The story of Eragon takes place in a world that was once protected and policed by mystical knights - knights who were betrayed and wiped out by one of their own (John Malkovich), a traitor who now rules as a tyrant. This wicked king and his dark wizard (Robert Carlyle) have all but crushed the forces of freedom and now they're trying to stamp out the last pockets of resistance.
They've nearly succeeded. A beautiful rebel princess (Sienna Guillory), fleeing with a secret, stolen artifact, has been captured by the tyrant's armies and held in an impenetrable fortress. Before her capture, she managed to send the object to a young, blond farmboy called Eragon (Edward Speleers), an orphan brought up by his uncle (Alun Armstrong) and yearning for adventure. When his family is killed by the forces of evil, the boy is taken under the wing of a old man (Jeremy Irons), who the locals think is crazy but who is actually the last surviving knight. The lad learns from him that his destiny is to become a knight himself and help bring the reign of darkness to an end.
Does this sound at all familiar? I know George Lucas borrowed from many sources when he made Star Wars thirty years ago but Lucas had the sense and the talent to put together the elements he stole in a new and inventive way. The makers of Eragon, this Christmas's would-be fantasy epic have simply taken the basic story of Star Wars and shifted it from an Outer Space setting to a world obviously inspired by JRR Tolkien. Instead of stormtroopers, there are orc-like creatures. Instead of the Force, there's Elvish magic. Instead of the Death Star, there's a fortress much like Mount Doom. And instead of space ships, there are dragons.
Blending as it does the two most lucrative fantasy franchises, Eragon is an astoundingly cynical piece of work. Even at a time when almost every event movie is a sequel, a remake or a pop culture adaptation, this film is strikingly bereft of imagination and originality. Although it's based on the first of a well-received series of novels, it looks like it was conceived at a meeting of Hollywood executives who'd noticed how successful fantasy epics have been at the box office recently and decided they fancied a piece of the pie.
The obvious passion and care that went into making Lord Of The Rings and Chronicles Of Narnia are in very short supply. This is a poorly written and directed movie. Director Stefen Fangmeier is a CGI effects whiz making his debut, while screenwriter Peter Buchman's only previous credit is Jurassic Park III, which was re-written by the Sideways team, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Fangmeier delivers some decent enough special effects sequences but neither man shows any real grasp of the genre in which they're dabbling.
The film moves in pedestrian fashion from plot point to plot point, telegraphing its twists so obviously that you can even guess at surprises that will be revealed in future instalments, if they get made. How much do you want to bet that the evil king is Eragon's father? The relentless plot stops only for exposition - and there's reams of that, much of it supplied by awkward narration.
By all accounts, the pleasure of the Eragon novels by Christopher Paolini is in the style, rather than the derivative story. There's little style to the film. No effort seems to have been spent on making the story's treatment unique or colourful or entertaining. Eragon is put together like a half-arsed TV movie, where there's only enough time and budget to tell the story as basically as possible. Given that the budget was around $100 million, there's no excuse.
The rescue of the princess is the low point. It's so sloppily integrated into the story and over with so quickly, it's like an afterthought. Where she's held must be the worst guarded fortress in the history of action cinema, given how many people manage to sneak into it and how few guards they have to fight to get out. The hero, who sneaks in alone, is saved by no less than two of his sidekicks, both of whom also snuck in on their own! And the kicker is, all this is supposed to be a trap to catch the heroes!
Since the makers of Eragon were borrowing so heavily from Star Wars, why did they stop with the story? Why didn't they look at what made Star Wars such a popular success? The tone, the pacing, the sense of humour, the little touches which made it fun? Where are the memorable supporting characters? Where are Artoo and Threepio? More importantly, where's Han Solo? This movie badly needed a Han Solo, a wisecracking cynic with whom audience members who'd passed puberty could identify. In his place, there's a mysterious fellow played by Garrett Hedlund, who looks and acts like Christian Slater's character from Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Now that's just not quite the same thing, is it?
Couldn't the movie's world have looked a bit more colourful and less like it was shot on the same sets as every other Tolkien-style fantasy movie and with the same costumes? About the only original visual idea is that the dragon is blue and inspired by a cat. I liked that. Otherwise the dragon Saphira, voiced by Rachel Weisz, might as well be the female twin of Draco, the one Sean Connery played in Dragonheart. Draco talked while Saphira communicates by telepathy but their personalities are quite similar.
The acting is, with one exception, very unimpressive. That exception is Jeremy Irons. He ought to have known better than to appear in any more films featuring dungeons and dragons but, to his credit, he's the only cast member to transcend the material. His performance as Brom is funny and touching. Somehow Irons brings real feeling to the part.
No one else does. As the hero Eragon, English newcomer Edward Speleers looks like he's from the same boy band as Stormbreaker star Alex Pettyfer and he has two expressions: acting indignant and grinning inanely. Sienna Guillory, the nominal heroine, hardly seems to be in the movie. I got the feeling her character becomes more relevant in future installments. Odds on she's Eragon's sister.
As the villains of the piece, John Malkovich and Robert Carlyle are so heinously over the top, it's difficult not to laugh. They hiss, roll their eyes and bark out their awful dialogue as if they were doing pantomime. I don't think I've ever seen Carlyle give a bad performance before but he's made up for it with this one.
Yes, that is R'n'B singer Joss Stone playing the weird gypsy fortune teller. She has one scene. Your guess is as good as mine why whoever was casting the weird gypsy fortune teller thought of Joss Stone or why the attractive, young pop star thought this would be a good way to get into films.
The upside to all this is that Eragon is so clumsy, so misguided and so shameless in its stealing that it's amusingly bad rather than tediously so. Bad movies today are so slick and so boringly mediocre that to find one that's so terrible, it's quite fun is a treat of sorts. The running time, under an hour and three quarters, the hurried pace and the ample amount of action mean that you never get bored. And there's Jeremy Irons, bless him, acting his socks off as if he was in something worthwhile.
You certainly shouldn't rush out and see Eragon, not with quality entertainments like Casino Royale, Deja Vu and Happy Feet in cinemas, but if it comes on TV when you're bored or if you need a fourth DVD to make up a 4 for £20 offer on the high street, it might be worth a look. If you like really trashy films, or you just have very low standards in entertainment, you may find you enjoy it.
Note: Despite its PG rating, Eragon contains some surprisingly hard-edged violence. Its young hero proves to be nearly as enthusiastic about killing as John Rambo. The lad kills his enemies with relish while his dragon burns thousands alive in the final battle. There's also a fair bit of torture. You might want to take that into account before bringing small children.