The Abominable Snowman

The Snowman should have been a good movie. It had all the right ingredients. Top-notch cast? Check. Talented director whose last two films (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In) were critically acclaimed? Check. Based on a best-selling novel? Check.

And yet, the movie is terrible. One of the worst films I’ve seen all year.

What happened?

In order to answer that question, let’s start with the film’s plot. The Snowman is based on the novel of the same name by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo. I haven’t read any of Nesbo’s books, so anything I say about the plot and characters of The Snowman will be based entirely on the film’s portrayal of them.


Image: Universal

The main character is named Harry Hole. While this sounds like a horrible name for a main character, it’s worth mentioning that I read an interview with Nesbo where he said that the last name is pronounced “HO-leh”, and apparently it’s a common Norwegian name. But in the movie, everyone pronounces it like the word hole. You know, like something your dog would dig in the backyard.

And that dog-dug hole in the backyard is where this film belongs, because it sucks. The plot is ostensibly about Harry Hole’s search for a killer nicknamed The Snowman whose calling card is leaving snowmen at the scenes of his crimes. He also cuts off one victim’s head and uses it as the head of a snowman, which is thoroughly grisly.

But the movie never explores the killer’s psychology, and his motives are frustratingly thin. The movie never gets into his head and the viewer is left wondering why he does the things he does. Half the movie involves a bunch of boring subplots that, after thinking it over, seemed completely irrelevant to me. I didn’t see how half of it had anything to do with the killer. The movie completely fails as a psychological exploration of the mind of a madman. It also fails as a detective movie. There’s no compelling detective work, there’s no list of suspects, the entire thing just feels rushed. And apparently it was, since the director, Tomas Alfredson, has stated in interviews that 10-15% of the screenplay wasn’t even filmed. No wonder the film feels so incomplete. The subplots are pointless and the motivations of the characters either don’t make sense or are utterly nonexistent.

Think of other serial-killer movies. Specifically, the films of the brilliant David Fincher, like Se7en, Zodiac, and his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In these films, the villain is kept offscreen for most of the movie, but the viewer can always feel the treat of him lurking on the edge of the screen, like he could emerge at any moment. That’s called atmosphere, and is another thing at which The Snowman utterly fails. The only thing atmospheric about The Snowman is the admittedly excellent cinematography, but the movie’s beautiful scenery can’t disguise its sheer emptiness.

And let’s talk about the main characters. Harry Hole is a detective played by Michael Fassbender, and his sidekick is a new recruit named Katrine Bratt, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Both actors are very talented, but their characters are poorly written and they have almost no chemistry. They don’t even have a compelling reason for joining forces. Hole bums a ride off her, and since he’s bored he starts reading her files while she’s out of the car.

Really? That’s it? God, this movie is so half-assed. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, this one feels incomplete. It just feels rushed and unfinished. For example, Val Kilmer is in the movie for a couple of scenes, and he looks awful. What the hell happened to Val Kilmer, he looks like The Ghost That Ate Val Kilmer. He doesn’t even sound like Val Kilmer. His dialogue doesn’t even match up very well with his lip movements, which makes me think that his dialogue was hastily and sloppily dubbed over by another actor. Really? Just…really?

I don’t even know what to say about this movie, it’s just terrible. Michael Fassbender is a great actor, but he’s completely wasted in this movie. The movie portrays Hole as an alcoholic detective and there’s nothing to him beyond that. Anyone could have played the role in this movie. The Snowman is Jo Nesbo’s seventh Harry Hole book, and the movie implies that he’s been hunting down bad guys for quite some time. Katrine tells him that his cases are studied at the police academy, but it’s not enough to establish him as the brilliant detective everyone says he is. If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo’s books and you think I’m not being fair to the character, keep in mind that everything I’m saying is based off the movie’s piss-poor portrayal of him. I have no doubt that Hole is a more compelling character on the page, because in this film he’s not compelling at all, and neither is anyone or anything else.

The movie desperately wants to be the next Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it’s not going to with such awful execution. The movie has an abysmal 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and scraped together an equally-abysmal $3.4 million over its opening weekend. It’s one of the biggest cinematic failures of the year, a shockingly inept piece of hackwork that had a ton of potential but managed to squander every last bit of it. It’s really a shame. I’ll have to read Nesbo’s book at some point, because I have a feeling that this half-baked adaptation of his work doesn’t do it any form of justice. The movie ends abruptly without any sense of resolution, and leaves the viewer feeling cold.

