Judge Bill Gibron once snacked on a census taker. He found the meat stringy, gamy, and almost indigestible—just like this lame prequel to the Lecter saga.
It Started With Revenge. It Ended With Retardation.
Horror films have had a hard time of late. After the pre/post millennium epiphany known as J-Horror and the resurgence in violence-oriented product, the creepy renaissance has more or less petered out. Take last year, for example. We were hit with an onslaught of excellence, from Silent Hill and Hostel to The Hills Have Eyes remake and The Descent. But right around the time that AfterDark was announcing its subsequently mediocre Halloween Horrorfest (featuring eight movies too lame to be legitimately distributed), signs of the inevitable shift began. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning argued that no one needed to know how Leatherface became a power-tool wielding fool, while a sequel to Hills showed that one too many trips to the well leaves the scare cistern dried up and dead. Perhaps no other film in the last six months argued for the fading of fear factors better than Hannibal Rising. Aside from taking a solid series and flushing the franchise directly down the toilet, this maddeningly mediocre movie proved that prequels never prosper. Unless you can apply some heretofore unknown cinematic magic to the prologue project, you're bound to bomb, big time.
Facts of the Case
It's the middle of the Second World War and Lithuania is in the middle of a power play between the Nazis and the Russians. This is bad news for the Lecter clan since Papa, a wealthy landowner, will more than likely lose everything no matter who ends up victorious. Desperate to protect his family, he decides to seek refuge in their country manor. So he packs up his wife, his darling daughter Mischa, and his equally precocious son Hannibal. Soon after arriving in supposed safety, a bombing raid leaves the kids orphaned and it's not long before a roving band of maniacal mercenaries discovers the Lecter abode. Recognizing that the kids will make excellent bargaining chips, power-mad leader Grutas (Rhys Ifans, Human Nature) decides to hole up for a while. But a blizzard soon finds the villains desperate and hungry. Naturally, they look to their captives as potential pot stickers.
After an atrocity that leaves him badly shaken, young Hannibal is sent away to a Russian orphanage where he grows up (Gaspard Ulliel, A Very Long Engagement) to be shy and quite sinister. After dispensing with a badgering bully, he sets out for France. There he hopes to find his long-lost aunt, a Japanese expatriate (Gong Li, Miami Vice) who's got a thing for samurais. She teaches Hannibal the ways of the sword and, soon, local scum is turning up decapitated. This makes policeman and war crimes investigator Inspector Popil (Dominic West, 300) very suspicious. However, Hannibal has other ideas. Thanks to a shot of sodium pentothal, he now remembers what happened to his sister. And he's desperate to track down Grutas to his men and deliver a little premeditated payback.
On its face, there is nothing really wrong with Hannibal Rising. It's a well-made, period horror film with lots of atmosphere and some effective moments of dread. Our lead character is a charismatic killer who sees his growing need for vengeance as a way of dispensing justice among a group of disgusting war criminals, and there's a logical method to his occasionally shocking madness. Granted, the oddball Asian/samurai angle is significantly screwy, especially when you consider that the source material never really hinted at such an ethnic pedigree, and the last-act denouement is more strained than shocking. Still, when you add it all up, the movie manages to tell an interesting story with a great deal of flair and some minor moments of cinematic panache. So what's the problem, exactly? Where does this seemingly solid movie finally snap like a snow pea? Well, if you're a fan of the first three films in the Hannibal Lecter liturgy and believe yourself to be a student of the maniac's mesmerizing macabre myth, this pathetic prequel is prepared to take a big fat dump all over your determinations. It's one thing when an origin story circumvents the basics to make its own unintelligent statement (see Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). But this movie manages an even more disconcerting feat. It finds a way to completely strip the popular serial killer character of his entire reason for being.
You see, by either inference or direct communication, Hannibal Lecter always appeared to be a man in complete control of his craven cannibalism. Yes, it frequently raged inside him like a beast demanding sustenance, and he didn't always have a genuine mastery of its mannerisms, but when push came to shove, Lecter was a focused fiend. He didn't kill willy nilly. No, he only consumed people who "tested" him or imposed limits on his life that he did not want. So to turn him into Jason Voorhees with a continental flair is just stupid. Granted, the previous films in the Thomas Harris canon do draw direct connections between Lecter the adult and his enigmatic early life, but few fans could have imagined that this was the past his psychosis was based on. It's like explaining that the reason Michael Myers killed his sister at the start of Halloween was that he read too many EC comics. Lecter was so difficult to categorize that the FBI used him to study other mass murderers. But in this nonsensical introduction to his life of slaughter, he's like every bureau test case cast into a Biography Channel documentary. We keep waiting for the moment when he goes bug butt and starts carving up his pet gerbils.
But there's more to it than that. This Hannibal just doesn't mesh with the version venerated by Anthony Hopkins (and let's not forget Brian Cox) in previous installments of the flesh fiend's fable. For all the knowing nods to his elder's tics and line readings, Gaspard Ulliel is a sorry excuse for a killer. He's like one of Janice Dickinson's Modeling Agency talents taken to Parisian extremes. He's so polished and poised that you expect him to prefer the catwalk to cat guts. His undeniable charms do allow him to come across as menacing and methodical (up to a point), but there was more to Lecter than an ease of eeriness. As a middle-aged man, he carries the unusual distinction of being a very viable boogeyman, someone you actually fear will find a way to walk freely amongst the rest of the human race. His evil was both physical and psychological. Here, Ulliel has no kind of intellectualized aura. He's just a pissed-off adolescent who doesn't like the fact that some Lithuanian lugs with a predilection toward looting made Mischa-bobs out of his sister.
