Cor blimey, where do I start? Well, this is a strange one. It doesn’t look like a Matrix film (it has a vastly different colour palette and lighting style), doesn’t sound like a Matrix film (composer Don Davis not invited to this project) and lacks both the iconic fight choreography (the fight sequences are shockingly badly shot and edited) and ground-breaking effects sequences that the Matrix films are so famous for (the sheer crazy ambition of the earlier films trying stuff that the technology could barely manage is entirely missing here). So is it really a Matrix film?
Well, its certainly not the Matrix film many fans were possibly looking forward to- but then again, the same could be said regards the original sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions. So perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by this strange beast.
I could almost describe this films as a $60 million arthouse film cleverly deconstructing the Matrix films with a narrative that is almost entirely Meta. Except that this thing cost $190 million and is clearly a tentpole, blockbuster movie- perhaps one of the oddest and most confounding blockbusters of all. Its almost like the whole thing’s existence is some kind of commentary (or ironic joke) on sequels, reboots, remakes and how they seem to dominate studio thinking and the industry as a whole. In a strange way its almost the perfect Matrix film- what is real, what is narrative, what is art and what is product? Its clever and incredibly stupid at the same time, utterly bizarre. I enjoyed it and I was infuriated by it. On the one hand it feels like a cynical cash-grab, and yet, on the other, if it was a cash-grab it simply wouldn’t be this movie, it’d instead be more what the fans wanted/expected.
We saw characters die in Revolutions. They are back in Resurrections, hence the title, but they don’t ‘know’ they are back (essentially, stuck in a ‘new’ Matrix, they don’t know who they really are and the main narrative is, similarly to the first film, revealing the ‘lie’ of their lives). But how exactly are they back? Are we expected to believe that renegade machines found Trinity’s dead body and brought her back from the dead? Surely her intellect is a simulacra even if they could reconstruct/repair her body? And did they similarly bring Neo back from the dead and create a copy of his personality too? Resurrections shows us this being done, but… I’m expected to just accept this Frankenstein nonsense? I almost feel like clapping to applaud the bare-arsed cheek of it. The Matrix films purport to being so smart and they try to pull this smoke and mirrors on me?
Oddly enough, I quite enjoyed this anyway, but then again, I’m possibly in the minority -well, I know I am- when I say I enjoy all three Matrix films that came before it, yes, even those derided sequels. So I guess I enjoy all the philosophising and counter-intuitive twists, the self-important writing that in its sheer audacity tries to outdo the crazy stunts and effects that wows audiences. The most disappointing thing about this film really is the clumsy fight and stunt choreography, and how mundane the visual spectacle/effects work really is -it seldom looks like a $190 million movie. This entry in the franchise is really the one where that pompous writing takes centre-stage over what really ‘makes’ a Matrix film. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe what its really telling us is to never trust your analyst.
It doesn’t feel ground-breaking. We’ve seen too many Christopher Nolan films since Revolutions. Maybe The Matrix films are suffering a generational gap in a similar way to how the Disney Star Wars have; or even the Bond films; all these franchises really belong to another generation, their time is really done, but nobody in the film industry knows what to do instead (what? Avatar?).
Having only seen it once, I’m cautious about writing much more here. I really need to watch the film again. When I watched it last night, other than having seen a trailer several months back, I really didn’t know what to expect, managing to stay spoiler-free up to now. So I’m especially curious how a second viewing plays. Does it improve, knowing what’s going on and why, or does it just seem dumber and lazier second time around? Well, another post will likely reveal all.
