Van Helsing (2004) from JK

Reviewing Van Helsing is a thankless task, but someone has to do it.

If you were handed 148 million dollars to make a movie, what kind of movie would you make?  Whatever your effort, wouldn’t you make a film with a story, with some interesting characters, with arresting dialogue and something visually pleasing?  Scratch them all in “Van Helsing”. 

1) The actor.  The film does have Hugh Jackman, however, the new wunderkind of entertainment.  An Aussie who has played an American cowboy on a London stage to raving world reviews has to get our attention.  He is currently the ebullient and ineluctable Peter Allen in the long running Broadway musical, “The Boy from Oz”.  We also know him from “Kate and Leopold”, “Someone Like You”, and especially “X-Men”.  From Oklahoma’s Curly to Transylvania’s Van Helsing, Jackman can do everything except save his current film.  This computer generated overload is beyond his help or the help of any monster mash.

2) The CGI.  CGI, good.  Too much CGI, bad.

The first computer generated image (CGI), as opposed to the more traditional special effects, appeared sometime in the middle seventies, maybe in “Futureworld”. CGIs were used in “Tron”. They were featured prominently in “The Last Starfighter” and they made a serious impact in “Max Headroom”, the first talking CGI.  Next, Max was topped by the first realistic CGI depicted human movements in “Terminator 2”.  And then we watched CGIs have a lot of fun in “Death Becomes Her”. CGIs had arrived and they were partying. 

But we really found what a CGI could do when Steven Spielberg decided to make computer dinosaurs run through the forest and interact with people in “Jurassic Park”.  It was novel and it was fun.   As quality entertainment it was more turkey than dinosaur, but it was another big step forward. 

What did we learn from “Jurassic Park”?  Well, we learned not to place the CGI in the same frame as the human actor.  Or, at least, we learned not to have the actor pretend to focus on the CGI in the same frame.  (Was Sam Neill really focusing on the Brontosaurus?  - Or was he looking for his meatball sandwich in a nearby tree?)  The Jurassic Park sequels made many corrections, but none of the films had an adequate story, nor did they have any characters that we could get to know or even become interested in.  The Jurassic sequels only improved the use and technique of CGIs. 

Meanwhile other movies with CGIs were cropping up in all parts of the land, all dominated by the new technology and all becoming ever so less entertaining. “Toy Story” was the first completely computer generated film.  And it was a jewel.  It had real characters without real people.  The film had imagination and a story line.  It held our interest.  The critics liked it and the box office said thank you. A wayward thought: If Walt Disney had possessed CGIs, what would “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” have been like?  They certainly wouldn’t have been the pale faced, un-detailed little people we came to love as kids.  As CGIs, they likely would have been less fanciful, with modern names like Biff, Brad or Corey.  Poor Snow White.  Without Bashful, she wouldn’t have had a day off.

The first film to incorporate outstanding CGIs with story, identifiable people and excitement was “Titanic”.  We saw a CGI ship sink, CGI people falling hundreds of feet into CGI water, ship’s CGI personnel saving CGI children. It looked real and it all was adapted nicely into the larger story. It ably supported the film’s characters and the general ambience of the film.  Computer generated congratulations, James Cameron, you may have earned your seventeen million dollar director’s fee.  But couldn’t you have slimmed Kate Winslet down just a little?


3) The film.  What about “Van Helsing”?  Viewers are immediately put off in the first scene by a CGI overdose in Dr. Frankenstein’s castle.  We know immediately that director Stephen Sommers has missed the castle bridge and the film is in the moat.  We are then insulted increasingly throughout the seemingly interminable remainder of the footage.  The jerky, silly monsters aren’t even good CGI.  (Can you say “Godzilla”?)  It's two hours and eleven minutes of continuous assaulting boredom before the Transylvania torture is over.

  • There are a couple of grins in the film but Sommers couldn’t decide to go in that direction.  Better if he had. 

  • Kate Beckinsale looks good in lace up boots and waist cincture.  But we don’t see enough of her. 

  • Hugh Jackman, who is in nearly every frame, offers an imposing Van Helsing with his obdurate cape and hat, his striking presence and big voice.  He does all he can.

4) The decision.  Because of massive abuse of the CGI, “Van Helsing” should be condemned to Prince Vlad’s dungeon forever.  Sorry, Hugh.  Take heart, you’ll rise above it.


The flying female vampires (in monster mode) appear to be nude, but no explicit details are seen (thus you can see the shape of their seemingly bare breasts and crotches, but no nipples or genitalia are present). They also show cleavage (sometimes a lot) in human form.

Scoop's notes:

JK makes a very interesting point. For 148 million dollars, you can afford a lot of good writers. Hell, half of them are probably living under bridges, willing to work for food. If I were going to make a market-oriented film (as opposed to an artistic film from my heart), I would hire a bunch of writers, throw them into a retreat for a few days, and tell them to come back with their ten best ideas about "Subject X". Then I'd choose the two I like best, and commission some of those writers to develop them. Then I would pay some really creative loner like Charlie Kaufman to develop a third script on the same subject. I would tell each team, "don't worry about pleasing audiences. That is my job. Write me a film that you would actually like to watch." You know how much that entire process would cost you? Not much, by Hollywood standards. Maybe ten million dollars, which would leave you $138 million to make a "big" film.

You don't need that much.

  • Robert Rodriguez made Once Upon a Time in Mexico for $29 million, including the salaries of two big stars, Banderas and Depp.

  • Jean-Jacques Annaud made Enemy at the Gates for $70 million, and he recreated the Battle of Stalingrad, with location shoots, period planes, barges, period tanks and artillery, and an entire burnt-out city. If Hollywood had given him $148 million, they would have been perfectly satisfied with the result, and he could have pocketed the extra $78 million.

Say, I'm getting an idea here.

So here's what I would do next. I'd pick one of the three scripts and tell Rodriguez to make the film for $38 million, but cook the books to make it look like he spent $138 million. Then Rodriguez and I would split the remaining hundred million 50-50, with which he could make 32 more crappy sequels to Spy Kids or some other underachieving basura far below his potential, and I could live in a tropical paradise drinking umbrella drinks, surrounded by beautiful women of lax moral standards for the rest of my life, even inviting all of you guys to join me for a week.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: no consensus. The average was about two stars. James Berardinelli .5/4, Roger Ebert 3/4.

  • British consensus: no consensus. Extremes of love and hate. Average was, again, about two stars. Mail 8/10, Telegraph 1/10, Independent 1/10, Guardian 3/10, Standard 9/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 5.2/10, Yahoo voters score it a B.
  • Box Office Mojo. It took in more than $50 million on opening weekend, despite poor reviews. It should finish in the $100-$150 million range. The production costs were about $160 million, and marketing was estimated at $50 million.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

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