While adding stuff to my Netflix list, the front cover of this movie and the inclusion of the words “Steampunk” and “mystery” sold me pretty much instantly. The fact that the film came out so recently, though, (December 2013/January 2014), caught me by surprise.
Why had I not seen any previews for this movie? There are several fairly well-known actors attached to the piece, and, as you’ll see below, the trailer comes off fairly exciting.
Honestly – I enjoyed the movie. It was a fun adventure tale that had interesting characters, great costumes, nice sets, and a plot that worked, for the most part. There were some issues, which I will discuss later, but the issues were not that bad. Furthermore, even with its fault, I didn’t feel that the movie deserved the level of the cold-hearted criticism it has received.
If you love all things Victorian and Steampunk, then of course you’ll enjoy this film. The sets do a remarkable job of showing off all aspects of the era, including the different social classes, vocations, maritime traditions, holistic healing, and forms of entertainment.
Even better than the sets were the costumes. Excellent choices of colors, fabrics, patterns, and accessories! Plus, the costumes were well fitted to each individual actor/actress, and the choices complemented not only the actors/actresses’ physical appearances, but also added to the individual character’s portrayal. Just take a look at some of these shots:
Balance of Developing and Archetypal Characters
As a family movie, it’s meant to be geared toward a younger audience. Therefore, to relate to the audience, the younger characters often have slightly more in-depth character development. To help these younger characters form, however, you need some seasoned actors to play the archetypal supporting roles.
Since the Steampunk/Victorian genre tends to promote secret societies, discovery, and treasure hunts, the following archetypes are often included, since they tend to work well to move the plot along and entertain audiences:
- Never-say-die, lone wolf superspy/soldier: Charity (Michael Sheen) is a government agent who utilizes the art of disguise to obtain all manner of intel. He also has a knack for obtaining falsified papers and for getting into any building or party he desires. Although he constantly faces death, he somehow manages to maintain a chipper attitude and never fails with the one-liners. Plus, against all odds, he always manages to heal quickly and fight another day.
- Loving family member(s) who encourage intelligence and curiosity in youngsters: Mr. and Mrs. Mundi, (Ioan Gruffudd and Keeley Hawes), are the main character’s parents, and are also professors. They provide the main character, Mariah Mundi, (Aneurin Barnard), with the information and clues he will need to figure out the mystery. Typically, this archetypal character doesn’t get a lot of screen time, because otherwise the character would provide all the answers and there wouldn’t be much of a story. Therefore, the presence of this archetype usually motivates the main character and provides some form of familial strength.
- Ruthless and wealthy industrialist villain: the story introduces Otto Luger (Sam Neill) as a man who hires workers to obtain what he wants, and then Luger kills those workers after he gets what he desires. He views everyone as a means to an end, and has no respect for human life, because he’s motivated by greed and selfishness. Usually, as is the case with this film, this archetypal villain character comes equipped with a faithful lieutenant, (Lena Headey), and a couple of brainless but loyal thugs (Brian Nickels and Vincenzo Pellegrino).
Minimal but Tasteful Special Effects
All too often, movies these days like to include an exorbitant amount of special effects, (I.E. computer-generated effects), even if it’s not necessary. Most of the effects in this movie were practical effects, such as fire, explosions, smoke, and water. The computer-generated effects were really only noticeable with the magical artifacts, including glasses that let you see recent footsteps and a deck of cards that were possessed by a ghost.
By far, one of the biggest effects moments was the scene with the deck of cards. I thought it was clever that they used the still-image cards combined with a whirlwind movement to translate onscreen into a zoetrope-like effect of moving pictures. It reminded you that you were in the Victorian era, yet it is still conveyed the information without being over the top.
The other major moment for special-effects was the use of the Midas Box weapon. To use the weapon to disintegrate people, the creators of the movie went with a simple energy wave effect that made the targets fade away with a yellow light. It was a quick wipe effect, nothing too fancy, but it looked clean. The effect was good enough to convey the action, and that’s all it needed. In addition, I thought it was interesting that the creators chose to use a real prop for the Midas Box once it transformed into the weapon. The transformation was CG, yes, but instead of touching up the finished product with CG, they went with something more tangible. Again, since I think simplicity was an overall goal, the choice of using real props over CG was risky, but worked out, nonetheless.
Generally, when you punkify any time period, you are creating an alternate reality. For example, a lot of Steampunk stories play with such alternate realities where, during the Victorian era, society invested all its time, money, and focus into advancing certain technologies, (e.g., steam power).
