Hannibal flick fails to ‘Silence’ questions about Lecter’s past

It’s been 16 years since Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter first graced the silver screen in “Silence of the Lambs” (1991). The world watched in awe, captivated by Hannibal the Cannibal’s intensity and charisma. “Oh, right, he’s evil,” audiences had to remind themselves.

With “Hannibal Rising,” however, there is never a doubt that Hannibal is a cruel, sadistic monster. Instead of answering the complex question of how Hannibal became Hannibal, director Peter Webber and novelist Thomas Harris made a sub-par horror flick and tried to pass it off as a prequel to the Hannibal Trilogy.

Thus far, the Hannibal movies have centered on FBI Agents Clarice Starling (“Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal,” (2001)) and Will Graham (“Red Dragon,” (2002)), who use Dr. Hannibal Lecter as a resource in solving baffling serial murders. As Lecter was imprisoned for serial killings himself, his expertise is unparalleled. Although he is clearly not a “good guy,” Lecter is not the evil figure some would have you believe.

Fans of the first three films (four, if you count “Manhunter” (1986), starring Brian Cox as the infamous cannibal) go into “Hannibal Rising” with the expectation of a thorough analysis of Lecter’s psyche. Nothing less can fully explain the intricate workings of his criminal genius. The viewer expects a privileged childhood, a thirst for knowledge and a penchant for sophistication.

Immediately it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t make this movie for the fans, or even for the Lecter neophytes. The entire film is an insult, force-feeding the viewer the story of some crazy guy who eats people, but who can’t feasibly end up as the same Hannibal Lecter who audiences know and love.

Young Lecter (Gaspard Ulliel) starts off as a rich Lithuanian boy whose parents die in the crossfire of Hitler’s Eastern Campaign. His sister is then brutally killed by a band of thugs (led by Rhys Ifans), an event which apparently explains Lecter’s violent tendencies in the rest of the film and beyond.

He later shacks up with his Japanese aunt-by-marriage (Gong Li), whose spiritual beliefs lead him to believe killing is not such a taboo after all. Throw in Lecter’s desire for revenge and a detective (Dominic West) hot on his trail, and a bloody mess is bound to ensue.

Now, one would think that this film would be the best of the bunch, if only because it’s the first time Harris, author of the Hannibal books, penned the screenplay himself. Unfortunately, it’s only one in a string of anomalies that makes the movie so much worse.

First, the focus of the film in “Hannibal Rising” is also a departure from earlier material. Perhaps there’s a reason why Hopkins’ 16-minute original performance was so lauded; discovering Lecter’s past first-hand ruins the ride. The viewer learns less about Lecter through his private dealings and internal musings than through his interactions with Agents Starling and Graham. Such heroic foils are conveniently missing from “Rising.”

The most probable cause of the film’s failure, regrettably, is the lack of Anthony Hopkins. While Ulliel has all the makings of a good actor, he falls short of everything the audience has come to love about and fear from Hannibal. Truth be told, the success of the previous films is more a result of Hopkins than Harris, proven by the forgettable “Manhunter.”

If “Rising” had been a separate piece, unrelated to Hannibal Lecter, it could have scraped by with some commendation. Instead, the filmmakers pretend they’ve created the younger incarnation of Lecter and expect the viewer to pretend right along with them.

For all of its extraneous characters, subplots and scenes, “Rising” offers little in the way of character development. Someone clearly forgot that, as a prequel, the younger Lecter has to resemble the Lecter that fans of the franchise have come to know and fear.

Where does his anger go? Where does his wit and brilliance come from? Where does he learn to cook his favorite, albeit odd, delicacies? After two hours of blood-soaked celluloid, the viewers are no closer to understanding the evolution of Hannibal Lecter than when they first entered the cinema.