Beautiful Creatures is an oddball creation: a morality play with no basic understanding of morality. On the surface, the plot, drawn and significantly modified from Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s 2009 young-adult novel, is obsessed with the battle between good and evil. It’s odd to contemplate a story that actually needs to define those poles, but odder still to watch a film that doesn’t have any conception of them at all.
Alden Ehrenreich stars as an amiable small-town jock whose bookish obsessions make him stand out from his peers, particularly the improbably beautiful mean-girl ex (Zoey Deutch) who’s still pursuing him. Then he falls for the strange new girl in town (Alice Englert), niece of the much-whispered-about Boo Radley-esque town hermit (Jeremy Irons). Soon, Ehrenreich finds out Englert is a “Caster” from a long line of magically endowed non-humans, and that she’s due to be “claimed by the Light or the Dark” on her rapidly approaching 16th birthday. For reasons elucidated in the book and ignored in the film, “female Casters” don’t get to choose whether they’re absorbed into Team Good or Team Evil. And since she lacks any agency in her immensely dramatic choice, she spends much of the film pushing Ehrenreich away for his own good and angsting endlessly about the deadline, while her colorful family (including Emmy Rossum and Justified’s Margo Martindale) and Ehrenreich’s caretaker (Viola Davis) snipe and jockey for position around her.
Writer-director Richard LaGravenese is more accustomed to scripting glossy prestige romances (Water For Elephants, The Horse Whisperer, The Bridges Of Madison County) than directing this sort of heady Twilight descendant, but his touch here probably means less than the presence of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Tim Burton’s lensmeister on Big Fish, Planet Of The Apes, and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) and production designer Richard Sherman (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 1 and 2). Those two men give the film a lush, cold look that veers from scene to scene between Burton’s colorful rococo-goth darkness and Twilight’s desaturated chill. In Beautiful Creatures, looks are everything: It’s particularly significant that viewers can tell how close Englert feels to her evil side at any given moment by how lavishly she dresses and how much eyeliner she’s wearing.
But that’s the film’s only grasp of its own supposed core concepts. Beautiful Creatures never explores what “claimed by the Dark” actually means, other than showing that Dark Caster Rossum came away from her Claiming with glowing gold CGI eyes, revealing black clothing, and a generally bitchy attitude. It never explains why Ehrenreich and Englert’s banal Romeo and Juliet relationship is supposedly a bad thing that might tip the balance for the Dark. And the only hints at world-building are done via single throwaway sentences that suggest untold stories far more intriguing than this one. There’s no sense of the larger conflict beyond the protagonists’ backwater burg, and no stakes past Englert’s feelings that she’s cornered and doomed. Only Emma Thompson—hamming it up enjoyably as a Dark-sider so villainous, her intentions beyond “be evil, hate humans” can never be described or revealed—appears to be taking all this meaningless, arbitrary sturm und drang with the cracked humor it deserves. Everyone else applies their fiercest frowns, most pained expressions, and most melodramatic line readings to a battle that’s all empty, overheated air. In a film where good and evil are just empty words, it’s hard to care which one Englert’s character has to put on her future business cards.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Beautiful Creatures’ Spoiler Space.