Alternate realities could also have to do with historical events happening differently. Such as Hitler winning World War II or 9/11 never happening, for instance. Whatever historical event a writer chooses, it has to be significant enough for the changes to be noticeable. Even if the writer reveals information slowly, there should be enough differences in realities that the reader will start to suspect something early on.
In the movie, however, there was really very little to imply an alternative reality. The only potential indicators included the following:
- Mariah’s mother, a woman, was a professor at Oxford.
- A man of color holds a high position within a secret British government agency.
- Deadly chemical gas could be carried around in glass disbursement units that were no bigger than a canister of hairspray.
Without additional information, these three indicators alone do not accurately inform the viewer that he/she is watching a story within an alternate reality. Therefore, I don’t think you can really say “Steampunk.”
If anything, the first two points seem like anachronisms.
If we remember our Virginia Woolf, women were not allowed as full-fledged students at Oxford until two decades into the 20th century. There were women’s colleges in the late 1800s, which is when the movie takes place, but if Oxford wouldn’t accept female students, I highly doubt they would have female professors.
A man of color working for the British government in a secret society is vaguely plausible, I suppose, since it was 20 years after slavery ended in America, and the story takes place in the UK. Nevertheless, having one person of color in the movie seemed more like a deliberate choice to appear vaguely ethnically diverse. If anything, because it’s such a deliberate choice, it has the opposite effect.
The third point, however, could imply some advances in technology. Asphyxiating chemical warfare was around at that time, but disbursement canisters that were A) made of glass, B) capable of mixing chemical agents inside the canister with the push of a button, and C) easily held with one hand – yeah, not at all possible with the technology of the era. This would only exist in an alternate reality. Nevertheless, there’s no explanation to imply that the story takes place in a version of reality where society’s focus on chemical warfare has led to this advancement so quickly.
Although most of the story is contained within the movie, there’s still a few elements of the plot that are not solved. For example, Mariah’s parents are still missing. At the end, it is implied that his parents are being held by the true villainous mastermind behind these schemes, who the viewer only knows by name and has yet met. Obviously, since the movie has been somewhat based off of the Mariah Mundi book series by G.P. Taylor, the producers wanted a cliffhanger to entice both audiences and investors.
The choice to do a cliffhanger such as this can be risky, though. When you’re doing a series, you want to entice viewers to come back for the next part. Moreover, even if the film doesn’t do well financially at the release, the cliffhanger could create enough fan-based chatter to convince investors to make a second movie. However, since the movie adaptation is fairly different from the book, a lot of the chatter among fans may be negative, which could make investors back out.
So Why Did It Flop?
According to a review written by Gabe Toro, he feels that the movie flopped because European investors were desperately trying to create the start of a movie franchise, and that they simply did not execute the project fully. Toro also seemed a little bias, as he had a lot of complaints about the movie, the acting, and what he called a formulaic plot.
I think that Toro’s point about European investors trying to make a movie franchise implies that the investors were more focused on getting the movie made instead of taking the time to figure out how to get fans in the seats.
MAJOR MISTAKE, PEOPLE!!!
In my opinion, lack of advertising is one of the biggest killers of movies these days. The economy is horrible, so people don’t want to invest their time and money into seeing a movie they know nothing about. They would rather wait for the movie to come to Netflix or Redbox where they can watch it for a fraction of the cost of the theater ticket.
Additionally, and I think this is a result of the failed advertising attempts, Box Office Mojo reported that the widest release of this movie was 82 locations worldwide. That is truly a drop in the bucket! Had these European investors spent more time and money in creating hype for their would-be franchise, they could have attracted more theaters to show the film, which would have translated into more viewers and better profits.
Unfortunately, after a movie flops during its initial release, it’s difficult to determine how well a movie does afterwards. I suppose you could look at the ranking of the movie on Netflix, which was nearly 4 stars, but that’s also highly subjective data. Some production companies do report how well movies sell after the fact, but that information is not universally regulated or easy to find.
Although I thought the movie was definitely worth the time to watch, and it is something I could see myself watching again, I fear that I may never see parts two and three of the series. Since the first movie was never advertised well to begin with, and because it has made so little money thus far, financially speaking, I can’t see why they would invest in the rest of the series.
On the other hand, Gabe Toro suspects that as long as the production company owns the rights to the franchise, they will go ahead and produce the next movie, especially since they spent so little to produce the first one (approximately $25 million). Although I do not appreciate Toro’s pessimism, I do hope he’s right and that they produce the next part of this fun series.