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Once Bitten

Van Helsing and the lure of computer-generated images.

Bram Stoker must be spinning in his grave. In Dracula, he introduced one of the great hero-intellectuals in modern literature in Professor Abraham Von Helsing, "a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day." In the movie Van Helsing, by contrast, Stoker's creation is rendered as basically a meathead. Not only has he lost his academic pedigree, he shows little familiarity even with the details of his chosen profession of monster-slaying. Early in the film he dismisses the taxonomy of creepy crawlies with a blithe "Vampires, warlocks, gargoyles--they're all the same." (I'm confident there are literally millions of twelve-year-old boys who know better.) Later, he explains his modus operandi: "Usually I ask only two [questions]: What are we dealing with, and how do I kill it?" He's the demon hunter as George W. Bush--overconfident, incurious, and desperately hopeful that any problems he encounters can be solved by physical rather than mental exertion. In all these things he resembles the movie that bears his name.

When first we meet Van Helsing, he is in Paris, sporting a leather hat and kerchief and tearing down a wanted poster bearing his identically attired likeness. (It seems not to have occurred to the hero that in nineteenth-century France--as opposed to, say, Oklahoma--the cowboy getup makes him more, not less, conspicuous.) In short order he hears diabolical laughter, discovers the corpse of a young woman by the Seine, and chases a misshapen, 500-pound villain into the bell tower of Notre Dame. No, it's not Hugo's hunchback, but rather Stevenson's Mr. Hyde, and the conflation is no less annoying for being (one hopes) deliberate. Little matter: After a painful maiming (Van Helsing cuts off Hyde's arm) and some still more painful dialogue (as the giant bellows his agony, the hero quips "I bet that's upsetting" with the Schwarzeneggerian self-satisfaction of someone who thinks he's made a pun), Hyde is sent to his death in a complicated action sequence involving a pistol-launched grappling hook, digitized aerial stunts defying every known law of physics, and a collision with the cathedral's rose window that proves fatal to ogre and window alike. It's an apt metaphor for the film's approach to aesthetics.

Would you believe me if I told you the story goes downhill from there? The secret Vatican order that employs Van Helsing sends him to Transylvania to destroy Count Dracula. (If you haven't already surmised it, the presence of characters named "Van Helsing" and "Dracula," and the fact that the latter is a vampire, are pretty much the film's only points of convergence with Stoker's novel.) Once in-country, Van Helsing teams up with Princess Anna Valerious, who is also trying to kill the Count and by so doing lift a curse that has plagued her family for generations. Dracula, meanwhile, is trying to start a family of his own. Over the centuries he and his three vampiric brides have spawned thousands of bat-like children, but all are born lifeless (and also, inexplicably, in cocoons apparently left over from the Alien franchise). As Anna notes upon discovering the larval vamps: "Vampires are the walking dead. It only makes sense their children are born dead." Yes and no. It only makes sense if one forgets that vampires are generally understood not to have children at all: They reproduce not sexually but virally, transforming existing life into their own image. It is one of many instances in which Van Helsing mistakes its own inanity for cleverness.

In order to rouse his little ones from their eternal nap, Dracula bankrolls a promising young pioneer in the scientific field of animation, one Dr. Frankenstein. The doctor proceeds to solve the conundrum of life and death, with consequences both foreseeable (he creates a big, sewn-together monster bearing his name; villagers with flaming torches storm the castle) and unexpected (Dracula, deciding he no longer needs the doctor, sucks his arteries dry; the monster flees and is lost, presumed destroyed). In between subsequent face-offs with Van Helsing, Dracula tries to recreate Frankenstein's experiment, twice managing to launch aerial flotillas of short-lived baby bloodsuckers. He is aided in his endeavors by Dr. Frankenstein's turncoat assistant Igor, the occasional werewolf, and a horde of diabolical Oompah Loompahs called Dwergi. (The Mummy is a no-show, presumably due to scheduling conflicts with his own film career.) An avalanche of dubious plot twists follow, including the accidental re-discovery of Frankenstein's monster, the secret (never properly explained) of Van Helsing's past, and the revelation of the only way Dracula can be killed (hint: it's much sillier than a stake through the heart). By the end of Van Helsing's cluttered two-plus hours viewers might be inclined (like Van Helsing himself, who by this time has become a werewolf, too) to bay at the moon.