I will just say that the 4K UHD looks fantastic; it really is a beautiful film in 4K watched on an OLED screen. Utterly different to how the other Matrix films look, I guess, which reinforces how odd the experience watching it feels but then again, I really need to watch that 4K boxset of the earlier films that has been gathering dust on my shelf for far too long now. I had idly considered a watching the first three films prior to this one being released but life is getting in the way of watching much of anything these days, but maybe, if I can, I should watch them before getting to this one again…
There you go, I have a rough week at work and am unable to do any posting here and suddenly all hell breaks lose. In honour of grand Hollywood tradition, let it not be said that I’m loathe to ignore opportunity for a sequel, so after Octobers post about cinema woes, here comes a totally superfluous post. Bear with me though, I’ve just done a twelve-hour stint at my work laptop so my eyes are blurry and my head fuzzier than normal. Yeah, doesn’t bode well, does it, but the same is true of movie sequels isn’t it? I guess that’s my way of suggesting its not wise to expect this post to be The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather Pt.2 of blog follow-ups.
So what’s been happening? Well news broke late last night that Warner Bros has announced that its entire slate of films for 2021 are now going to debut on streaming channel HBO Max on the same day as each films theatrical release. This includes films such as Mortal Kombat (hey a reboot I was blissfully unaware of till now), Godzilla v Kong, Matrix 4 (I thought this had been pushed back to 2022, maybe I was wrong) and of course Villeneuve’s much-anticipated (by me, anyway) Dune; the list totals 21 films in all.
I honestly thought it was internet hyperbole but I woke up this morning to find it confirmed on the BBC. Fairly ugly news for movie lovers really, on the face of it, but rather than The End Of Blockbusters As We Know It (which it still may be) I have to wonder if this is more a Studio move to dismantle the current distribution network (in the States, at least) by destroying the current cinema chains in order to just move in and replace them in a year or two. I believe that, in the old Hollywood glory days, studios had their hands in the theatrical pie but were litigated out of it, therefore having to share cinema takings and profits with the vendors/cinema chains like AMC etc. I suppose that’d be a bit like Netflix having to share its subscriber money with the Internet Service Providers that carries its content into peoples homes.
Part of the reason why Disney has its Disney+ is so that eventually there will be a Brave New World in which the only way to watch a Star Wars, Disney, Pixar or Marvel movie will be to pay up monthly for its streaming channel. In such a world without physical discs on shelves, it’d just be digital streaming (not even digital downloads) as the only way of watching its content, and ultimately only through its channel, if subscriptions are successful enough that it no longer needed traditional partners like the TV networks, satellite and cable TV providers etc. that it currently sells its content to. If Disney could also own its own cinema chains to monopolise that part of things too, all the better. Clearly the intention is not to share any of the revenue with anybody. And hey, without any competition, and with a captive audience having no alternative, Disney could go all Star Wars Evil Empire and raise its prices to, well, whatever it wanted. Add premium charges for new content, restrict ‘star’ movies to PPV only, downgrade the low entry-price subscription tier to films/content six months old. Hey, if I can think up things like that after a twelve-hour shift, you can be sure the execs at Disney can.
The reason why Warners seem to have jumped into this fray are the woes being suffered by HBO Max, a streaming network in the States owned by Warners’ parent company AT&T which is currently languishing as an also-ran in the the streaming wars currently led by Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. They seem to think having a big Hollywood movie hitting HBO Max will get subscriber numbers soaring, but I do wonder if its a dangerous gamble, certainly for Warners. How in the world they think they can get enough money that way to pay for the huge budgets of some of those movies is beyond me, really. HBO Max may suddenly get a bigger share of the streaming audience and more numbers in, but surely that’s never going to be anything like the $1 billion numbers of the big blockbusters from old-fashioned cinema takings. Unless I’m under-estimating what the revenue streams of business like Netflix are (which is possibly what Disney and the other studios are looking at).
