I'm waiting. I've been waiting patiently for few months now and it seems the wait may soon be over with the imminent release of Elysium.
It's not that I've been anticipating this film release specifically but I have been pining for something of its type, a big budget high concept QUALITY blockbuster for a loooong time.
At the start of the year I found myself with a renewed passion for the pictures and got into the habit of making a weekly trip to my local cinema. I really enjoyed it... at first but as I quickly exhausted the films I wanted to see and started on the much longer list of films I should see (you know, the Argo’s, Place Beyond The Pinses, that type of stuff) the trips got increasingly unsatisfying. I love a thoughtful, well structured block buster. There’s definitely a theme when it comes to my favourites, Alien movies (nothing beyond Alien 3 – under any circumstances), The Terminators (nothing beyond 2 exists for me), The Matrices, you get the point.
And so it was I eagerly awaited Oblivion, World War Z and After Earth which all seemed to have their hearts set on the world ending in a pretty shitty way. Great! I thought.
I went along to see Oblivion expecting good things but it was so chronically uneventful I wondered if it was some kind of 5D experience, the 5th dimension being to make you feel like you were actually in oblivion.
Director, Joseph Kosinski had spun nothing happening into an un-riveting 2 hours of movie misery. Like Lindsay Lohan wearing Ugg boots, it seemed this was just the start of a very disappointing trend. Superman, Pacific Rim and World War Z have all failed to deliver, creatively anyway, receiving mixed reviews (once the critics where allowed to actually see the films).
Couple this with the almost comical anger I have at Ridley Scott for the diabolical Prometheus (honestly I go off like a UKIP member at the Notting Hill carnival) it made me start to wonder, what is happening to the traditional studio blockbuster? The only big budget offering that seem to have lived up to expectations is J.J Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness.
With reboot and after reboot (aren't we due a reimagining of SpiderMan soon?), listless sequels, remakes and novel adaptation, it seems like the studios have replaced their creative department with tubs of earthworms (Here are a few projects Will Smith is currently cooking up – After Earth2, Bad Boys 3, Hancock 2, I am Legend 2, I, Robot 2, Karate Kid 2 and Annie).
Worryingly the new business model for most of the studios summer output seems to be entirely unreliant on creativity and more on expert marketeering.
What we face now is a blockbuster season where half of the hundreds of millions of dollars is spent on coaxing a catalogue of top names and financing visual effect bells and whistles and the other half on marketing.
This would be OK if the films delivered on audience satisfaction but too often they don’t. What the studios are banking on is us punters stomping to the cinema in a trance-like state seduced by the whizz bang advertising so that they can break even in the first weekend (strategically scheduling the release around major public holidays). After which, sales can fall off by some 80% (because the films are shit) but the studios are happy because they’ve made their money back.
Add to this the new trend of denying critics access to the film prior to release (you know, so they can warn us it’s shit. These people are our canaries down the mine and I now don’t got to a film until I’ve heard from at least two respected journos that the film as at least half way decent) and this is almost the perfect… con.
Speilberg himself, one of our greatest purveyors of classic and much loved movies is concerned for the future of the industry.
In a recent talk he suggested that in the future we may be facing a two tiered ticketing structure at the cinema where patrons are expected to fork out up to four times the ticket price to see big budget movies.
He also reminded us of the seemingly halcyon days when fewer blockbusters were made and they stayed in the cinema for a lot longer. This was certainly my preference and how things were when the likes of the original Star Wars films and E.T. were released, the latter enjoying more than 12 glorious months in the cinema before it was temporarily retired before the long and highly anticipated Christmas television premier. Those were indeed the days.
Cinema has become so business orientated that even Spielberg himself and his cohort George Lucas sometimes struggle to secure theatrical released for their films. Yes you read that right. Lincoln was nearly an HBO special, yes the one that won those Oscars nearly never saw the silver screen.
So evidently, this new business model is flawed and the losers, ultimately are us, the great cinema going public who basically dictate, by how and where we spend our money what cinema tricks or treats we are served up.
And we are being massively short changed and here’s why.
Film is one of the most important mediums because of the impact it has on the human spirit. It has the ability to illicit a vast range of human emotions, to speak to the very core of who and what we are as a species, to tell allegorical tales through sweeping adventures, to take us to times past and yet to come, to unite us in our commonalities, highlight our differences, make up laugh until tears flow, terrify us for weeks after, to warm us to our souls and so much more. With all our technological advances, cinema going should be redundant, but it isn’t. The immersive nature of this format makes it even more powerful. Nothing can compare. Cinema is powerful and audiences know it.
They may not critique a film with the skill of Kermode or Norman but we know when something is good and when it isn’t. We also know, more importantly when something is satisfying and when it isn’t.
A film that really satisfies, stays with us well beyond the cinema trip, it passes through into the public consciousness, phrases become part of the popular lexicon (“It’s been emotional” “You can’t handle the truth!”) and more importantly we see something of humanity reflected back in us in the behaviours of the characters before us, themes explored resonate as we watch characters grow and change.
No matter what genre you enjoy, the most satisfying films offer three critical elements - a journey, challenge and transformation. Every film from 4 Weddings and a Funeral to Aliens all deliver this and if a movie short changes on these aspects or thinks that replacing characterisation with explosions and car chases will placate us, the result is at best mediocre or worse entirely forgettable.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with a film that is made purely for entertainment. There are many films like this (the names of which I cannot remember because they’re all so forgettable) and actually these films probably help us appreciate the greats even more but it feels like we’re getting a little too much chaff these days and not nearly enough wheat.
Studio executives need to go back to the drawing board. Back to basics. Compelling original stories (I demand a ban on reboots, remakes and adaptations for 5 years!), three dimensional characters, a return to thematic resonances and that doesn’t mean preaching, just speaking of that which is important: love, honour, loyalty, faith, light and darkness, etc. Basically good story telling.
One of my favourite films and a classic that stands up against any current big budgeter is E.T. which, when broken down, is ultimate a love story and thematically as human a story as you could hope for. It didn’t need 18 minute sequences of interstellar gun fights or multimillion dollar FX to create the alien. Speilberg put a little man in a suit and kids on BMXs in front of a blue screen. Movie gold.
Or Ghostbusters, one of the finest comedies ever made. Clear characterisation, identifiable journey, from losers to winners to losers again… to even bigger winners. Their special effects? Some fancy make up on Sigourney Weaver and a stop frame animation troll type thing – result – Cinema history (“Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”)
Luckily, Jo Public seems to be fighting back (at least a little). With box office flops Lone Ranger, After Earth and Jack and The Giant Slayer the studios have sustained huge losses this year. Let’s hope this encourages them to take a back-to-basics approach and give us cinema goers something we long for, decent movies otherwise the whole industry is going to oblivion.