How did this $160 million train wreck ever come to be made? There would seem to be two main culprits: First, writer-director Stephen Sommers, whose previous offerings The Mummy and The Mummy Returns demonstrated there was a large market for classic monster films goosed up by computer-generated imagery (CGI); second, and more disheartening, CGI technology itself. The relentless special effects of Van Helsing would simply not have been possible ten, or even five, years ago. The movie was made now, it appears, largely because it could be made now. Recognizing that pretty much any visual idea he comes up with can at this point be rendered on film with the aid of computers, Sommers came up with as many as possible and crammed them all into a single film in a kind of perpetual self-one-upsmanship.

Thus, when the princess's brother turns into a werewolf, he cannot merely rip the human flesh off his body to reveal the fur beneath; he must do it while crawling agonizingly up a castle wall backwards. (Who knew wolves climbed walls?) When Van Helsing tries to shoot Dracula's brides out of the sky it cannot be with a regular crossbow, but with a "steam-powered" Gatling-gun version able to shoot a half-dozen (digitized) bolts per second. And in order to slake his taste for something warm and wet, Dracula cannot merely sprout fangs; his entire face must open as if on a hinge so that he resembles nothing so much as one of those toothy deep-ocean fish. (His full vampire form--a kind of winged, twelve-foot-tall demon--is more over the top still; when he and his lady friends make an entrance it is typically with all the subtlety of a visit by the Blue Angels.) The movie culminates in one of the most geometrically incomprehensible fight sequences of all time, as more than half-a-dozen characters--or rather, the digital animations that bear their likenesses--careen around Castle Dracula at supersonic speed, running, leaping, flying, and swinging on ropes with an enthusiasm that would have exhausted Johnny Weismuller.

There are two problems with Sommers's CGI parade. The lesser one is that his effects are rarely striking and virtually never convincing. Whereas The Day After Tomorrow's dull, silly plot served as an excuse for a handful of memorable visual set pieces, Van Helsing's serves as an excuse for a tiresome litany of frenetic video game-like sequences. Indeed, the episodic nature of the plot itself resembles a video game, with a series of challenges--Level One: Wrestle Mr. Hyde; Level Two: Shoot Down Dracula's Brides; Level Three: The Carriage Ride Through Transylvania--tied together by a rudimentary stab at narrative.

The greater flaw with Sommers's relentless focus on special effects is that it leaves room for pretty much nothing else. The movie lacks even the occasional wit and minimal characterization that helped make the Mummy movies inconsequential fun. The cast, perhaps recognizing that they are little more than crash-test dummies for Sommers's CGI experiments, responds with uniformly terrible performances. As Van Helsing, Hugh Jackman displays none of the charisma he's brought to the X-Men franchise (though the movie lamely rips off Wolverine by giving Jackman wrist-mounted buzz saws to take the place of his adamantium claws). Kate Beckinsale tries far too hard as Princess Anna when a little mellowness, even irony, would go a long way. And Richard Roxburgh's Dracula comes off as flamboyant eurotrash, a pony-tailed Bono look-alike with an Ed Wood accent and a crabby temperament.

None of this would be so troubling if Van Helsing didn't seem like a harbinger of things to come. The fact is, advances in CGI technology are making special effects too easy. And if there's one thing for which Hollywood can be counted on, it's doing whatever comes easily. Why bother writing decent dialogue for a character when it's equally simple to make his face melt or have butterfly wings sprout from his back? Why correct problematic plot twists when they can be papered over by the arrival of an intergalactic armada or several companies of medieval horsemen? This is nothing new, of course--film technology has been oustripping film intelligence for decades--but CGI promises to hasten the devolution. What's needed now is a touch of Van Helsingism of the Stoker variety, a return to the rule of reason--and quickly, before computer effects suck the life out of American movies.

The Home Movies List:
CGI Do's ...


Titanic (1997). Yes, the dialogue is execrable and the framing narrative pointless beyond measure. But what the movie does well--using special effects (digital and nondigital) to capture an enormity of human loss--it does better than any before or since.

Lord of the Rings (2002-2004). There are plenty of misses in the trilogy--the ghost kings from under the mountain, anyone?--but many more hits, from the Balrog of Fellowship to the Wargs and siege ladders of Towers to the elephants of King. In the foreground, poor Smeagol is the first CGI animation to take on a life of his own.

Hellboy (2004). A movie that recognized mixing a healthy dose of physical reality with its digital fantasies could make the former fantastic while keeping the latter real. Much of what you'd expect to be CGI animation is guys in rubber monster suits, whose obvious mass helps tether the computer effects to the ground.

... and Don'ts

Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones (2002). Welcome to the world of high-definition cartooning. At this point, Lucas would do best to get rid of his human actors altogether. Standing in front of his digitally painted backdrops and interacting with his CGI creatures, they give off a sense of physical dislocation that's approaching Roger Rabbit-like proportions.