Script Review: "Van Helsing" by T.H.
STUDIO: Universal Pictures
RELEASE DATE: May 7, 2004
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale
Producers: Bob Ducsay, Stephen Sommers
Director: Stephen Sommers
Screenplay by: Stephen Sommers
"...if this had been an adaptation of some comic property, it would be
a lot easier to swallow just how familiar and almost repetitive a lot of the
story really is."
[Screenwriter's Voice was created out of respect for writers and the written word. Development is a fascinating and important process which can impact a script, for better or worse. We offer these reviews in the hope that comparing them to the final film will give you a greater insight into the art and business of screenwriting.]
It's strange but clear how as a filmmaker Stephen Sommers has grown up slower than his audience. Perhaps it's all the lost time, since it does take so long to get a film from the page to the screen. Early in his Hollywood career, Sommers wrote and directed kid-friendly films like The Adventures of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book. His next big picture was Deep Rising, which on the surface seemed like an adult film, what with the "R" rating and all, but underneath it all this second-rate monster film with it's cast of B actors, while loads of fun, was only really appealing to young teenage boys who were proud to sneak into theaters or rent it against the rules. His biggest splash, without a doubt, came with The Mummy, and its sequel and subsequent spin-off. But those films were squarely aimed at the young, parentally-guided crowd as well. With Van Helsing, Sommers has matured all of, oh, maybe a year or two in his target audience. A bit darker than the Mummy films, in tone only, there's no more substance or complexity to Van Helsing than the near-cartoon nature of his last films. If you're a fan of the man's work, you'll enjoy it, without a doubt, but for those hard-core genre fans looking for something new and memorable... move along, there's nothing to see here. There's simply not an ounce of originality in the Van Helsing script, and by the time it appears on movie screens this May, the only thing that will be fully developed is a lot of computer effects and money shots, a fully realized visual treat riding on the flimsiest of stories.
You're not alone if you first assumed, upon seeing the trailer for Van Helsing, that it is probably based on a comic book. What collectors and readers of comics already know is that this movie isn't based on anything... at least not directly; and that's almost a shame, because if this had been an adaptation of some comic property, it would be a lot easier to swallow just how familiar and almost repetitive a lot of the story really is. As an original screenplay, Van Helsing is rather uninspired. The concept is a familiar one, slightly displaced: Van Helsing is essentially an assassin working for the Roman Church. The idea is that the he and the holy men he works for protect mankind from various monsters and have done so since the dawn of time. Of course, most of the world doesn't even know it's happening. It's a not-so-subtle variation of Men in Black or Hellboy. As the story progresses, Van Helsing travels to Transylvania to protect and aide a princess, the last remaining soul of her family who must survive long enough to vanquish the evil Count Dracula, who rules over the land. Of course, there's also werewolves to contend with, and the Frankenstein monster, and Dracula's vampire brides, because for some reason Sommers decided to use them all. At this point the story becomes very reminiscent of films like Blade and Underworld (which got enough flack as it is for borrowing so many ideas that have appeared in other properties). The script is also chalk full of elements from just about every other superhero and monster film that has ever been successful, often mirroring them a little too closely (i.e. the "my life... my job... my curse" line you've probably heard in the trailers - where have we heard that before?)
What does work, conceptually, is the characters and the way they are used, particularly the relationships they have to each other. Sommers has created a solid, if not entirely original, character with Van Helsing. He's not a super-hero, per-se, and he is venerable even while kicking ass. Van Helsing doesn't know who he is, and has no memory of his past, other than the assurance from Rome that he is meant to fight evil, a task for which he's provided with a lot of very cool weapons. Sommers has thrown a lot of characters into this story, but most of them do serve a purpose, and many of them somehow connect, so that at least the Wolf Man is somebody relevant to the story, and the Frankenstein monster does play a different role than just being another monster for our hero to fight. Dracula is the real villain of the film, without a doubt. There are a few too many secondary characters running around, though. Van Helsing has his own sidekick, inserted for comic relief, as does Dracula. In addition to providing some comic relief, none of which is all that clever or original, they also quite transparently (and often painfully) provide much of the exposition. Van Helsing's sidekick is a Friar, sent to keep him supplied with weapons and ammo and more importantly to explain to us, the audience, what the rules of this world are, what everything does; and to verbalize how our heroes interpret new information as the plot unfolds. Sommers needs to be sure we understand what's happening, and that we understand that the characters understand as well. It's a typically embarrassing dumbing-down of an already simplistic story. There are no real twists or surprises, because we can see just about everything coming based on these little pieces of dialogue that explain the importance of certain plot points. The characters may as well turn and wink at the camera. Hell, Sommers even specifies in several places in the script that there should be a particular note of music to signal to us that something sinister is about to happen. These would be very helpful and necessary story-telling techniques, if we were all 14 years old and hadn't seen more than a half a dozen films in our lifetime.
Okay, having sufficiently complained about the weakness of the script, which really shouldn't come as a surprise given the writer-director's history and style (nor is it necessarily a bad thing... this film will please a particular audience regardless, and it will make money), there is a chance the evolution of Van Helsing to the screen may bring about an improved film. Nothing will change the fact that the concept and story are recycled, but much of the dialogue, and hopefully that includes much of the humor, may have been rewritten and polished since this unspecified draft. Judging from the trailers, however, much of what was written is going to be intact. Still, a lot of little changes can make a big difference. The visuals look promising, though clearly the abuse of CGI continues. The description of the monsters in the script is somewhat vague, but the designs on screen look new and interesting. Likely the film will look and sound very cool, but to read it... Well, it's pretty clear that when Sommers pitched this picture to the studio, the exec who approved it either hadn't seen a single genre film in his or her life, or had seen 'em all and said, "Hey, I've seen this movie already... and it made money... Green light!"
Sommers knows what he's doing, that much can't be argued. This is clearly the kind of movie he wants to make, and plenty of people want to see. It's these crafty marketing folks that make movie-going a bit more difficult, putting together trailers to sell a product that doesn't exist. The Van Helsing you see is not the Van Helsing you get, but a single frame of that trailer can tell you all you need to know. The credits that list one Stephen Sommers as the writer should trigger scenes in your memory from The Mummy and The Scorpion King, and there's no reason to believe this time around will be anything different. In fact, Van Helsing is a Stephen Sommers film, as he has come to make them, through and through. With The Mummy, he revisited numerous old monster films and instead of reinventing them, he simply updated them. He kept it light, but he made it flashy. Once again, Sommers takes the very familiar, but this time he assembles a story based on some far more recent movies, and though he doesn't keep it quite as light, it's every bit as simple and by-the-numbers as his last film. Van Helsing is the literary equivalent of a meal comprised entirely of leftovers, served on a silver platter. There's lots of good stuff we've all taken in before. So, how hungry are you for another mindless summer remake in disguise?