Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.


Everybody works for me

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage presents a very clear metaphor: rich people can get away with murder.  The film’s story sees Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a sixty year-old billionaire hedge fund manager not dissimilar to Bernie Madoff, attempting to merge his company via a deal with Mr. Mayfied, a Godot-like character not often seen, but who sends several of his people to Miller’s offices to modify the deal.  However, Miller is involved in a multi-million dollar fraud, having hidden $400 million worth of debt from both his family and the investors.  Miller’s CFO is his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a strong, stable woman who makes a capable business partner.  Miller also shares a seemingly healthy relationship with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who knows her husband has at least one mistress, but accepts this as long as some set of conditions (which we are never quite privy to, but can assume has something to do with maintaining a lavish lifestyle) are met.

The central conflict, however, is not the merger and the fraud, at least not when Miller takes his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta) for a cruise to one of his rural secondary homes.  Julie, an up-and-coming artist whose ventures Miller funds, loves him and wants him to leave Ellen.  He puts off answering, but all of the discussion amounts to nothing when he dozes off in the driver’s seat, resulting in a gruesome car accident that kills Julie and results in an attempt at a massive cover-up.  Miller begins to dial 911, then thinks better of it and makes a collect call to Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a former chauffeur for whom Miller once did personal favors, asking for a ride home and keeping the cause of his (very visible) injuries a secret.

What follows is Miller’s attempt to hide every possible truth from every possible party.  Police Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a bristly lawman with a chip on his shoulder concerning “rich assholes,” is sent to discover the identity of Julie’s absent driver, and knows Miller was the wheelman after a surprise interrogation.  Bryer explores Julie’s apartment, harasses Jimmy (who is pegged as a witness after police trace the call), and even goes as far as photo-shopping a photo of Jimmy’s license plate in order to place his car at a guilt-proving location.  Roth’s character wears a black suit and made me imagine all-too-vividly what might have happened if Mr. Orange, Roth’s black-suited undercover cop from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, had continued with his career and worked another twenty years.  The lines engraving his face and his passive-yet-menacing interrogation style say more than could ever be spoken about this guy’s position in life.

Brit Marling, who scripted and starred in Another Earth, my favorite film from last year, performs strongly here, matching the veterans Gere and Sarandon line for line.  It’s truly an amazing thing to see. I’m fine with a film centering around a male character, but if I have one gripe about the film, it’s the mild underuse of Brit, whose longer scenes are rare chestnuts in a film so full of handsome men doing bad things.

The ingenuity of a thriller like Arbitrage lies in the fact that a filmgoer’s instinct is either to immediately identify with the protagonist, or try to remain completely neutral until one event or another forces them to take a side.  It doesn’t take very long for Miller to reveal himself as a snake, and while no sane person would root for him to get away with either of his schemes, we as an audience are burdened with each of his lies and deceptions until the pressure is unceremoniously relieved in the film’s all-too-true-to-life ending.  No, bastards like Miller never lose.

Arbitrage (2012); written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki; starring Richard Gere, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon.

Treasure Island

Them that die’ll be the lucky ones

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) is the novel that propagated virtually every popular misconception about Caribbean pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy: parrots on shoulders, “arr matey” dialect, the Black Spot, one-legged seamen, schooners, buried treasure, deserted tropical islands, and maps marked with an “X” – that’s right, none of it is real.  The main themes of the novel, namely friendship, a boy’s coming-of-age, and the ambiguity of morality (and thus masculinity) were rare for the time (and to an extent still are), but are reflected incredibly well through each of the novel’s chapters; this, along with the story’s atmosphere, action, and sense of adventure, have resulted in Treasure Island being one of the most adapted (and ripped-off) pieces of long literature in the history of the English canon.

You’d think, then, a fairly accurate adaptation would be pretty easy to do in 2012.  After all, the novel was written with young boys as a target audience, so the narrative never becomes twisted, confusing, or laced with literary devices that might pass over an unseasoned reader’s head.  With the technology available to big-budget filmmakers, new adaptations of books could be masterful pieces of art, despite being a medium far inferior to the written work, and generate some new interest in canonized diamonds of literature.  But there is an obsessive need in the film world (and not just Hollywood) to make a piece one’s own, and while you can do that with stylistic direction, editing, and set design, you are not allowed to change the fundamentals of the original in order to make it your own story; at that point, you’re just plagiarizing.  When I did my adaptation of two stories from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (Wings Over Arda: The First Age), I kept in mind that I was doing this in part as a writing/film project, but also out of love for the original material.  The only gaps I had to fill in were dialogue gaps, as Tolkien’s piece was written as mythology (i.e. heavy summary is involved).  As a result, folks thrice my age who were reading Tolkien before my parents even met have expressed joy at my “accurate” adaptation, and this was accomplished with one camera and one local bank account.  Canadian author Douglas Glover called the project “an amazing adventure” and said, “What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.”  Perhaps the key is that I don’t want to be a filmmaker; I just wanted to do a film project that focused on writing, or, more likely, that I realized that this piece of writing is someone else’s – I love the original story; why would I want to change it?  What gives me the RIGHT to?  I consider the screenplay and final film my own work, but the story certainly doesn’t belong to me.  During production, I kept a film diary, which was published and can be seen in Numero Cinq Magazine if you’re interested in how this came about.

