Alice Sebold's best-seller "The Lovely Bones" starts off with a young girl named Susie Salmon -- like the fish -- narrating her murder from the heavens. It's brutal, sad, and gut-rending, but it suitably precedes the blossoming story of a family's tightening grip on her passing. Though intense at first through a vivid depiction of the crime, it transforms into a haunting yet warming narrative seen through the eyes of a wide-eyed teenage girl watching sadly as her father tries to find catharsis by solving her murder mystery -- with the gloriousness of heaven, or more accurately the "in-between", swirling about her. Looking back on director Peter Jackson's career, he seems an ideal fit for a film adaption; between his work with fantasy in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and his masterful construction of a young girl's mental strife in Heavenly Creatures, it's hard not to get excited about seeing Sebold's book through his eyes. Sadly, this isn't the same Peter Jackson, as indulgent garishness contorts the story into a hollow slurry of emotionally-crippled grandeur.
The biggest disappointment about the whole thing is that it's very obvious Jackson knows the story. Well. His eye for Susie, played by Atonement and City of Ember powerhouse Saoirse Ronan, fits the framework of the character to a fine point. She's wondrous, artistic, unabashedly trusting and deep beyond her years. Jackson captures her movement as she walks to and from school through the cornfields, cycles about with her camera in town, and poises against her killer Mr. Harvey, an awkwardly troubling presence through Stanley Tucci's acting talent. Susie's scenes with her father, soundly handled by Mark Wahlberg, tap directly into the images that Sebold drew out. And, as the violent act takes place, the tasteful yet dolefully reserved capturing of Mr. Harvey's inconspicuous vault dug into the ground fumes with awareness of the story's visual tone -- dimly lit and claustrophobic at that particular moment, but beautiful and tender in a melancholy way once this ugly hump is crossed. He knows the way that The Lovely Bones should look, and feel.
A lot of striking sights are to be seen in Jackson's film as a result, arresting images rendered in both Susie's idea of an idyllic, self-created "playground" of a heaven -- where she's on fashion magazine covers and the leaves on trees are actually birds -- and in the '70s-era Pennsylvania photography surrounding her family's grieving. Massive glass-encased boats float onto a beach shore and shatter, timed with the fraught expression of anger from Susie's father as he breaks his belongings. It reflects on a memory that Susie's holding onto of when the two of them put together one of these boats, an event that occurs shortly before the earth-shattering murder. On top of that, sweeping wheat fields, sandy beaches, and a wealth of other only-in-the-afterlife images similar to those in What Dreams May Come fill the screen when Susie's not forlorn over her passing and watching over her family on Earth. These stunning visions should be glimpses into an emotional transition, seeing as how the lead character won't ever get a chance to kiss the boy Ray that she fawns over at the beginning of the picture, or spend time with her siblings or once-rebellious mother Abigail (Rachel Weisz) again.
But emotional they're not. The Lovely Bones should revolve around the raw wound created at the story's beginning that slowly heals over the course of time with the Salmon family, and Jackson doesn't bridge that connective gap. Saoirse Ronan flexes her dramatic chops just as she has before, projecting several moments that'll affect us in the proper manner -- Susie's glance from the afterlife at her father through a window, walking with him through a cornfield while he's carrying a baseball bat and anger in his eyes, and the flickers of angst involving her ferocity towards Mr. Harvey. Most of these other moments, however, have to fight through overzealous CG images, such as that glass boat sequence mentioned earlier. It might take one aback with its scale, but the emotional punch deadens when glass after glass breaks in self-pleasing fashion. This is, after all, an intimate story involving a hurting family and their process in developing scar tissue over the wound of Susie's passing, and the focus on exaggerated splendor muffles the emotional impact.
It doesn't help that Jackson sharply deviates from Alice Sebold's structure in order to make his adaptation more "cinematic", though in the process he neuters the picture of poignant verse. Dropped is the semi-flashback arrangement of the novel, so that Jackson can instead tell a more accessible, linear tale that takes nearly an hour to get to a point where Susie's looking down at her family and friends, an element key to the story. Her rousing lines of reflection at the beginning lower to little more than word-for-word voiceover that sticks, kind of, but mostly just fades away as a forewarning. Plot devices, important ones to the nature of the narrative itself, are stripped clean of their meaningful meat -- or not included at all, such as an important sexual affair and a time span that takes place at a gifted children's camp. These statements might read like a vulture picking at an adaptation that's not up to snuff, but certain elements to the story's core integrity, as both an existential allegory and a human-growth portrait, fade away amid the movie-making wizardry Jackson tries to cram in. He gets a lot of potent sequences right, including much of the tension around Susie's sister Lyndsey (Rose McIver) and her tense interactions with Mr. Harvey, but it doesn't mean a great deal if all the heart's not there.
