This is what it looks like when no one cares about a movie. When a studio moves forward with a concept that it thinks is marketable based on current cinematic trends. When a filmmaker takes a job because he’d like to have an easy hit at the box office. When actors who work in anything that meets their quote get their quote met. This is a movie as pure product, cinema rendered utterly soulless.
Is it any surprise that Jack The Giant Slayer is terrible? Not really, but what’s surprising is the way in which it’s terrible. Jack The Giant Slayer isn’t just tedious and stupid - which would be par for the course for this type of movie - it’s also a tonal nightmare, a constant collision between stupid kiddie elements like farting giants and grim n’ gritty teen elements like giants that bite people’s heads off at every given opportunity. It’s too brutal for the kids, it’s too silly for the teens. It’s a movie made exactly for no one, except maybe for 35 year old guys with neckbeards who are desperately clinging to their childhoods.
What Bryan Singer and his writers - which include actual talents like Christopher McQuarrie, for the record - have done is attempted to graft a Peter Jackson feeling on the classic Jack and the Beanstalk story. Jackson, at his best, knows how to graft slapstick onto horror, how to have a silly creature walking about amidst a field of decapitated bodies. Singer doesn’t have that skill. Instead of Jackson’s impish mischief, Jack The Giant Slayer feels like the work of someone who tears the wings off flies. While farting.
The skeleton of the story is the same: Jack goes to market to sell his horse and comes home with magic beans. But this bloated movie adds a whole ton of extraneous medieval politics; there’s a headstrong princess who just wants adventures (but who, when she gets adventures, just hangs around in cages screaming) who is due to be married to a sniveling schemer. The sniveling schemer has in his possession magic beans, a relic of a long-ago war between giants and men (the ‘mythology’ of this is presented in a CG sequence that appears to be emulating RPG cut scenes from the late 90s. The rest of the film’s effects are serviceable, so the crummy CG here must have been an aesthetic choice). A monk, whose order is dedicated to... I don’t know, watching out for giants? steals the beans to keep them from the hands of evil. Jack ends up with them, and they get wet at home, dragging Jack’s house - along with Headstrong Princess, who has escaped the castle - up into the clouds.
The next act and a half is a lame variant on exploring Skull Island, with Ewan MacGregor as the very, very heroic knight in charge. The evil schemer betrays everybody, uses and ancient relic to control the giants and then gets them to invade the human kingdom below.
A momentary aside: this is all so much useless action. The giants are established as really wanting to invade the human kingdom. There’s no need for all this stupid back and forth - the script could easily be streamlined so that Jack accidentally allows the giants to attack, and his heroic moment would come from making amends for his mistake. Instead he’s just a player in a larger intrigue in which, frankly, he has little role.
Ewan MacGregor steals the movie. He’s a great swashbuckler, and he’s having all the fun in the world. As everybody sleepwalks through Jack The Giant Slayer, Ewan puts on his biggest grin and commences to strut about, swinging his sword and leap through the air. I’d love to watch a movie about this guy. Everybody else: not so much.
Nicholas Hoult is fine as Jack, but he’s fine in that generic, never getting in the way of the FX, fashion. He was so much better and more dynamic as a dead guy in Warm Bodies; here he’s just plodding along, mouth slightly agape. His love interest is played by Eleanor Tomlinson, who is very pretty and possibly even a good actress but is never given anything to do in the script that would allow her to prove that. It’s almost perverse the way the script goes out of its way to explain to us again and again that she’s a princess looking for adventure and then it sticks her right in the screaming damsel in distress role. Here’s a secret: saying your female lead is a tough cookie isn’t enough. She has to be an actual tough cookie of some sort.
Stanley Tucci is the scheming sniveler; he’s fine, doing his ‘I’m Stanley Tucci and I have bills to pay too’ schtick here. He’s not bringing anything particularly new to this role, but he’s not underselling it either. If you need a bit of grandstanding Tucci in your movie diet, this role will do, but it’s hard not to think he could have really dug into this role.
There are other fine players - Ian McShane as the glum but virtuous king, Eddie Marsan as a knight wearing Kirk Hammet’s scalp, Ewan Bremmer as a comic relief villain so villainous he’s actually despicable - but none have opportunities to shine. They’re often left delivering dumb, quippy, anachronistic dialogue that falls painfully flat. Nobody embarrasses themselves. Too much.
The FX are what draw people to a movie like this (especially one without a single real marquee name), and they’re fine. The giants look like great big cartoons, and I guess that’s an aesthetic choice. One looks sort of like Charles Bronson, which is cool. The lead giant has two heads, one of which is retarded, and I don’t mean that in a ‘what a retard!’ sense, I mean that it appears to be actually developmentally disabled, capable of only delivering howling noises from its mouth. It’s weird and ugly, but about in line with the overall trainwreck tonality.
Singer made a good choice to film largely on location, so at least his truly fake looking giants are walking among actual trees and stuff. On some level I appreciate that, as I’d always rather look at real scenery over CGI scenery. Singer remains a competent filmmaker - there are no egregiously incoherent scenes and everything cuts together - but there’s no spirit here. What’s Singer’s style? It’s crazy to me that he’s a name director; he’s the epitome of a journeyman. He should be faithfully executing someone else’s vision, not aping another director’s vision as he’s doing here.
There will be many who give Jack The Giant Slayer a soft pass. The movie is competent, it meets its minimalist goals and there are certainly worse films in theaters right now. But to me this is the kind of movie that irritates, because it’s a movie where so much money was spent on no real artistic goal. It’s just product, with no aspirations beyond getting your money on opening weekend.