A Token Gesture
Van Helsing is a terrible film, but in a particularly modern way. It’s not that it spends all its time at the top of its voice. It’s not that it’s a monster movie in which the monsters aren’t remotely scary. It’s not that the special effects aren’t all that good. It’s not that the dialogue is terrible. Stephen Sommers managed, somehow, to make a wonderfully fun romp out of The Mummy from the same cloth.
The problem has to do with the characters, and how they develop. Or rather, the fact that they don’t. What they do is exchange tokens. It’s a terrible cliche that films are becoming like video games. It is true, at least in cases like this, but not for the reason that most people think. It’s not the flash. It’s the fact that plot is defined in terms of token acquisition: picking up object A in order to activate switch B, which opens door C, allowing access to weapon D, which can be used to kill adversary E. Actually, character development is perfectly feasible within video games; it just rarely happens, because it’s hard to do. Unfortunately for Sommers, it’s also hard to do well in a screenplay, so he satisfies himself with token acquisition and exchange.
Dracula’s goal is to bring his countless batty offspring to life. Why does this need to happen? Why are they lifeless in the first place? Because it creates the need for a token to acquire. The token in this case turns out to be Frankenstein’s Monster, who, for some reason, serves as the sole conduit for the transfer of life from electricity to offspring. Why? Because that way the Monster can be a token. How Dracula knows of the Monster’s importance as this token is perhaps sensibly elided, because it avoids having to explain why, but, risibly, the Monster itself knows exactly what’s going on. Why? So he can explain it to Van Helsing, apparently. This allows the Monster to become important as a counter-token to Van Helsing, of course, so he absconds with the big lunk in order to thwart Drac’s plans. Cue big chase sequence.
Meanwhile, Van Helsing carries with him on the adventure a literal token, a piece of latin inscription which, with a clang of the huge gong labelled ‘foreshadowing’, turns out to be — yes, you guessed — the last part of a key which opens door C, allowing access to Dracula’s hitherto-hidden castle. But by this time, Our Hero has acquired impending werewolf-hood after getting a nasty scratch. Why? Because it creates the need for a token to acquire: an antidote. But wait, all is not lost. Dracula actually happens to have such a thing. Why on earth would he have such a thing? Says the film: Because he needs it, just in case he should meet a werewolf, since a werewolf is the only thing that can kill him. Says me: Because it can then serve as a token which Van Helsing needs to acquire. Now, both Drac and VH must compete for the same token. Whoever gets it wins. And that’s the climax the story builds to.
Each time these chains of token acquisition and exchange are followed backwards to their beginnings, the premises are so flimsy that they amount to: this has to happen because the plot needs a token. Dracula’s offspring are dead not because it makes any sense, but because it creates the need for a token. Frankenstein’s Monster is the missing piece in reviving the offspring not because it makes any sense, but because it creates a token to fight over. Van Helsing becomes a werewolf not because it makes any sense, but because it creates the need for a token. Dracula is killable only by a werewolf not because it makes any sense, but because it creates the need for a token.
Plot-by-token-acquisition can sometimes be effective if it’s handled with skill. Pirates of the Caribbean is, at heart, a film of token acquisition and exchange, but that skeleton is filled out by virtuoso performances, starting at the top with Johnny Depp and extending a long way down the cast. Hellboy is full of token acquisition: he’s the only one able to open the door between this world and the next not because it makes any sense, but because that way he can become a token for the bad guys to seek. Yet vivid characterisation, great visual style, and dry humour provide genuine substance.
Van Helsing fails because token acquisition is all it has. There’s nothing else, besides a classy turn from David Wenham as dotty Q to Van Helsing’s Bond, who has the one actual funny line in the whole film:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to be the first to put my hand in viscous liquid.
(I know, but it is funny in context.)
And no amount of technical flourish can hide the emptiness of a film that has no heart, where everything that happens is, well, token. Once upon a time, such weaknesses were unforgiveable, since they were exposed for all to see. Snappy dialogue and character development might be tricky to pull off, and require talented writing, but they’re cheap. $160 million, on the other hand, can buy a whole lot of smoke and mirrors.