Beautiful Creatures (2013)

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I’m reluctant to use the term “anti-Twilight”, because it’s become such a cliché. It’s the nature of pop culture phenomena that we inevitably spend a few years comparing everything to them. The Hunger Games is the anti-Twilight because Katniss is a good role model. True Blood is the anti-Twilight because it has “real” (read: more traditional) vampires. Warm Bodies is the anti-Twilight because it’s… you know, good. But I can think of no other apt way to describe Beautiful Creatures than “the anti-Twilight”. It’s what it has very intentionally set out to be, in the same way that The Golden Compass set out to be the anti-Narnia.

The story takes place in the fictitious town of Gatlin, South Carolina, which is either a parody of rural South Carolina or was written by someone who only knows the state by reputation. Speaking as a current South Carolina resident, I admit we have more than our share of backwards-thinking, fundamentalist rednecks here, and yes, we have way more churches than is reasonable. We are not cartoon characters, however. Our churches don’t have banned book lists, we don’t hold constant Civil War reenactments, and we certainly don’t have accents that make us sound like extras on the set of Gone with the Wind. It’s like South Carolina as written by Stephen King.

Our male lead comes in the form of Ethan Wate, professionally discontent teenager and proud owner of the complete Classic Rebellious Youth Literature Collection (Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse-Five , kid’s got ‘em all). He meets and falls in love with girl named Lena, a member of a mysterious and reclusive family living on the outskirts of town. Naturally, in a town apparently run by the mom from Carrie, they’re believed to be Satanists, but are in fact sorcerers, or “Casters” as they call themselves. Lena is a prodigy with difficulty controlling her powers, and is fearfully awaiting her 16th birthday, upon which she’ll either become evil or remain good, something female casters apparently have no choice in. Do you see where this is going?

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

It’s important to remember that while many criticisms have been levied against the Twilight series, by far the most troubling was its sexual politics. Bella Swan’s overdependence and self-deprecation had an unmistakable tone of misogyny and traditionalist subservience. Beautiful Creatures takes that tradition of sexually repressed obedient women supported by Stephenie Meyer and spits in its face. We’re told in the film that, unlike males, female casters have no choice as to whether they’re “claimed” by good or evil. Lena has a cousin who was claimed for evil, and not only does “claiming” look so much like an orgasm that I’m surprised they got away with it, but the claimed evil girl immediately becomes a sexually promiscuous temptress. There’s a curse associated with Lena’s bloodline that caused all of her female ancestors to turn evil because of a man, and Lena’s family is determined to keep Ethan and Lena apart, for fear that if she falls in love with a boy, he’ll inevitably break her heart, thus driving her to evil. The implication is clear: Magic itself has a virgin-whore complex in this universe. Lena must stand and prove that she is not some fragile women who can’t control herself or her emotions.

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

As goals for a film go, providing a rebuttal to the misogyny of Twilight is an admirable one. And I appreciate how the ending resolution doesn’t treat good and evil as bipolar opposites, but as two halves of the same whole. But despite its good intentions, the film just isn’t very well-written. The characters are broad stereotypes, the mythology is poorly-explained, and the story flows awkwardly. Characters’ actions rarely feel like a natural progression; they just go wherever the plot requires and get exposited at.

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Fortunately, the film is salvaged by a wonderful supporting cast. Jeremy Irons may have the least convincing accent heard this decade, but he’s a joy to watch anyways. Viola Davis is great as always, and Emmy Rossum delivers a fun, sly turn as the secondary villain. But the real show stealer is Emma Thompson as the main villain. Thompson’s one of my favorite actresses, endlessly versatile and energetic, and her performance alone makes the film worthwhile. She fortunately has a good amount of screen time, and her sinister yet somehow quirky and vaguely bipolar monologues are endlessly entertaining.

Despite severe shortcomings in the script, I found Beautiful Creatures to be surprisingly entertaining. It’s unlikely to become a franchise, because if the aforementioned Golden Compass taught us anything, it’s that existing solely as the response to another film won’t get you far. But if some fun campy acting and a big middle finger to Twilight sounds worth your time, then give it a look.

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  • Muthsarah

    So….I don’t see how this spits in the face of Twilight’s ultra-traditional gender roles and the virgin/whore dichotomy (granted, I don’t know the books if books there be and haven’t read anything about this movie prior). If a teenage girl in this family has sex before her sixteenth birthday, she becomes evil, and then spends the rest of her life as a whore? THAT would be a classic virgin/whore complex, like a one-drop rule. Once tainted, forever tainted.

    Or does sex only enter the picture AFTER the Sorting Hat decides her future? If a girl has no say in the matter, then what does it matter if she gets her heart broken by a guy (with or without sex). She could always choose to, y’know, keep that part of herself closed off for a little while, at least until the day after her sixteenth birthday. If she becomes evil, then whatever, how she lived her life up to that point wouldn’t have mattered. But if her own actions do determine her fate, then she (and her family) have the power to determine how she ends up, so there’s no use waiting and worrying if she’s gonna turn into an angel or demon. Also, did all of her female ancestors give birth before their 16th birthday (and only had their hearts broken later)? Could she become “good” at 16 and become evil later? Wouldn’t that be spitting in the face of fate itself, or the book’s internal logic? I don’t see where agency enters the picture here.