The most devastating denouncement of what this film tries to do with Hannibal comes from another character all together. Here's a good rule of thumb for those of you making a thriller-style horror film—never have your bad guy be 1,000 percent worse than your actual antihero. It makes your man monster look bad. Indeed, Lecter has nothing on Grutas—aside from the whole skin-snacking angle, that is (and, even then, this jerkwad resorted to it once, remember?). Ifans's performance is so disturbing, so dead on in its ability to call up heinousness and maliciousness that Ulliel looks like some schmoe trying to make the leap from boy band to big-screen badass. Grutas exudes terror, he appears like the smoldering time bomb his actions frequently indicate. Even in times of crisis or cowering, you can still see the wicked cogs counter rotating inside his skull. Ulliel's Lecter has no such undercurrent. He's all surface and superficial. When he's angry, he pouts. When he's hurt, he pouts. Whenever he has any significant emotion besides misplaced arrogance, he pouts. This definitely makes him the first ever supermodel serial killer.
And then there's Gong Li. What she's doing here is anyone's guess (and don't ask Thomas Harris—from this script its clear he has no idea, either). Reduced to a few insignificant scenes where she exudes Zen poetics and turns on the cow eyes, she is supposed to be Hannibal's mentor in the ways of death. Instead, she's like eye candy made out of invisible cinematic sugar. The viewer is frequently afraid that if they breathe too hard, she may blow right off the frame. The rest of the cast is capable, if confused, given little to accomplish except to be around when Lecter comes a cuttin'. This is even true of the war crime component. Dominic West doesn't come across like a victimized man looking for a little karmic justice for those wronged by the Nazis and Russians. Instead, he's like a placard for PC ideals, making his "I'm fighting for what's right" intentions known every 15 minutes. With relatively tame murders (there is limited gore here—more on this in a moment) and a conclusion that's completely inane and telegraphed, Hannibal Rising has very little to hang its hat on. Luckily, director Peter Webber will be able to weather this creative storm quiet well.
Showing some incredible vision within the scope of the story (his battlefield moments are well done, if a tad too long) and capable of creating tension and terror, this is a filmmaker worth paying attention to. Noted for his work in British television and the Vermeer movie Girl with a Pearl Earring, he has a flair and a spark that's missing from most horror movies. It's too bad he's hampered by Harris and the dopey De Laurentiis production clan. Instead of doing the right thing and following Lecter's legend from the moment he is caught backward or, during his more deadly years in the US of A, we have to take these meandering jaunts down faded memory lane and hope that the dreaded demographic gives a squirt. In fact, if one were really jaded, they could argue that this was done wholly on purpose. Instead of one movie taking up from childhood to Red Dragon, we get sequelized stages. Apparently, the next film will be Hannibal Leveling Off, followed quickly by the direct-to-DVD release of Hannibal Treading Water. Sadly, that could also be a fitting subtitle to this lamentable, if luxuriant, offering.
Remember the statement about the amount of blood made a few minutes ago? Well, here's the skinny on the so-called "Unrated Edition" now out on DVD. There is no more nastiness here than what was in theaters. No hidden hacking or edited evisceration has been added in to make snuff lovers sing. Nope, the reason the MPAA passed on this release is because it was never submitted to them. You see, distributors don't have to go back to the ratings board if they simply want to release the same version of a film shown in theaters. But if they want to add new material when the title hits the digital format, they either have to resubmit or simply go without an approved tag. Now, in most cases, studios do this to add in lots of telltale repugnance—grotesqueries that would have never made it past the buttinski moralists the first time around. Here, all we get are more dialogue scenes and some extended battle footage. No more grue. No more bile. No more corpse grinding. Just additional exposition. Yippee.
From a purely technical position, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent. There is a terrific balance between light and dark (the film favors the blacker end of the pigment spectrum) and a visual opulence that radiates off the screen. There are even moments of quiet grandeur, as when Hannibal returns to the country manor where his foul fate was sealed. On the sound side, we are presented with a fairly flat Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. There is not a lot of atmosphere offered, and the frequent use of ambient noise does very little to stir up the shivers. As for extras, we are treated to a very self-congratulatory commentary track from Webber and producer Martha De Laurentiis. While informative and observant, it is also a clear case of clueless creative types praising something that doesn't deserve the honor. Next up is a basic behind-the-scenes featurette that discusses the prequels origins, the locations, and the different phases of the story (war, Paris, murder, etc.). It's fun but forgettable. So is the production design documentary featuring Allan Starski. In his own genial broken English, the Polish-born craftsman discusses his approach to Hannibal Rising's sets. Finally, there are five throwaway deleted scenes with added commentary. It's clear why they are cut since they literally add nothing to the story. Toss in some trailers and you've got a standard-issue premium DVD.
Just like the arguments made over George Lucas's decision to jerry-rig Darth Vader from intergalactic gangsta to simpering wimp with an awkward Amidala jones, Thomas Harris has every right to rape and ruin our memory of Hannibal Lecter with this appalling explanation. True, part of the problem is that talented people like Anthony Hopkins, Ted Tally, and Jonathan Demme took the character and made it into something classical and creative, a reflection of human fears expertly placed upon a nifty murder mystery. But if that's the challenge you face, shouldn't you at least try to meet it? Hannibal Rising decided to simply avoid it all together and instead make another type of trip into terror. There will be a few of you who cotton to this kind of retrograde reimagining. But for those who follow horror closely, it will stand as another nail in the genre's cyclical downward spiral.
Guilty. Hannibal Rising is sentenced to 10 years watching other onerous prequels to prove its own lack of worth. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Full-length Audio Commentary by Director Peter Webber and Producer Martha De Laurentiis
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