baruchel himself is one of the macguffins: a clumsily-handled prophecy states that Merlin’s dragon ring (another macguffin) will ID the “Prime Merlinian” (insert eyeroll here) who will inherit Merlin’s power and be able to do magic without a sorcerer’s ring (or staff, in the villain’s case, but never mind that). This leads to a Matrix-esque irritation with Our Nerdy Hero, because the audience has to wait for him to Believe In Himself and solve the plot.
There’s also a nesting doll, with each layer being a prison for bad guys going down to the bottom layer which holds the main baddie and Cage’s Love Interest.
Not to mention the magic urn that delays the plot by ten years, and the tesla coils that Baruchel’s character experiments with in his secret underground (non-supervillain) lab.
Is that enough? Hell, that’s too much. The more magical macguffins the audience is supposed to care about, the further the story gets from the things that really matter, like character relationships.
Which brings us to the subject header. During the scene where Baruchel wins the heart of Becky (aka The Girl) he invites her into a tesla cage while he shows off his work. “Step into my cage.” And it’s about that point that I realized all the women in the movie are in cages. Becky is the girl of Our Nerdy Hero’s dreams, but he keeps her completely ignorant of what’s going on. The love interest for Nicolas Cage’s character (played by Monica Bellucci) sacrifices herself to save him in the opening voiceover by joining her body and soul w/ secret evil baddie Morgana. Both end up trapped together inside the innermost nesting doll.
What this means is that the women in the film are sought but locked out of the main action. Becky is just a distraction from Our Nerdy Hero’s training… until the villain kidnaps her and holds her at spellpoint to make the good guys surrender all. Cage’s mentor hero is still pining after Bellucci’s even after 1300 years. Apparently, he’s never heard of “moving on.”
And Molina’s villain wants to release Morgana (and Veronica, too) so she can end the world. And why did he turn bad? Because Bellucci’s character fell in love with Cage’s instead of his. Yet another case of not moving on.
Only at the end does Becky get to play an important part in the story (she saves the world, actually; she’s the one who actually manages to disrupt the world-ending spell) but until then the women are objects of pursuit and longing, not active players in the plot. At least my wife and I had a good time talking about the ways the plot would change if Baruchel’s apprentice was a female physics nerd infatuated with a gorgeous male… radio DJ? (Hey, it’s fantasy.)
Molina’s character gathers second-tier sorcerers to help him raise the Evil Sorceress, and while these characters should have been the main antagonists for the apprentice, the movie misses this opportunity. What could have humanized the action (competition between acolytes determined to prove themselves to demanding masters, or romantic conflicts with characters who actually appear onscreen) is thoroughly avoided in the rush to play snatchingrab with the nesting dolls.
And the ending was especially disappointing. For a moment, I thought the movie was actually going to be clever: after trading in his ring and nesting doll for Becky’s life, Our Nerdy Hero mounts a tesla coil on the front of Mentor’s car. Villain has become tremendously powerful, but his staff and rings make him a great conductor. Hero drives up to the scene of the finale and electrozaps him.
THAT, right there, should have fulfilled the prophecy about doing magic without a ring. After numerous scenes where the sorcerers zap and blast each other with triple knockback attacks, the tesla coil should have been the fulfilment of that prophecy. Hero could have retrieved his ring from his fallen enemy and gone on to face the Evil Sorceress.
Instead he leaves the ring where it lies and rushes into danger unarmed. Did no one on this movie ever play a paper-and-dice rpg? Hmph!
Anyway, the Evil Sorceress is released and she doesn’t want a sandwich or a shower or anything–she gets right down to the evil magic. Her spell is supposed to summon an army of the dead (or an army of dead sorcerers–the movie seems to change its mind part way through) to kill (or enslave–see previous parenthetical) everyone in the world.
Since we haven’t seen these dead sorcerers before, and since it would actually be cinematic and fun to watch the good guys magically battle an army of liches, you’d think this would actually make it into the movie. Unfortunately, no. It’s not the end of the world our heroes have to stop, it’s the casting of this spell.
And the casting has little to do with anything we might already care about. No beloved characters are about to be sacrificed. No irreplaceable heirlooms are shattered. It’s just a lot of conveniently placed satellite dishes and a water fountain. Calvinball.
So… the apprentice should have been a woman to complicate and deepen the story. The lower-tier sorcerers should have been more directly in conflict with the apprentice to illustrate differences between the good and bad guys. The “Prime Merlinian” stuff should have been jettisoned or paid off in an unexpected way. Evil Sorceress should have been brought into the world much sooner than the end of the second act. The dead sorcerers should have been summoned and fought, or they should have come into the story somehow during the early acts.
Which is not to say that there was nothing in the story that worked. The bits with the shoes, especially, was cinematic and effective. The wolves and elevated train scenes were tense, and Cage gave a pretty good performance. Finally, even though I suggested the role be rethought and recast, Baruchel’s performance is terrific. He’s very grounded, very awkward, and his physicality and voice bring a realism that the movie desperately needs.
But it could have been much better.