My mother taught me that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. If that's the case, then this review should be blank. But since I get paid to write down my thoughts on all manner of films good, bad and ugly, I guess I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't come up with something more here than white space. So I'll just sum up my opinion of 'Van Helsing' with a single four-letter word (albeit one suitable for all audiences): "Woof."
Which is a shame, for here is a film that had the potential to be a genuine blockbuster in the great tradition of the summer popcorn flick. Hoping to build upon his success with the two wildly-popular 'Mummy' movies, director Stephen Sommers convinced Universal to give him a budget of $160 million to resurrect not just another movie monster of yesteryear, but a whole slew of 'em. Taking the song "Monster Mash" literally, Sommers crams just about every famous or semi-famous Universal icon of horror into 'Van Helsing's 132-minutes, which probably sounded like a great idea. Unfortunately, Sommers is not a filmmaker of subtlety or restraint, and like the worst parts of his 'Mummy' movies only more bloated, he loses any ability he may have had to differentiate between quality and quantity.
Since the plot and characters of 'Van Helsing' are besides the point (and I lost track of the convoluted storyline after about twenty minutes anyway), suffice to say the film cares little about its famed titular ghoul-hunter than CGI stunts and loud booming noises on the soundtrack. But what semblance of a narrative I could make out involves Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman, utterly wasted) being sent to Transylvania to stop Count Dracula, who is using Frankenstein and The Wolfman as part of a complicated Indiana Jones-like plot to take over the world through dark magic. Along the way Helsing teams up with the beautiful Anna (Kate Beckinsdale), a member of the Valerious family, a clan with a long-standing quest to rid the world of evil. Or something like that.
I know I've complained about this before in my past reviews of recent action-adventures movies (probably too much), but this CGI thing really needs a rest. Why are filmmakers so fascinated by the mechanics of computer-generated imagery? Sure, 'Van Helsing' offers some pretty cool sights to behold -- the opening black & white montage is a kick, and the vast landscapes of its artificial Transylvania are neat -- but never once does this film look remotely real. Sommers also allows his CGI artists to commit the cardinal sin of supposedly "photo-realistic" effects -- none of its synthetic characters obey the laws of physics. Instead, they bounce all over the place like Sonic the Hedgehog on crack. Yes, I know it is a cliche, but I'll say it again anyway -- if I wanted to watch a videogame, I'd stay home with my Xbox.
Whatever pleasures 'Van Helsing' does possess reside mostly in its actors, who put on a game front against Sommer's CGI blitzkrieg. We all know Jackman can carry a movie (as he largely does even amid the formidable ensemble of the 'X-Men' franchise), and here he turns on the charm and gives Helsing a least a little bit of gravitas. But even better are the supporting monster players, particularly Richard Roxburgh's appropriately scene-chewing Count Dracula, and Shuler Hensley as a hysterically insecure Frankenstein. Only Beckinsale fails to elevate her character above complete window dressing, but I guess when you look that good in black leather and a crossbow, you know where your place is. Like 'Van Helsing' itself, she's all surface, a pretty image to stimulate our senses but leave us with no lasting resonance. Woof indeed.
I really didn't like 'Van Helsing,' but it does look pretty great on this new HD DVD release. Sure, the film's visual style is more videogame than movie, but the increased resolution of the HD format gives it a sense of three-dimensionality that offers a nice upgrade over the standard DVD release.
Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, most elements of this high-def transfer are above average. Though I still think 'Van Helsing's opening ten-minute B&W sequence is the best part of the film, the remaining two hours boast richly-saturated colors, especially some bold uses of red and very deep blues and greens -- high-definition utilizes an expanded "color space" versus standard NTSC video (tech-babble meaning it can better reproduce the way humans can perceive colors), and this new HD DVD disc provides a good illustration. The image is also more detailed than the standard DVD, with fine picture elements more readily apparent, especially in the film's man, many expansive CGI vistas. From the shape of a tiny window in a castle tower to subtle shadings of light, this HD DVD of 'Van Helsing' is the clear winner over the standard DVD release.
However, I do have one complaint, which is that this transfer is still a bit dark overall, so a good deal of its dimly-lit interiors don't look that much better in HD. The outdoor wintery scenes also have a sometimes drab, surprisingly soft look to them. Perhaps it is all that CGI, but I had hoped high-def would make 'Van Helsing' look a little less artificial -- I guess when you create a film almost entirely on a computer, things can't help but still look a little fuzzy.
Presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround, I expected a bit more from 'Van Helsing's sound mix. Granted, the higher bitrate of the Dolby Digital-Plus format bears some fruits, and the original 5.1 mix on the standard DVD release wasn't consistently enveloping to begin with. But even all those extras bits can't give 'Van Helsing' much byte. (Har har, I made a bad pun.)
