If all the world is a stage and we are merely players, then clearly all of literature is a dumb movie waiting to happen and we are merely moths, drawn to fireballs and the promise of a loud trailer. You feel this midway through The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an unbelievably shoddy big-budget action film based on a fantastic comic book by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill - which itself gathered its heroes from some of the best-known literary characters of the 19th and early 20th century. So not only has a late- 20th-century pop classic been ground up, but most of British literature is slashed and burned, and you don't have to be familiar with the comic or even any of the half-dozen famous figures on display to feel it.
You feel it when the camera settles on Sean Connery for one second more than necessary - there's a palpable sense of how awkward this mess really is. It's like standing at a party with someone after you've run out of things to say. A fake snow drifts down on the actor's head. He is sitting on a fake rock in movie-studio weather guarding a polyurethane cave or something. He's supposed to be in Mongolia, but my guess is he's praying the Donner Party will show up and take him out of his misery. He cradles a shotgun and stares into the camera with a look of such profound sadness - and you stare back with such equal weariness - an odd thing happens: You read the 72-year old Scot's mind, and feel bad.
So does Tom Sawyer (Shane West). Moments earlier, the fictional Southerner stares at Connery's Allan Quatermain, the fictional adventurer who is apparently indestructible (maybe that's why Connery looks so unhappy, indestructible means sequels loom). Then Tom says, “Just wondering why you signed up for all this?” Connery sighs and stares off into the obviously fake ocean settling like a backyard swimming pool on an airless day around an obviously balsa wood submarine that will ferry him to an obvious showdown with a villain - who, incidentally, begins the movie as the Fantom (as in, “of the Opera,” but spelled wrong) and ends as Moriarty, although since the film never acknowledges the significance of Moriarty (he was Sherlock Holmes' nemesis), you either know who Moriarty is or a clever idea is left to go limp.
Actually, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an extraordinarily promising idea. It's just given extraordinarily bad treatment - namely, generic summer blockbuster treatment. In lieu of finding anything to push his plodding film forward, director Stephen Norrington has a gun fight or he blows something up: Venice, London, mansions, boxes, zeppelins, Germany, more boxes.
But consider this: The movie takes place in 1899. As Europe slides into the 20th century, dark clouds are forming. “The Empire is in peril,” we're told. In Her Majesty's secret service, a coalition of the willing is formed, a league of super-spies who were once characters in great novels - call them the Justice League of Tweed, a mash-up of literary universes united to do more than play bounty hunter on overdue fine dodgers and guard the Bookmobile against second graders.
Quatermain, the hero of H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, is recruited first. Next is Captain Nemo, the pirate of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, apparently picked less for his cheap Halloween-store beard than his sweet ride, the submarine Nautilus. Rounding out the league is Dr. Jekyll, who transforms into a digital Hulk called Mr. Hyde; an invisible man (THE Invisible Man was tied up in 21st-century copyright legalities), and Mina Harker, last seen swooning in the arms of Count Dracula.
She's a vampire, in other words, although, curiously, the rules don't apply: Sunlight has no effect, etc., and again, the discrepancy is not explained. But that's only a minor flub in the whole botched scheme of things. Along for the ride (though not in the comic book) is Tom Sawyer, the only Yank, who recently joined the Secret Service (that's not explained either); and, without a doubt the world's most unlikely superhero, Oscar Wilde's dandy Dorian Gray, no longer merely haunted by narcissism, but bulletproof.
So why any director would fall back on usual summer outrun-the-fireball formula when he has What-If? material this promising is depressing. But then League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a failure on every level, from the laughable special effects to the incomprehensible action to, unforgivably, imagination. The movie comes off grim, flat, and not curious about what would happen if Dr. Jekyll met Mr. Nemo, or what a descendant of Dracula might have to say to the eternal Dorian Gray - or how any of these various literary voices might reverberate off each other.
In one scene the Nautilus is almost sunk, and as soon as they're out of danger, what does the League attend to? Their conference table, their chairs. These hearty adventurers straighten up. If I were confused I might say it's as if they were arranging deck chairs on another notable disaster.