The first motion picture from Peter Jackson that didn't involve monsters and a colossal special effects effort turns out to be...a film about monsters with a colossal special effects effort! Well, monsters in the serial killer sense, as Jackson unfurls a cinematic interpretation of author Alice Sebold's best-selling novel, "The Lovely Bones." It's a glum tale of mourning and heavenly observance, perhaps playing too close to Jackson's voracious directorial appetites. Giving the material a thick coating of gloss to maintain and portion out its innate horrors, Jackson encourages "Bones" to radiate more artifice than emotion, condensing a frightful story of loss into something balanced precariously between a Hitchcockian thriller and an Enya music video.
A bright, inquisitive 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is ready to embark on her first romance with a sensitive classmate, eager to leap into womanhood. On her way home from school, Susie is cajoled into visiting an underground hideaway built by neighborhood loner, George (Stanley Tucci). Drawn into his trap and brutally murdered, Susie's spirit enters a colorful purgatory where she hopes to console her grieving family. Parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), are left a wreck, with boozy grandmother Lynn (Susan Sarandon) coming in to salvage the family, including Susie's questioning little sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver). Years pass, but eventually Jack and Susie begin to sniff around George for clues, sending the killer into a panic, with Susie eager to reach out from beyond the grave to help bring her killer to justice.
Continuing his interest in otherworldly actions, Peter Jackson finds an abundance of inspiration with "Bones." The story is a buffet of dynamic heavenly vistas, ghoulish acts of murder, and portals between life and death; it's a snug fit for Jackson's sensibilities, though packaged in a tempting literary riff that pries the filmmaker away from the intensive genre work that's consumed his life over the last decade (with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the bloat of "King Kong"). "Bones" is actually quite reminiscent of Jackson's 1994 humdinger "Heavenly Creatures," addressing unspeakable acts of violation through elaborate fantasy worlds and hysterical teen girl viewpoints.
Now a filmmaking giant, Jackson employs slick building blocks of CGI to imagine Susie's purgatory stay, dialing the iconography of her life into the fantasy, exaggerated to bewilder the girl as she confronts her own murder and the devastating grief it's left behind. The smooth surfaces and New Zealand vistas are impressively built, but they tend to come across as the film's rodeo clown, keeping the audience busy while Jackson and the production shave down Sebold's narrative to a sensible size, muting the terror to a proper PG-13 rating. The grit has been yanked out of this story to help it dance a radiant spiritual ballet, yet the emotions ring hollow in the face of such synthetic wonderment. Though brightly acted by the gifted Ronan, Susie's excellent adventure into paradise is surprisingly soulless, offering bountiful eye candy and chirpy teenage puzzlement, but little in the way of a secure emotional bond.
"Bones" feels more alive while on the hunt for George, switching from a family drama into thriller mode in the film's second half. Again, the story feels compromised and reworked to fit Jackson's vision, but he's always been able to kick up some convincing unrest when called upon. The race to uncover clues to snatch George leads to some primo suspense sequences, making smart use of Jackson's editorial control and the film's obsession with macro photography. While Wahlberg is miscast as Susie's thunderstruck father (try as he might, sensitivity from his tongue feels like lashes from a bullwhip), the rest of the cast falls into place adequately, even while Jackson rushes characterizations to get to the meat of the matter. Clad in wild period costuming (giving off a distinct "That '70s Show" vibe), the ensemble still grabs the senses with their generous performances, searching to develop a pool of poignancy beyond the dull heartstring tugging Jackson relies upon.
Perhaps it's unfair to compare the two films, but 1998's "What Dreams May Come" traveled down the same route of afterlife consciousness, and achieved a more forbidding tone to match its eventual tear-jerking. "Bones" doesn't share the same concentration, messily bonding two halves of a tale that share little chemistry. A splendid film in small doses, "The Lovely Bones" fails as an epic odyssey of soulful yearn, in the end looking to blend the real and the fantastic in ways it doesn't earn.