It begins in nightmare and ends in a labyrinth, a shape right out of Borges. Along the way, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth filmed installment of J.K. Rowling’s still-unfolding boy-wizard saga, pulls out all the stops, relentlessly spinning adolescent terrors into metaphor: whiplash teleportation, dragons and disguises, octopoid nasties, screaming golden eggs, and a clammy-palmed interlude of ballroom dancing. Like a dream, it’s everywhere and nowhere, by turns scarily intense and scattered. It yearns for forbidden space, delivering an underwater dumb show, a roof-clinging melee, a graveside revelation. If the entire Potter enterprise is a cash cow, at least it’s one with two heads and three or four tails. To this viewer and reader, the decade-old juggernaut is as deeply felt as it is flawed, dense and illogical and laudably weird.
By this point, surely, you’re either in or you’re out: Those who haven’t kept up with the Potteriad shouldn’t take their first sip at the Goblet. Given the sheer cumulative density of plot points and players, Number Four sometimes only has time (even at nearly two and a half hours) to allude to past actions and characterizations. Even Harry’s hotly anticipated nascent love interest, Cho Chang (Katie Leung, sporting a killer Scottish accent), gets shunted to the wings. Things frequently move too fast—who are the Death Eaters, again?—even for the initiated. But as far as backstory goes, the only one that matters is Harry’s, repeatedly (if not always clearly) referenced here: the death of his parents at the hands of Lord Voldemort, an attack that the infant Harry mystifyingly survived. The series’ obsession with this primal wound, which started out as a mainline to everyone’s deep-seated dread of orphanhood, here reaches its delirious, histrionic peak.
Goblet‘s setup isn’t particularly inspired. Contingents from two wizardry schools—an Eastern European manly-man academy and a French girls’ seminary—visit Hogwarts for the Triwizard Tournament, revived after a century of neglect. The eponymous vessel (a cover version of the sorting hat in Sorcerer’s Stone) spits forth the name of one upperclassperson from each school—and for some reason taps the underage Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) as well. The contest is borderline sadistic, less a test of imagination than grit, at one point recalling the hold-your-breath torture sessions of Fear Factor, if not the Saw franchise.
It’s hard to believe that any educational program outside the Navy SEALs would condone (let alone enshrine) such a brutal tradition. Still, as we settle into the framework, it becomes clear how the tourney’s structured violence mirrors the ferocious energies coursing through Goblet‘s subterranean storyline, which focuses on the advent of Voldemort, a/k/a He Who Must Not Be Named, a/a/k/a You Know Who. (At the very least, this triathlon beats having to watch another inning of Quidditch.)
Unlike the lapidary events of Middle-earth (or Narnia), Rowling’s imaginings as yet have no end. The relatively quick book-to-film transfer, and the growing length and looser structures of her tomes, mean that despite all the filters of publishing and producing, what we’re getting has a strange, ineradicable rawness. As Harry, Radcliffe is a touch less petulant than previously, but he’s still not quite likable, a half-contained id itching for a fight, with I suppose the superego and ego roles filled by his more accessible buds, Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint, sporting Jagger-esque ‘do). And though Ralph Fiennes’s suitably creepy Voldemort has no nose, the whole savage mess still smells like teen spirit.