Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Blockbuster cinema: what can we forgive?
Blockbuster cinema: what can we forgive?
It's a thought that has been crossing my mind since last week, after I saw Pacific Rim. To me, Pacific Rim is quite obviously a good blockbuster film. I think it's great, in my mind, but I'm not trying to force anyone to think it's great. I just think people should be able to acknowledge that it's good. Like many blockbuster films, it has problems. But all blockbuster films exist simply to entertain. They all have a certain promise. In Pacific Rim's case, the promise was very straightforward, cut-and-dry: giant robots will fight giant monsters. In the end, it didn't matter why. It didn't matter if all the plot elements worked 100%. The only thing that mattered, in the end, is if the movie gave us what it promised. Did the movie work in what it was trying to do? With Pacific Rim, the answer is yes.
I feel like we always have a point of contention with summer blockbusters. Every year, it's a new thing. This year, it's mass destruction. Destruction porn. The issue was raised with "Man of Steel," mostly because of the sheer amount of destruction in the film. It seemed crazy to some because... when did we ever care about this before? To me, it raised a problem with the movie itself. It's not that "Man of Steel" wasn't good because of all the senseless mass destruction because nearly every superhero/blockbuster film contains a great amount of destruction. What was wrong with "Man of Steel" is that the entirety of the destruction simply wasn't justified. There wound up being so much of it, that it just didn't make sense for a Superman film. Not only that, but the fact that Superman seemed indifferent to the destruction. Not only that, it seemed the filmmakers were indifferent to the destruction as well. It felt like it was almost a given. An after thought. They made it seem almost... normal.
What made The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises so thrilling was that the destruction had a point to it. The Joker was a mad man, an anarchist, and he liked to play games on society. Each thing he did, there was a certain level of awe to it. Everyone reacted with fear. The city of Gotham was shaken by it. Batman had to go into hiding after it was all said and done. There were consequences to the actions represented in the film. With The Dark Knight Rises, the destruction was tenfold. While the motivations of Bane were a bit murky throughout, he nonetheless seemed to have a specific purpose. But, more than that, the film made you feel that all this destruction was wrong. That things were dire. Lives were at risk. Things seemed completely doomed. Batman's got a broken back and is halfway round the world and the city of Gotham is about to explode! Oh no!
In Man of Steel, General Zod has purpose, but nothing ever seems too tough for Superman to overcome. That's why the sheer destruction of Metropolis simply makes no sense. It just seemed as if Superman was letting all these things happen to this city. He seemed to have no concern for the people whose lives were at risk, which was everyone. The movie gives us these themes of hope, they gave us a reason to care about Superman (kind of), but the film never really showed why Superman wanted to save the world. It never showed why he actually cared about anyone. The only people he seems remotely concerned with, in the final act, are Lois Lane and his mother. There's no sense that he has to save anyone. Of course, he ultimately does save the world and defeats General Zod (well, kills him), but we never see the consequences of all the destruction that's been caused. We never see how the people react to Superman, or to any of the events that transpired. Everything is, inexplicably, back to normal. This all made the destruction seemed more unnecessary than usual. Furthermore, Superman himself is destroying buildings as he fights General Zod and Zod's cronies. He has no regard for human life!
There's destruction in The Avengers. I was able to rewatch The Avengers recently and it was interesting to have a point of comparison with Man of Steel. With The Avengers, it makes sense. There are multiple superheroes. Captain America tries his best to keep everyone safe. Everyone is fighting with purpose. There are endless amounts of bad guys flying into Earth for them to fight/destroy. Destruction is caused, but there is a sense of spectacle to it. There is a sense of danger. There's a sense that the characters might not pull it off. We're given a circumstance that seems impossible to get out of. With Man of Steel, Superman's objective is made perfectly clear and there's never a sense that he can't pull it off. He's fucking Superman. That's really the absurdity of it. Superman never really struggles, never really seems to have any difficulty. So because of this, we're not worried about how these issues are going to be resolved. Instead, we are just left with images of Metropolis being destroyed, over and over again, without any really thought behind it. We're just waiting... waiting for Superman to save the day. And one of the worst things you can do to an audience is make them wait.
Pacific Rim doesn't have the same flaws as Man of Steel. This is what has been bothering me with some of the critics reviews. People seem to be equating the destruction in Pacific Rim with the destruction of Man of Steel and it simply doesn't work. First of all, PR is set years into the future where Kaijus have been running amok for years now. At this point, a good majority of these cities have been evacuated. People are made aware of the Kaijus presence. That's why when, as a robot tries to fight a Kaiju, and he punches through a glass building.... we don't see anyone in there. And for the most part, aside from the Hong Kong scene, all other scenes take place in the ocean. Yes, in the dark, rainy ocean. Another scenario I had no problems with. The action in Pacific Rim is purposeful, striaght-forward, and makes sense. The film has character and story cliches galore, but allows itself time to go into all these different characters just enough for us to care. It's not breaking any new ground in these departments, but it at least gives us more of a context to care about these robot/monster fights. Plus, there are real people inside these robots, controlling these robots. Each time a monster fights a robot, real lives are at stake. That's not like Man of Steel where two superhumans are punching each other without any of it actually affecting them. With Pacific Rim, the robots are ultimately representative of two like-minded people bonding together for a common goal: to kill these Kaijus. For me, it's a completely functional movie. And as long as the movie is completely functional from a story/plot standpoint, I can get all-in on the action.
