Now, don't get me wrong here, folks, I wanted to like this film. I really did. Eragon proved to be a critical disaster upon its theatrical run and the whole world, and his son, it seemed, was eager to heap scorn upon it. And the thing that I often find is that such review-fodder actually has a lot more going for it than anybody else seems willing to give it credit for. So, it was with a fair degree of open-mindedness that I greeted the film's Blu-ray release and plonked my (just turned six) son down for a fantasy-fun-fest of dragons and derring-do. Let's be honest, if the pair of us can find a certain amount of pleasure in the daft dollop of flaccid fairytale that is Hawk The Slayer, with its one-set-fits-all and cereal-packet-effects, then Hollywood's latest megabuck blockbuster must have some glorious eye-candy to entertain us at the very least, mustn't it?
Erm ... well, no, it hasn't, actually.
Damn, I hate it when I agree with all the magazine and tabloid reviewers about a movie - these are normally narrow-minded, pseudo-high-brows who take great delight in tearing genre-product to pieces in only a paragraph or two and totally without validating their complaints. (Sorry, but I've just read a truly appalling and totally biased review slating Zack Snyder's terrific 300 in the Metro, so I'm doubly aggrieved at finding myself singing from the same hymn-sheet as these blinkered bozos.) Even the derision that Jonathon Ross greeted the film with is something that I now feel in complete harmony with. For what we have here, despite some quite splendid production values - I'm a sucker for big menacing castles, big landscapes, big dragons and big effects - is a big, big letdown of epically big proportions. The plot boils down to the usual righteous underdog taking on the usual evil empire in an all-too familiar quasi-medieval realm of myth and magic called Alagaesia (which sounds like a disease to me). Young farmer Eragon (Edward Speleers) stumbles across a dragon's egg - which presently hatches into the cutesy (but vicious when necessary) winged fire-breather Saphira (voiced by a bored-sounding Rachel Weisz). Catching on to the fact that he has some kind of destiny to fulfil (but then haven't all blonde small-time farmhands with lofty and adventurous ambitions, eh, Mr. Skywalker?) he teams up with dejected, disillusioned renegade Brom (Jeremy Irons) who, wouldn't you know it, just happened to be a former Dragon Rider, one of those elite warriors from a more civilised age, who fought for truth, honour and justice before, you guessed it, a friend and colleague was seduced by the black will of a dark warlord and his heroic guild was all but destroyed. Hmmm, stop me it you think this sounds familiar. Having lost his own dragon during the chaos and betrayal of those turbulent, long-ago days, he now ekes out an existence on the fringe of the downtrodden society he once fought for ... just waiting for some young, eager-to-fight apprentice to happen along and listen to his mumbling sermons. Now, hang on a minute ... we're missing something here, aren't we? We need a princess locked up in a foul dungeon, don't we? Yeah, that'll be a good reason for our young hero to embark on a perilous mission of rescue and rebellion. Cue Sienna Guillory's attractive-but-bland Elf heroine, Arya, imprisoned by the evil Galbatorix (John Malkovitch) and his dark magician Durza (Robert Carlyle) as a lure for the eager young saviour.
Actually, there is more to Eragon than just a Star Wars riff (ha, it rips off a dozen other films, too!), but, no matter what little deviations from the well-worn path it takes, the important thing to remember is that there is absolutely nothing in it that the film can claim as being original. And whilst ripping off established formula and plotlines is nothing new and certainly no detriment to many other movies, it feels so painfully obvious here that it stifles any personality that the film may once have been able to salvage for itself. With Eragon, it is just too stale and too glaringly stolen to be acceptable. Believe me, it is no pleasure to add to the poisonous critique that director Stefen Fangmeier's fantastical opus has already received. In fact, I was really hoping to become some sort of champion for it, finding some worth in the timelessness of its plot and the simplicity of its good versus evil ethic. But it is terribly hard to be charitable to what was a charm-less exercise in the first place, particularly one that has so barefacedly taken what the studio had completely assumed was a sure-fire thing that it utterly neglected to place any heart or soul into it by way of compensation.
It sings loud and proud the juvenile wish-list components of a fantasy-saga and perhaps, with that in mind, it does come across as a little vindictive to be too harsh on it. Written by a fifteen year old boy (and doesn't it show) reputedly starved of escapist material in his local library and determined to address that situation with the power of his own imagination, Eragon ticks every single one of the genre-prerequisites - young orphan goes off on a wild adventure that sees a pre-preordained prophecy come to fruition; oppressed medieval society that is eager to rise up in justified rebellion; dedicated and skilful hard corps of exiled warriors with a ridiculous name - the Varden - waiting in the wings; noble mentor-type eager to impart his knowledge to worthy new pupil; cardboard baddies who have no reason for existence other than to periodically darken the screen with snarling aggression; and, possibly the most clichéd of all, a supreme evildoer who merely sits and sulks in his inky black chambers plotting more nefarious deeds whilst his altogether more dangerous and visually exciting lieutenant (Darths Vader and Maul and Guy of Gisbourn etc) does all the hard work - nothing that we haven't seen a million times before. Star Wars, The Lord Of The Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter, Dragonslayer and, more relevantly, Dragonheart et al are directly responsible for Eragon's birth, but you will not have to look too closely to find dozens of other filmic references to add to that list as well And whilst I am not going to knock a movie just because it pilfers from other, richer sources, I am going to rant about the relative tedium that Fangmeier's material injects into what should really be a home-run of a concept. Heroes and dragons - there's no rocket science required to make this type of story exciting. Yet, sadly, Fangmeier doesn't have the slightest clue how to make any of this enthralling, so shamelessly does his film rip off its numerous peers. His helming of this bloated, full-to-brimming ship of stolen ideas is perfunctory and uninspired. The action is dull and the tension from the various set-pieces diffused by poor staging - the hackneyed rescue of Ayria and the forest-skirmish with a handful of Durza's shades, for instance. And, most damning of all, he mistakes smatterings of CG wizardry for real magic every time, leaving the story's most vital ingredient, and the one that would have rendered every other misgiving null and void, completely absent.
