Two thousand five has been a big year for big-name filmmakers. For me, the auteurist successes have come from Wong Kar Wai, Steven Spielberg, and to a more modest degree, Hayao Miyazaki, Jim Jarmusch and Tim Burton. On the other end of the spectrum is the newest work by Fernando Meirelles, John Dahl, Ridley Scott and Wes Craven. Of the big names, the most glaringly limp is Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm.
This isn’t just a case, like the other four, of a director’s talent failing to revive a poor screenplay. The movie appears badly compromised — taken over by production-line rewrites and re-edits that are commonly imposed on filmmakers who haven’t yet earned industry trust. Decent in short fits, the movie is a melee of concepts and gags without cohesive vision.
Brothers Will (Matt Damon) and Jacob (Heath Ledger) Grimm make a living conning 19th Century German villagers into believing that they save the land from the fairy tale villains they’ve concocted. Jake believes in the possibility of the supernatural. Will is ruled by logic. These are the same dualities of magic and science and reality and illusion that were the central theme of Sleepy Hollow. But Grimm’s creatively dark sets are so overrun with noisy effects and slapstick that it plays more like Shrek crossed with Van Helsing.
Fragments of Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Hansel & Gretel are kept too brief to have any payoff. Likewise, the larger story in Ehren Kruger’s script lacks the narrative satisfaction, the carefully sequenced poetic justice, essential to fairy tales.
Gilliam’s far superior kids’ film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen allowed his flights an imaginative free range missing here. The Brothers Grimm doesn’t build subversively upon its mainstream foundation. Instead, it’s at war with it, eventually tearing itself to pieces.
The recurrent image of flashlight beams moving around dark caverns never develops a primal dread in The Cave. The by-the-numbers product (calling it an exercise is giving too much credit) is stripped of personality and inspiration. It makes 90 minutes of probing flashlight beams about as interesting as it sounds.
A team of underwater treasure hunters gets in more trouble than anticipated when they discover some caves where explorers went missing 30 years ago. The crew are all played in a similar key with the acting support of Cole Hauser, Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey and Piper Perabo. Those are the people involved, but because the Aliens-clone setup doesn’t grace them with rounded characteristers, the terror is muted. (Red Eye suffers the same screenplay weakness: There’s no involving human element to comment upon and react to the surrounding horror.)
The Cave’s one shining character moment is likely accidental. A face-to-face encounter with a monstrous parasite causes Perabo to let out a scream even more terrifying and alien than the creature’s. It’s a step toward drawing a parallel between humans and monsters. But this isn’t a movie concerned with anything, really. To watch it is to spend a valuable chunk of time living in a cave.