This soundtrack lacks primarily from being too front heavy. I was surprised by how many of the film's near-constant stream of action scenes did not use the surrounds as effectively as they could have been. Certainly, there is plenty of sonic activity going on -- the rear channels come alive with bursts of sounds, from action effects to sporadic bits of dialogue and the film's score. However, many times the surrounds just don't kick in very strongly -- for example, during the "flying vampire" attack early in the film, Hugh Jackman is firing his crossbow at screaming succubi, yet I heard few sounds whizzing around me. Yet, at other times during the film, the surrounds are as aggressive as I've heard on a DVD soundtrack. Perhaps this weird sound design was all purposeful, and I just didn't get it.
Aesthetic choices aside, in all other respects this soundtrack is first-rate. Dynamic range is excellent, with rock solid low bass and clear highs that are always free from harshness. Imaging is also quite good, with near-transparent pans between all channels. Unfortunately, dialogue from the center channel is often overpowered by the sheer loudness of the mix, but then the film's dialogue is so bad the sound designers probably thought they were just doing the audience a favor.
The standard DVD of 'Van Helsing' that was released a couple of years back was one of those discs that you expected would be loaded with extras, but ended up being actually quite anemic. It practically screamed, "double dip coming soon!" -- but that double dip never came. Guess when the film didn't do all that well at the box office, Universal was no longer interested in draining more blood out of a turnip that was already pretty dry the first time around.
In any case, all those extras are ported over to this new HD DVD release. By far the highlights are the two screen-specific audio commentaries. The first includes director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay, with the second a "monster" sitdown with actors Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp (Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, respectively). Despite the lack of any "big name" stars, I actually preferred the second track, because it is more fun. The track with Sommers and Duscay was recorded a week before the film even hit theaters, so it is all about production detail (which is fine -- the pair have a few good stories to share about the effects and location work) -- but quite frankly the film was a disappointment, so the lack of perspective turns Sommers' hyper-enthusiastic comments unexpectedly comical. Luckily the cast track is intentionally funny, and as Hensley says, there is no bigger hoot for an actor than playing a monster. Granted, over four hours of anyone talking about 'Van Helsing' is overkill, but if you want to listen to either of these tracks, make a date with the monsters.
The disc's many making-of featurettes are quite pithy at first glance, but they are presented differently here on HD DVD than on the standard DVD so there is actually more than meets the eye. "Bringing the Monsters to Life" runs ten minutes and details the development of the film's creatures, from concept art to their realization in both live-action and CGI form. "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend" also runs a combined ten minutes, and is essentially a historical piece on the various monster characters in the film. This is actually the most interesting extra on the disc for me, and is broken down into five different mini-vignettes, one per monster ("Frankenstein," "Dracula," etc.) Also fun is "The Music of Van Helsing," a nine-minute chat with composer Alan Silvestri. Since the score for the film is one of its most appealing elements, this is worth a watch.
Next up are some shorter vignettes that take a closer look at the film's effects. "Frankenstein's Lab is Transformed" is a 3-minute time lapse look at how one of the film's major setpieces was utlized throughout the complex shoot. "Unmasking the Masquerade Ball" is presented in two-parts, and is a straightforward piece on staging and shooting the Cirque du Soleil-esque centerpiece sequence of the movie. Finally, "Outtakes" runs six minutes and is actually pretty funny, because again there is nothing quite so silly for an actor to do than wear a monster suit and run around growling bad dialogue.
Rounding out the set are some behind-the-scenes nuggets which, in hindsight, show the limitations of the standard DVD format, at least in terms of true interactivity. (Unfortunately, Universal has not upgraded any of these to take any advantage of the capabilities of HD DVD.) "Track the Adventure: Van Helsing's Map" culls material shot on-set with mini-DV cameras, allowing you to be a fly on the wall as specific shots were created. This vignette also allowed the user to "branch off" of the footage on the standard DVD -- whenever an icon appears on the screen, just click your remote and you can then view detailed footage of the specific sets used for the shot in question. Here, each of those vignettes are presented as a list off of the HD DVD's extras menu, so you have to manually access each one by one (there are five "episodes" in all, one for each of the film's main sets -- "Dracula's Castle," "Frankenstein's Lab," etc.)
Finally, "Explore Dracula's Castle" appeared on the standard DVD release but it has been dropped from the HD DVD version. However, since it was one of those Disney-esque interactive games best enjoyed by anyone under the age of say ten, I can't say it is a huge omission. Far more strange is that, like all of Universal's HD DVD releases so far, no theatrical trailers are included. What gives?
I guess it's fair to say I didn't particularly enjoy 'Van Helsing,' and that's coming from someone who loves scary movies. But as an HD DVD release, this disc does offer a noticeable upgrade in image quality over the standard DVD, though the audio and supplements are rather lacking. Still, even if you don't care much for the movie, this may be worth picking up if only to show off the capabilities of your home theater.