In the 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man, a scientific experiment caused a man to experience the world in reverse scale–objects grew threateningly larger as his human potential (and possible death) decreased. That trauma is repeated in Jack the Giant Slayer, a reenactment of the “Jack the Beanstalk” fairytale in which 12th century Britons, via sprouting vines, encounter a land of giants midway between earth and heaven. Dwarfed by the leviathans like the Brobdinagians facing Gulliver, they’re forced into combat when the monsters (who smell human blood and fear) descend to Earth and wage battle against mankind.
Although Jack the Giant Slayer is presented as a youth fantasy, think twice about taking the kids. It begins with Jack and Princess Isabelle indoctrinated with the fairytales as children, but turns into something less than wondrous–a fairytale emphasizing nihilism. Teenage Jack and Isabelle (played by Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson) fight for human sovereignty and their own burgeoning sexuality against horrific, Freudian projections of outsized physical force, appetite and domination.
Director Bryan Singer buries these psychological themes in CGI spectacle, as he did in his series of X-Men movies (X-Men 2 being the best of his graphic-novel metaphors). The “Jack and the Beanstalk” folktale that has survived centuries of Western culture for its captivating instruction on youth. greed, obedience and loyalty now becomes Singer’s latest story of disenchantment and sexual grotesquerie. Although the giants represent human nature at its mutant, overgrown worse, the battles Singer stages between humanity and cruelty are simplified into big-screen combat, horrific nightmare.
For its first hour, the film’s standard narrative is dull–introducing Jack’s impoverished possession of magic beans, Isabelle’s court intrigue with scheming Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and both youths’ ascent to the colossus purgatory. It’s only during confrontation with the evil gargantuan freaks that Singer’s filmmaker rouses. The giants’ General Fallon, a ferocious two-headed leader of the orge army (Bill Nighy evoking the sci-fi creature from 1972’s The Thing With Two Heads), jealously lusts for power over the puny humans who live literally beneath them.
When Fallon cages Isabelle, he growls “Do you believe in God?” This question from the subconscious poses the giants as Anti-Christs so that their assault upon Earth brings Armageddon. Tellingly, this is where Singer’s gathers his forces. The battle scenes are not especially well staged (if one knows Fritz Lang, Spielberg or Walter Hill), but they improve on the previous sequences of stolid, graceless movement. The giants are ugly and rough-textured like the faces in Polar Express but also deliberately grotesque (Fallon’s second head peeps out his trapazoids and grunts constant disapproval like an uncontrollable id).These characters are more effectively gruesome than Tucci’s Roderick, a villain out of Shrek. Hideously compulsive fighters, the giants become more than objectionable; they’re demoralizing just like the threat against mankind in the X-Men flicks.
“Onwards and downwards!” bug-eyed Fallon urges, drooling for mankind’s defeat. This might be thrilling and powerful in a Transformers kind of way except that it becomes foul, another example of the vicious cynicism that Singer and co-screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie favor. The fight scenes ought to be fun (Ewan McGregor’s loyal knight proves more convincingly heroic than Hoult’s Jack) yet watching the giants move like T-Rex in Jurassic Park or throwing burning trees into the palace courtyard or destroying a nondenominational cathedral is unsettling far more than ye olde fairytale threat of “Fee-Fye-Fo-Fum.”
Folkloric legend gets undermined further when one giant brandishes weaponry to vanquish humanity–Goliath with a slingshot. Despite how Singer’s film is being sold, this represents an atheistic cultural reversal; it’s a pagan revelry. Jack the Giant Slayer takes the fun out of legend. Bryan Singer, the incredibly shrinking crowd-pleaser, may know what he’s doing technically, but is he aware of what he isn’t doing morally?
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair