Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 17, 2007)
More than 20 years ago, the first film to feature Hannibal Lecter hit screens. 1986’s Manhunter only used Lecter in a small part, though, which meant we got our biggest bite of the serial killer with 1991’s classic The Silence of the Lambs. That movie’s enormous success eventually spawned a sequel, though it took 10 years for 2001’s Hannibal to come to fruition.
That flick wasn’t very good, but its $165 million gross indicated continued interest in the character. Another Lecter outing came via 2002’s Red Dragon. Actually a remake of Manhunter, Dragon worked better as a film than did the crummy Hannibal, but its grosses weren’t as good. Dragon made a mediocre $92 million, a figure that didn’t do much to encourage another flick.
But one came out anyway! 2007 saw the release of Hannibal Rising, a prequel that told us how the boy became a monster. Set in Lithuania circa 1944, we meet Hannibal as a little kid (Aaran Thomas). He pals around with his beloved sister Mischa (Helena-Lia Tachovska) until World War II intervenes too much and the Lecter family must flee their castle. They take refuge at a rural cabin, but problems soon develop.
First a battle claims the lives of the Lecter parents (Richard Leaf and Ingeborga Dapkunaite), an event that leaves Hannibal and Mischa to fend for themselves. Matters get worse when local lowlifes led by Grutas (Rhys Ifans) flee the oncoming Russians and take refuge in the Lecter lair. As the food supply dwindles, they become desperate – and decide to gnaw on a little Mischa.
From there the movie jumps ahead eight years and shows us Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) as a teen orphan – in a Soviet-run facility that just happens to be housed in the old Lecter castle. He remains traumatized by the earlier events and refuses to speak, though he screams during his many nightmares.
Before long, Hannibal escapes and makes it out of Soviet territory. He winds up in France, where he seeks Lady Murasaki (Gong Li), his uncle’s widow. She takes him under her wing and educates him in many different disciplines.
All of this serves Hannibal as he matures. The brilliant young man does well in medical school but he maintains other preoccupations as well. Revenge remains on his mind, as he desires to get back at those who chowed on his baby sister. The movie follows this path and related events in Hannibal’s life.
Sometimes when you pay to see a movie, you regret it afterward because you fear that your money may encourage the studio to greenlight another in the series. That’s how I felt when I left a theatrical screening of Rising. Dear God, please prevent those involved from authorizing another Lecter flick, as I don’t think I can stomach another effort as atrocious as this one.
Due to the savage reviews that greeted it, I went into Rising with low expectations. Indeed, if my date hadn’t wanted to see it, I’d not have been there at all. Amazingly, Rising showed that my expectations weren’t nearly low enough, as it excelled only in its inanity and idiocy.
Few films in recent memory left me quite as disappointed as Rising. No, I didn’t expect much from it, but that fact that the Lecter character had – and still has – so much potential meant that Rising itself was a dreadful letdown. How could those behind it take such a fascinating character and make his origins so dull and pedestrian?
Actually, as you watch Rising, you may wonder if you’re screening a remake of 2005’s Batman Begins. Rising usually feels more like a superhero origin story than the tale of a budding psychopath, and that orientation never makes much sense. Of course, if Rising managed to become half as good as Begins, I might forgive this odd trend, but since the Dark Knight’s genesis flick was roughly 100 times superior, the comparisons turned more problematic.
In Lecter as originally depicted, we found a character who fascinated us on a mix of levels. Li’l Lecter here, however, is nothing more than a leering dud. Ulliel bears no apparent resemblance to Anthony Hopkins, though he does look a spooky amount like the Joker in the comic books. He has such a narrow face and a creepy grin that he becomes a dead-on doppelganger for Batman’s nemesis.
Indeed, he’d be perfect for that role if he could act, which I assume he cannot based on the evidence in front of me. Oh heck, for all I know the kid might actually be talented, but Rising doesn’t lead me to believe so. He leers a lot and shows little personality otherwise. It’s a one-dimensional performance for a one-dimensional character.
Occasionally Rising attempts to elicit more depth, though it comes across as hamfisted in that regard. I doubt few will miss the ways that the film attempts to parallel the “origin stories” of Lecter and Clarice Starling. As learned in Lambs, she essentially became a federal agent to help others and silence the screaming lambs in her head. In Rising, Lecter kills to eradicate the nightmares about his poor little eaten-up sister. Ugh!
All of this means a story that could have offered a fascinating glimpse of a young nutbag turns into a simple vigilante revenge story. What purpose does the Lady Murasaki character serve? Little that I can establish other than to be his mentor for physical training. Indeed, most of the story really doesn’t make much sense.
If any of this ever became remotely interesting, I’d tolerate the excesses and stupidity. Unfortunately, Hannibal Rising is as dull as could be. Who knew that a story of eaten children and budding serial killers could be the cinematic equivalent of Sominex? Here’s hoping Rising kills the Lecter franchise.