It's when the movie tries to do too much that things go awry. I have the capacity to like action films, to like blockbuster films. I think the problem is, because there are so many of these action blockbusters and they all need to be top notch in the CGI department, and because there are way too many writers working on these films... lots of these blockbusters wind up being overcooked. There are too many plotlines, too much unnecessary story development that goes nowhere, too many missing pieces. The story and plot wind up being so confusing that the action winds up being less satisfying. The truth of it all is, I don't mind cliches. I don't mind if the story deliberately goes from point a to point b to point c. As long as the writers make everything sound enough and make these characters lively enough, it can work. For me, the genius of Pacific Rim is that everything is set up so that the action sequences are the centerpieces. Everything is built up for these moments. As I said in my review, we wind up getting what we paid for. We get these action sequences where we are actually able to FOCUS on the action. What an amazing idea.
What this all ultimately comes down to is... what can we forgive? For some, the cliches in Pacific Rim may be too much for them. That's the thing. People come into these movies, having been made so cynical thanks to so many other shitty movies, that they don't know a good blockbuster when they see one. And I truly mean that. To me, Pacific Rim is as functional and the CGI is as breathtaking as Jurassic Park. When you remember Jurassic Park, do you really remember the characters? Or do you remember the dinosaurs more? Of course, it's the latter. Jeff Goldblum always puts his best foot forward and is usually very memorable in these types of movies. But you came to see the dinosaurs and you get the dinosaurs. You get what you pay for. Jurassic Park is classic, vintage entertainment. In my opinion, Pacific Rim should be on that level. It's pure entertainment. You can find flaws in Jurassic Park's logic, but can you forgive those flaws? Most can. And you should be able to. You should be able to forgive the flaws in Pacific Rim and just accept it for what it's trying to be. You shouldn't be forcing Pacific Rim to adhere to standards that simply don't belong.
Because, if we can't enjoy Pacific Rim for what it is, then we're basically dismissing all like-minded action films when they're done well. In the age of "convoluted blockbusters," Pacific Rim really stands out. It reminds you that these films don't have to be convoluted, they just have to work. They can be simple as long as you can see the money on the screen. The $185 million. This is all we ever wanted from a film like Pacific Rim. It's all I ever ask for. Of course, if every film was made like Pacific Rim, it may not be as special. But the bottom line is, there is no film this summer or last summer (or the last few summers) that is like Pacific Rim. Even The Dark Knight films have a certain amount of convolutedness to them. That's why people can pick apart those films so easily. But Pacific Rim knows what it is, knows exactly what it's trying to be. That's why, as annoying as those scientists are, they are absolutely necessary. If we want to be cynical, we can find many flaws in Pacific Rim. We can find many flaws in The Dark Knight. But the reason why people enjoy those films is because the films ultimately work in what they're trying to do, so we can forgive the flaws.
There's a point where a film reaches an "unforgivability" point. The Amazing Spider-Man simply didn't work for me because the movie doesn't justify its existence. It doesn't make a case for itself as it's too reminiscent of the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man. Will time be kind to the film? Maybe? The problem is that nothing in the film stands out. At its best, the film is solid. But when it comes down to it, it's not clear in what the film is trying to do, or what the film is trying to be other than to be an obvious "reboot" film.
For others, they may enjoy The Amazing Spider-Man just enough for them to be ok with the film's obvious conceit. Again, it's all about what we can forgive. But as long as we can't come to some sort of an agreement about what a blockbuster film should be, we'll never really know what makes one good or what makes one bad. There are some that are so obviously bad that we can all recognize it. But, think about how many of these films make hundreds of millions of dollars. It's not shallow to think Pacific Rim is great because of the action. For me, since the film centers itself around the action and allows the action to breathe and be its own thing, it's perfectly fine. Pacific Rim is the only film, since The Matrix (in my view) that is so breathtaking and flawless in its execution of the action, that I can forgive the other aspects. That's what I can forgive.
Maybe the purpose of this post is to kind of clear the air. Because for some, my opinion on Pacific Rim may be deemed contradictory compared to my general dismissal of other blockbuster films. But there are specific reasons as to why the film works and there are specific reasons as to why others don't. I think it's time to really think about why these movies work/don't work. So, this is me, starting that conversation. What makes a good blockbuster film? What makes a bad one? Why do some people love Man of Steel but not The Dark Knight? What do we even want? Why was Grown Ups 2 number one in the box office? What are we even doing anymore?
Think about all these questions then come back to me...