The famed special effects house Industrial Light and Magic knows of writer-director Stephen Sommers very well. They "jokingly" created the Stephen Sommers Scale, which gauges the amount of special effects in any scene. The highest point on the scale is "What Stephen Sommers Wants." Right below it is, "Oh God, The Computer's About to Crash!" Sommers reputation for extensive special effects is well deserved, with his movies The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. And Sommers shows no signs of changing, with his new movie Van Helsing, which has its entertaining parts, but mainly makes us wonder how much CGI is really necessary.
Van Helsing (Jackman) is this guy who works for this religious "order" as they're hitman, basically. He travles the globe and rids it of the monsters and such that apparently, can be killed by no one but him. So he's sent to Transylvania to help the lovely Anna Valerious (Beckinsale) kill Count Dracula (Roxburgh) and get her brother back.
Sommers blatantly steals material from other movies here, the most obvious one being the "It's alive" scene from Frankenstein at the beginning of the movie. But he also steals the scene found in every Bond movie, where Bond gets his new gadgets from Q...well, now it's R, but whatever. It didn't feel borrowed, and it didn't feel like an homage. It felt stolen.
What is surprising here is that Sommers' script is probably his best to date. That's really not saying a whole lot, but his writing has improved considerably. There is some decent humor here, most of it from Helsing's wimpy sidekick Carl (Wenham), and the story has some nice twists and plot devices. And there isn't nearly as much corny dialogue as in The Mummy series. But what the script really lacks is character development. All of the monsters in the movie have backgrounds that we're probably familiar with (Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, etc). But we get virtually no background with Helsing. We get hints of it from Dracula, but it almost seemed as if Sommers is stowing it all away, to try to pimp this movie out for a potential franchise. I think that's pretty cheap of Sommers to do, especially since this movie will probably have a difficult time earning back the gigantic $160 million budget. Wait a minute. I used the word "cheap" in the same sentence as Sommers. That's got to be a first...
The lead performances here are pretty solid, but the supporting performances are just way too loud. Hugh Jackman gives a very nice performance in the title role here. He has an amazing presence on screen, and he proves that he is indeed one of the best leading men in Hollywood. Kate Beckinsale is pretty decent as well as Anna Valerious, although she doesn't show a whole lot of range here. David Wenham might be pretty funny here, but his performance, overall, isn't that great. But Richard Roxburgh is just way too much here as the ominous Count Dracula, and his three brides played by Elena Ayana, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran are just as over-the-top and annoying.
Sommers' direction is like the scene in Meet the Parents where Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro keep gunning their cars and braking hard to the stop light. The camera work goes all over the place, very quickly, then stops. Then goes...then stops. And I don't think there's a 2-minute span in the movie where you don't see a 360-degree rotating shot. If you have vertigo, stay far away from this movie. A lot of what he does is very skillful, I'll give him that. But instead of using these inventive techniques to accentuate certain things, he makes it the entire backdrop of the movie, drowning out everything else, and it just ends up being The Stephen Sommers Show, instead of all-around solid movie. It seems that it's virtually impossible for Sommers to make a simple movie.
Van Helsing is really a lesson that bigger isn't always better. It is simply an average movie, made for a astronomically-above-average cost. Jackman is pretty good here, but him, and everything else is just overwhelmed by the CGI and Sommers' dizzying direction. But I guess we should be grateful that he is that he's still using human actors...