Wednesday, May 12, 2010

After effects


Peter Jackson, who made Heavenly Creatures, a brilliant descent into literal madness of two adolescent girl, seems to be trying the same thing in The Lovely Bones (2009), which apparently stands for the proposition that when you die, you will go to a fever dream version of New Zealand. The afterlife is, evidently, the ultimate special effect.

My wife, who read the novel, feared that the film version would focus on the crime-detection aspects of the story and get bogged down in the material circumstances of the story. That's not where the film went wrong. The story elements are actually rather dull and routine, and ultimately don't amount to anything.

So the film's entire raison d'etre is its concept of the world beyond. The story adheres to the old concept (it's prominent in Our Town and the Peter Beagle novel A Fine and Private Place) that the dead gradually lose interest in the affairs of the living, perhaps once the circumstances of their death are understood or their loved ones have learned how to properly mourn and/or move on. Sometimes its posited that they have a particular task to perform or message to pass on to the living, as in Heart and Souls or Field of Dreams.

There's two problems with all this. First of all, once you've introduced some CGI, everything looks as though it might be digitally created. This is a particularly acute problem for Mr. Jackson, whose Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and King Kong all look as though they take place on some other version of the earth. (Maybe it's just the way New Zealand always looks.) I suppose it made him the ideal director for the Ring films. But the story comes completely ungrounded, when even the suburb neighborhood in which it begins could have been faked. (And certainly the landscape in which Stanley Tucci's villain meets his end is digitally created.)

The bigger problem, the one that all artists in this vein of storytelling share, is that Death is that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler has yet returned. (I heard that somewhere, I'm pretty sure.) Anyone who contemplates the specifics of a life other than this one is guessing. Even the Bible is vague on the particulars. And Mr. Jackson posits a child's cotton-candy Rainbow Brite eternity, which I hope is meant to reflect the very young protagonist's view of the world to come, and not Mr. Jackson's own imaginings. Let's be fair: it's an impossible subject, and that Peter Jackson stubs his toe on it is not his fault except to the extent that he tried to do it all.

I'm afraid the movie suggests that when you die, your soul goes to Wellington, New Zealand, where you will dwell in Weta Digital forever.

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