If you want to see a good movie based on a Jo Nesbo novel, you should see the Norwegian film Headhunters. Or, you can tune in next week, since I’ll be writing about it then. It’s a terrific movie that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, and I figure with no major new releases hitting this week, next week will be the perfect time to talk about it. See you then!

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Le Cinema de WTF: Assassin’s Creed

To say that movies based on video games have a mixed track record would be putting it mildly. To put it less mildly, most of them suck. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit to having a weakness for the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider movies. They are good popcorn movies. They are mindless fun. I enjoy them. But are they, strictly speaking, good movies? No. No, they are not.

Assassin’s Creed was the movie that was going to change all that. The movie adaptation of the long-running video game franchise stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Freaking Irons. These have to be the three most critically-acclaimed actors to ever star in a game-based movie. The latter two are Oscar winners, and Fassbender is an Oscar nominee. The movie was directed by Justin Kurzel, a talented up-and-comer whose previous film was a well-received adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth which also starred Fassbender and Cotillard. Parts of the movie take place during the Spanish Inquisition, a time period the games have not explored and that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on film before. This was a movie with ambition, damn it.

And yet, it has a dismal 17% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that it was soundly thrashed by the critics.

So what happened?

Image: 20th Century Fox

Before I get into that, I need to explain how the games work, or none of this will make any sense. In the marketing for the games whenever a new one comes out, the trailers and TV commercials only show off the cool stuff: hooded badasses using hidden wrist blades and other pointy implements to singlehandedly take out legions of hapless suckers in cool historical backdrops. Sounds great, right? But what these ads don’t tell you is that the cool historical stuff is only part of the story.

The story revolves around the conflict between two ancient and secretive groups: the Assassins and the Templars. In most of the games, the player controls an Assassin, and the Templars are the primary antagonists. The games begin in the modern age, where a mega-corporation called Abstergo Industries (secretly run by the Templars) has developed a technology called the Animus, which allows people to relive their ancestors’ memories through a kind of super-advanced virtual reality.

The historical parts of the games are the main focus, but they’re all just flashbacks, a sort of game-within-a-game. The series’ timeline and mythology are incredibly convoluted, and even though I’ve played five or six of the games, I spend most of them not having any idea what is going on, and I couldn’t give less of a hoot about the Assassin/Templar conflict that has been raging throughout the centuries. Can you see how this might be problematic for a movie adaptation?

As much as I enjoy the historical parts of the games, the modern-day parts are an absolute snoozefest. In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, for example, you spend most of the game doing awesome pirate stuff like sinking people’s ships and taking their stuff, but every once in a while the game kicks you back into the present day and makes you wander around an office building and hack into security systems with an iPad. If that sounds boring, I can assure you that it is. I love Black Flag, it’s a fantastic game, but the present-day sections are as boring as hell, and I would always complete them as fast as possible so I could get back to the fun pirate stuff.

Image: Ubisoft

Well, in this sense the movie is a good interpretation of the games, since the historical sections are great but the modern-day stuff, well, isn’t. The film opens in 1492, with a man named Aguilar being inducted into the Assassins Brotherhood. Fast forward to 1986, and a young boy named Callum Lynch. He walks into his house one day to find his mother dead, apparently killed by his father. Men with guns converge on the house, and Callum’s father tells him to run. As he flees, Callum’s father is taken into custody by the armed men, under the command of Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). Fast forward again to Callum as an adult, now played by Michael Fassbender, who is on death row, and is soon executed by lethal injection.

Except he isn’t, or the movie would have ended a lot sooner. He wakes up at the Abstergo facility in Madrid, and is told by Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan’s daughter, that Abstergo has secreted him away because they want to use him in the Animus. Abstergo is looking for the Apple of Eden, which contains the genetic code for free will, and Abstergo wants to use the Apple to subjugate humanity and end violence and corruption. Abstergo wants Callum to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar (also played by Fassbender), as they believe that Aguilar’s memories will lead them to the Apple.

