Chris's Film Reviews

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

A review by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.

Written: 20th November 2003

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Directed by: Stephen Norrington

Starring: Sean Connery, Peta Wilson, Richard Roxburgh, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran

The word steampunk was coined some time ago (presumably from "steam-driven cyberpunk") to describe a specific type of science fiction story, almost always set in the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria, in which any number of bizarre inventions and contrivances have warped history as we know it into something wholly surreal and exciting.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was, originally, a comic with a heavily steampunk theme. Its central conceit revolved around the idea that famous characters taken from Victorian adventure or fantasy novels were all living and breathing in a parallel Victorian London, where they righted wrongs, and fought crime (and occasionally each other). So we have Allan Quartermain (Connery) teaming up with The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker (Wife of the vampire-fighting Doctor Jonathan Harker) and Doctor Henry Jekyll.

The comic was created by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. These names will be familiar to anyone who read British comic 2000AD (the publication that brought us Judge Dredd) in the 1980s; Alan Moore has been responsible for some amazing works in his time (what I'd give to see a full run of Big Numbers), and Kev O'Neill's spooky artwork graced tales of Nemesis the Warlock, The ABC Warriors, and many more. It's symptomatic of the low esteem that comics appear to be held in by the arts establishment that Alan Moore hasn't been feted - as he deserves - as one of the most creative literary forces to come out of the UK in the last 20 years. If he'd been writing novels, I'm sure things would be very different. But comics don't earn kudos like other forms of writing (and I should know, believe me). Films based on comics also seem to inspire a similar lack of reaction in the general public and the critical establishment alike. Most of the folks in the audience when I watched the film were decidedly unimpressed. Yes, the film has shortcomings that would be unforgivable in an Ingmar Bergman movie, but LXG shouldn't be examined in that light. The thing is, comics come with a certain amount of baggage, and some of it involves the approach you take to making the movie. Directors who make films based on comics, if they've done their job right, adopt a particular set of stylistic approaches. Dialogue is supposed to be mildly ludicrous, the plot is likely to be utterly off the wall and the characters are expected to be somewhat (OK then, wildly) implausible. LXG delivers on all counts.

More importantly, we're talking about a film taken from the pages of a comic book. Comics are an artform where every frame is hand-crafted to look as cool as possible; composition, design, ornamentation, colour, rendering - it's all meat and drink to the comics fan. At the very least, each frame will convey the artist's obsessions in lovingly crafted detail. So it stands to reason that above all else, the film of any comic has to look gorgeous. This one does. Sets, vehicles, costumes, actors - they all look wonderful. The production design is immaculate, and it makes the film a joy to look at.

Sadly, one can't say the same about some of the less-than-special effects. There are some pathetically fake-looking explosions, some very dodgy CGI work on Mister Hyde, and when the deck of the Nautilus tilts a la Star Trek, was that really a rope I saw pulling the table to one side?

There are references a-plenty. At the docks, a poster advertises an evening's entertainment presented by Mr Alan Moore and Mr Kevin O'Neill; the Nautilus's First Mate introduces himself with the words "call me... Ishmael" and Quartermain describes chasing a monkey up and down the Rue Morgue in Paris. The film also does a fair job of conveying the richness and strangeness of Moore's imagined world. As a result the cast have both a huge playground to romp around in and some really cool stuff to help them expound the plot. For the most part, they let rip and enjoy themselves. Peta Wilson makes occasional use of her martial arts skills as the vampiric Mina, and Naseeruddin Shah gives a performance of high strangeness as the enigmatic Captain Nemo. It was nice to see a brief cameo from David Hemmings, too - he was clearly having a whale of a time. After suffering through Highlander II, Sean Connery quite rightly decided he couldn't possibly ever make a worse film and relaxes into his role with a certain amount of nonchalance. He runs with the story as best he can, almost-but-not-quite lapsing into Doctor Jonesdom at times in his scenes with Tom Sawyer (well, he didn't call him "junior" once, but I bet it was a close-run thing.)

So: the verdict? LXG is a hugely expensive, rambling mess of a movie, but it's my kind of hugely expensive rambling mess. And I'll no doubt get the DVD to find out more about how it came to be that way.

Chris's rating: Three Stars (but bring popcorn!)

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