Some big ideas and images to match

Creative talent in Hollywood is learning to sneak artistry and individuality into studio tentpoles.

Published: August 30, 2014 12:42:55 am
Hollywood When movies are engineered for universal appeal, they inevitably degenerate into lowest common denominator territory.

By: Abhimanyu Das

It’s been an odd summer for Hollywood blockbusters. On the face of it, the seasonal slate was as homogeneous as ever, a numbing litany of sequels, remakes and adaptations accompanied by assaultive bursts of advertising. Each served as a pawn or advance scout in some huge corporation’s decades-spanning content strategy, designed by committee to be a universally marketable “product” rather than a distinctive creation. And yet, the summer’s output also suggests that the creative talent is figuring out ways to sneak scraps of artistry, individuality and wit past the restrictive walls of the studio template, and is doing so with increasing success. You might even say that many of this summer’s big movies have been genuinely great.

Take, for example, the Marvel machine. Its by-the-numbers approach has come to represent everything that’s wrong with big-budget filmmaking, each entry a bombastic teaser for the next. Then again, this year brought us Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. We can assume that no contemporary studio will allot a big budget to politically knotty down-and-dirty genre films like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, 1970s spy thrillers whose influence is all over Cap 2. That didn’t prevent its directors — Joe and Anthony Russo — from porting over sneakily subversive elements from those films, pitting a touchingly naive superhero against his own country’s military-industrial complex. It’s melancholy, cynical, occasionally even profound. Few of 2014’s pop culture moments were quite as loaded as the one in which a despondent Captain America flees the bleak 21st century status quo to seek solace at a Smithsonian exhibit about himself, 70 years ago. By contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy was the yin to Cap 2’s doom-laden yang, a Marvel product that isn’t even a superhero flick but a delightful space opera that cross-pollinates Joss Whedon with George Lucas and has a tremendous time doing so. Stuffed with flawlessly delivered banter, ingenious world-building and endless visual inventiveness, it smacks of director James Gunn’s scrappy B-movie roots.

This year’s entry in the obnoxious “cash in on popular toy” genre turned out to be the summer’s best family film. The Lego Movie took a hackneyed everyman-saves-the-world plot and buried it in a zeitgeist-tapping deluge of pop culture references. Another pleasant surprise was Edge of Tomorrow, a canny and often hilarious novelty that proves that videogame narrative techniques can translate to the movies.

Reboots didn’t do so badly either. Another indie stalwart — Gareth Edwards — resurrected Godzilla for the post-9/11 era, combining found-footage tropes with immense scale to create what’s been described as the first “post-human” blockbuster. The thinly written human characters take a backseat to monster mayhem set-pieces whose awe-inspiring imagery is loaded with both emotional and extratextual resonance. That said, it fades in comparison to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a sequel to a rebooted prequel and a film that had no right to be as good as it is. The seamless ape animation and Andy Serkis’s Oscar-worthy voice/ motion-capture performance have rightly garnered acclaim, but equally praiseworthy are the film’s political and intellectual ambitions. It gets to the heart of so much that ails us as a species — self-defeating tribalism, endless cycles of retributive violence, the breakdown of nuanced analysis in favour of “us versus them” paranoia — and does so with great poignancy.

Then there were the arthouse features masquerading as tentpole releases. Luc Besson gave Scarlett Johansson the action role she’s long deserved with Lucy, an outré piece of vulgar auteurism that somehow filters the metaphysical elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey through a B-movie lens. Even better is Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian social-protest screed, Snowpiercer. Matching big ideas with big images, it’s a visceral and unsettling cautionary tale that wields allegory like a blunt weapon.

None of this is to suggest that the summer blockbuster model isn’t a big problem for cinema. It’s a system that demands the safest return on ever-increasing financial investment, leaving the broken corpses of originality and artistic ambition in its wake. When movies are engineered for universal appeal, they inevitably degenerate into lowest common denominator territory. That said, this summer has been a vaguely heartening indication that filmmakers are learning how to express themselves within the limits of the system.

Das is a New York-based writer

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