Did you get all that? Well strap in, because we’re just getting started. This does present an intriguing ideological conflict, since it could be argued that Abstergo’s motives are pure. Ending violence and corruption in the world sounds good, but taking away humanity’s free will in the process would be less good. The Assassins want humanity to be free, even if that means being free to destroy itself. Abstergo and the Templars are like the League of Shadows in Batman Begins, as their motives are okay but their methods leave a lot to be desired.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But the movie’s plot is ridiculously hard to follow. I haven’t played every game in the series, but I’ve played quite a few of them, and I still had very little idea of what was going on for most of the movie. I can only imagine how confusing the movie would be for someone who hadn’t played any of the games. And I have to say that the movie has the most baffling ending of just about any movie I’ve seen in the last couple years. It should end with a bang, but it ends with a whimper. And the end credits are fifteen minutes long, which is ludicrous. The movie’s running time is 115 minutes, but fifteen of those minutes are taken up by the end credits.

The film’s best parts are the flashback sequences that take place during the Spanish Inquisition. These are the scenes that follow Callum’s ancestor Aguilar, as he fights to keep the Apple of Eden from falling into Templar hands. These scenes also comprise most of the action sequences, which is great because you know that whenever Aguilar and his sidekick Maria show up, shit is about to go down. And the action sequences are great. They do a fantastic job of emulating the free-running style of combat in the games, and the athleticism of the stunt performers is impressive.

They also look great. The locations look very good and the sets, special effects, and particularly the costumes are all great. I give special consideration to the costumes because the outfit Aguilar wears is so cool, and looks exactly like something that would be seen in the games. There’s a real thrill in seeing an actual person looking like he could have walked off the screen from a video game.

Image: 20th Century Fox

But as much as I like the Aguilar sequences, they have two crucial flaws. The first flaw stems from the decisions the filmmakers made in adapting the Animus for the screen. In the games, the Animus is basically a chair a person lies down on and is hooked up to a bunch of machines, like in The Matrix. The filmmakers apparently decided this would be boring for an audience to watch (or perhaps too similar to The Matrix), and turned the Animus into a giant harness that descends from the ceiling in the middle of a large room, allowing for the person plugged in to the Animus to move around as he literally re-enacts his ancestor’s actions. It’s a cool idea, but the problem is that in the middle of the Aguilar-based action scenes, the movie cuts back to Callum hooked up to the Animus mimicking Aguilar’s actions. It severely disrupts the pacing of the fast-paced action sequences.

The other problem with the action sequences is that they are almost entirely bloodless. People are slashed and stabbed with barely a drop of blood spilled. The movie is rated PG-13, which is weird when you consider that all the games are Mature-rated, which is the video game equivalent to an R-rating. I hate it when people are killed in movies with swords or knives and there’s no blood. This isn’t because I want every movie to be as bloody as possible (I don’t). It’s because it takes me out of the moment. It kills the immersion because it makes me think, “I am watching a movie that was edited in order to get a PG-13 rating.” This is something you don’t want to think while watching a movie, because it means you’re not fully in to the experience.

For me personally, Assassin’s Creed the movie may very well be one of the most accurate game-to-movie adaptations ever made, since it mirrors my experience of playing the games almost perfectly. I love the historical sections despite their flaws, but the modern-day stuff is slow and boring and I just want it to be over. Just like in the games, the film’s modern-day sections are dull, taking viewers away from the vibrancy of the historical settings and depositing them in drab-looking rooms and hallways. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, and the characters are hard to care about. Justin Kurzel is a talented director, but adapting such a dense and convoluted video-game mythology to the big screen was always going to be a tall order.

Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth is well worth checking out, however. Fassbender makes Macbeth a sympathetic character, a man who doesn’t realize he is a monster until it is far too late. And he has great chemistry with Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth. It’s also a great-looking movie, and the ending sequence where Macbeth fights Macduff is stunning. Macbeth and Macduff do battle against the backdrop of a burning village, and the entire sequence is engulfed in an orange haze that gives it an eerie, dreamlike quality. The music in both Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed is awesome. Both films were scored by Kurzel’s brother Jed, and his moody, ominous music greatly improves each film. Both of Justin Kurzel’s films are rich in atmosphere, and Jed Kurzel’s music is a key part of that.

Is this, from a purely technical standpoint, the best video game movie ever made? Quite possibly, yes. It’s reasonably well-made and the acting is solid. But it is undone by several crippling flaws. In spite of its flaws, I have to give it some credit for at least trying to rise above its video-game-based-movie brethren. Can you think of any other movie based on a game that has actual ambition? This is the only one I know of. It’s hard to fault it for being too big for its britches because of this, even though the end result is a film that can generously be described as a mixed bag. Unsurprisingly, sequels are in the works, so maybe some of the narrative flaws will be worked out. I hope so, because there’s a lot of promise here. We’ll just have to wait and see.