So how does director Steve Barron deal with his film’s source material?  Let’s take a look.  For those who may not be familiar with Stevenson’s work, Treasure Island is narrated by Jim Hawkins (played here by young British actor Toby Regbo), the son of the owners of the Admiral Benbow Inn, Black Hill Cove, in the mid-18th century.  In the novel, a mysterious wayward seaman who asks to be identified only as “The Captain” pays a generous sum for an extended stay at the inn, and he becomes something of a local treasure because the locals love his tales of seafaring and buccaneering.  One day, however, his former shipmates – ne’er-do-well pirates – violently attack the Benbow in search of a treasure map the Captain holds (his name is also revealed as Billy Bones, now one of the most famous pirate characters in literature).  Jim escapes with the map, having rifled through Bones’ sea chest in search of the money he owed the inn, and meets with Dr. Livesy (Daniel Mays), and along with Squire Trelawney (Rupert Penry-Jones), determines that the “X” on the map marks the location of a fabulous treasure (worth roughly 700,000 British pounds) long-ago buried by the infamous Captain Flint, for whom Bones worked as first mate.  The trio plan a voyage to the island where the treasure lies, hiring a crew that includes sea cook Long John Silver (played in this adaptation by the adept Eddie Izzard), who brings several of his mates onboard.  Barron’s film handles these early scenes relatively well as far as pacing goes, aside from the inexplicable (yet inspired) choice to portray Bones (David Harewood) as Jamaican, but the atmosphere and classic seagoing intrigue of the novels is subverted by a somewhat indulgent decision to place a prologue at the front of the film, depicting Captain Flint (Donald Sutherland) burying the treasure and mistreating/murdering some of his crew.  This not only eliminates any mystery surrounding the original voyage, but also spoils the fact that Silver and the crewmates he brought along were, along with Bones, members of Flint’s original crew, who believe the treasure is rightfully theirs.  This prologue reeks of studio intervention – a direct order to immediately and obligatorily establish the fact that Donald Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, and Elijah Wood are in this film – as well as falling into an action-movie trap.  Additionally, a short scene before the final raid on the Benbow gives away the fact that Silver is the one sending pirates to retrieve the map from Bones, spoiling Bones’ wonderfully cryptic warnings in the novel about a one-legged man:

He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weathereye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” 

Even Muppet Treasure Island got that right.  Why the shameless exposition?  Why eliminate any and all mystery surrounding the voyage?  No matter, the plot structure remains generally the same, with Jim and the crew meeting Silver at the docks of Bristol.  Once the ship reaches the island, Silver leads a mutiny, planning to murder those who don’t acknowledge him as captain and help him obtain the treasure.  Up to this point, Jim and Silver develop something of a father-son relationship, and even after the iconic (and endlessly copied) scene in which Jim overhears the pirates’ dastardly scheme while hiding in an apple barrel, we still want to like Long John.  Why?  Because of his gift of language and his kind disposition throughout the entire voyage:

All the crew respected and even obeyed [Long John Silver]. He had a way of talking to each and doing everybody some particular service. To me he was unweariedly kind, and always glad to see me in the galley, which he kept as clean as a new pin, the dishes hanging up burnished and his parrot in a cage in one corner.   

Considering Silver’s plan, it’s in his best interest to get everyone to like him, but this hardly changes the fact that he’s making the ship a better place by being so kind and cheerful.  Despite his true feelings for the ship’s officers, this makes him a more likeable character (and thus one we continually want to trust) than pirates like Israel Hands (played by Geoff Bell and named after the real-life Blackbeard’s first mate), who is so hateful he can’t even pretend to be a decent human being.  Much of this is preserved in the film, but is delivered mostly through exposition in the interest of furthering the action.  As the voyage begins, Izzard’s Long John tells Jim flat-out that the two of them will become close on this voyage.  The problem in the film is that we already know Silver is a bad guy and are simply awaiting his betrayal, whereas in the novel there blooms a declamatory heartbreak when Jim hears Silver recruiting other crewmates to his cause by using the same flattery he used on Jim.

