eyelights: its phenomenal music. its touching story. its awe-inspiring fantasy world.
eyesores: its performances. its CGI. its green-screening. its lackluster production.
“You used to play so beautifully Tom. You had a song for every little thing in your life.”
‘Imaginaerum’ is the title of Finland symphonic metal band Nightwish’s seventh studio album. A concept album, it tells of an aged composer revisiting his youth on his death bed. It’s not their most epic, but it’s their most musically ambitious, blending a variety of musical genres with their signature sound.
I’m a huge fan.
So when I heard that they were also busy producing a feature-length motion picture based on the album, I was immediately intrigued; I was very curious to see how they would translate and marry their music to the moving images, especially since their style had recently taken on a Tim Burton-esque quality.
It had the potential for greatness.
It also had the potential for grand disappointment.
The film, which was released nearly one year to the day after the album conquered the charts around the world, is a Finnish-Canadian co-production directed by Stobe Harju, a Finn music video director. He also co-authored the screenplay, based on a story that he and Nightwish ringleader Tuomas Holopainen wrote.
It goes into Tom Whitman’s comatose mind as he journeys through fantasy worlds shaped by vestiges of his memories, trying to escape it and reawaken. Meanwhile, his adult daughter, resentful for being second to her father’s career, revisits her relationship with him as she contemplates pulling the plug.
‘Imaginaerum’ is a fantastical tale of redemption and reconnection. Though its imaginary landscapes would likely be compelling, its themes are perhaps a bit mature for children. However, it’s perfect for adult audiences who have a playful, artistic bent, blending complex real world issues with a visual flair.
Personally, I was very touched by the drama that was unfolding inside and outside Thomas’ dreamscapes. I half-imagined that Holopainen was taking inspiration from his own life, being himself a composer and bandleader. So the idea that he regretted all that he couldn’t give his daughter had a true ring to it.
In my mind, a parent’s regrets for their children must run deep.
But having to make the decision to take anyone off of life support has got to be an equally dramatic moment; there’s finality in that action, so one must be confident it’s the correct thing to do or face regret for the rest one’s years. That Gem is reliving her childhood in Thomas’ absence adds weight to it.
Unfortunately, the performances didn’t support the material. Themes like these would have required subtlety in order to connect with the audience emotionally, but many of the performances were broad, cheapening the moments. The cause could easily be a Finnish director working with non-Finnish actors.
The casting was terrific, however: in particular, the choice of actors to play Tom at 12, 45 and 70 was excellent because it was easy to believe that one was an older version of the other. The same could be said for Gem and Ann, in fact. That was impressive because even Hollywood doesn’t do this well.
Director Harju did as best as he could with the material and budget in his debut, but this is very much the product of a music video director, filled with lots of quick cuts. Unfortunately, the storytelling and characterization were a bit weak – it took a while to understand the characters’ relationships to one another.
The visuals, however, adequately emulated Tim Burton’s signature style. But with a production budget of less than 4 million dollars, there’s only so much that could be done. For instance, young Toms’ opening voyage with the snowman should have been filled with wonder, but it felt a bit cheap, done with low-grade CGI.
Part of the problem with the picture is that most of the performances were shot in front of green screens, with the sets added in later with CGI. On top of being an acting challenge, it means that the characters never look like they’re in tangible, realistic places; they look like they’re stuck in a video game.
Thankfully, the music is ridiculously great. Married with the images, it took an epic, fantastical quality that was only hinted at on the album. This is the handiwork not just of Nightwish themselves, but also of Petri Alanko, the composer who was charged with adapting their music into an orchestral score.
It’s brilliant stuff, honestly; I bought the score and have been playing it endlessly since.
Of course, the same could be said for Nightwish’s original studio album.
Fans will be pleased to know that the band shows up in two numbers, for “Slow, Love, Slow” in a jazzy cabaret-style number, and “Scaretale”, in a sinister circus setting. Holopainen also plays the middle-aged Tom and Annette is given a doppelgänger in Ann, Tom’s band’s singer, and Gem’s voice of reason.
So, ultimately, though ‘Imaginaerum’ doesn’t quite live up to its wild ambitions, it remains a treat for fans of Nightwish, who are given a grandiose treatment of an album that they adore. Whether non-fans appreciate it is another matter, given the half-baked quality of the storytelling and visual effects.
Personally, I think that it’s an excellent debut when all is considered. On paper, it’s a terrific idea. And it’s abundantly clear how much the band invested of themselves in it. Its shortcomings are mostly the product of that age-old plague: money – it would have required at least ten times the budget to succeed.
Still, it’s a very solid effort. And you can always let your imagination fill the gaps.
Nota bene: the rating is not a typo. The fan in me wants to give it a 7.0, but I recognize that it doesn’t quite deserve it. Yet it deserves more than a 6.75 – there’s lots of talent and imagination invested in this picture. So I’m giving it a rating just short of 7.0, simply to acknowledge the effort involved.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2017