To those only vaguely familiar with The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold’s bestselling novel about a murdered teen who observes her family — and tracks her killer — from beyond Peter Jackson might seem like an odd choice to direct the film adaptation. Why would the visual effects maestro who orchestrated such grand spectacle in films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy be attracted to Bones’ somber reflective subject matter wherein nary an orc or a goblin can be found?
Shortly after the film's opening moments Jackson’s definitive answer arrives in the form of the “in-between place ” a breathtaking limbo where our wide-eyed heroine 14-year-old Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) arrives after her life is cruelly cut short by a next-door neighbor and closet predator named ominously enough Mr. Harvey (Stanley Tucci). Susie’s experience of the afterlife as a sort of spiritual way-station featuring elements of both heaven and hell (but mostly heaven) is a veritable CGI playground for Jackson one in which he can employ all of the digital tools in his vast arsenal in the service of a powerful affecting story.
And what a gorgeous playground it is. As Susie journeys through her wondrous netherworld — sometimes alone sometimes accompanied by a perky young spirit guide named Holly (Nikki SooHoo) — Jackson serves up a succession of exquisitely rendered landscapes for her to explore from placid spring meadows to boundless Alpine slopes to lush green forests. Jackson knows all too well that the issue of life after death especially when considered in regards to those who left us too soon is fertile emotional ground. With the help of an irresistibly expressive Ronan he mines it shrewdly.
Back on Earth unfortunately The Lovely Bones takes the form of a poorly-constructed deeply unsatisfying police procedural. Frustrated by the authorities’ inability to find the killer Susie's anguished father (Mark Wahlberg) mounts an investigation of his own aided occasionally in Ghost-like fashion by his daughter’s unseen hand. Tension rises as the mystery unravels — Jackson having drawn us in with his shamelessly manipulative handiwork has us by the emotional short-hairs so much so that we’re willing to overlook the film’s gap-laden storyline redundant narration underdeveloped supporting characters and a generally underwhelming Wahlberg. We just want payback damnit.
But when The Lovely Bones’ moment of truth arrives Susie abruptly changes her mind effectively turning almost every preceding plot point into an infuriating red herring and depriving us of the emotional release Jackson so steadfastly prepared us for. What we’re left with ultimately is an experience akin to taking a shot of morphine and watching someone play the videogame Myst for two hours (a span that might very well be reduced to 45 minutes if the film’s copious slow-motion shots were all played at normal speed). And once the anodyne buzz wears off the comedown is agonizing.
Dateline: 10 000 B.C. The day of the last hunt has arrived. Oh dear. If an ancient prophecy holds true a remote mountain tribe’s quiet existence is hours away from coming to a bloody end. Not that it matters to a hunting party comprised of mud-splattered Abercrombie & Fitch himbos--nothing’s going to come between them and a hot plate of woolly mammoth meat. But no sooner is dinner over than “four-legged demons” attack. Actually they’re just slave traders on horseback but they quickly make off with plenty of women and children including Evolet (Camilla Belle). This “girl with the blue eyes” just so happens to possess the tribe’s “promise of life”--whatever that is. Enter D'Leh (Steven Strait). Our would-be He-Man loves Evolet so he organizes a rescue mission with the help of tribe elder Tic’Tic (Cliff Curtis). Their destination is a place unlike anything they have seen before (because they didn’t see Apocalypto): a city with pyramids built by slaves and ruled by a purported god the evil Almighty. First though our heroes must make it there alive--which is easier said than done when there are hungry (and poorly computer-generated) saber-toothed tigers on the prowl. Forget about Belle replacing Raquel Welch as the prehistoric playmate of your dreams. It’s my sad duty to report that are we denied the pleasure of seeing Belle strike some sexy poses in an animal-skin bikini straight out of One Million Years B.C. But it’s nice to know that even in the Mesolithic period our dreadlocked damsel in distress has access to the spa services needed for her to pass as the well-scrubbed face of a Vera Wang perfume campaign. Everyone else though needs a hosing down. Besides keeping herself clean and healthy Belle’s only other responsibility is to give the occasional hard stare that emphasizes Evolet’s piercing blue eyes which she does with aplomb. The Covenant’s Strait may have the beefcake physique of a warrior but he doesn’t possess any noble qualities. He’s more dolt than D’Leh natural born leader. Just listen to the sleepy Strait’s morale-boosting Independence Day-ish speech and you’re be inspired to fall on your own spear. Live Free or Die Hard’s Curtis can barely contain his embarrassment at having to fight at Strait’s side. 10 000 B.C. doesn’t boast a villain worthy of our hisses but Affiff Ben Nadra and Marco Khan at least project some menace as at-odds slave traders. “Only time can teach us what is truth and what is legend ” intones narrator Omar Sharif with all the pomposity of Seinfeld’s J. Peterman. Fine but 10 000 B.C. is hardly the stuff of legends. There are too many problems with this serious-minded but fantastical prehistoric romp to enjoy it on its own terms or as an unintentional exercise in pure camp. Forcing the cast to speak with grating generic European accents makes the inane dialogue harder on the ears. The plot borrows too liberally from Apocalypto. Even when Emmerich stops treading on Mel Gibson’s toes 10 000 B.C. also comes across as a de facto prequel to Stargate what with its antagonist being a pyramid-obsessed supreme being. You even brace yourself for the Almighty to reveal himself to be Jaye Davidson. All could be forgivable if Emmerich delivered on the action. He doesn’t. A woolly mammoth stampede proves to be inferior to similar scenes in Jurassic Park and King Kong. A phorusrhacid attack provokes laughter because it looks like our heroes are fleeing from a pissed-off Big Bird. The climatic revolt ends as soon as it begins. No one demands much from Emmerich. Just pure spectacle. So why does 10 000 B.C. feel no bigger than a natural history museum mini-diorama?