Beautiful Creatures, from director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers), is the latest project attempting to conjure box office success in the highly-profitable supernatural romance genre. The source material story of the same name is part one of four installments in the Caster Chronicles (followed by Beautiful Darkness, Beautiful Chaos, and Beautiful Redemption) - a young adult book series from co-authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl about magical beings known as “Casters” locked in a struggle between light and dark.
At first glance, some viewers will no doubt dismiss Beautiful Creatures as Twilight with witches but just because a film includes supernatural elements and a romantic subplot doesn’t outright mean that it can’t deliver an entertaining moviegoing experience for fans outside of its core audience. Does LaGravenese present a movie with enough slick effects, intriguing characters, and worthwhile drama to expand the appeal of Beautiful Creatures to casual viewers – not just supernatural romance lovers?
Unfortunately, no. Beautiful Creatures is a choppy and melodramatic experience with very little payoff beyond the central love story. Worse yet, overlooking the usual on-the-nose dialogue about eternal love and sacrifice, this tale of star-crossed sweethearts is especially cheesy and unconvincing – even when compared to similarly heavy-handed young adult novel-turned-movies. Fans of the supernatural romance sub-genre will get about what they expect – a boy meets witch story with a few cool “Caster” variations along with scene after scene of teenagers ruminating about eternal love, duality, and Kurt Vonnegut. For that reason, Beautiful Creatures is serviceable but most moviegoers will find the film to be an overlong progression of disconnected scenes, weighed down with thick exposition and schmaltzy performances from its leads.
The core Beautiful Creatures plot, along with the larger “Caster Chronicles,” centers around Ethan Lawson Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), a high school junior who falls for new girl, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), in the small-town community of Gatlin, South Carolina. A withdrawn and mysterious girl, Lena eventually reveals to Ethan that she is a “Caster” – a magical being who, on her sixteenth birthday, will be “claimed” as a force for light or dark. On one side, Lena’s uncle, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons) advocates for the light while her mother, Sarafine (Emma Thompson), tempts Lena with the power of the dark side (for lack of a better phrase). As the days count down until Lena’s birthday and subsequent “Claiming,” Ethan must help her confront dark urges as well as uncover a long-buried connection between Casters and his own family – if he wants to keep his new-found love from going dark.
Like many young adult novel adaptations, it’s clear that a lot of the more interesting ideas in the source material were left on the page – to make way for a straightforward movie storyline. The Caster mythology is shallow (and extremely convoluted), relying on exposition-heavy platitudes about light and dark instead of educating viewers with captivating onscreen examples. The story follows an extremely standard point A to point B to point C progression and offers very few surprises. Many of the intended “twists” are telegraphed so far in advance that the film becomes a waiting game instead of an immersive drama. Most narrative elements are underdeveloped, shelving interesting plot details to make room for more scenes of Ethan and Lena discussing their mutual devotion and affection.
The amount of time spent with the leads in doe-eyed close up is especially problematic since they share very little actual chemistry. Instead, this “forbidden” love affair relies heavily on Ehrenreich smirking drunkenly while giggling through one cheesy line after another – as if he can’t believe how lucky he is to be caught in a life-threatening battle for love at age sixteen. Similarly, Englert delivers a serviceable riff on the withdrawn outsider character trope but, aside from all the talk of “destiny,” it’s unclear what actually draws the two lovers together. Despite speaking lines about love and pressing their lips together once in awhile, there’s little spark selling the intimacy to anyone outside the frame. Instead, the romance is thin and cliche, clumsily reconstituting familiar love story beats - without genuine emotional payoff. It’s a reckless misstep – especially considering the amount of time dedicated to the core love story plot.
Side characters are similarly “talked up” through exposition without rewarding drama. It’s implied that Macon Ravenwood and Sarafine are two of the most powerful Casters around but neither of them are ever let off the leash to cause captivating (or at the very least visually striking) heroism/mayhem. Instead, Beautiful Creatures expects audiences to use their imagination not their eyes – because the legend of Macon and Sarafine is a lot more intriguing than what ultimately appears in the movie. It’s a genuine shame, given that the characters are played by Irons and Thompson, respectively – an accomplished pair of Academy Award winners. Oscar-nominee and celebrated actress, Viola Davis (The Help) is equally wasted in the film as Amma, the town librarian and a friend to Ethan’s family.
Even if viewers can accept anticlimactic storytelling, stilted lead performances, and an on-the-nose but unconvincing love story, Beautiful Creatures is also saddled with countless distracting and superficial references to movies, books, and pop culture. Allowed to develop over 500 pages of prose, intended thematic connections (To Kill A Mockingbird) and satirical gags (misspelled theater marquees) are less heavy-handed on a book page but onscreen the references come in rapid succession without offering profound insight or memorable laughs. No doubt one or two of the references land but the ones that don’t undercut and outright disrupt key moments of character drama in the film – an unjustifiable tradeoff.
Beautiful Creatures is a flawed but harmless entry for supernatural romance fans or readers who are excited to see the Caster Chronicles adapted to the big screen. Yet, the film does absolutely nothing to draw outsiders in – and misses numerous opportunities to present an intriguing world for less familiar viewers. Instead, the goofy performances, overwhelming exposition, and dull love story do not translate into captivating movie drama. Despite routine references to crazy powers and an epic light versus dark struggle, Beautiful Creatures is a bland film experience that is surprisingly devoid of actual movie magic.
If you’re still on the fence about Beautiful Creatures, check out the trailer below:
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Beautiful Creatures runs 124 minutes and is rated PG-13: for violence, scary images and some sexual material. Now playing in theaters.