I suppose playing the long game, the studios may intend to pick up all those empty bankrupted cinemas and return to the old distribution model (but owning all the distribution, theatrical as well as streaming), but once punters get used to films being beamed day one into their homes for a monthly fee (that remember is supposed to pay for all of a months content, other movies, doc and tv series, not just Warners’ latest movie), is there a risk it will diminish the public’s sense of worth of said blockbusters? Goodness knows many people astonish me enough by still buying/watching DVDs, so the idea they will go out and pay more for a cinematic experience may not be as reasonable as the studio execs think once they get used to Wonder Woman 84, The Matrix 4 and Dune beamed to their screens on Day One. Disney+ will surely be following its own similar move with Mulan with some of its other films still waiting in the wings (Black Widow seems to be the next likely suspect), all further dismantling the perception of newly-launched films being worth premium ticket prices in cinema multiplexes.
I wonder what James Cameron thinks of all this, with four Avatar films on the go. Its like his franchise just hit a proverbial iceberg (oh the irony).
From my own perspective, my immediate concern is the fate of all these movies from this year and next, the James Bonds etc, and where all this will leave them- particularly Dune, whose performance predicates us ever getting the sequel that completes its story. It could be a magnificent adult space opera, Star Wars for adults, as Villeneuve himself has hinted, which gets decimated by this Bonfire of the Cinemas and the streaming wars. Its already been pushed back a year, which means any Part Two is at least, what, four years away now? How can its performance be properly judged in this crazy Covid world, never mind what any post-Covid world might look like? The film cost $200 million to make… how does it ever get the financial remuneration to ensure execs think its worth another $200 million punt? Will such $200 million ‘punts’ even exist in this future world- returning to my earlier note, might this indeed actually signal The End Of Blockbusters As We Know It? Would that necessarily be a bad thing? Is the era of huge paychecks for directors and actors over?
And if I had shares in Cineworld, would I possibly get any sleep tonight?
This third entry in the John Wick franchise knows what it is doing from the start- pleasing John Wick fans and lovers of action movies. In that sense, the film is some kind of relentless machine, delivering elaborate fights, bloody headshots and pretty breathtaking stunts in spades, right from the opening. When I exited the cinema I wondered how long it’s going to be until somebody does a bodycount and reveals just how many dead bodies Wick and his freinds leave in their wake (I’m guessing something like two hundred, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were actually higher).
There is something almost cathartic in that cartoon violence, a ballet of death that is almost glorious- this series of films remains an action-movie fan’s wet dream, stripping down all plot and characterisation to something like a videogame level. I remember there was a game several years ago, I forget the name, but it put the player in several first-person levels/scenarios of killing and rewarded the player by scoring for headshots/stringing deaths together etc – this is that videogame as a movie. The problem is, it gets a little wearing at times, the endless action, the relentless death and destruction lacking any depth or perspective that, say, a proper script with proper characters would have. I may be missing something, but towards the end of the film a group of bad guys in a busy concourse of the train station are suddenly wiped out through some surprise intervention (that makes little sense really when I think about it, except that the big bad guy doesn’t want the other bad guys spoiling his fun- that’s about as complex as this stuff gets) and none of the public commuters react – I even looked for the bodies in the background as the camera started to move away and I couldn’t see any. Did I blink and miss the corpses getting ‘cleaned up’? Shouldn’t hundreds of panicked commuters have been fleeing the scene?
Should I really be enjoying this silly movie so much?
Its hard to believe that it was back in 2014 that the first John Wick came out of nowhere like a breath of fresh air. Stripping the usual action movie tropes to the barest minimum, its retired assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a mystery, barely a character outline- described as ‘Baba Yaga’ , a shadowy legend whispered about by fearing criminals, he was suddenly unleashed like a bloody force of nature when the grieving mans car was stolen and his dog killed. It was simple, and the bad guys deserved everything they got (never mess with a mans car or his dog). As action films go, the brevity of the plot and characterisation makes the film pretty much perfect.
