Once upon a time, there lived a normal boy and a magical girl, and they were fated to fall in love. But this was so that she might lose him, and fueled by the bitterness of her heartbreak, become an evil witch and bring forth an age of total darkness. Because that’s how women deal with break-ups.
Welcome to the plot of Beautiful Creatures. It may say more about its genre that the movie is actually one of the abler depictions of supernatural YA forbidden romance, but that doesn’t change the facts on the ground. For instance, the setting for our lovers’ struggle to choose their own fate is the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, a haven for “casters,” magical sorcerers who call everyone else ‘mortals’ but can totally die too, so maybe they should look that word up, voodoo librarians (no, really), and Bible-thumpin’, Confederate–lovin’ civil war reenactors. You certainly have to be willing to accept a lot of camp and even more contrivance, but if you are, Beautiful Creatures kinda has a down-home charm to it, y’all.
In a structural sense, Beautiful Creatures is a simple reverse-engineering of Twilight, making the girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the outsider with dark, dangerous power and a curse that forces her not to get too close to anyone until she does. The boy, Ethan Wate (Alden Erenreich), is in the Bella role, but his Marty Stu is more bearable because he has infinitely more believable ambitions – although he’s well liked, has a cool best friend who wears fedoras, is a well-muscled athlete, and reluctantly dates the belle of the high school, he reads banned books with hipster glasses, yearning to get out of the ignorant-ass end of the South to go to NYU and be a writer like his mother was. The two reject the uber-Christian (read: dumb, judgmental) culture of Gatlin and bond over normal meet-cute stuff: books, sarcasm, movie spoilers. Erenreich and Englert are engaging separately and have good chemistry together, both yearning as teenagers do for a way out of lives that are too small and pre-determined, and find that what their worlds have been missing is each other.
Of course, Lena’s world is considerably weirder than Ethan’s, something that comes of having Jeremy Irons, Emmy Rossum, Margo Martindale, and a purple-haired Eilen Atkins (!) for CGI-wielding wizard relatives. Either super high or exceedingly well paid, the supporting cast is kind of amazing, hock-hamming it up all over the place in ridiculous costumes and delivering some of the film’s many – and this feels like the appropriate word – zingers. Beautiful Creatures, although there’s a couple scenes so bad they come back round to hilarious, is genuinely funny a surprising majority of the time it tries, and executes its Buffy Summers-patented, the-supernatural-as-metaphor-for-teenage-angst well, too.
However, the biggest argument for seeing this movie is Emma Thompson. In probably the most compelling scene, she faces off against Irons in a church and, in the time it takes a brier hare to twitch, effectively communicates the personality of the woman whose body she’s possessing (yeah, that’s a thing), a theatrical, devious persona meant to lure Irons into her web, and her true, frighteningly vicious self. You can feel how much fun she had every second she’s on screen, and it’s incredible.
What’s not incredible is the film’s second act, which drags on forever. They’re together but then Irons doesn’t want them to be! Then they get back together! Then they’re emotionally distant! Then they make out! Then she erases his memory so she doesn’t have to kill him! The mechanics of all this comes down through lots of apparently inviolate caster “rules,” which includes the ritual of “the calling,” when Lena’s true nature will reveal itself and she will either be claimed for “the light” or “the dark.” Except there’s totally this civil war curse to make sure she’ll go dark. Except that she can break the curse if she kills someone she loves. Except that she doesn’t have to kill her boyfriend, he just has to die. While I’m sure these are all plot points in the novel on which the film is based, director/screenwriter Richard LaGravenese does not do a good job at all of carrying us through them without the whole endeavor feeling clunky and contrived.
In terms of visual style, too, there’s not much to write home about. The coverage of the actors is pretty unvaried and the large number of single shots of him suggests that maybe Jeremy Irons wasn’t on set all that much. While the CGI is certainly passable, the magic in Beautiful Creatures is stock and utilitarian – light forcefields as barriers (Harry Potter 7), altered eye colors as outward signs of mind-control (The Avengers), and casters battle by sort of throwing silky, smoky whirlwinds at each other (Harry Potter again). There’s no explanation for why they dress so avant garde or live in an outwardly dilapidated plantation with an interior designed by Bravo. If the effects don’t wow us, the audience begins to question how the magic works, and Beautiful Creatures doesn’t provide any answers there, even though both main characters get explanatory voiceovers.
The other thing Beautiful Creatures unfortunately inherited from Twilight is a non-climax. Although the twist of [OMG, SRSLY SPOILERS]Irons sacrificing himself to fulfill the strictures of the curse is well executed, it means Ethan wasn’t even present for the final showdown, and Lena’s denial-choice of accepting both the light and the dark within her is nice but feels appropriately ambivalent. The plot contorts so that the two can be together on their own terms, but only Lena had to sort of work for that. It’s swell that the girl gets to defeat the villain and for once the “special” mortal didn’t actually turn out to be a faerie or have secret powers but was exceptional simply by being so caring, but the result doesn’t feel very earned. Lena’s this badass caster and she can’t reverse the amnesia spell? Reading a book makes Ethan suddenly remember everything? Everything about the ending is painfully contrived.
Beautiful Creatures has a too-convenient plot acted by a very charming cast. It’s a leave your mind in the lobby date-night flick, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are moments which show it could have been more.
Take a Drink: every time Lena or Ethan quotes something out of a book.
Take a Drink: anytime the stereotypes of ignorant, overly religious Southerners and/or the Southern accents are so overt it makes you uncomfortable.
Take a Drink: whenever any of the casters amazes you with how ridiculous their outfit is.
Take a Drink: whenever you can tell Emma Thompson was enjoying herself.
Do a Flaming Shot: when the Now Leaving Gatlin sign catches on fire.