After enjoying Guy Ritchie's take on Sherlock Holmes I had high hopes for this new King Arthur film. The last attempt to do the Arthurian legend on screen was 2004's "King Arthur" starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley and it could hardly be described as a roaring success, so there was plenty of room for improvement. The trailer looked exciting and this film certainly goes out of its way to entertain. Whereas the last "King Arthur" took the route of realism, weaving a semi-historical account with a Roman occupation and Picts, this time around it is firmly rooted in the fantastical. The opening sequence sees a giant elephant rampaging around and we are straight into a Dungeons and Dragons version of Britain with magic and mythical creatures.
We begin with the assault on Camelot by Mordred, a powerful mage, who is attempting to usurp the throne from Uther Pendragon. After defeating Mordred Uther is betrayed by Vortigan. However, Uther's son Arthur escapes. Many years later Arthur arrives back at Camelot and pulls his father's sword Excalibur from the stone at the bed of a recently drained lake. This confirms him as the true king and sets up our central conflict with the evil Vortigern. Arthur is joined on his quest by several companions, including Sir Bedevere.
To begin with the positives the film has some great design work, costumes, sets and creatures all look great. It is clearly not intended to be historically accurate and from the opening scene they establish the fantasy setting. Personally I liked this change. There are elements of the Arthurian legend such as the lady in the lake, Merlin, the sword in the stone, that suit a fantasy rather than historical drama and I appreciate the intent to make an exciting world first and foremost. However, good intentions or no the film has a number of serious flaws.
Mainly these revolve around script and editing. The story as described above is pretty much all there is to it. There are very few plot twists. Essentially Arthur has to fight Vortigen to gain his rightful throne. It is just a fairly dull story. Compared to something like the "Lord of the Rings", or Ridley Scott's historical films, it is simple to the point where you can almost foresee every step of the journey. In those films there are interwoven sub-plots. While there is more going on here, it is all so inconsequential or uninteresting as to not be worth mentioning. One example is Vortigern who gains power by killing a loved one and feeding them to an octopus creature beneath the castle. This is somewhat interesting, but we don't really get enough of Vortigern's story, other than that he lusts for power, to understand why he is doing it. Similarly, there is a mage whose people have been extirpated who might have a story to tell but this is likewise merely nodded at vaguely. The script attempts humour but fails miserably. The characters are basically the same mockney geezers from earlier Guy Ritchie films simply transplanted into a different setting. None of the characters evoke any sympathy from the audience and at times Arthur comes across as arrogant and unlikeable completely destroying the sole purpose for the film which is to set him up as a hero.
The editing is distracting. While it worked for Ritchie's gangster films and even for Sherlock Holmes with his preternatural deduction abilities, it is out of place in a historic fantasy to have so many quick cuts, comedic edits, or weird effects such as rewinding scenes. The other fatal flaw in editing as far as your investment with the film is the overuse and misuse of flash-forwards. In particular the Shadow Island trials. These are shown in such a way that if you are consider the film in a usual way they almost don't happen. It is disorientating and seems as though the director doesn't understand the medium of film. Basically we never “see” Arthur doing these things, only him talking about doing them and then cut to after he has completed the trial. This continues to the very end where we have another two scenes spliced together in a way that doesn't make clear which is happening first or second.
A ridiculous fantasy full of video-game logic, horrible editing and script and no empathetic characters. Some fun ideas and effects but a real struggle to enjoy the long stretches of tedium between the action set-pieces.