Reel Talk

A Cure For Wellness and Style Over Substance

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Not every movie is going to be for every person. That should be a no-brainer of a statement, but in our current world where everything is so tailor-made for our interests, it seems like that needs to be out-right stated. And there are certain things a movie can do to almost immediately put me off. And when I first saw the trailer for A Cure For Wellness I kind of assumed that it would be completely out of my interests. I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Gore Verbinski fan, since other than Rango he’s kind of a slightly more artistic Michael Bay, so that alone kind of put me off from the movie. But there was just something off about the trailer that I can’t quite put my finger on, and yet which became almost immediately apparent when I decided to go check out the movie. I had actually heard that it was a unique movie, and one worth seeing despite it’s flaws. So I decided to give it a shot, and went to check out this odd little movie, which somehow seemed to be slipping through the cracks while trying to be a huge blockbuster. I mean, why did this movie get a big studio push at the Super Bowl? Whatever, I’m not a marketer.

This film starts off with a businessman working late and having a heart-attack due to exorbitant amounts of stress. And from that chipper image we get a bunch of exposition tossed at us. The man from the beginning works for a massive financial firm that is currently in chaos because their CEO Pembroke has visited a mysterious health spa in the Swiss Alps, and appears to never be coming back. The company needs his signatures on some merger forms though, so they send an oily  young executive named Lockhart to the spa to fetch him. So Lockhart heads to Switzerland, and makes his way to the ominous castle atop a mountain that has some seriously insane history. It was once owned by a crazy baron who did experiments on peasants to try and cure his sister/wife’s infertility, until the peasants burnt the castle down. Surely none of that will be important. Anyway, Lockhart gets to the creepy spa, and is stonewalled by the staff, being told that he can’t meet with Pembroke. This causes Lockhart to have a hissy fit and announce that he’s going back down to the village but will come back. And as he and a driver head down the mountain things are ruined when a CGI elk comes bounding out of the woods, crashes into their car, and Lockhart passes out. And when he wakes up he’s shocked to find that he’s apparently broken a leg, and has now become a patient in the spa.

And from there Lockhart just begins heading around the spa, trying to find Pembroke and discover what the hell is going on in the creepy spa. He meets the man in charge, Dr. Volmer, who is obviously evil, and gets all of the spa’s odd procedures inflicted upon himself. Like being submerged in a giant tank of water that appears to be full of eels. And while all of this is going on Lockhart starts to question his sanity, and that of everyone around him. Everyone in the spa seem to be obsessed with it, and have no intention of leaving, which is obviously horrifying to Lockhart. Oh, and he also meets a creepy woman named Hannah who lives at the spa, and apparently always has. She basically has the mind of a child, and just says creepy things nonstop. Lockhart continues investigating what’s going on, stealing patient files and creeping around the spa. This comes to an end though when he heads into a secret part of the spa and finds the truth about their special treatments, and the vitamins that Volmer and Hannah take. Turns out Volmer has uncovered a process that the baron discovered that involves the aquifer under the mansion, eels, and bodies that somehow creates a cure for basically everything. He then pumps some eels into Lockhart, and turns him into yet another zombie at the spa. Which would have been a great place to end. Instead things keep going, we see Hannah get her first period, we learn that Volmer is actually the baron and has been alive for hundreds of years to become some sort of eel-man, Hannah is actually his daughter who survived the assault on the baron, and he plans on marrying Hannah and continuing their bloodline. Yep. Lockhart figures all of this out by the way, and comes storming down to Volmer’s secret laboratory under the castle. He and Volmer fight a little, and Hannah ends up killing Volmer. They then burn the castle down, and ride a bike off into the sunset together.

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Okay, this was not a good movie. It was the very definition of a slog. There were some good things about it, but basically all of them were visual. The film is absolutely beautifully shot, with a really masterful eye for cinematography. The production design for the movie was also fantastic. Verbinski had wanted to make a film of BioShock for quite some time, and this movie does show that he probably would have nailed the design of that project if it had ever gotten off the ground. The spa was beautifully designed and full of unique and beautiful sets. But where the movie didn’t exactly shine was basically everything else. I’m not a fan of Dane DeHaan in general, and a combination of his performance and the script he was acting out made Lockhart an immensely unlikable protagonist. I mean, we seriously were supposed to care about some little trust-fund brat who called his co-workers pussies? Honestly, no character in this movie was likable. Everyone was hammy and over the top, which maybe would have worked if this film didn’t take itself so deadly seriously. I suppose this movie is nominally a horror movie, but it just comes across as incredibly strange. It’s full of hackneyed horror tropes, like flickering lights, little girls singing, and a soundtrack that was mostly jump-scare stings. However there was a lot of other weird things that didn’t necessarily fit in the traditional horror mold, and maybe say more about Verbinski than anything else. I would wager that Verbinski really has issues with water, eels, doctors, and teeth, because this movie was jam packed with these elements, and then the movie just kind of would sit back and expect you to be horrified, as if we all had weird eel phobias. I really think this movie would have been somewhat less interminable if it had ended when Lockhart was first zombified. There’s a moment where he talks to Hannah and says that he would never want to leave, and that would have been the perfect place to cut to black. The reveal that Hannah was the baby and Volmer was the baron was incredibly obvious about twenty minutes into the movie, and I think ending the film without explicitly explaining this would have been a great move. And ending it with Lockhart losing and becoming just like everyone else would have been even better, and not features bad CGI eel-man combat.

There was one phrase that was cycling through my head nonstop when I was watching this movie. And that was “style over substance.” I know that film is a visual medium, but I’ve never personally been a fan of movies that focus completely on the visuals and ignore the writing. That’s why art films have never really been my cup of tea. It’s probably because I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and have been a rabid consumer of stories. Movies should be a union of visuals, music, stories, and acting. If any of those factors become more important than the others it tends to be problematic. This movie clearly was obsessed with it’s cinematography and production design, and clearly did not give anywhere as much effort into it’s script. Such a beautiful movie shouldn’t have had such a bland, predictable, and overall boring plot. I tried to like this movie, but it just seemed to make every obvious choice, and just dragged on and on. I really think that the movie should have ended about twenty minutes earlier than it did, and not just for narrative reasons. This movie limped along like a CGI elk after being hit by a car. This movie was very pretty, but there was nothing below the surface. And I know some people like that. Some people can get swept up in the beauty and poetry of the visuals. But I’m not one of those people. I can certainly appreciate some beautiful cinematography, but it needs a story to prop it up. And this movie could not accomplish that.

A Cure for Wellness was written by Justin Haythe, was directed by Gore Verbinski, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2017.

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