If Peter Jackson’s got an m.o., it’s to get lost in the details of visual effects while ignoring the larger story they’re meant to support. His dominating aesthetic is one of pleasant ignorance, dating back to his slapstick gore days with Bad Taste and continuing through his schlocky The Frighteners. Viewed within the context of his body of work, his sprawling adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is just a triptych meditation on the joy of being able to color in thousands of digital warriors and have them whale on each other like a video game come to life. He’s capable of crafting some tightly paced scenes, but when asked to place them in the framework of a convincing narrative, Jackson becomes as confused as you’d expect from someone who once made a feature-length film starring horny puppets involved in every sexual and scatological set-up you can imagine. As such, his adaptation of The Lovely Bones, from the novel by Alice Sebold, is a jarring, muddled affair that purports to be about loss, death, and a number of other dark issues but is really nothing more than the latest excuse for Jackson to sit in the corner and play with his toys. As a psychological and emotional exploration, it’s laughably puerile; as a film, it’s a jumbled embarrassment that forsakes any semblance of story or momentum and just sits there, limply. I never expected the afterlife to be so dull, but then, for Jackson to succeed here he’d have to use his beloved effects to actually make a point and connect with audiences. But that turns out to be too much to ask.
Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is 14 years old and lives in suburban Pennsylvania. It’s 1973, and Susie narrates the film as it begins to unspool in the little fragments of her life: school, family, boys, and the other normal things that occupy high school freshmen. The twist is that she’s dead, and narrating from the afterlife, which becomes clear as she reveals that she was murdered in December of that year. As a result, the rest of the film is really just a long flashback presented through Susie’s eyes, and though that can explain some of the choppiness — the memories of a young teen would understandably be a blurry rush — it doesn’t let Jackson off the hook, narratively speaking. However, once the central premise of the film has been made clear, Jackson takes his foot off the gas completely, assuming that the nature of the story is enough to power it and unaware when his film comes to a dead stop and merely idles.
Susie’s home life is a normal one. Her parents, Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz), are bland but loving, and she’s got a younger sister, Lindsey (Rose McIver), and brother, Buckley (Christian Thomas Ashdale). But, as she’s made clear, things are going to get bad, soon. George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) is the quintessential creepy neighbor, right down to the wire-frame glasses and comb-over, and he’s been watching Susie for a while. In case you’re worried that I’m spoiling something, I’m not: Susie makes no secret of who killed her, and the movie isn’t about finding who did it so much as it’s about dealing with the fallout. George constructs a small wood-lined room beneath a cornfield behind Susie’s school and lures her there one afternoon with the promise of a clubhouse for the neighborhood kids. The first act of the film is the strongest because it’s the only one that pretends to have a story, but this sequence is absolutely chilling, and an example of what can happen when Jackson pays attention to what he’s doing. Intercut with the mundane moments of Susie’s family arriving home from work and school and preparing for dinner, Jackson shows Susie walking with George into the gray field, stopping at a hatch that’s emitting orange light like the fires of hell. (The only fleeting reference to the possibility of a layered afterlife.) She willingly goes down below with him, and the moments they spend there are frightening and tense and fiendishly well done. Susie’s dawning comprehension that she’s in trouble is heartrending, and when George stops her attempted escape by grabbing her and throwing her to the ground, Jackson’s achieved something rare in his movies: He’s made you care and worry for someone.
That empathy is slowly drained away, though, for the rest of the film’s turgid 135 minutes. Susie’s dead but not yet to heaven; rather, she’s in the “in-between,” a lucid and shifting dimension of her own making from which she can observe her friends, family, and killer as their lives lazily weave together. This is where Jackson’s Weta Digital effects house starts to run the show, and accordingly where the film becomes lost in a cul-de-sac of self-worship. While the earlier scenes had a purpose and destination, the remainder of the film is adrift, sliding between Susie’s world and ours. Her surroundings change based on emotions and what she’s seeing happen here on Earth, but it’s overdone and winds up feeling somehow slick and unpolished at the same time. Susie sees the boy she had a crush on, his face reflected on the waters of her private ocean; she sees her distraught father destroying his ships in bottles, and giant, cheap-looking animated versions come crashing through Susie’s world. There’s often little or no meaning to what happens there: Leaves turn into birds and fly from a tree not because of what’s happening but because somebody thought it might look cool.
