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Plans for a screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated DC/Vertigo graphic novel series The Sandman have been around for almost as long as the three-decades-old title itself. Following numerous starts and stops, Netflix has finally delivered with The Sandman, a 10-part venture (Aug. 5) starring Tom Sturridge as the title character, who’s also known as Dream (or Morpheus) and is one of the seven Endless, a family of god-like metaphysical elements who’ve assumed human form à la Gaiman’s American Gods and Good Omens. Dream’s saga is a sprawling one that spans the ages and grapples with issues of destiny, hope, ambition, and purpose. In its first season, though, it’s weighed down by helter-skelter storytelling that borders on the aimless—and, consequently, renders it a snooze.
Created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, The Sandman opens as its source material does, with Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), an occultist who likes to be called Magus, using a magic ritual to conjure Death so that he might resurrect the son who died on the battlefields of Gallipoli. By accident, however, this ceremonial invocation instead summons Dream at the very moment he was about to fell The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a nightmare who abandoned Dream’s Dreaming realm for a life in the mortal world, where he’s fond of murdering people and cutting out their eyes. Dream becomes the prisoner of Roderick and, later, his son Alex, spending the better part of 100 years trapped in a fancy glass case in an English manor’s expansive basement. During this entire century, Dream is nude and says nothing, biding his time for the moment when he might finally achieve liberation and, ostensibly, wreak vengeance on his captors.
With a swirling mop of black hair atop his head, his skin as pale as moonlight and his frame as lithe as a specter, Sturridge cuts a faithfully striking figure as Dream, and with a little post-production sonic enhancement, his voice has a deep, echoing quality to it that nicely fits the protagonist. Unfortunately, he’s largely envisioned as an aloof bore. Upon finally escaping confinement, Dream discovers that his realm is in shambles due to his absence and neglect, and he embarks on a quest to recover the three tools that grant him his power. Those include a ruby, a pouch of sand, and a giant gas mask with a prolonged spine-ish tube that he dubs his Helm. Yet despite indulging in great gobs of exposition, The Sandman doesn’t lucidly explain the precise nature of these objects’ significance, which is in keeping with a narrative that feels like it’s missing vital connective tissue and, therefore, is aimed at fans who already know the details that fill in these gaps.
The first stop on Dream’s adventure is a village populated by Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry), who are trapped in an endless murderous cycle along with their pet gargoyle, whom Dream needs for its essence. As in the graphic novels, the biblical and the historical are blended into the action proper, which soon involves Dream having encounters with Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), a female variation on the exorcism-loving demon slayer, as well as Hell’s ruler Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie) and Roderick’s son John Dee (David Thewlis), whose stolen goods-brokering mother Ethel (Joely Richardson) once possessed Dream’s tools. John is an inmate in a psychiatric ward courtesy of past crimes that are only briefly mentioned and, via additional leaden conversations, it’s revealed that he still has Dream’s ruby. How he can wield such a weapon, or have modified it to serve his own aims, is never suitably explicated, nor is the reason why John is so wildly hung up on remaking the world by eliminating the human urge for deception.
In what amounts to a stand-alone episode, John uses a diner as his laboratory and its inhabitants as his guinea pigs for a grand experiment involving unvarnished truth-telling. The ensuing revelations are drearily lackluster and made all the more tedious by the fact that we barely know John or care about his deranged intentions. The Sandman works overtime crafting the mood of morose goth brooding that made Gaiman’s original such a 1990s sensation, full of endless darkness punctuated by glowing orange-yellow lights, medieval architecture embellished with CGI wispiness, and fish-eye lens cinematography that stretches and morphs everything in the frame. Aesthetically, it’s all romanticized digital doom and gloom, neither tangible enough to make a forceful impact nor ethereal enough to enchant.
The Sandman becomes more episodic as its first season progresses, such that its guiding through-line proves to be Dream’s attempt to attain greater understanding of himself and humanity, all while simultaneously ruminating on dreams and stories’ fundamental role in existence. Such notions may be loftier than those found in your typical genre effort, but Gaiman, Goyer and Heinberg fail to bring them to magical life. For the most part, the series is inert thanks in no small part to Dream himself, a detached quasi-deity whom Sturridge embodies as a passive, solemn observer. There’s no overarching urgency or sense of dramatic stakes to these glum proceedings, and worse still, there’s a severe lack of engaging personality; try as Sturridge might, Dream is a dull shadow of a character, fit more for posing than for seizing and maintaining one’s attention.
On the basis of its first six episodes, The Sandman is an alienating endeavor that hopscotches between storylines culled from various Gaiman graphic-novel collections in a vain search for direction. Devoted acolytes may view its scattered vignettes as smaller pieces of a grand puzzle, yet everyone else is apt to be as confused as they are captivated. A dark fantasy that gets lost in the murk, The Sandman introduces elements in such random fashion that it rarely feels like there’s something riding on Dream’s success or failure, regardless of the hero’s repeated talk about his mission’s importance. If, nestled within Netflix’s latest, there’s a beguiling tale about our reveries—those we experience while slumbering, and those we tell ourselves through waking fiction—it’s buried too deep to cast a memorable spell.