By nearly every conceivable standard, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestseller The Lovely Bones is a class-A catastrophe. As a younger, hungrier man, Jackson made Heavenly Creatures, an excellent film about the intersection of adolescence and criminality, with special effects that enhanced the story without overwhelming it. The Lovely Bones though is like Heavenly Creatures reconceived by the self-satisfied multi-millionaire who made King Kong. It's bloated, broad and tonally confused, with cheesy-looking digital effects that make the afterlife of a teenaged murder victim look like one of those trippy old Mind's Eye collections. Saoirse Ronan and Rose McIver are superb as the two female leads (one dead, one living), and Jackson comes up with some legitimately striking images, steeped in '70s suburbia. But his attempt to keep everything teen-friendly and visually attractive inadvertently results in a movie that validates the perspective of serial killers, presenting a reality in which their victims spend eternity in a wonderland of their murderers' making, where they think about their killers all the time.
But as off-kilter as The Lovely Bones is as a movie, it's astonishing as a Blu-ray. Why? Because of a bonus disc that includes a three-hour video production diary. In it, Jackson and his co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens go through the movie not scene-by-scene but day-by-day, showing and discussing what happened on the set for the whole 15 weeks of the shoot, in chronological order. Through the use of split-screens, voice-overs and interviews, Jackson and Boyens fill the screen with alternate takes and rehearsals of each scene, and show how a movie comes together in tiny pieces, with hours of work going into each minute of screen-time.
Granted, three hours of this stuff is a bit much, and perhaps speaks to Jackson's increasingly problematic inability to edit. But it's all fascinating, and reveals how difficult it can be for a director to keep the big picture in mind when he or she is dealing with tiny, disconnected details. It also reveals how in the era of digital, every scene is susceptible to tweaks, to the extent that an undisciplined filmmaker can succumb to the temptation to sweeten every shot.
One of the best books ever written about movies, Julie Salamon's The Devil's Candy, covers the making of Brian De Palma's awful version of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire Of The Vanities, and similarly breaks down how everything can seem to go right on a shoot and how a film can still turn out lousy, for reasons that become clear only in hindsight. The Lovely Bones' production diary is like a video version of The Devil's Candy, lacking only the perspective of an outsider to point out where Jackson and company stepped wrong. Even though the movie's no good, The Lovely Bones Blu-ray is worth at least a rental, and budding filmmakers may want to buy it and study it, the way detectives pore over the evidence in a murder case, sifting for clues as to what exactly went wrong.