“A philosopher once asked, ‘Are we human because we gaze at the stars or do we gaze at them because we are human?’ Pointless, really… ‘Do the stars gaze back?’ Now that’s a question.”
And so begins Matthew Vaughn’s sophomore feature, 2007’s Stardust, wherein the director moves from the familiar gangster genre to the fairy tale fantasy (naturally). No longer will you find swearing Cockneys or sharply dressed drug dealers. This time, it’s all about decrepit witches and effeminate pirates. Yo ho ho and a cauldron of rum!
Stardust is an adaptation of a 1998 novel by British author Neil Gaiman, considered nothing short of royalty among science-fiction and fantasy fans. Vaughn explains in an interview on the Stardust making-of doc that he was attracted to the material because, “I found the book where I could make The Princess Bride meets Midnight Run.” He definitely succeeds with that genre collision, perhaps to his detriment (more on that later).
The story of Stardust centers around its protagonist, Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox), as he goes on a quest to find a fallen star to win the heart of a beautiful (but truly awful) girl in his village (Sienna Miller, a holdover from Layer Cake). He’s not the only one after the star, however. An aging witch (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs the star’s heart to retain her youth. Two royal brothers (Mark Strong and Jason Flemying) desire the jewel that’s around her neck so they can ascend to the family throne. And, if you’re at all confused by the gender designation attached to a celestial body, remember that it’s a fantasy tale. The fallen star is played by a lovely, pre-Homeland Claire Danes.
Given the packed-to-the-rafters plot, the narrative zips along at a breakneck pace. Once again, Vaughn excels at providing memorable visuals, including a crumbling Michelle Pfeiffer, an air-borne pirate ship, and a dead prince turned into a deadly marionette. Despite the film’s strong visuals, though, it’s easy to spot the weaknesses.
Charlie Cox (future Netflix Daredevil) isn’t nearly the actor that Daniel Craig was in Layer Cake. In a sprawling narrative such as Stardust, it’s necessary to have a protagonist that can anchor the material. Cox, despite his best attempts, doesn’t have the charisma to pull off such a feat.
It also must be said that the budget on Stardust is ten times that of Layer Cake. However, it certainly doesn’t feel ten times bigger. Vaughn seems to be a little lost in the digital effects and, consequently, he’s not able to put every cent of his budget on screen like he did with his debut feature.
In addition, the CGI in Stardust, now eight years old, doesn’t really hold up. Vaughn, a self-spoken critic of CGI, is a bit of an amateur at incorporating it into his film. It works when he uses it to stitch together practical scenes, like when the camera zooms across the fairy tale landscape to seamlessly connect a scene with Tristan and a scene with the dying king of Stormhold. However, it falls short when the CGI is isolated, such as a laughable effect depicting a miniature two-headed elephant or a regrettable sight gag involving a decapitated witch.
The biggest problem with the film, though, is the same thing that plagued Vaughn in Layer Cake. The tone is uneven throughout, an odd mixture of family fairy tale and dark, adult fantasy. It should’ve either been an R-rated Pan’s Labyrinth-style nightmare or a PG kid-friendly adventure. Put simply, Vaughn should’ve remembered the most important difference between The Princess Bride and Midnight Run: their audiences. When you combine the genres, you risk alienating both demographics.
However, with all this lambasting, don’t think for a second the movie’s a stinker. There are some truly shining elements, most notably the cast. Robert de Niro is truly impressive playing against type as the closeted Captain Shakespeare. Michelle Pfeiffer is probably the best part of the movie as a witch literally consumed by her vanity. Even character actors like Ricky Gervais and David Kelly show up in comic roles as, respectively, a shifty dealer of stolen goods and a geriatric guard skilled with a staff. Throughout the narrative, even in the prolonged climax, the film is intensely watchable, a credit that has to be given to Vaughn for pacing the movie incredibly well.
There’s also something to be said for Vaughn’s bravery at going outside his wheelhouse into unfamiliar territory. The further you venture into his filmography, it becomes clear that he doesn’t like to tackle the same material twice. He didn’t return to direct Kick-Ass 2 and he famously declined making X-Men: Days of Future Past because he wanted to make a comedic spy movie, the eagerly anticipated Kingsman: Secret Service (did I tell you guys how unbelievably excited I am for Kingsman?).
Overall, the mistakes Vaughn made on Stardust will prove instrumental to his future success. His sprawling fairy tale cast strengthened his ability to direct an ensemble. The somewhat lackluster digital effects in Stardust proved an important learning curve in using CGI as a method for enhancing the narrative rather than distracting from it. Most importantly, though, Stardust marks his first collaboration with Jane Goldman, a capable screenwriter he’ll work with on all his projects leading up to Kingsman.
Regarding Stardust’s release, Vaughn stated, “It’s not gonna change a life, it’s not gonna change the world, but it’s entertaining.” I definitely agree. Watch Stardust to see Vaughn’s masterful work at pacing a narrative, along with some memorable visuals. It’s weaknesses are pretty evident, but it’s fun to see a director learning the ropes to big-budget filmmaking.
In closing, it’s time to focus on Vaughn’s good luck charm, Mr. Jason Flemying. In Stardust, he plays the firstborn of the homicidal princes, Primus. I’ll leave you with the best Primus musing. Regarding his carriage while naked in a bathtub, “It’s the largest in all of Stormhold…so they say.”