Part supernatural murder mystery, part romantic drama, part coming of age story, The 9th Life of Louis Drax arrives as the country is swept up in Stranger Things fever, with the two sharing similar Spielbergian traits. Liz Jensen's novel was famous among Hollywood circles for years, once having been shepherded by the adaptation maestro Anthony Minghella. Since his passing it was son Max Minghella who took over the screenwriting reins, with Alexandre Aja, fresh off another offbeat supernatural offering in Horns, stepping behind the camera. Aja promptly mangled Joe Hill's quirky horror novel that time, and those hoping he'd find redemption here will be disappointed at what he's done to Jensen's complicated but endearing narrative.
Jensen used the story of 9-year-old Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) to look at deeply flawed, morally conflicted characters and fractured psyches. Even the boy narrator, who is stuck in a coma, is something of an unreliable storyteller. Louis is an unusual, highly intelligent boy who for good reason believes he will die an early death. He's miraculously survived eight near-fatal accidents already, but it's the ninth that probably should have gotten him. Somehow he managed to live through a fall from a cliff while picnicking with his estranged parents, Natalie (Sarah Gadon) and Peter (Aaron Paul), the latter disappearing in the incident as well.
This has made Peter the likely suspect in Louis' attempted murder, but the mystery surrounding his whereabouts isn't where the story's concern lies. That would instead be with Dr. Allan Pascal (Jamie Dornan), the doctor running some unusual experiments to try and wake Louis up from his coma. These experiments would include cheating on his wife with Louis' mother, and having conversations with a mysterious creature tied to the boy's magical resiliency. Deception is the key, but none of these characters are interesting enough for us to care if they are being straight with one another. Questions surface regarding Natalie's role in Louis' accident due to her flirtations with Allan. Meanwhile, the self-important doctor seems all too willing to commit professional and personal malpractice. Even Louis is in conflict with what he knows to be true and what he's willing to accept about the people who love him most. Even as a child going through something quite extraordinary, Louis is still a child first and one of the few things the film gets right is showing his perspective.
The sub-Grey's Anatomy hospital romance isn't nearly as intriguing as the vivid landscape seen in Louis' still active mind. Done in gothic tones evoking the style of Guillermo Del Toro, the fantasy elements are a welcome respite from the sluggish "whodunnit" and passionless affairs of the adults in Louis' life. Unlike Del Toro, Aja is never capable of drawing an emotional connection between the surreal and Louis' reality, leaving them pretty but ultimately empty.
Dornan, coming off a wooden performance in Fifty Shades of Grey, is stiff and emotionless here as well. The same goes for Gadon who has repeatedly had this problem, although it seemed she had turned a corner after she was so good in Indignation. Only Paul seems comfortable with the material, offering a heartbreaking and sensitive portrayal, but it may be that he's absent from most of the film's awkward tonal shifts. The 9th Life of Louis Drax had potential to be so much more, but the wondrous story at its core is populated with dull and, ironically, lifeless characters.
Rating: 2 out of 5