This is a shame too, because the casting for the characters is as close to spot-on as can be expected. Aside from the already-addressed Saoirse Ronan and Mark Wahlberg doing due diligence to the characters, Susan Sarandon swaggers and shimmies just right as morale-booster Grandma Lynn. Relative newcomer Reese Ritchie (10,000 BC) gives us a dreamy-eyed boy in Ray Singh that's a believable intellect, as well as a good-enough reason to haunt Susie in the afterlife. Even Rachel Weisz and Michael Imperioli look and sound the parts of Susie's anguished mother Abigail and earnest police detective Lou Fenerman, respectively; however, especially in relation to those two in particular and with the ever-so important presence of artsy ghost-seer Ruth Collins (Carolyn Dando), their characters -- and plot points involving them -- go largely wasted to the story's resonant potential. They're all hearty entities and dramatically pointed enough to watch, but their presence in relation to Susie's time in the "in-between" never dodges that neglected, empty sensation.
The Lovely Bones simply can't get beyond this scatterbrained focus to be more than an oddly-wired adaptation with only aesthetic reverence, 130+ minutes that chops away at what makes the novel a subtle, mindful story and fills the gaps with overstepped visual imagery. There's no mystery behind the film, just as in the novel; we know who the killer is, as we see the event occur before we even really dig our heels into the characters. Our intrigue with the story rotates instead around the connection that we build with the Salmon family, with Susie, and with the bubbling tension around Mr. Harvey, which fizzles due to muddled direction. Peter Jackson gives off many love-letter sequences that'll make fans of the book reach for their weathered copies, and probably spark a few new readers as well, but the futility of its posh images can be disheartening to watch when sunk into a piece of work that's thrashing wildly to do things it can't do -- all the way until the point where Jackson still makes a brass-balled attempt to execute an ending that's only concrete enough with the book's sturdily-built supporting characters.
As an admirer of the book, an enthusiast for imaginative existential cinema, and a fan of Peter Jackson's, The Lovely Bones is a disappointment. That's my baggage; but still, none of those biases were completely satisfied.
Video and Audio:
Though the content might not be as heavenly as expected, Paramount's pitch-perfect presentation of the film on Blu-ray certainly comes close. Framed at 2.35:1 and encapsulated in a 1080p AVC codec, The Lovely Bones sports a radiance strongly befitting a film this modern. Utilizing Red One cameras, the cinematography absolutely radiates with undeniable crispness and unswerving, palatable colors. The orange-leaning cinematography of the "on-ground" Pennsylvania activity with the Salmon family projects an earthy, evocative warmth, while other sequences outside of their home -- Susie's tromping through the wasted cornfields, Lyndsay's jogs past Mr. Harvey's home, and Susie's dad visiting Mr. Harvey's backyard -- convey less radiant, emotionally colder tones that remain thoroughly solid and true to the source. Radiant, accurate flesh tones, sublimely crisp textures, and nary a hint of distortion in sight offer these natural film moments without any unsightly blemishes.
That's only half of the content in Jackson's picture, though the physical close-ups, moody lighting, and intimacy of the earth-bound photography are the truly impressive renderings in these eyes. The Blu-ray also has to present the computer-generated images swirling around Susie's self-created heaven, preserving the onslaught of luridness -- and it does, brilliantly. Scenes involving Susie's journey in seeing Mr. Harvey's other victims in the grimy environments where they're murdered, the radiant sun-drenched fields that remind one of Terrence Malick-like imagery on acid, and the magic of seeing a clock in the moon and other fantasy-bound contortions of reality all offer a high-definition experience that's stable and a thorough sensory gauntlet. Whether the visual imagery will connect with the viewer is, clearly, up to the viewer; however, it's hard to deny exactly how splendid they look in high-definition. Put simply, it's beautiful.
