The At the Mountains of Madness Movie that Wasn’t
That title refers to Guillermo del Toro’s proposed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few weeks, you’re probably aware that del Toro’s $150 million 3-D extravaganza was supposed to start filming in June, with Tom Cruise headlining and James Cameron producing. But then Universal reportedly balked at the proposed R-rating and del Toro walked, effectively killing the project.
Genre wags, it seems, have taken the demise of del Toro’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS as a tragedy of Lovecraftian proportions. From the movie blogs: “The dream is dead”…“We’re all truly screwed”…“One of the more disappointing moments in recent film news”…“Say goodbye to grownup horror movies”…“What “Madness” is this?”
I have a different view on the matter: I say good riddance! Sorry, but the film just never sounded too promising to me. As an admirer of Guillermo del Toro’s films (the good ones, that is), I can appreciate the considerable effort he put into this, his self-proclaimed “passion project,” but found it suspect in quite a few areas.
Let’s start with the screenplay, credited to del Toro and Matthew Robbins. According to an online review of an early draft, the script “feels like a HELLBOY movie without Hellboy, with a light dose of Carpenter’s THE THING.” As for Lovecraft’s text, it’s apparently “used here as a starting point for a non-plus-ultra in monster-exaggeration with very little subtlety preserved…if you’re not too happy with the idea of turning Lovecraft’s far more complex (and scary!) novel into a rollercoaster monster romp, well, tough luck.”
I don’t know about you, but the above doesn’t sound too promising to me. Turning a Lovecraft yarn into a special effects spectacle can occasionally result in a good movie (see Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraft pastiches RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND), but that’s not usually the case (see the rest of Mr. Gordon’s Lovecraft adaptations, along with DIE, MONSTER, DIE, THE DUNWICH HORROR, THE CURSE, etc).
To be fair, I haven’t actually read the abovementioned screenplay, which I understand has gone through several subsequent drafts (to hear from one who has read the script and its subsequent incarnations, and liked them a great deal, see here). It’s quite possible that del Toro may have ironed out the script’s deficiencies in succeeding drafts, or that the review quoted above may have missed the mark.
But even if those things are true, there are del Toro’s own none-too-encouraging remarks on the project to take into account. He’s spoken an awful lot about design and special effects--a recent New Yorker article on the production focuses almost entirely on the creature design--and very little about things like plot and characterization. It seems he’s made an all-too common Hollywood mistake in emphasizing spectacle over drama, and after decades of empty-headed special effects extravaganzas I’m unconvinced we need yet another.
Of course, Lovecraft’s original novel contains little in the way of characterization or narrative drive, which brings us to the most daunting obstacle facing del Toro’s--or anyone’s--AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS: the material simply isn’t movie-friendly.
The novel (written in 1931 and serialized in ‘36) concerns a scientific expedition to Antarctica. There reside the mummified remnants of an alien civilization that, as elucidated in Lovecraft’s famed “Cthulhu Mythos” cycle of stories and novels, once ruled the Earth. The chilly Antarctic setting is an eerily compelling one packed with freakishly arresting imagery, but the tale has little in the way of action or suspense, essentially consisting of a minutely described exploration of an otherworldly landscape (not unlike the early scenes of ALIEN stretched to novel length).
Obviously the above isn’t ideal material for a big budget Hollywood adaptation, and nor am I convinced that an FX-heavy makeover is a good idea. Guillermo del Toro’s AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, in any event, is now apparently dead, and in my view that’s not such a terrible thing.