They were the lament of the 80’s. Well – they were endemic enough that it became trendy to complain that they “were never as good as the original”. Which was, and still is (more or less) accurate. But not completely. And the phenomena has morphed these days into Franchise-ism, which is more World Building than straight up sequel-ing. (A loop-hole of lawyer-like proportions that any former president would die for right now).
But another side trend seems to be prequel-ing! From Game of Thrones, to Lord of The Rings to Star Wars, for some reason content creators seem to think we want to know what happened before “once upon a time” rather than after “happily ever after” when it comes to The Next Instalment. So with that in mind, we turn to Esther – or more specifically it’s re-worked title of Orphan: First Kill. A prequel to the 2009 movie, Orphan. And with it comes a highlighted picadillo all prequels face. The age-old problem of aging. (Double edged in a film that is about a fully grown woman, pretending to be 10, in a prequel made MANY YEARS AFTER its sequel).
Before we get into the mechanics of the review itself, it must be said this film seemed to fly under the radar of this reviewer and a lot of the Surgeon’s team of a similar age bracket. Before being told about this movie, I would have said I was vaguely aware of a young girl in pigtails on the poster and that’s about it. She was probably evil and does evil things to her adoptive family ‘cause you know… she’s an (evil) orphan… Probably Satan infused in flavour (judging by the artwork etc).
That’s because a story about a pale skinned girl with dark hair appearing at the end of a decade that had already produced The Ring, The Grudge and Silent Hill meant that there was probably a fair amount of “evil kid” action going on in this movie, and fatigue (for me at least) had well and truly set in. (Although in defence of Orphan, it did make a strong enough profit ratio – roughly 1 to 4 in fact – to justify some sort of new chapter).
Anyway. Orphan: First Kill explores the story that saw how Esther transitioned from Estonia to America – a plot hole from the first film that bugged a few people. Apparently. The solution the film makers came up with was inspired – in part – but the real-life adoption case of Natalia Grace, herself a 22-year-old posing as a 9-year-old in a caper that was inspired, in part, by the original Orphan film! (Google it – what an Ouroboros world we live in).
So straight off the bat young (sic) Esther tries to inject herself into the lives of a wealthy American family (the matriarch of which is played by Julia Styles. Good to see her back on the silver screen after getting killed In The Bourne Forgettable in a scene that we THINK was supposed to have some sort of emotional resonance…?) And Esther does so by claiming to be this family’s long lost 10-year-old daughter (the real one having gone missing 4 years before) and thus ensues the usual shenanigans of her pretending to be
something she isn’t. How? You may ask (if you don’t know…) Esther suffers from a genetic condition that roughly translates to “proportional dwarfism” meaning she can effectively play someone much younger than she actually is. Added to that, she has a healthy dose of psychopathy so killing in her own best interest/preservation is not a problem for her.
But here’s the thing. And indeed the problem with this type of film. This twist is not (or is no longer) a twist, because we, the audience, already know it. It’s what we here at Surgeons call The Zombie Paradox. For any storyteller trying to make a zombie TV show/movie, they have to contend with viewers who know what a zombie is, and the various associated rules in dealing with them. Which means straight off the bat the story is playing catch up with the watcher and not (as you would want) the other way round. But in the case of Orphan – the ENTIRE film hung off Esther’s strange, dangerous and Omen like behaviour. Is she the child of Satan? NO – she is really 33! Dun Dun Daaaah!
But if that wad is already shot, how do you go about making a prequel?
The only recourse the film-makers basically have is to make Esther the protagonist and not antagonist (d’uh as the working title of the film is “Esther”) but digging deeper into what that means; a balancing act is required. If hers is to be the journey we are on, we need to fear for her when she is threatened and break for her when she is hurt. But she is an unhinged murderer. Not even an anti-hero (like say Dexter is) as she doesn’t kill evil. She kills threats, innocent or otherwise. An exciting writing challenge. If you get it right. But even if you do, IS that keeping in the spirit of the first movie? (See Surgeons of Horror, OUR TOP TIPS ON WHAT MAKES A GOOD SEQUEL).
An additional problem – as was brought up at the beginning of this review when we were all so much younger – is how do we convincingly address the aging elephant in the room? Esther – as a character to be cast – can only really be played by an older woman who physically looks 10, but what are the chances of someone like that who exists, has the right look, and can also act? So you go the other way, and choose someone young who can act old. And since cinema is littered with precociously talented child actors since day dot, the route this film chose back in 2009 was sort of a no-brainer. Especially since the actor in question was the then 12-year-old and fiercely powerful Isabelle Fuhrman. But now we are in (not) the next decade, but the decade after that, and Fuhrman is 25 (just a few years off Esther’s real age) and while she herself still has a youthful exuberance about her (helped no doubt by the fact she is 5’3”…it’s so much harder to play young if you’re 6’2”) ONE look at her in close up it is clear she is no longer a child. So faced with this dilemma what do the film makers do? Why go all Hobbit style and shoot force perspective, CGI and use stand ins. And whilst this worked well for LOTR, that film was 20 + years ago. Our eye had yet to be trained to be CGI cynical like it is now, and force-perspective and other old skool filming tricks were so out of fashion, they were LIKE new! But now we are well aware of such deceits and quite frankly, they really show up. (A bit like when you watch Die Hard now and it is VERY noticeable that’s not Bruce Willis getting thrown through windows or being blown up by flaming helicopters, but his stunt double. We forgave SO MUCH pre-CGI…)
But in terms of Orphan First Kill, the most obvious moments are when we track behind Fuhrman’s body double in WS, and then we cut to her face as we track backwards in Tight MS. A 10-year-old comports themselves differently to an adult. Bones and limbs are in different proportions. Neck and shoulders…it’s all different. A child waddles, an adult walks. And Fuhrman’s face – no matter how many downward angles you employ, or indeed, apple boxes you put under the actors around her – is clearly not a child. And especially when you consider the first movie – where 12-year-old Fuhrman is unmistakably Esther from all angles and frame sizes – it is very conspicuous that the coverage and overall shooting style of First Kill is starkly different. And straight away that means the feel of this film is different.
But is it any good?
Well it must be said – there is a twist at about the halfway mark that isn’t the same kind of reveal that’s in the first movie, BUT it is good enough to make you go “nice one” and sit up for the rest of the film. BUT it also negates certain character behaviours and motivations in the first half, so it also comes across as a twist that is very forced. It also – as a standalone story – really lacks the emotional compression of the first movie. The acts and story beats of the first film does an excellent job of putting Vera Farmiga’s character (who’s journey we are on for that instalment) through the wringer. Helped – as mentioned – by the fact that we the audience just don’t know Esther’s full deal till the end of the story.
So First Kill definitely lacks such layers, and with the aforementioned difference in coverage, it doesn’t feel like it’s a close relation to the other film.
Although by no means awful, it’s not really worthy of its 2009 predecessor (post-ecessor?) because there is another 3rd difference that the film-makers seemly lost track of during the whole – how-do-we-make-this-story-&-Esther’s-look-work? – hullabaloo, and that is… it’s also not scary.
- Antony Yee