Thursday, February 7, 2019

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Merlin (1998)

The film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood that I'm on is doing a dedicated television movies month. Thomas's contribution to the list was the 1998 television miniseries Merlin, which features none other than Jurassic Park alumnus Sam Neill as the legendary wizard. I watched it when it was on TV and could remember a lot of the general beats, so I figured I'd give it a spin.

Here's the podcast, which among other things features me rasping a lot and swearing. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's the 6th Century AD or so and Britain is a mess. Various Christian and pagan factions are at war with each other, while the Saxons invade from Europe. The goddess Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) and her henchman Frick (Martin Short) attempt to stem the decline of "the old ways"--since if gods aren't worshiped, they cease to exist--in the face of the growing power of Christianity. To do that Mab creates Merlin (Sam Neill) as a sort of anti-Jesus (complete with what seems to be a virgin birth), but Merlin refuses to serve Mab after he discovers just how cruel and unpleasant she is. The supernatural cold war between the two drives the events of the story of King Arthur (Paul Curran) over what seems to be a generation or so.

The Good

*Most Arthurian stories don't take the Saxons into account even though the earliest historical accounts of Arthur are about fighting the invading Saxons. I suspect this has to do with Le Morte D'Arthur and The Once and Future King, which don't feature the pagan continental invaders and focus instead on conflicts among the Celtic Britons. The prologue to the film depicts the Saxons, who respect neither Christian churches nor Celtic pagan shrines, as one of the various problems assailing Britain, which was nice. I'd have liked more of them, but more on that later.

*The acting is for the most part good. After all, they do have Sam Neill, Martin Short, and other talented actors to work with. There are a couple moments of apocalyptic badness (that believe me I make sure to mock in the podcast), but I'll get to those later. Miranda Richardson is raspy and annoying, but she has one really good moment that I discuss in the podcast, since it's spoiler-iffic.

*Paganism is referred to as "the old ways," which however annoying the way they keep saying it is, does make sense. One reason animistic and polytheistic "old religions" tend to fall before proselytizing religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam is that they lack strong organizational structures and in many cases even literature and writing. They're just things people have always done, and that's a pretty weak reed when facing societal collapse (the fall of Rome, the Saxon invasion) or the arrival of a much more organized new faith bearing with it various advancements like literacy (and thus more coherent governmental administration), new crops and farming techniques, etc.

(Yes, I am aware of persecutions of polytheists by ascendant monotheists, but the new faith has to get into a strong enough position to do that in the first place. It took 300-odd years for Christians to persecute Roman pagans; before it was the other way around. And St. Patrick in Ireland was a straight-up slave.)

*When Mordred makes his move, he goes into battle wearing the sun-god image on his armor that's associated with the film The Wicker Man. Considering he's paganism's last champion against oncoming Christianity, that's a nice bit of detail.

The Bad

*For a being of such great power, Merlin comes off as extremely weak and passive. He takes no action (other than to berate Arthur about it) when he learns that Morgan has slept with Arthur even though he's sure a child will result due to Mab's scheming. Even though he knows Morgan is laired up in Castle Tintagel with the young Mordred and Mab getting up to who knows what, all he really does is beg her not to raise Mordred in the "old ways." He doesn't attempt to kidnap or kill Mordred or Morgan despite knowing the threat they represent (and the Vortigern plot shows Merlin is capable of physical violence if he wishes), nor does he have Arthur attempt to take control of his son or attack Tintagel with his armies if Morgan objects. One could argue that this could provoke the wrath of Mab, but Mab is not omniscient or omnipresent. Merlin could pull a fast one and Mab wouldn't be able to prevent it.

*Per the above, so many bad decisions made by so many other people. We're talking Matrix Revolutions levels of stupidity (listen to the podcast in which I discuss that) among people who should know better. It's a lot harder to enjoy the movie when people who are supposed to be such great heroes are all a bunch of morons.

*Per my earlier comment about Mordred, when he enters the picture as an adult, nobody seems able to deal with him. He just walks into Camelot, claiming to be Arthur's son, and starts stirring up trouble. Even in The Once and Future King, it takes years for him to build the support base to challenge Arthur and he's more conflicted about doing it. And once he makes his violent intentions clear, all Arthur does is slap him and he knocks around some soldiers who try to arrest him. That would've been a very good time for a Zerg Rush, since however skilled he is he's just one man.

*Mab's voice is weird and annoying. She's supposed to be an otherworldly being and I know what they're going for, but they could have done something else than have her rasp and screech. Mab also has got too much eyeliner and looks like she's BoToxed to hell. Is this supposed to be a metaphor for her refusal to accept her own obsolescence? She's not super-duper impressive as a villain.

