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Eragon   D

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Stefen Fangmeier
Writer: Peter Buchman (based on the novel by Christopher Paolini)
Cast: Ed Speleers, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Robert Carlyle, Djimon Hounsou, Garrett Hedlund, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz.

Review by Rob Vaux

I've spent most of my life living down piles of dog vomit like Eragon. We fantasy fans tend to take it on the chin because so much of the genre is so breathtakingly bad that the taint of actually picking one up and reading it never comes off. It's one of the reasons why we love Peter Jackson so much: The Lord of the Rings made it okay to be a nerd. But the price we pay for such success is a thousand chintzy knockoffs, and they don't get much chintzier than this miserable lump of coal from director Stefen Fangmeier.

The fault begins with the source novel, written by then-teenager Christopher Paolini that inexplicably rose to the top of the best-seller list. I know writers -- bad writers, self-deluded hacks -- who leave chunks of better stories in their toilet water. Forget for the moment its pretentious, barely disguised aping of the original Star Wars, painted in medieval trappings and couched in lexicon pulled straight from the author's ass. Forget Fangmeier's feckless attempts to bring its faux majesty to the screen: the lousy effects, the dull fights and chases, the actors either hopelessly milquetoast or shamelessly slumming. Forget the key characters who wander through the film like refugees, the plot holes covered up by convenient use of "magic," or the cynical calculation that posits this as the first chapter in a larger epic (and I use the term loosely). Eragon fails first and foremost because it lacks even a basic understanding of the mythological tenets it so clearly wishes to embody.

Mythic archetypes are a staple of this kind of storytelling; indeed, they're often a selling point. Dive into Jung and Campbell, grasp the underpinnings embodied by various historic legends and fairy tales, and then develop a unique and compelling version of your own. The key part is the last one, using the formula to springboard into something at least vaguely original. Eragon, however, views archetypes as a shortcut rather than a starting point: find one, plug it in, and you're done. So we have, for example, the Farmboy of Destiny -- a title character (Edward Speleers) who lives with his uncle as an orphan, never realizing that great things are at hand. The framework is easily spotted: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter... pick your hero of choice. But while those characters distinguished themselves with the trappings of real personality, Eragon seems to feel its work is finished once the basic trope is established. We all know how the story goes, it reasons, so why should it bother to elaborate?

The philosophy continues point by depressingly trite point as the film's rusty gears shudder to life. Eragon discovers a dragon's egg in the woods, left there by a princess in peril (Sienna Guillory) fighting the injustice of an evil empire. The dragon soon hatches -- the last of its kind -- and is bound to Eragon, who, as a nascent "dragon rider," apparently possesses all kinds of mystic powers which can overthrow the wicked king (John Malkovich) and restore justice to the land. But first he needs training from a mysterious old man (Jeremy Irons) who used to be a dragon rider himself before his order was wiped out. There's also a charming rogue with a secret (Garrett Hedlund), a hidden resistance waiting for a savior, various dark fortresses in need of breaching... sound familiar? Don't worry. Eragon doesn't bother with any notions of its own to clutter the pristine clarity of those clichés.

Fangmeier compounds the issue by slapping it all together with arbitrary abandon. Again, the basic notion of mythic archetype is used to cover up the appalling lack of creative thought. Eragon sees a vision of Guillory's princess and immediately feels a mystic bond that compels him to rescue her. No tedious development, no establishing their relationship in an interesting (and thus tougher to establish) way. We all know that heroes love princesses, and hey, the vision is "magic," right? So we don't need to worry about that dull development that might actually endear us to these figures. So it is with all of the other key plot points. Eragon's dragon (voiced by Rachel Weisz) goes from hatchling to adult overnight, while forming another "mystic" bond that excuses the film from making us care. Supporting figures appear with little rhyme or reason, aiding or impeding Eragon's quest the way office managers add projects to an employee's in-box. Fangmeier's rote direction cements the by-the-numbers feeling, while the script by Peter Buchman concentrates on clunky expository dialogue sprinkled with arcane terminology that will baffle all but dedicated fans of the novel.

Indeed, it's the use of such terminology that demonstrates Eragon's third-rate status. The practice can be seen in most endeavors of this sort, perhaps most successfully in The Lord of the Rings. But J.R.R. Tolkien was an actual linguist, who understood how to build his high falutin' terms from the ground up. The same philosophy governed his creation of Middle-earth, concentrating on complex cultural plausibility in a way later emulated (with at least middling success) by the likes of George Lucas and J.K. Rowling. Eragon, however, never puts that work in. It never even tries. So when terms like "ra'zac" and "urgal" surface, they lack the barest whiff of authenticity, accompanied instead by self-important gravitas and cringe-inducing delivery. So too does its hackneyed fantasy universe hang together by pop-culture presumptions of better-known works: never bothering to distinguish itself as long as there's anything out there to leech off of.

And yet like the novel before it, it has inexplicably become a hit. Early figures indicate a solid opening weekend (God help us, there's going to be a director's cut, isn't there?) and the unholy specter of further entries in this franchise are clearly on the filmmakers' minds. Such is the unfortunate legacy of a genre that deserves much better. With the cinematic tools at our disposal, a proper work of fantasy can inspire great things. Instead, the likes of Eragon deliver rank incompetence at a cut-rate price, lowering the bar that the Lord of the Rings movies labored so mightily to raise. If fairy tales this bad can make it through the public's filters, I weep for what the future holds. That rack of shitty fantasy novels at the Barnes & Noble is awfully deep... and this incompetent adaptation of Paolini's laughable would-be opus may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Review published 12.19.2006.

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