12 May, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Yes... I realise it's been 4 years since my last post. It takes a surprisingly long time to recover from a PhD. That's no joke. Someone should really, really study the effects of a PhD on the brain -- pre and post thesis-production... it's a shit show.

Anyway, what brought me back you ask? None other than --- KING ARTHUR!!

Here’s my review in two parts. I literally have two totally different parts of my brain looking at this.

Perspective 1: I have my master’s in Arthurian Literature. I’m skeptical at the best of times about any re-interpretation of a legendary story, based on the late-Roman-era hero of King Arthur (I generally ignore the medieval, romantic, knights in shining armour Arthur).

Perspective 2: I have my PhD in the adaptation of event films, and I study, investigate, and celebrate taking original material and turning it into a unique, entertaining piece of media.

Also, I live in Snowdonia, Wales (although originally from the US) where this was filmed (it was also filmed in the Scottish Highlands, but surely the most stunning scenery was my backyard). So, I’m a bit biased by the locations.

So here are my two perspectives:

Perspective 1: Are you kidding? Vortigern and Uther are brothers? And Uther turns into the rock that holds Excalibur when Uther kills him? I’ve got that right, right? Uh huh? Right… in the written legend (yes, I know it’s legend, and therefore I shouldn’t be this angry at the faulty reinterpretation), Uther dies of old age, impotent but still the father of Arthur, and Vortigern is a random king in the north who wants a lot of power (political power…. Not serpents and giant elephants and mystical shtuff). Like any dude with an obsession of power, he tries to build a tower. It keeps falling. Over, and over, and over again... 

So, in legend, he learns from his prophets that he needs the blood of a bastard to be spilled over the foundations of his tower.  Only then will it be strong enough to stand. Merlin is a bastard. No one knows who is father is (spoiler… it’s Ambrosius, Uther’s brother, making him Arthur’s actual uncle), so this makes Merlin the most Famous Bastard in All of the Land. So Vortigern is determined to spill Merlin’s blood. However, Merlin catches wind of this, spins the story like any stellar politician would, and convinces everyone that there are in fact two dragons fighting underground, in the foundations of Vortigern’s tower, and that’s why it keeps falling. There’s a white dragon, signifying Vorgiern, and a red dragon, signifying Ambrosius. The red dragon is victorious! So Vortigern is defeated, and the red dragon still flies as the emblem on the Welsh flag. The Welsh people have also adopted Dinas Emrys as the location for this epic dragon battle, and you can hike to the summit yourself and see the ruins of Vortigern’s tower (some ruins… but more like 11th century than the 6th).

Anywho, this film takes EXTREME liberties with this story. Basically, they’re the same character names, and the rest is up for interpretation. In this film, the tower is actually an antenna of some sort for black magic. Right.

Things that are constant: Arthur is the unknown king. Arthur pulls a sword from a stone. A lady of the lake gives the sword back to him. Vortigern wants power and his tower won’t stand.

Yup. That’s it. Merlin is mentioned, but we don’t see him. He sends a mage to guide Arthur to his life as a king.

Things that are wildly redonk: Vortigern and Uther are brothers, the mystical element allows mages and those with power to control animals, thereby including crazy big elephants in the opening scene, and wicked large snakes. There’s also some crazy serpent ladies (including one who looks like the grandmother of the Fat Lady in the portrait from Harry Potter) who demand the blood of a loved one to be spilled in their creepy underground lake in order to grant power to Uther.

Who. Just. Keeps. Killing. His. Loved. Ones…. that's messed up.

So, with regard to an Arthurian retelling, it takes some major liberties. And it’s unsettling.  Its jump cuts, the inappropriate humor, it's a mess of cultures and genres, with some post-modern comic relief that elicits a laugh, but also jars the viewer. Our hero wears white, our villain wears black (and his minions are even called "The Black Legs"...) it's all just so wonderfully predictable.

Pros: what a unique retelling. What a use of the scenery of Snowdonia, and a reinvention of the oft re-told Arthurian legend in an updated, edgy, and functional way. It uses some lovely historical elements and a few names to retell the Arthurian legend sharply, with humor, action, and yes, some eye-rolls. I think you could really enjoy it if you knew nothing about the source material.

Cons: see above. Seriously? Messing with the timeline/bloodlines that much? GIANT ELEPHANTS!? Power antenna?? 

Perspective 2: HOT DAMN! How much fun was that?! I mean, if you’re going to totally disregard the potential of an historical Arthur, not question the likelihood of finding of a dojo in Roman London, ignore the existence of Camelot, Merlin, and any kind of believable through-line, you might as well have fun with it, eh? It has Guy Ritchie stamped all over it—thugs, brash jump cuts in editing, match-edited explanations (i.e. explaining a scene in words as a character mouths those words and we cut away to the action matching those words), crass humour, and moments of intense, gorgeously-filmed action. 

High points: Okay, there were indeed a few nods to the historical Arthur, and the legends that are commonly used and reinterpreted in Arthuriana: it existed in a Roman time (near the end of the Roman rule in London – aka Londinium), Arthur didn’t know his heritage, he pulled a sword from a stone, a lady of a lake gave it back to him… there are a few great nods to our well-studied legends.

But in terms of a reinterpretation, if you’re going to take source material and make it your own, I honestly think King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a blast.  I think it’ll be attacked by critics, but I had fun. It was clever, fun, action-packed, had excellent effects, good villains, characters I cared about… and the random ninja named George! I mean, why not? If you’re going to have a street-smart posse of thugs, they ought to be named George, Blue, Bill, Wet Stick, and Back Lack.  It was entertaining, great music, super-stylised, and excellent villains/conflicts. No gratuitous love crap, and interesting embracement of power. Arthur was always confident, but it was clear he had a lot to learn, and the pacing of this allowed for a really natural arc for the growth of Arthur.  He had to earn the role of King; believe he could fulfil it, overcome demons, train, and embrace his destiny (and all that wonderful cheesy shtuff). And, in turn, his band of merry fellows fell in line similarly.  The round table at the end was a bit twee (British term for super cheesy), but it worked. He’s not a snot-nosed, silver-spooned king. He worked and was driven for the power he now commands. A round table suited, and someone else knighted him the same way he knighted his knights (pardon the redundancy).

Low Points: Oh it was so gratuitous.... drama, serpents, blood, swearing... it was an old boy's club of redonkulousness. If I was the script editor, it'd be difficult to compliment the lacking through-line of this story, the believability of the villain, and the justification for things like mysticism and mages. It seems rather shoved into the world. It's not 'earned', so to speak. 

Speaking in the language of film overall, however, it was a fun, sharp, and clever film. Surprise surprise, I'm not the script editor, so my thoughts weren't taken into consideration, sadly :) But as a fan and scholar, it was fun. I can take it for the lark that it was, laugh, and enjoy. I loved seeing my home scenery on the big screen (seriously, if that doesn’t convince you that North Wales is the most glorious place ever, there’s not much I can do for you)

So, there’s my bi-brained response. If it’s a gateway for some wonderful geek to get into the legends and origins of King Arthur—brilliant. And if it’s a two-hour romp through the stunning scenery of Snowdonia focused on my hero, King Arthur, and some seriously questionable plot points, line-delivery, diction, and context, but you still laugh out loud …. Then that’s brilliant too!

In short, go see it. It was fun.  I doubt it’ll get multiple sequels.  I can't envision this making bank on its investment (maybe I'll be wrong!) But this one was fun. We shall see, eh? Perhaps if we gaze into the Crystal Cave…