Beautiful Creatures is yet another movie based on a YA series trying to take the throne in a post-Twilight world. And it is a strange, unwieldy beast. It creates a fantastic world filled with magic and burdened with a complex moral compass. And then the movie goes on to ignore all that to focus on the more generic parts of the story. Beautiful Creatures could be interesting, but the filmmakers seemed intent on preventing that possibility. It is an odd case of self-sabotage that results in a thoroughly unwatchable picture.
Incoming high school junior Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) can only think about leaving his backward hometown of Gatlin, South Carolina. That, and the girl that keeps showing up in his dreams. And when that girl suddenly shows up in town, he becomes drawn to her. That girl is Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), niece to mysterious town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Ethan persists, and he finds out that there is something more to Lena and her family. She is a bearer of great magical power, and in three months, when she turns sixteen, her true nature will be revealed: either light or dark. Ethan resolves to stick by her and lead her in the right direction.
The story runs through the now-standard tropes of this form of young adult fiction. It tells a story of forbidden love between a normal human and a supernatural being. The human is special somehow, smarter and better than the average folk of whatever backwater town he or she is from. The supernatural ability being is afraid of his or her own nature. Their love transcends whatever rules the world provides for them. And so on. A formula is never a bad thing on its own, but a formula isn’t usually enough to create a compelling story.
And that is the case here. It is just a form with no real story binding it together. Presumably, the book is much better at telling this tale, but the movie is a real garbled mess. It doesn’t really explore any of the plot’s conceits: what the casters can and can’t do, what it really means to be dark or light, and what determines a person’s “true nature.” The movie throws these concepts around freely but never bothers to figure out what they all mean. In place of any introspection, the film basically sits around as it reiterates that the characters mostly have nothing to do but wait until the choice is made for them.
The film just has this tendency to gloss over all the details that could turn it into something interesting. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese, a veteran of much more grounded romances, seemed to have little interest in the magical aspects of this story. He leaves those elements to the production designer, and devotes much of its efforts to creating cute little moments between the two leads. Alden Ehrenreich and Alice Englert make for a fetching couple, but cute moments are pretty much all they have. They look completely lost as the film arcs towards its big, dramatic moments. Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson have one incredible scene together, but they get drowned out by the rest of the noise.
I would like to believe that Beautiful Creatures is a much more interesting novel than this movie would suggest. It’s an intriguing enough world, and the bits of mythology that we do get suggest something much richer than what actually plays out. But this film just doesn’t seem interested in all that. It is a baffling, muddled mess that seems to treat its backstory and source material with disdain, the whole degenerating into a tepid romance where neither character can do much to affect the outcome of their dilemma. What’s the point?