Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Sorry if this sounds overdramatic, but The Sorcerer's Apprentice is everything that's wrong with contemporary cinema. Sure, it's robustly produced, splashing its $150 million budget all over the screen in glossy special effects, but it's all in service of an inert, made-by-committee lump of nothing. Nothing — I sat through 111 minutes and felt nothing, and I think that's the worst sin a film can commit. I would have even welcomed some embarrassingly awful moments to make me cringe or groan if only to shake me from my stupor, but save for one bit of the ending we'll discuss in a minute this safe, sterile cartoon can't even offer that. It's cinematic rice cake. The plot is a bland festival of clich├ęs, the obligatory love story dead on arrival, and the action scenes consist of guys pointing at each other and weightless CGI filling the screen. I hated this movie.

The film opens in an absurdly cheap facsimile of medieval times (especially considering their budget) where Merlin and the dark sorcereress Morgana do battle. Morgana is sealed away in a magical doll alongside her henchman Alfred Molina, but not before mortally wounding the good wizard. With his last breath Merlin gives his apprentice Nicolas Cage the dragon ring that will identify "the Prime Merlinian" (I shit you not) who inherits his power, and Cage spends centuries roaming the earth to find the child who will make the ring come alive.

In classic "we wish we had the licence to Spider-Man" tradition, this child turns out to be a physics nerd in modern-day New York City who we meet as a little kid and who grows up to be Jay Baruchel. Baruchel does a brief "magic isn't real, I must be going crazy!" routine, followed by a brief "I just want to live an ordinary life!" routine, then agrees to become Nicolas Cage's apprentice. The movie then turns into an extended magical training montage which doesn't work at all. Watching Jay Baruchel hold out his hands and make increasingly large balls of light just isn't engaging. It's not tangible, you can't relate, you can't feel it. Even if you've never thrown a punch in your life, the physical weight of martial arts makes the extended training montage of The Karate Kid work in a way The Sorcerer's Apprentice can only dream of.

Which isn't to say that watching people undergo magical training has never worked onscreen, but there needs to be a certain entry point for the viewer. For example, in the Harry Potter films we see the training filtered through academic classrooms, something everyone can relate with. In the Star Wars films, Luke's training in the Force was anchored by fascinating settings and great characters and a certain pop-philosophical edge ("A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack!"), all things entirely absent here. You can only watch a dude try to form a plasma bolt so many times before you don't really care if they just skip to him already being a wizard.

Of course there's a couple other things going on. Jay Baruchel has an incredibly generic and instantly forgettable romantic subplot with a pretty college girl which adds nothing to the movie except twenty minutes to the runtime (spoiler alert, they kiss in the end). And for convoluted reasons I don't care about, Alfred Molina is released from imprisonment and begins plotting Morgana's return to the mortal realm just as Baruchel begins his training, and Molina and the good guys have a number of CGI-spewing encounters which never convince you for a split second that Baruchel or Nicolas Cage are in danger. And it's a shame, because I really enjoyed watching Alfred Molina do battle with a superpowered New York City physics nerd in Spider-Man 2.

Through all of this I was bored and wildly unimpressed, but then the movie's ending had to go and take the next step and actively offend me. (Nonspecific spoilers incoming, for any who must experience this fine tale unsullied.) My most hated trope in all of fiction, one sadly omnipresent in fantasy and sci-fi, is a dead character being revived with magic. Whatever problems I may have with the aforementioned Star Wars and Harry Potter, let the record state that every character we saw die in those stories stayed dead. Lucas and Rowling stuck to their guns there. Well, not this fucking movie! A good guy who has been killed in the final battle is brought back with a spell (not even a difficult-looking one) just to make sure that the ending is super duper unambiguously happy. And that, my friends, is awful storytelling.

Ultimately, despite its running length, this film has just about the same level of depth as your average Saturday morning cartoon episode; a haphazardly colorful battle between the blandest heroes and the most cackling ciphers of evil. I dread a future where computers will be programmed to churn out lifeless, insulting dreck and the multiplexes will be flooded with pictures just like The Sorcerer's Apprentice, only to be enjoyed by small children and morons.

1 Star out of 5

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