The Lovely Bones

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Lovely Bones sees Peter Jackson returning to Heavenly Creatures territory. His latest film deals with adolescence and murder, and once again it allows his imagination to cut loose. But while Heavenly Creatures featured a fantasy world that was the creation of the characters, The Lovely Bones spends a lot of time in purgatory and heaven.

I wish I could say that the sequences with the dead Susie Salmon are engaging and well realized, but they get submerged in an avalanche of CGI. Landscapes continually change and Susie waltzes through her new world but at no time does the environment feel tangible. It never feels like you could reach out and touch it. But at the same time it doesn’t feel otherworldly. It’s a bunch of poorly rendered, idyllic locations on earth that are supposed to resemble heaven because of their perfection. But rather than go to the real places and film, Jackson instead uses lots and lots of greenscreen – and bad greenscreen at that.

Some of the imagery is also trite. There’s a bit where Susie and her friend come to grips with their new reality and begin enjoying themselves. They prance through fields, pretend they’re famous and even play on a floating planet that is about as big as a wrecking ball. The last image in particular looked ridiculous. All of a sudden it was like I was playing Super Mario Galaxy – the visuals are exactly the same.

The purgatory/heaven scenes also aren’t helped by Susie’s friend – a comedic Asian girl. Her performance resembles a titmouse that’s inhaled helium – she jitters back and forth while squeaking in a baby voice. It’s cringe-worthy.

Another risible character is that of Susie’s grandmother. Again she’s meant to provide some light relief, but she just made me roll my eyes. She’s a shallow drunkard with a heart of gold – the kind of woman who makes her grandchildren do chores for her while she naps with a glass of bourbon in her hand. People like this aren’t secretly wise and they’re not endearing. They’re losers and they’re windbags. They don’t have golden nuggets of information to share with you in your darkest hours – they just want to raid the liquor cabinet. And there’s even a scene where the grandmother does just that – while giving advice she searches the cabinets for booze. It’s meant to be endearing but the character is far too shallow and glib to generate any warmth.

Going back to Susie, though, the film is more successful when the dead girl interacts with the real world. There’s a nice scene where her father sees a candle and the reflection in the window differs from the reality he sees before his eyes. He senses that it’s Susie’s spirit trying to communicate with him. And there’s another scene where a dead rose blooms in his hand and he suddenly knows who the killer is. It’s in these scenes where the fantastic feels like an organic part of the story, rather than an excuse to indulge in dodgy CGI.

Another moment I enjoyed was when a local girl sees the spirit of Susie running through the street at the point that she’s murdered. It’s one of the few really good visuals in the film. Compare this with the moment where the dead Susie sees the reflection of her lost love in the lake. Hackneyed and schmaltzy, it kind of reminded me of a moment in Bitter Moon – however, in that film, I think the moment was played for laughs.

But while Susie’s interactions with the real world mostly work, there’s a truly execrable scene near the end. You see, Susie was in love with a guy called Ray and this Ray bloke is now friends with the girl who saw Susie’s ghost as she was being murdered. So they’re hanging out and then Susie’s spirit possesses the other girl and Ray and Susie kiss. It’s incredibly silly – Ray suddenly sees Susie in the other girl’s clothes and then she lays on the bed and asks him to kiss her. Even though she’s meant to be about fourteen she looks about twelve (he looks much older). Thankfully it’s not as icky as the equivalent scene in the novel but it still doesn’t work. I mean, how fucked up is it that a girl gets possessed by another girl and then gets boned? Couldn’t that be considered rape? It’s certainly not romantic.

Speaking of the adaptation, the murder here pales in comparison to the scene in the novel. What makes the murder so jarring in the book is how brutal it is. I mean, most of the book is pretty awful but the murder scene is superbly written. It doesn’t hold back and the murderer even rapes the poor girl. But the worst detail of all is the fact that the killer, to shut her up, shoves the girl’s hat in her mouth – a hat that has a jangle bell in it. The equivalent scene here, though, is sanitized – in order to get a PG-13 rating they’ve taken away the rape and taken away the jangle bell. They’ve made it far less shocking and thusly reduced its impact – the sense of outrage and injustice isn’t as intense as it was.

The filmmakers have also reduced the complexity of the relationship between mother and father. In the novel the mother has an affair with the police detective who leads the investigation. Here she just goes off because she can’t cope with her daughter’s death. To be fair, the affair didn’t really work and was terribly written but at least it was an attempt at adding some complexity to the story. Here, though, the filmmakers keep everything as simple as possible. I guess they thought it was a better idea to focus on Susie prancing about in a crappy CGI environment than to show how complicated grief is.

But it’s amazing how the film can be so long and yet the story can be so incredibly thin. Once Susie is killed, very little happens. There’s only one real suspense sequence – Susie’s sister suspects Mr Harvey of being the murderer and breaks into his place in order to find some incriminating evidence. Would you believe it, he comes back while she’s in the house and chases her. In order to escape, she jumps out of a window and seemingly badly injures herself. Oh no, he’s going to catch her as she writhes about on the floor! But when he closes to about a foot away from her, she jumps up and manages to outrun him. It’s incredibly badly choreographed.

I also think that the ending is incredibly anti-climatic. Just like in the novel, Mr Harvey is trying to pick up a girl so that he can kill her and an icicle falls and kills him. It’s divine justice and it’s supposed to show that what goes around comes around, but it’s an unsatisfying way of dispatching the main villain. Firstly it seems far too offhand and secondly, it’s dishonest – there’s no karmic justice in the world; shitty people get away with things and if they’re brought to justice it’s because they either fucked up or people worked hard to apprehend them. You can’t count on icicles falling from the sky.

You Might Also Like