John Wick 2 delved deeper into the mysterious mythology only hinted at in the original, and Parabellum (its funny how sophisticated/complex a title it is for a film so simple) opens things much further, actually breaking out of the city and into the outside world, as far as the deserts of Africa (in a sequence which is, ironically, the weakest of the movie, which may be telling). Each John Wick film has added more characters in the supporting cast, more back-story, ever more elaborate myth-building. At this point with the third film, we’re pretty much at the level of the first Matrix film, the defined world having its own weird logic – assassins everywhere, a payment system of unique gold coins/tokens, administrative clerks, adjudicators, sacred codes of conduct, John Wick even practically holding status of ‘the One,’ the status of unkillable, with all the other assassins trying to prove themselves by doing the impossible. Oh, and if the moral of the first film was ‘never mess with a man and his dog’, this one offers the adage ‘never mess with a woman and her dogs’ – Halle Berry and her deadly dogs being one of the highpoints of the film (although I maintain that this section of the film away from the city is its weakest section) and it’s pretty damn certain she’ll be joining Wick in Chapter Four’s carnage.
At this point it’s pretty clear that there is a danger these films will collapse in on themselves by adding too many layers to its mythology, becoming too complex to support the inherent daftness and joy of its fairly chaotic cartoon violence. Fans always want more, and will gleefully greet John Wick 4 or even John Wick 5 (probably as inevitable as Thanos, at this point). I have to wonder though when the inevitable happens and all that violence, and Wick’s own increasingly hilarious invincibility, just becomes wearisome. I’d much prefer the Wick films to go out on a high and not become too diluted by too many sequels or its stunts etc just get too insane in the pursuit of being better than before.
Parabellum is still a pretty damn cool action movie and cements the reputation of the series as whole, although it’s clear that there are worrying indications of the point of diminishing returns rearing its head before long. Roll on Chapter Four anyway.
There’s a moment in Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a film Netflix is touting as ‘an interactive film’ where young computer programmer Stefan (Finn Whitehead) in a moment of PKD insight becomes convinced he isn’t in control of his own actions and shouts out to The Big Unknown. That’s when a choice is offered to the film viewer and I opted for Netflix as my answer, and lo, a text message appeared on Stefan’s computer that he was being controlled by a viewer watching Netflix, an online streaming service. Of course from Stefan’s vantage point of 1984, this didn’t mean a hell of a lot, but for me it was a strange meta-reality commentary on all things PKD and The Matrix and the nature of reality and what films are now and possibly might be in the future.
How well Bandersnatch functions as a dramatic work is open to debate, but as an interactive experience and nod to PKD and 1980s culture its something of a marvel. The old-style WHSmith stores (crikey, those old carrier bags even more of a nostalgic nod than possibly intended with recent news of Government intent over here), 2000AD, Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle on vinyl, the Thompson Twins and the grand finale (at least the one I experienced, as there are supposed to be five endings to Bandersnatch) of Laurie Anderson’s sublime O Superman, a song that sums up that whole era for me- so many moments had me cooing ‘awww….’ at the screen. Possibly the best was the Ubik poster coming alive. That would have blown poor Philip K Dick’s mind had he seen it, I think.
I’m curious to rewatch Bandersnatch and choose a different path/s to really put the test to its ‘interactive/multiple branches’ credentials but on first viewing it was damned impressive. Quite how Netflix managed the branching streams without incurring pauses for buffering etc is something of a mystery and, yeah, to be honest, one I’d actually like to avoid learning about, as if part of some unquantifiable magic.
It was quite apt, I suppose, as Black Mirror itself tends to comment upon and extrapolate on modern technology in dark and devious ways that the series used this interactive experience to tell its story of choice/freewill and the nature of its technology. Making the viewer a cog in the machine was quite ingenious. Whether in 2028 we’ll see a MI:9 that puts the viewer in charge of a (possibly CGI/virtual by then) Tom Cruise as he weaves through multiple paths of espionage and various twists of fate, and whether that would be a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is open for some other debate, but it’s possibly a insight into eventual possibilities.