It'd be hard to build up an aural mate for this really stellar visual treatment, but boy does Paramount's DTS HD Master Audio track accomplish just that. There's never a scene rendered in this Blu-ray's sound quality that leaves one without sound immersion, enveloping us with Brian Eno's exquisite original music. These tracks sweep us up in traditional rhythmic scoring and semi 'Explosions in the Sky'-like chords in a few sequences, stretching to the rear channels for persistent encapsulation in their power. Light sound effects, like the rustle of the wind carrying leaves against its path, slight pitter-patter of feet against the wood in a house, the thud of a person falling on a grassy surface and other elemental points slickly coasts along the entire stage as well. Revving of a classic cMustang's engine tests the lower-frequency channel's power, as do a few punches and harsher falls against the ground during fistfight sequences, but it's the delicateness of ambient sounds and razor-sharp dialogue peeking through the sublime music and the stillness rendered that make this one a sublime presentation. French, Spanish, and Portuguese 5.1 language tracks are also available, along with optional English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
Filming The Lovely Bones (2:57:18, HD AVC):
Compile a list of all the things that one might enjoy out of supplemental features on a home video presentation. Alternate takes on a scene, director and producer commentary, behind-the-scenes photography, interpretations and insights on the source material, dealing with issues on-set, and others. Now, picture them all stitched together into a time-progressive flow throughout the entire filmmaking process, going scene-by-scene as they're shot -- not in order as they appear in the film. That's the experience that's presented here with Filming The Lovely Bones, which stretches for over three hours. It's not a "documentary", per se, but more of a collage that interconnects all of the elements into a gripping experience. It's the only special feature, contained as the sole element on Disc Two (also a Blu-ray disc), and it's a doozie.
First, Peter Jackson and his crew take us through the USA Principal Photography (1:27:50), which takes place over the course of eight (8) weeks -- segmented in this piece as such. The US shoots cover most of the shots away from Susie's heaven that didn't require computer manipulation or work in a studio, though elements, like the sink hole, show a few practical uses of rough blue-screen tech. Topics include the first days working on-set with Tucci & Walhberg, dealing with production issues like the sinkhole and Wahlberg's wig, using Susan Sarandon as a form of comedic relief, and others. Alternate sequences show the actors taking multiple stabs at their lines and fumbling a bit, all in open-matte fashion and without the color timing altered in the way that it'll look in the film. We get a chance to see raw footage before it's edited / shattered into the way it fits into the film, along with hearing Jackson's thoughts on each sequence.
After a five-week hiatus for the winter holiday, Jackson and crew got back to work for the New Zealand Principal Photography (59:43). Much of the material shot here, running over five (5) weeks and separated into like-minded chapters for this segment, revolves around work done in a studio -- the cornfield sequences, a few interior shots -- and some sequences that take place outside of the focal Pennsylvania location, such as the material featured in the orange orchard involving Abigail. Weather concerns, discussing the logistics behind stunt work, and more emphasis on the story's potency find focus here. Also, the work in front of a blue-screen enters into the picture, where we get to see Saoirse Ronan dangling from the ceiling on wires. Peter Jackson also discusses the murder sequence in great length at the tail end, stating that it's a sequence that he and the crew wanted to be "over and done with". He talks about the lack of relaxation when they're shooting the sequence, while behind-the-scenes shots involving Ronan, Tucci, and Jackson in the underground room. They discuss the parallel between Susie's fantasy and the reality of the situation.
Stretched over a two-week period at the close of the shoot, Jackson discusses the Visual Effects Photography (29:45). Here, the pertinent cast members -- most prevalent Saoirse Ronan -- reassemble for the grandiose sequences that take place throughout the picture. They shoot this material in Queenstown, showcasing points that are digitally manipulated and others that aren't as much. One great slate of footage focuses on the get-up that Jackson utilizes on-site with several monitors behind a dark, thick protective tarp that isolates his vision, featured during Susie's gazebo sequence in the woods. The big emphasis here is the construction of the "in-between", with strategic usage of blue screen paired against realistic location to create something beautiful, slightly familiar, but also whimsically foreign. They cover the scene involving the pack of dogs (some of which are Jackson's pups), the collage of murdered victims, and a bit of dialogue about the changes made to the book.
Trust me, I really wanted to fall head over heels for Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones. Reading Alice Sebold's book offered a dynamic and intimate portrayal of family growth around a travesty, as well as sneaking in some existential thought about the afterlife for good measure. Director Jackson gets the look just right and nails down many of the story's sequences, with the aid of a sturdy cast, but he hampers a more complete vision of the story by packing in overlong expanses of visual hoopla -- and, in the process, makes a few key changes to the storytelling that alter its flow. However, just looking at the film itself without thinking about the book still offers little more than a special-effects dazzler with a only handful of affective moments, unstrung and blind to the big picture of what makes this story special.
Paramount, however, doesn't misstep an opportunity to create a unique experience with The Lovely Bones on Blu-ray, offering a reference-level audiovisual experience and a singular supplemental slate -- one feature in name, "Filming The Lovely Bones" that branches into a dense, multifaceted journey through Jackson's filmmaking -- that almost make it worth a recommendation on their own. Sadly, the content's just not up to snuff the way it should be, which will deem a Rental satisfactory.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site