*There are two scenes where Merlin and Mab face off and Neill, for all his acting chops, just comes off as really goofy and ridiculous. "I WILL BEAT YOU MAB! I WILL FIND A WAY!" or something to that effect. If Mab were more genre-savvy, she should have just slagged him right there before he gets powerful enough. Someone really needs to read the Evil Overlord List. And in another scene, Merlin is all like, "ARTHUR WILL HEAL THE LAND!" Excessive drama aside, heal the land from what? The previous king Uther Pendragon is shown to have...issues...but the situation hasn't reached Vortigern-level issues of tyranny or (large-scale) civil war.

*Although Frick is one of the film's more amusing characters, there's a scene later on where he comes off as really passive and foolish. Life lesson: If someone you know is extremely powerful and capable of doing really bad things to you with magic does something bad to someone else, use your own powers (and he has them) immediately rather than just yell at them and give them a chance to hammer you down. This person is someone he knows very well, so he should know just what they're capable of. Idiot.

*The passage of time in the film is really wobbly. Nimue seems to be a trainee nun (or just hanging around an abbey) for one or two decades and however much the Church emphasizes hospitality, at some point they're going to tell her to shit or get off the pot. Arthur is gone hunting for the Holy Grail long enough for problems to result, but the Holy Grail is supposed to be in Britain itself. He'd basically be riding around his own kingdom and could probably check in at Camelot fairly regularly.

*Speaking of the Holy Grail, there's very little foreshadowing about it. Apparently there's a deleted scene explaining that when Frick had the young Morgan put a stone in Arthur's crib (that scene stayed in), it was supposed to curse him with impulsiveness, but that scene really should have stayed there. Knowing Arthur's impulsive behavior is of supernatural origin would explain both some of the good and bad decisions he makes.

*The Saxons aren't mentioned at all after the prologue--the story is super-focused on the "Summer Kingdom" and how it ended, but it was Arthur's unification of the various post-Roman Celtic factions to defeat the Saxons that made the SK possible. There should've been at least one battle against the Saxons--who BTW look like a bunch of central casting Vikings complete with horned helmets--in addition to the various British warlord-types.

*This ties in with my last major problem--the movie is way too long for what happens in it. Yes, it's a TV miniseries, but they should have had a lot more stuff in the allotted time to make it entertaining and less draggy. Per my earlier remarks, making Saxons a larger presence would have been one way--Merlin and Mab could be forced to temporarily work together to help Arthur's Celtic coalition fight off a Saxon invasion, since the Saxons don't respect the Celtic pagans any more than they respect the Celtic Christians, and their victory would be Mab's undoing just as much as the triumph of Christianity. A Nazi-Soviet pact between Merlin and Mab, if you will.

(Incidentally this would deal with my beef with Merlin being so passive and Mab not crushing an obvious threat while he's still weak--he can't move against Mab, nor can Mab move against him, because of the oncoming Saxon invasion. They can snip at each other and impede each other in minor ways, but the apocalyptic showdown simply cannot happen or both Celtic pagan and Celtic Christian civilizations are doomed. Once the Saxons are beaten back, then we move into the endgame.)

During this period of the story, Mab could try to seduce Merlin back into her service (perhaps by offering to heal Nimue's injuries), while Merlin could try to find ways to undermine and destroy her in the process of working with her against the invaders. For example, he could at least try to undermine young Mordred's faith in "the old ways" by explaining that for all her power Mab is ultimately dependent on her worshipers (i.e. she's a parasite and needs them more than they need her) and that she's not even a goddess, but a being from "the land of magic" (i.e. an alien or, as they might understand it, a Fae). Although this doesn't work, the Saxons could still be beaten and Arthur could celebrate the defeat of the Saxons and what appears to peaceable relations with his half-sister with the building of Camelot and the quest for the Grail, only for Mab, Morgan, Mordred, etc. to backstab him before Merlin can backstab them by inciting a coup in Camelot while he's away. If Mordred is old enough to participate in said battle with the Saxons, it could earn him allies among Arthur's supporters that barging into Camelot and griping about Guinevere's affair with Lancelot really wouldn't.

*Finally, is Merlin's guardian Ambrosia a Christian or some kind of non-theist who follows her own conscience? Mab assumes she's become a Christian when Ambrosia tells her to her face she no longer believes in "the old ways," but Ambrosia claims she "follows her own heart." However, she also invokes angels with a dying patient, something neither an atheist nor a Celtic pagan would believe in.

The Verdict

It's not enjoyable enough for the time it takes to watch, especially due to the nonsensical behavior of much of the cast. 6.0 out of 10. Don't bother.

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