Nicholas Sparks is certainly a best-selling author, but more importantly, he's also become something of a one-man production house (working along the same lines as, say, a '90s John Grisham), where it seems every book Sparks has ever published – or will soon be publishing – will wind up becoming that latest Valentine's Day date movie that will undoubtedly be compared to Sparks' 'The Notebook.'
The problem with this approach – from a creative point of view, because, financially speaking, these films seem to be doing just fine – is that, inevitably, it begins to feel like Mr. Sparks (and whoever else is collaborating with him on these projects) is just pushing out the same product over and over again with subtle variations on the same boy-meets-girl-and-one-of-them-dies-or-is-stricken-with-disease theme..
This time, it's the adaptation of 'Safe Haven,' which brings the Josh Duhamel from 'Transformers' and the Julianne Hough from 'Dancing With the Stars' and 'Rock of Ages' together to remind those looking for a breezy, paint-by-numbers romance that there'll always be a seat waiting for them and their patronage at the Cineplex is greatly appreciated.
The largest issue pertaining to these films, and, simultaneously, the reason they're popular enough to continue making, is that they're completely riddled with romantic clichés and simply dripping with genre tropes. They're comfortable and familiar, and even though each film changes up the setting and the circumstances a bit, the newest iteration doesn't really differ that much from the one before. It's a symbiotic relationship in which Sparks and his filmmaker of choice (this time he's reunited with 'Dear John' director, Lasse Hallström) commit to fulfilling the unvarying expectations of the viewer, while the viewer purchases tickets, soundtracks, Blu-ray, etc.
It's not too terribly different from any other creator/audience relationship, but after consistently churning out films with minor alterations on the same theme, they begin to feel less like the expressions of a writer, a filmmaker or an artist, and more like manufactured goods. That's not to say all films must be challenging, or that breaking the mold is a required for every novelist, screenwriter or filmmaker out there, but, conversely, it can be disheartening seeing films that so blatantly appear to be product spun off an assembly line, to be consumed and then simply forgotten about.
Here, Hallström and Sparks work with the woman-on-the-run theme, sending Hough's character, Katie, off on a bus one late night, dodging David 'The Cape' Lyons' Det. Tierney, as he attempts to prevent her escape. Katie eventually winds up in a sleepy little beachside town where she can begin anew – i.e., get a job as waitress, rent a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere, befriend a nosey, but nice neighbor lady named Jo (played by Cobie Smulders of 'How I Met Your Mother' and 'The Avengers') and eventually begin a romance with Alex, the hunky widower/proprietor of the only store in town, who also happens to be the father of two adorable moppets named Lexie and Josh.
Although 'Safe Haven' works as hard as it can to sell the viewer on the notion that Katie may be running from the law – she hides behind an espresso machine when the local law enforcement stops by her job – it quickly becomes clear she's just running from an unpleasant, and abusive situation – Katie jumps as the same espresso machine loudly lets off a little steam. We don't know too much about Katie's past, other than she used to be a brunette and, given her on-again, off-again relationship with high-end coffee making appliances, she may have earned a living as a barista.
As interested as the movie is in setting up the mystery of Katie's past, and why Det. Tierney is so doggedly pursuing her, 'Safe Haven' isn't too concerned with making any of it substantial; we know enough about the character that her reactions and reticence appear intriguing at first, but it's just there to pad out her relationship with Alex and afford the narrative some tension during the third act. Until then, the story progresses with the usual amount of predictability: circumstances bring Katie and Alex together and, as attractive and otherwise available people are wont to do, they form a romantic attachment to one another that's a real thing because they say it is.
As perfectly serviceable as 'Safe Haven' is – this is a competently made film from top to bottom – ultimately, it's too purposeful, too mechanical. Katie and Alex (and even Tierney and Jo) aren't complete characters, they're parts of an equation. The audience doesn't feel the romance building between them because it's not actually there; it's not for the viewer to see, but rather for them to be told that that he or she is seeing it. It's as if the film is confident in skating by on having a brand name and simply saying, "You are watching a Nicholas Sparks film, and there is love! Attractive people are KISSING!"
Needless to say, 'Safe Haven' is as apt a title as a Nicholas Sparks adaptation is ever likely to have. It is, to the very last frame, a "safe" movie; it may have elements of intrigue, mystery or danger, but, like the romance, they are rote and never actually take the audience into a place where any of it feels real or earned, or meaningful. The same can be said for the out-of-left-field surprise that comes at the end of the film, which is so incongruent and involves such a minor character that the intended effect becomes less a revelatory disclosure and more a bewildering and unnecessary supplement to a story that's not built to handle one.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Safe Haven' comes as a two-disc Blu-ray + DVD combo + Digital Copy set in a standard two-disc keepcase. There are a series of skippable previews for upcoming Fox releases prior to the top menu.
'Safe Haven' comes with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that's every bit as clean, crisp and precise as you'd expect from the studio. The image does a terrific job of staying consistent throughout, highlighting not only the seaside town, it's gorgeous landscape and some impeccable scenery, but it also presents the actors in the best possible light at any given moment. To that end, the fine detail on faces is superb without looking too clean or sterile. Close-up shots reveal the best textures and finer elements, but wider shots still provide plenty of detail in both the foreground and the background.
Color is very bright and vibrant, and does a great job of making the setting and summertime vibe of the film more palpable (sadly, it's the most convincing thing about the movie). And as bright as the setting so frequently is, the image never goes overboard with the saturation. This is a very natural looking film that rarely strays from conventional camera angles and certainly doesn't have much interest in filters or other manipulations of the image. Therefore, the picture remains constant throughout – even during the short flashback sequences, which typically encourage most directors and their DPs to tinker with the image a bit. Here, things are just a bit darker.
But even in low light, 'Safe Have' looks pristine. Contrast levels are high and remain so throughout. Blacks are solid and never swallow up the image, while whites convey brightness without overwhelming or blowing out the picture. This is a great looking disc that excels in presentation.
Like the picture, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that accompanies 'Safe Haven' is a bright spot on the disc. This is a lively sounding film that's filled with copious amounts of dialogue, but also relies heavily on ambient noise and a vigorous soundtrack, too. The film mixes score with musical selections that may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they sure sound great. Much of the tracks and score are pushed through the front speakers with some elements moving around to the rear channels and plenty of LFE to provide some richness and depth.
As mentioned above, ambient noise is superb. There's a real feeling of place as the mix is bursting with atmosphere, like the sounds of water lapping at the edge of a beach, or the din of a busy restaurant and even the sounds of insects buzzing through the trees on a hot summer's day. No matter the scene, it feels as though the mix here goes the extra mile to make sure there's an extra level of sound to immerse the viewer, while maintaining excellent sound quality and balance when it comes to the actors and their dialogue.
This is an incredibly vibrant and dynamic sounding disc for a film that relies mostly on dialogue – though there are plenty of sound effects toward the end that liven things up a bit – and yet it never shies away from making every element sound as rich and pristine as possible.
Deleted & Extended Scenes(HD, 5 min.)
'Safe Haven' doesn't just come across as an easy film to like; it operates entirely under the assumption that it's discovered the perfect formula to ensure optimal likeability. For the most part, it succeeds, but at the expense of saying or doing anything remotely exciting, intriguing or passionate. Even the twist at the end feels formulaic and tacked-on. There's not much creativity or depth going on here, but there's also nothing worth despising. It's just another Nicholas Sparks adaptation that's sure to find an audience somewhere. With good picture and great audio, if you happen to find yourself renting this, it won't completely let you down.