The cast barely warrant any write-up. Edward Speleers (who?) is blatantly too old for the part - or, at least, looks too old - and inhabits the role of Eragon with as much charisma as a hunk of cuttlefish, although what makes this fact worse is the apparent determination he has to exude precisely the impetuous, but noble, spirit of every youth-cum-hero who has battled tyranny throughout the entire genre before him. But, armed only with an assortment of twisting, gurning expressions with which he attempts to portray emotions, the lamentable actor may as well have just been an amalgamation of pixels for all the warmth that he brings to the screen.
Robert Carlyle has been a performer I have always admired, from his headbutting nutcase in Trainspotting and the scouse serial killer in Cracker to the loony cannibal in Ravenous and the bum-baring layabout in The Full Monty. But this is clearly a case of taking the money and running away as fast as he can. Normally never less than watchable, he here looks simply atrocious when bedecked in his ludicrous red wig, demonic eyes glowing and wheeling around the sky on his own phantom dragon. Spouting the kind of dialogue that would make a pantomime dame wince, he struts and scowls, preens and glowers, a simpering sorcerer whose lank locks have a habit of billowing back from his head whenever he feels a bit of conjuring coming on. It is not a good look. However, as Malkovitch's main foot-soldier he still steals the show, robbing the shiny-domed one of every scene that they share, simply because he is not quite as bad. But this wayward overacting is a step in the direction signposted Career Suicide and I shudder to think what he sinks his teeth into next time. Malkovitch, on the other hand, has never been a good actor in my opinion, anyway. So, at least his lousy performance here doesn't come as any surprise. But his ridiculous line delivery in Eragon is a new low, even for him. Of course, this is not entirely his fault. The writer, Peter Buchman, whether he lifted the dialogue from Christopher Paolini's book or not (and I don't know or care either way, to be honest), has an awful lot to answer for, supplying lines so bad and corny that I steadfastly refuse to incorporate any of them in this review, as I would normally do. Oh go on then, maybe just the one. When Galbatorix whines about his plight to the tattoo-faced Durza, Malkovitch's monosyllabic drone makes the line “I suffer without my stone ... do not prolong my suffering,” one of the most hysterically naff deliveries you're likely to hear. For a good while, anyway.
Technically, the film scores a few points. The effects are competent enough. We have some rip-roaring dragon-flight footage that sees our erstwhile hero plummeting from the heavens and swooping along endless mountain ranges, forests and plateaus, and the aerial dogfight, or should that be dragon-fight, during the protracted climax plays out like a more primal Death Star skirmish, with the two combatants whooshing in and out of gangways, walls and battlements, but why is it that the action seems oddly soulless? Likewise the irritating hum-drum of the earthbound battles, employing the more commonplace swords, axes, bows and arrows of yore when the forces of light and darkness meet - but to little or no suspense or gravitas. Irons gets to swing some mystical blade around during a forest set-to that, ultimately, just looks quite wimpish, the evil scouts he demolishes just a poor man's Black Riders. That this lightsabre stand-in comes to mean so much more, embodying the code and morals of the fabled Dragon-Riders is yet another eye-rollingly unnecessary “yup, thought so” element in a film so mired in its own melting-pot fusion of every kid's favourite movie-moments that it just plays like one of those clunky old K-Tel records. Come on, who remembers them?
About the only thing that I liked about the film was the score from Patrick Doyle, though even this is purely derivative of many other fantasy-adventure flicks. Doyle, here, plays up the heroic nature of the story with a hummable main theme and plenty of atmospheric cues to underline the action and the dark deeds of Durza and his Orc-like minions. Though he does seem to have allowed himself to be swayed more by Fangmeier's and his writer's dogged determination to be nothing other than middle-of-the-road, rather than indulging in his normally more audacious and operatic bombast - eg Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or, especially Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.
So, to sum up, Eragon, for an adult fantasy-lover, is total garbage and an utter squandering of Hollywood money. The formula speaks for itself - derivative novel plugs the gap in the teen-fantasy genre for the fans that just couldn't get enough of Potter and The Rings, the studio execs only noticed the sales figures of the, admittedly, successful book and decided, quite erroneously, that they had a clear winner on their hands. Folks, I watched this movie, as I said earlier, with my young son. Now, being an ardent and fully-fledged devotee of all things sword and sorcerous, dragon-esque and fantastical, he is exactly the type of person that Eragon is squarely aimed at. Weaned on the likes of Lord Of The Rings, Pirates Of The Caribbean and the adventures of that Potter-lad, I expected him to have lapped this up for the colourful romp that it is, but despite not being able to place his finger on exactly why he didn't enjoy Eragon, he was still quite adamant that the film was of the lowest-rung variety. Rest assured, I didn't put that idea into his head ... he's quite capable of assessing the merits of a movie on his own. But he knows what he likes. And he didn't like Eragon any more than I did, that's for sure.