Van Helsing

(2004) * 1/2 Pg-13
132 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Stephen Sommers. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham, Shuler Hensley.

Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, is a child of movie blockbusters. An obvious enthusiast of Lucas and Spielberg, one suspects he comes lately to their childhood favorites, like the Universal monster movies and the serial adventures of Flash Gordon and Commando Cody. The first "summer movie" of 2002 is a "Sommers" movie, the sort described by rote as "a roller-coaster ride." Well, I've ridden a few roller coasters, and though they're great for five minutes at a stretch, I've never wanted to stay on one for over two hours. Van Helsing rattles and swoops and thunders so incessantly that no one can much care by the time it reaches its supposed big finish.

Sommers starts promisingly with a gonzo black-and-white sequence bringing Dracula into Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory as it's surrounded by the infamous torch-wielding mob of monster-movie legend. Blithely disregarding the details of the original stories which would make this confluence highly unlikely, Sommers leaps from 1887 Transylvania to a sequence in 1888 Paris which pits the title character against--why not?--a CGI Mr. Hyde (voiced by Robbie Coltrane).

Though most anyone could have played the vacuous part, Hugh Jackman submits himself to the role of Van Helsing, a fugitive killer (of monsters, in fact) working for the Knights of the Holy Order. This monky bunch might as well be His Highness's Secret Service: after being briefed by the equivalents of "M" and "Q," Van Helsing heads for Transylvania to take down Dracula (Richard Roxburgh, doing his ho-hum Euro-trashy thang), whose nefarious plot has something to do with harnessing Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley) to enable his vampire brides to breed like rabbits.

Van Helsing fits Jackman's played-out X-Men paradigm of half-remembered personal history. Dracula says, "Some say you're a murderer, Mr. Van Helsing. Some say you're a holy man. Which are you?" Van Helsing replies, "...a bit of both, I think." But of course. Dracula has no such self-doubt, spitting, "I am at war with the world and everything in it!" Kate Beckinsale plays Van Helsing's kick-ass love interest—half of a brother-sister act pledged to kill Dracula—as if she were doing her best Catherine Zeta-Jones impression; incidentally, her brother (Will Kemp) becomes a Wolf Man, leading to a search for a lycanthropic antidote (huh?).

Scene after scene explodes into action--Van Helsing is all climax, favoring quantity over originality (or sense). The dialogue stinks, constructed entirely of terse, glib one-liners or laughable non-sequiturs. Sommers revels in the picture's artificiality, which is impressive in bursts (vampire brides attacking a near-dawn village, a nighttime carriage chase, and an opulent All Hallow's Eve masquerade ball), but fails to convince us of any character or plot point. When, in 1978, Warner Brothers told us "You'll Believe a Man Can Fly!" we understood not only that special effects would dazzle but that a human story would carry us away. In 2004's Van Helsing, the story and plot are sublimated to their bare minimum, and the movie becomes an exhausting spectacle with no rooting interest.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/15/2009

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Van Helsing on Blu-ray (and Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD) includes an extras package so thorough as to be existentially distressing. Yes, we live in a universe in which this much money, time, and effort was plunged into a movie this bad. But you're talking to a guy who hated Van Helsing. If you loved it, boy will you love this Blu-ray. I can find no fault in the top-notch transfer, which accurately represents every ugly pixel of Sommers' design in incredible detail and tonal fidelity. The audio will certainly get your attention, with the tenaciously loud surround soundtrack delivered in potent 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.

The disc is outfitted with U-Control, specifically a Picture in Picture track laden with behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews. There are also a feature commentary with director Stephen Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay and a feature commentary with Richard Roxburgh, Shuler Hensley and Will Kemp.

The comprehensive six-part documentary "Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend" (58:09 with "Play All" option, SD) covers every classic character, set design, ILM effects work, and more, by way of set footage and extensive interviews with Hensley, vampire novelist Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Hugh Jackman, Sommers, creature concept artist Crash McCreery, makeup effects artist Greg Cannom, associate visual effects producer Joseph Grossberg, Samuel West, Kate Beckinsale, English professor Elizabeth Miller, Roxburgh, occult literature professor Stephanie Moss, Kevin J. O'Connor, Silvia Colloca, costume designer Gabriella Pescucci, creature concept artist Patrick Tatopoulos, visual effects supervisor Ben Snow, creature character art director Carlos Huante, Ducsay, English professor David Van Becker, Kemp, visual effects supervisor Scott Squires, visual effects art director Christian Alzmann, co-model supervisor Andrew Cawrse, Elena Anaya, Josie Maran, executive producer Sam Mercer, stunt coordinator R.A. Rondell, visual effects producer Jennifer Bell, and David Wenham.

The five-segment "Track the Adventure" (34:36 with "Play All" option, SD) delves further into the film's settings and shoots with feature production designer Allan Cameron, Sommers, Alzmann, Ducsay, model maker Salvatore Belleci, model maker Grant Imahara, West, Hensley, set decorator Cindy Carr, Roxburgh, Snow, ILM director of photography Martin Rosenberg, model shop supervisor Michael Lynch, Jackman, previsualization supervisor Rpin Suwannath, Grossberg, visual effects editor Jim May, director of photography Allen Daviau, matte painting supervisor Syd Dutton, Squires, Wenham, propmaster Steve Melton, and set decorator Anna Pinnock.

"Bringing the Monsters to Life" (10:02, SD) tracks the monsters from design to realization. Participants include Sommers, Snow, Squires, Suwannath, animation director Daniel Jeannette, Grossberg, motion capture engineer Douglas Griffin, technical director Raul Essig, and Ducsay. "You Are in The Movie!" (4:29, SD) is a weird little feature offering hidden-camera views of the set during the shoot.

In "The Music of Van Helsing" (9:41, SD) composer Alan Silvestri and Ducsay explain the scoring process, and we see Sommers, Silvestri and the musicians at work at the recording sessions. We also get "Bloopers" (5:39, SD) and "Dracula's Lair Is Transformed" (2:41, SD), a time-lapse view of the set's construction.

"The Masquerade Ball Scene 'Unmasked'" (25:29, SD) takes us into rehearsals and the shoot for the scene. Interviewed are Sommers, Jackman, choreographer Debra Brown, Silvestri, Beckinsale, Mercer, Wenham, Daviau, Roxburgh, Ducsay, art director Giles Masters, Cameron, Pescucci, Squires, lead sabre artist Grady Cofer, computer graphics supervisor Doug Smythe, and Grossberg.

"The Art of Van Helsing" (5:10 with "Play All" option, SD) comprises seven montages of monstrous production art, and three "Monster Eggs" (1:53 with "Play All" option, SD) offer up funny behind-the-scenes bits. Like all deluxe Universal releases, Van Helsing also includes My Scenes and BD-Live and D-BOX capability.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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