Well, on the bleak side, there’s another nail in the coffin of good honest storytelling, maybe. We may have seen a glimpse of the future, and it’s something to do with keeping our hands on the remote, but not regards switching channels etc…
There certainly seems to be a problem with all these ‘old’ intellectual properties. Star Trek seems to be suffering a similar existential angst as Star Wars. The issue, of course, is that Star Trek dates back to the 1960s, and Star Wars to the 1970s, and here we are in 2018 and they are still trying to be valid and of the times we are living in. It’d be a bit like trying to bring back the 1930s serial Flash Gordon and expecting it still be modern and of our time- you could update it I guess but it wouldn’t have the b&w innocent charm of those serials, in a similar way to how Snyder’s Man of Steel update of Superman lost so much of what appealed to fans of Donner’s Superman: The Movie (the irony being that Superman Returns tried so hard to replicate the original and got criticised for just that).
My gut thinking is, ‘why bother?’, why not just do something new? What makes anyone think that Star Wars is really anything more than a trilogy released between 1977-1983? Was the biggest problem for Lucas’ prequels that they were a product of the 1990s-early noughties, and that the whole franchise should have been left behind, a problem doubly compounded for Disney trying to now do it decades later still? Is it possible, for instance, to return to The Matrix now, continue that series as if it could be just as valid now as it was back in 1999-2003? Like the old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’, if you have to change everything so much that it no longer looks or feels like the original, then why even bother?
Why indeed keep looking at the past, instead of developing something genuinely new and of our time?
So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery is yet another attempt to resurrect that old 1960s series whilst making it new and valid, albeit with the additional noose around its neck of being a prequel set ten years before the adventures of Kirk and Spock of the original show. It does seem the common perception these days that prequels just don’t work and we haven’t arrived at that perspective by accident. On the one hand, prequels are always handicapped by dramatic consequence- in the recent Solo movie, for instance, we ‘know’ from the outset that Han and Chewie will survive simply because they have to, as they appear in the original Star Wars movie set years later, as does the Millenium Falcon, so any tension we feel during action sequences etc is, er, severely hampered. Also, prequels cannot help but be seduced by unnecessarily fan service- in the case of the Solo movie, how Han met Chewie, how Han won the Falco from Lando, etc. Its like ticking boxes rather than telling a honest dramatic story.
So anyway, Star Trek: Discovery would quite possibly be a great space opera were it not for the fact that its pretending to be Star Trek. I mean, let’s be clear, it’s not Star Trek. It may have the name in its title, and it may have Vulcas and the Federation etc but its not Star Trek. The show’s Klingons are not Klingons. They do not look like Klingons, they have a language that requires subtitles and they don’t really behave like Klingons- certainly not the same Klingons that contested with Kirk back in the original Trek. Likewise all the tech thrown around in Discovery, the ships and the holograms and everything, its amazing and pretty to look at but it’s no way predating Kirk. A hundred years later, maybe, sure.
So my issue watching Discovery is simply this- it’s not a bad show, really, but it should be its own show. Slapping Star Trek on it is just, well, it doesn’t work, because it doesn’t look like a Star Trek show or feel like a Star Trek show, then, indeed, why bother? The writers seem so enamoured with updating everything and making it culturally relevant to ‘now’ that it loses sight of what the simple pleasures of the original were, and frankly if it insists on that, why call it Trek? I kept watching this show and I quite enjoyed it, but it never really felt like Trek and all the way through I kept asking myself why did they bother? What was the point of the show other than making money and appealing to an established fanbase rather than making one of its own?
Another issue is that it feels indebted to Roddenberry’s own revisionism in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he laboured the utopian ideal of Star Trek with no-one arguing or falling out or getting paid or having any life beyond Star Fleet and hopping around the galaxy. Its an irony that the characters of the ‘sixties show feel more ‘real’ than those of subsequent series simply because they are living, breathing characters having wild west-adventures in space without idealising how people behave or saddling everything with a Prime Directive that kills any dramatic tension.
But at least they keep the design of the original phasers, I guess we should be thankful for that.
