Originally shown July 21, 2010
It would be wrong to say that I disliked Matthew Vaughn’s 2007 fantasia Stardust. I found it agreeable and entertaining enough. However, in an era of escapism and movies which would like to be modern-days myths and fairy-tales, I think Stardust works best as an example of what not to do.
The story has a fine pedigree, adapted by Vaughn and Jane Goldman from the first prose novel by acclaimed graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. It’s the tale of Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man from the English town of Wall, which borders a magical portal to the fantasy realm of Stormhold. As a part of an violent ascendancy flap in the royal family of Stormhold, a star falls to earth in the form of Claire Danes, who is discovered by Tristan. He has to protect the star from an evil witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the surviving son of the king (Mark Strong).
It’s a simple enough story, so much so that I first saw this film on an airplane without any headphones, and had no trouble following it. Believe it or not, that’s quite an achievement, as a lot of fantasy films fail right out of the gate by not keeping their stories simple. Dune is a great example of this, or X-Men Origins: Mashing Up Three Different Scripts With Wolverine, or Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Votes of No Confidence.
The problem is that this story is jam-packed with characters, and it simply cannot bear to curtail its love for any one of them. In a novel, that works, since you have all the time in the world and you can go inside supporting characters’ heads much easier. In a movie, you take a long digression with Captain Shakespeare and his backstory, and put in the effort to get Robert de Niro into the role, and it just feels a little indulgent.
Imagine if The Wizard of Oz had given the Scarecrow a backstory explaining how he got into that field. Maybe it would have been well-written, but it also would have messed up the pacing of the movie. All we really need to know is, there’s a Scarecrow and he needs a brain. Even his vulnerability to fire is not explained, and rightly so, it’s obvious since he’s a freakin’ scarecrow. Similarly, the whole de Niro subplot isn’t exactly bad, but why do we need it? He’s a pirate who helps our heroes in their time of need. The idea of a pirate captain who hides his true nature from his crew is a nice one, but I really just wanted to get on with the whole fallen-star plot because it’s, y’know, the whole point of the film.
The acting is not going to be a big deal for me in a movie like this; as long as no one is glaringly bad, the story will speak for itself. And no one is glaringly bad, although I thought a number of plum roles went to waste with mediocre performances. The only actor who made me think, “man, that’s awesome work” was Strong, a British actor who has a knack for distinguishing himself in smaller roles; he was the best thing about Body of Lies the following year, and I liked him as the villain in Sherlock Holmes the year after that.
Worse, the big hammy performances from de Niro and Pfeiffer make our protagonists look boring by comparison. Check out the movie’s poster; it’s dominated by the images of two supporting characters, and the male lead’s name isn’t prominent. Nothing wrong with that by itself, but if you’re not going to put A-listers in the lead roles then the movie should put extra effort into making those characters interesting, and this one doesn’t do it. At a minimum I should see Cox in a project today and remember him as “that guy from Stardust“; this film went out of its way to ensure that I don’t have that impression.
Again, I’m not trying to say the movie is bad. It has good dialogue, it culminates in an affecting action sequence, the emotional moments late in the movie are well-earned, and Pfeiffer’s vampy preening is memorable. However, this is a film which stays in my mind as a collection of decent moments, not as a coherent whole. Stardust has a lot of big ideas, and big ideas are always welcome, but it just didn’t do the right things in terms of tying them together.
Reviewed by Mark Young