As a result, little things like character, story, and drama go right out the computer-generated window. The Lovely Bones is packed with enough potential drama and heartbreak that it could have been Jackson’s chance to shine, but rather than break from his bad habits, he just reinforces them. Each scene juts against its companions with no thought to placement or reason, and in fact they all tend to stop and start pointlessly. There’s the trip Abigail takes to the police station to visit the detective (Michael Imperioli) who’s working their case; she gives him a picture Buckley drew, sees a girl that looks like Susie, has a brief flash of grief, and sits down. End. There’s the “wacky” montage set to “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” in which Abigail’s mother (Susan Sarandon), who’s come to help out, performs chores messily, sets dinner on fire, overloads the washing machine, etc. It’s shriekingly out of joint with whatever Jackson wants the rest of the film to be, but it’s just another instance of cruise-control moviemaking. This is, for some reason, the kind of scene Jackson assumed would need to be in the movie, so it is. Ditto everything that happens to the characters: Jack grows obsessed with finding the killer because why not; Abigail feels isolated, leaves, and comes back because sure. There’s even a dog that barks at George for no reason except that dogs can always sense evil villains in stories like this one. Almost every moment feels tossed together with minimum thought of why it’s happening.
The cast is determined to do something with the material, but given the way Jackson shields them with effects, they can only do so much. Jack and Abigail are poorly written and could be given to any actors; I couldn’t even remember Abigail’s name through most of the film. Tucci is aptly terrifying as George, and perfectly inhabits the role of the mealy-mouthed creep that seems to exist everywhere. Ronan, when allowed to act, is gorgeous and effortless at being a young girl, and I started to feel bad that she’d been cast as the lead in such a leaden and murky film as this one. There’s a moment in the beginning where she’s talking to Jack about her friends, and he clarifies to ask if one is “the tall one.” In an easy motion full of believable disdain and longing, Susie answers, “She’s not tall, she wears platforms.” Ronan nails the lofty omniscience of adolescence, and it’s clear she loves her father even if, as teenage girls (and boys) do, she regards him as out of the loop. More moments like this one, that conveyed character relationships through dialogue and subtext and body language and details — you know, like in a movie — could have saved the film from being dragged down by its own pretension. But Jackson’s intent isn’t to tell a story; it’s to decorate an empty stage.
In many ways, The Lovely Bones is a far cry from the films that helped get Jackson where he is today, but it’s also got an odd similarity in the way Jackson can’t quite take things seriously when he needs to. Part of this problem extends back to the source material, which only uses the word “rape” once, a word that doesn’t show up in Jackson’s movie at all. It’s not that it didn’t happen to Susie or to George’s other victims; it’s that Jackson for some reason avoids mentioning it. I’m not talking about staging the act for the camera, which would be in questionable taste at best. I’m saying it doesn’t even come up. It’s never mentioned. (To say nothing of the dismemberment we know George can visit upon his victims.) Sebold was raped as a college freshman, an experience that informed her 1999 memoir and The Lovely Bones, her first novel. To avoid even talking about what happens to Susie is a weirdly antiseptic angle to take on the story, but then, to address it would be to deal with darker endings than Jackson would like to see. In the same way that Susie can not only see everyone but read their thoughts, his version of The Lovely Bones purports to be about loss but really only pretends to understand it. It’s a cowardly approach to storytelling, especially in a movie ostensibly devoted to shining a light in the darkness. Jackson wants to be a grown-up, but he’s still playing with puppets.