Dec 20, 2006 at 12:00 am

Hey, here's an idea: If you're adapting a novel written by a 15-year-old boy into a $100 million movie, why not hire four screenwriters who don't write much better than a 15-year-old boy?

When Christopher Paolini's dragon-riding fantasy novel, Eragon, became a best seller, you could rationalize its success as the enthusiasm of teenagers ignorant of the concept of plagiarism. Derivative, stilted and devoid of wit and originality, the story was little more than Star Wars dropped into Tolkein's Middle Earth. The book's greatest virtue was Paolini's boundless passion for dragon flight and the authenticity of his teen protagonist's voice.

His plot — and stop me if you've heard something like this before — goes like this: a poor young farm boy named Eragon (Edward Speleers) stumbles across a blue stone in the woods. To his wonder and amazement it hatches a magical blue dragon (with the voice of Rachel Weisz).

Meanwhile, a dark lord (John Malkovich), sensing the egg's new owner, sends a demonic sorcerer (Robert Carlyle) and his evil minions to find the boy. In their search they kill Eragon's beloved uncle, causing the boy to seek out an old hermit (Jeremy Irons) — who turns out to be the last member of an ancient order able to wield powerful magic. Together, mentor and student struggle to reach a group of fierce rebels and aid them in their fight against the wicked king's armies. Along the way Eragon rescues a warrior princess (Sienna Guillory) and attracts the help of a mysteriously cloaked fighter (Garrett Hedlund).

Eragon features plenty of faux-Celtic names, rousing orchestral themes and sweeping helicopter shots, but nary a moment of drama, grandeur or suspense. The four screenwriters credited with penning this laughable mess should have their guild cards revoked. The dialogue is wooden and endlessly expository, the characters are agonizingly clichéd and the plotting is unforgivably sloppy. At one point, Saphira the dragon literally (and inexplicably) ages from toddler to young adult in a single flight. The story is so poorly plotted that its heroes arrive to defend rebels we've only just met mere moments before the film's climactic final battle.

First-time director Stefen Fangmeier is equally unimpressive, unable to establish a credible fantasy world and instead relying on generic woodland and mountain settings. Worse, his fight scenes are lackluster and difficult to follow. Only the computer-generated effects rise to the level of the film's budget — Saphira is magnificently realistic and the supernatural adversaries are effectively creepy. Small surprise given Fangmeier's previous job was supervising visual effects for movies like Lemony Snicket and The Perfect Storm.

As far as the cast, newcomer Speleers is appropriately earnest or petulant as the script demands. Irons, Carlyle and Malkovich earn points for maintaining a straight face as they mouth lifeless dialogue.

Where other filmmakers might look at Paolini's lack of originality as license to forge something a little more unique, Eragon's filmmakers revel in its worst clichés. The film actually emphasizes that it's been haphazardly carved from a novel that was a carved from several better novels. Which won't make a lick of difference to the 10-year-old boys lining up to see Eragon; they'll love every hackneyed moment because it's exactly the story they'd have written themselves.

For the rest of us, Eragon's earliest moments — somewhere between the first and second recounting of dragon rider history — sum up the experience. Upon learning that his magical stone has been stolen, evil King Galbatorix commands his henchman Durza to "End my suffering." Indeed, if we were all that lucky.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].