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Eragon (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 December 2006
“Eragon” is based on a book written by a 16-year-old boy; the movie looks like it could have been directed by an observant 16-year-old, too. There’s nothing original about the story or about the movie itself; it’s flat, not quite lifeless but not exactly exuberant, either. The names are kind of scrambled; some sound vaguely Germanic—Brom, Horst; some could be old English—Murtagh, Roran. Some seem Scandinavian—Hrothgar. And one, peculiarly, seems ancient Gaulish: Galbatorix.

Christopher Paolini was home-schooled, and drenched himself in fantasy books and, presumably, movies. “Eragon” (rhymes with pentagon) is about dragon riders, and Anne McCaffrey has written a long series of novels about dragon riders (of Pern). The press notes admit to the resemblance, and cite a few other writers as well. Then there’s “Star Wars”—the first-made movie, that is, the one now subtitled “A New Hope.” The plot of “Eragon” is very similar to that story—which itself was already (and deliberately) similar to many other sources.

The screenplay is by Peter Buchman, whose only other produced credit so far is “Jurassic Park III.” But he’s only one of a long string of writers; “Eragon” has clearly been overwritten nearly to death. It feels like the kind of thing composed by a committee that’s desperately trying to generate a big-scale franchise, but which can’t come up with a single compelling idea.

Then they gave it to a first-time director, effects technician Stefan Fangmeier, possibly because he’d be easier to controlled than a more experienced director. Dramatically, the movie is plodding; each shot is filmed from the most likely angle, not necessarily the best. Even when a full-sized dragon bursts into a cave through a waterfall, the shot is composed in such a routine, obvious manner that almost all the thrill has been leached out of it.

Then there’s the lumps in the story. In this Tolkien-esque ancient time, Dragon Riders were once the highway patrol of goodness. But a bad Dragon Rider, Galbatorix (a scarcely-seen John Malkovich), killed all the other Dragon Riders—or so he thought—and became the standard Oppressive Tyrant. His right-hand enforcer is magician Durza (Robert Carlyle, giving it all he’s got, which is plenty), whose powers seem to vary with the requirements of the scene.
Arya (Sienna Guillory), who the press kit tells us is an elf (again, very much in the Tolkien mode), is seen fleeing from Galbatorix’s men, carrying something he wants very badly. When she’s confronted in a forest, she somehow (we never learn how) magicks the object to land near farm boy Eragon (Edward Speleers, making his debut). It’s about the size of two loaves of bred, a dark blue ovoid that makes a metallic clank when rapped.

He lives on a farm with his uncle Garrow (Alun Armstrong—don’t blink or you’ll miss him) and cousin Roran (Chris Egan), who after some Male Bonding roughhousing, flees the area to avoid conscript into Galbatorix’s army. Throughout the film, it seems certain Roran will turn up again, as he’s so clearly established to recur. But nope, no sign of him. Maybe he’s being saved for the (highly unlikely) sequel. In the village nearby, we also meet aging, sarcastic Brom (Jeremy Irons), who’s all too clearly going to be important.

The blue object turns out to be an egg, which hatches a four-legged, winged dragon. With feathers, even. It’s only about the size of a collie to begin with, and is death on rats in the barn, though it coos “endearingly” at Eragon. Very, very shortly thereafter, it grows to full size and telepathically declares itself to be Saphira (voice of Rachel Weiss).

As must happen to all farm boys in tales of this sort, whether on Earth, Faerie or Tatooine, our hero’s uncle dies and he must embrace a destiny that until now he knew nothing of. A spiral scar on his hand reveals that he is a natural-born Dragon Rider, psychically or something linked to Saphira. And that Brom, of course, is the last of the Jedi—that is, Dragon Riders of old. He’s here to educate Eragon who must join with some good guys living over the border and overthrow Galbatorix. Of course, there’s red-haired Durza to deal with.

Stories as familiar as this work only when given a fresh setting (as with “Star Wars”) or an epic scale (as with “Lord of the Rings”). All “Eragon” has been given is a great cinematographer, Hugh Johnson, a suitably epic score by Patrick Doyle, a couple of colorful supporting players in Irons and Carlyle, and an adequate effects budget. The rather drab-looking Saphira is beautifully animated and generally very convincing.

But what it hasn’t been given is any visual or conceptual style; dramatically, it’s the level of a TV movie. Nobody is actually bad, and newcomer Speleers holds the screen quite well. But also nobody is very interesting, except Durza, and he’s too colorful. Even the usually effective Irons is reduced to just another mentor who must eventually meet a noble death. There’s no real hint of a romance between Eragon and Arya, who doesn’t even have the sharp tongue of Princess Leia. And for most of the movie, Arya is flat on her back in a prison cell.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a richly complex place, with each area having its own history that reaches back into ancient darkness, and which has connections to the other lands of Middle Earth. In “Eragon,” we have a standard-issue Medieval Setting, with no underlying history, no sense of its own visual style. This is fantasy filmmaking by committee, by taking the least objectionable, most familiar course at every decision point.

And yet it’s also a product of a major Hollywood studio, so it generally looks handsome, with attractive actors, excellent special effects and a climactic battle. It’s not a terrible movie, but, unfortunately, overall it is really much of anything at all.

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