    The idea of a woman’s life being entirely determined by how she relates to men, especially as regards sex and relationships, or alternatively, a woman not having any control over her life (all the more reason to, yknow, lean on OTHERS to make these decisions for her) doesn’t seem like a huge departure from Stephanie Meyer.

    • Okay, first off SPOILER WARNING because I can’t really make my point otherwise.

      Secondly, the movie is largely about the characters treating Lena much as Bella is treated but having her react differently, defying her imposed gender role. The whole “claiming” ritual is a metaphor for sexual maturity. We’re told male casters go through it too, except they are apparently considered to be in control of which side they choose, whereas females are not, much the same way as traditionally men have more sexual freedom in most Western societies than women. “Good” and “Evil” here are basically code for “chaste” and “slutty”. The whole point is that despite what everyone else, particularly her family believe, Lena’s life does NOT revolve around Ethan. The way she defeats the big heavy at the end is by essentially giving him up and wiping his memory. At the end, even though it’s heavily implied they’ll get back together, it’s evident that while Lena still misses Ethan she can and will live without him. Additionally, at the end Lena chooses neither good nor evil, instead apparently becoming a hybrid of the two, symbolizing the film’s point: there is a middle ground between sexual-repression and out-of-control sexuality. Women are smart enough to find it for themselves and should have the freedom to do so without judgement from their peers.

      • Muthsarah

        More SPOILERS, I guess, if it isn’t clear.

        So the curse, the inability to choose one’s fate, turning “evil” (like malevolent, out of control, possessed by a demon, whore of Satan, or whatnot), it’s just a buncha BS that the girls are fed to keep them in line? OK, I can see that, even if it seems strange in a story with so many other supernatural elements. Sounds neat. Not neat enough to see, but if teenage girls want to see that, hopefully they won’t come away any stupider for it.

        • Kind’ve, yeah. Not insofar as her family are malevolent or doing it deliberately, I mean they genuinely believe what the tell her. They’re well-meaning but condescending and they underestimate her is the idea.

          • Sofie Liv

            I wonder what the seventies would have said to this weird sort of mentaility around sexuality…

            I know the hippies died of aids and so on constantly, but it’s just sort of amazing for me to think off how much our mind has shifted from open to not open in fourty years, we have actually regressed in this regard in being open to. “Hey, maybe she just wants sex? that’s oki by me!”

          • Soli

            The hippies are still around, but now they’re annoying old people.

          • danbreunig

            I have a friend who’s kind of a hippie and she’s only in her 30s

          • david francis white

            I totally agree with you sophie!! I could use some liberation myself!!

      • John Wilson

        Freaking sexuality symbolism in young adult fiction why is it almost ways werild:).

  • Thomas Stockel

    I think the other thing that killed The Golden Compass is, it doesn’t stand on it’s own. At all. The First Harry Potter film does to an extent the same way the first Star Wars film did. And the first Narnia film works well as a stand alone story.

    But Golden Compass? That ending was utter ass to me and not even the Kate Bush song during the end credits was able to salvage it.

    I am curious as to whether or not this film is faithful to the book?

    • danbreunig

      Ryan said it all in his own Golden Compass review: not by a long shot. The Golden Compass was part one of a trilogy and was filmed as a potential set-up for its part 2, which never happened. What really killed that movie was all the book-butchering, which resulted from caving in to focus group suggestions. The book was actually a literal anti-Narnia, which many folks thought also meant all out anti-Christian lore. And as you can guess, they cut out of the movie what may be seen as non-Christian elements. That’s the thing that killed GC for me: I picked up on all the hearsay about how immoral the movie was, and then saw it months later on home video and wondered “what was so immoral about that?” Then I saw Ryan’s review and that explained it–they cut at least half the book’s material to end up with a please-everyone film (and tanked anyway by trying to be pleasing to any and all fan groups). This is why you don’t use focus groups, people.

      As for Beautiful Creatures…I may just give it a go just because I’m so tired of any supernatural-monster-human themed films. Vampires and werewolves on their way out, zombies all the rage now in 2011, 12, 13+.

      Oh Ryan Lohner, where’d you go with Saturday Morning Glory? I miss you….

      • Thomas Stockel

        Yeah, I know CG was part one of a trilogy but couldn’t they have written it in some manner so that in the event it did no do well it did not end on a cliffhanger? At the very least if the aim was to write the film that way then go the Peter Jackson route and shoot all three films at once. Shooting the film this way just seemed, I dunno, arrogant. As if the producers really thought this was the next LOTR or Potterverse.

        And yeah, I miss Saturday Morning Glory, too. :/

  • Cristiona

    I have to hand it to Beautiful Creatures: they had a good ad campaign.

  • J.O

    Damn, i could have sworn that in the books the claiming happened to both sexes of the caster families without them being capable of choosing, or that sex really had nothing to do with them being able to be chosen. Oh, and that the author bio stated she was from south carolina.