I get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to preserve Silver’s nebulous morality, but were unable to translate Stevenson’s narrative ingenuity to the screen, so they decided that the only solution was to introduce someone even worse.  This duty falls on Trelawney, who in the novel is one of the four major heroes, somewhat of a pompous buffoon at the outset, but described as the “most liberal of men.”  In the film, however, he is viciously transformed into a secondary antagonist, appearing from the get-go as a self-absorbed fop who cares nothing for human life and is interested in the voyage only to obtain the treasure.  At the film’s end, Jim decides to toss the treasure overboard, to the chagrin of Trelawney, who attacks Jim and is stopped by Silver.  He later drowns trying to retrieve the sunken gold.  This is not only a gross and somewhat irresponsible transmogrification of a character and a stretch to prove Silver’s fondness for Jim, but it also jumbles the themes of the novel: the story now becomes less about ambiguous morality and more about the dangers of greed vs. basic human righteousness.  This would be fine if Barron’s film were an original pirate story, but the tropes involving a villain killed by his own greed and a former villain redeeming himself in a moment of epiphany, while as archetypical as some of Stevenson’s material seems now, have been done countless times before, and not by Stevenson, which not only render them cliche’, but serve more to remind a viewer of other movies they’ve seen.  This is wrong to me on many levels, namely the fact that new viewers may take these events as the events of the novel, dismissing the story as stock adventure fluff and not the mystifying piece of work it is (never underestimate stupidity – I’ve heard from more than one person who thought The Lord of the Rings novels were based upon Peter Jackson’s films).

The theme of morality is further stripped down in another near-ending scene, in which the remaining mutineers (people so bad they’ve even mutinied against Silver after being unable to find the treasure) are disposed of by Livesy and Captain Smollet (Philip Glenister).  In the novel, the evillest of pirates are not killed, but marooned on the island:

The three fellows must have been watching us closer than we thought for, as we soon had proved. For coming through the narrows, we had to lie very near the southern point, and there we saw all three of them kneeling together on a spit of sand, with their arms raised in supplication. It went to all our hearts, I think, to leave them in that wretched state; but we could not risk another mutiny; and to take them home for the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness. The doctor hailed them and told them of the stores we had left, and where they were to find them. But they continued to call us by name and appeal to us, for God’s sake, to be merciful and not leave them to die in such a place.

Stevenson very deliberately includes the lines about calling the crew by name and appealing to them “for God’s sake, to be merciful.” This is a clear commentary about our responsibility to our fellow human beings: no matter how bad these pirates were, do they deserve this fate?  This theme is finalized by the fact that Stevenson leaves the reader to form her/his own conclusions about the crew’s decision, as well as the fact that Long John is allowed to escape with some of the treasure and probably, as Jim muses, “met his [wife], and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot].  It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.”  Stevenson’s adroitness is swept away by the filmmakers in favor of an action-movie climax and a happy/morally sound ending.  Instead of being released by the fearful Ben Gunn (Elijah Wood in this adaptation) and stealing some gold for himself, Silver is set free by Jim, who willingly hands the former a bag of treasure and promises to seek him out should he ever want more adventure.  The moral implications here are dubious at best, and provide way too clean an ending to a story built upon a foundation of ambiguity.

There are also needless sideplots involving Silver’s wife (Nina Sosanya) and Jim’s mother (Shirley Henderson), which would be great if they got us anywhere, as well as Ben Gunn, a maroon who served as a primary ally in the novel but provides little more than a distraction here.  Here’s an idea: you have three hours to tell this story.  Why not concentrate on getting the major characters and plot events nailed down instead of throwing stuff in?  You know I’m gung-ho about the female presence in stories and film, but when we’re reminded every two seconds that these women may be forced into prostitution should the voyage not succeed (reminders which include onscreen abuse by men), any pretense of allowing female characters to subvert their surroundings is obliterated.  The new Moby-Dick film, which also breached three hours, hit some good notes, but had the same thematic issues, as well as anachronistic dialogue and distracting side-stories invented by the filmmakers.

It all seems a waste because Izzard’s performance is so good.  This would have been much better as a derivative-but-new pirate story; the filmmakers even shy away from some of the story’s highlights that have become tradition, including the “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” song (a made-up sea chanty written by Stevenson for the novel) and the cleverness of Silver naming his parrot Captain Flint in mockery of his former leader – both of these were ripped off by the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but these filmmakers, while briefly alluding to these things, seem afraid to make them prime surface material lest viewers think they ripped off the Disney movies.  This is a dangerous example of our techno-phile society in which film and TV and pop nonsense are suddenly the apparent roots of all culture.  And we wonder why adaptations of classic novels have been reduced to TV miniseries?

I am thankful, however, that this adaptation slipped under the radar, and a film like Jane Eyre received a theatrical release.  There’s still hope (only if you pick up a book, though).

Treasure Island (2012); written Stewart Harcourt; adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; directed by Steve Barron; starring Toby Regbo, Eddie Izzard, and Shirley Henderson.