The ill-fated I Am Number Four may have tried to get a running start, but with the release of Beautiful Creatures, the race for a new series to fill the pop-cultural space vacated by Twilight has begun in earnest. And it’s certainly a better occupant of that niche, though that may not be saying very much. It may have some problems, but there are fewer, and the space between is filled with some lovely production design.
Instead of sparkly vampires we’ve got “casters” — “witches”, to use a common epithet. And yes, they’re divided into light and dark varieties, though it’s not quite clear what that means. Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), for instance, is said to be dark, but acting light at the moment. It matters more for girls, though; at the age of 16 they’re “claimed” for light or dark, according to their “true nature”, and they have no further choice in the matter. And this momentous day is approaching for Macon’s niece, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), whose claiming will correspond to a particularly powerful solstice and set the tone of the caster world for the next few thousand years. Her cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum) was claimed dark a few years back, and it’s feared Lena will go the same way. Her own mother, Sarafine, went so far that she can only manifest physically by taking control of a human body, like the religious scold Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson).
Before I go any further, I have to address the fact that this setup is really, really problematic. Men get a choice in their behavior, but women don’t? Is this a good message for a movie aimed primarily at teenagers, and particularly at girls? On top of that, what of the the idea that female agency and, yes, sexuality and desire is a power to be feared? Caster women may be powerful, but that can be just another way of objectifying them. The argument can be made that the climax actually addresses these problems, but you really have to want to believe it; if that was the intent of director Richard LaGravenese — or of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, who wrote the novel he adapted — then that argument needs to be moved earlier, made more explicit, and reinforced.
That said, at least Lena is more than a bland, blank slate, but she is pretty much designed for any awkward, uncertain teenager to see as a projection of herself. She has power, though it makes her nervous; when she moves to this tiny South Carolina town and attracts the attention of the young Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), he acts as her support, not her savior.
Perfect? no, but a damn sight better than the series it means to replace. Not to mention the potential inherent in a southern gothic setting. Maybe next time around they can tap into the undercurrents of racism that seem to have been neatly airbrushed away, here. Still, any movie that points the kids towards Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles Bukowski can’t be all bad.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.