Many thought Tarsem’s 2000 serial-killer thriller “The Cell” defined the trend of TV commercial/musicvid whizzes making movies composed of 95% visual flash — but they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Soph effort “The Fall” is an absurdly elaborate package oblivious to the interests of any audience beyond its own wildly indulged creator. This convoluted, arbitrary, overlong whimsy will strike most grown-ups as childish, and is far too violent and pretentious for kids. Pic’s sheer curiosity value should win some defenders, but will pose a very tough sell. Best prospects perhaps lie in drastic re-cutting for family DVD markets.
There’s something appalling about a vanity project that takes this much time, money and energy to make (shot in nearly two dozen countries). Nor can Tarsem claim the visionary entitlement of past large-scale art cinema masters like Jodorowsky or Tarkovsky, because the only thing behind his stunning pictures is an advertising genius’ instinct for the “wow” image. Those work best in isolation, though, not in two-hour compilations.
While “The Fall” does score points for sheer originality, ambition and perversity of concept, the film is based on a 1981 Bulgarian pic, “Yo Ho Ho,” written by Valeri Petrov, in which all the major ideas in “The Fall” already exist. That earlier film (directed by Zako Heskija) was by all accounts cheap and charming, whereas the new edition has neither of those attributes.
After a railroad-bridge-plunge prologue whose every slo-mo B&W shot is self-consciously wrought, we enter the color world of Los Angeles “a long, long time ago” (circa 1915, by the looks of things). Convalescing in the children’s ward of a hospital is Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a spirited tot with a broken arm. Bored, the child tosses a note from her window to nurse Evelyn (Justine Waddell), but it’s blown instead into the lap of bedridden young man Roy (Lee Pace) on another floor. He’s been paralyzed in the aforementioned bridge stunt, performed for a silent Western feature.
Roy befriends the tyke, holding her attention by spinning a fantastical tale about five larger-than-life heroes: masked swashbuckler the Black Bandit (Pace), muscle-bound escaped African slave Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), an Indian mystic (Julian Bleach), Italian anarchist Luigi (Robin Smith), and naturalist Charles Darwin (Leo Bill), all of whom have been banished to a desert isle.
Escaping, they vow vengeance on shared nemesis Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone), kidnapping his fiancee (Waddell) and finally facing off against the Gov.’s armed hordes.
Visualized by Alexandria, these characters are played by hospital residents and staff in extravagant disguise (costumes flashily designed by Eiko Ishioka). Their already capricious adventures gain additional eccentricity from a 5-year-old’s imagination. But Tarsem evinces no lightness of touch or flair for action set pieces. Instead, the fantasy segs — shot on exotic locations from Turkey to Cambodia to Chile to Prague — offer a cold pageantry that might be better suited for a Matthew Barney epic.
The hospital sequences take a morbid turn, but Tarsem lacks the deftness of touch to make the development touching rather than grotesque, despite good adult/child thesp chemistry. Untaru is a charmer, despite being saddled with precocious dialogue.
With everything from underwater shots of pachyderms swimming to massed sufi dancers to Brothers Quay-type animation, “The Fall” doesn’t lack for amazing sights. But they lack an ingratiating context, and what goodwill the pic does conjure is betrayed in last reel, accompanied by a rote antiwar message; effects are so misjudged they’re commensurate with someone cutting “Girls Gone Wild” clips into “The Little Mermaid.”
Happy ending feels like a formulaic afterthought; the sentimentality “Fall” occasionally strives for never convinces.
What Tarsem has created is basically a coffee-table book of striking travelogue images masquerading as a mix of warm-hearted period drama and fantasy. Aesthetically sumptuous, technically often remarkable, “The Fall” is nonetheless an alienating experience –a white elephant at once enthralled by its own rarefied distance from basic human interest.
All visual design contribs are superb, though the music is bombastic.