Noel Clarke’s The Anomaly is an ambitious but sadly deeply flawed and very uneven sci-fi thriller. It takes a clever central conceit -Noel Clarke’s traumatised hero Ryan has his body taken over by a mad scientist, and only fleetingly regains consciousness after various periods of time to find himself in odd situations and in strange places. Each time he only has ten minutes to discover what is immediately going on and, ultimately, what the mad scientist is up to, before the scientist regains control.
The idea is intriguing but the execution is labored and stretches the patience of the viewer. I’ve summed up the central plot above, but bear in mind that for over an hour we don’t even know there is a mad scientist taking over Ryan’s body- its all a mystery, and for much of the time the audience is, like Ryan, flailing around at a loss as to just what is actually going on. Intellectually that might seem a good idea, and indeed might make an interesting short story, but applying it to a film is in practice a bad move. Its really more infuriating than interesting. For much of the time I thought it was some kind of time-travel/time-loop story, so was barking up the wrong tree completely.
So the film isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. When the main protagonist has no grounding, no central position or arc, its difficult to have any empathy for him or his predicament. It also doesn’t help that the film is also rather schizophrenic regarding what genre it is. Sometimes it feels like a mystery, sometimes a noir-thriller, and then it occasionally slips into some kind of poor-man’s Matrix; it descends into slow-mo, gratuitous violence, a boring Kung-Fu action flick in fight sequences that seem to be going on forever. It feels like Clarke is under the impression that more is better, that excess is king. Maybe that’s the wrong lesson to learn from the Hollywood big boys when you are shooting a low-budget genre flick.
Technically it remains impressive, with some great visual effects that belie the films very low budget, and the action sequences are handled very well considering the meagre resources at hand. In that sense, as a sort of low-budget proof of concept, the film likely will do Clarke no harm in his rise towards directing a major genre film someday. But its disjointed, sprawling mess of a narrative is extremely worrying and betrays a contradictory lack of control. If not Clarke, then someone, somewhere involved in this film should have slowed things down and applied some serious focus to the story. I do think had the central conceit of the mad scientist controlling his body been revealed at the start, and then Ryan’s plot-line been a straight attempt to thwart the scientists actions, each of his ten minute spells simply undermining the scientists actions, then it may have been a much better film.
The first rule of Mr Robot is that you don’t talk about Mr Robot. I could gush about how brilliant it is (and I will), but I can’t back that up with any reasons because, well, that would spoil the experience of actually watching it. Everything really has to be kept vague and inevitably mysterious but that’s sort of what the show is, it kind of sums up Mr Robot. You’re not really sure exactly what kind of show it is that you are watching, it keeps on shifting and twisting. And that ‘first rule’ stuff might sound very Fight Club but there’s a reason for that. Mr Robot is like some kind of love-child of Fight Club and The Matrix, except it’s possibly actually cooler than either. Its that good.
So anyway, keeping things vague and spoiler-free. Rami Malek is outstanding as nerdy nihilist hacker Elliot Anderson. His socially-challenged, drug-dependant character is an incredible performance, really nuanced, so much conveyed in his eyes, in his expressions… really incredible work. Christian Slater is great. All the cast is great. The photography is never less than gorgeous, the framing of shots quite exquisite and unusual. The scripts… the scripts are fantastic, but of course I can’t tell you why. It’s a subversive modern fairy tale, a social commentary, an examination of modern life, how we are more trapped than we would like to admit, how social media frees no-one, how corporations are the new Evil Empire (literally- the one here is even named Evil Corp). And its a thriller too. Oh, and the music score is fantastic, 80s-style keyboards and accompanied by great choices of source music.
But that’s it, thats all I can say. I could write so much more but no, you’ll have to watch those ten episodes yourself, unsullied by spoilers. Its the only way to discover this show. Beyond that, well, maybe that’s why we have comments sections. Feel free. But really, if you haven’t, you really need to see this series. If you don’t have Amazon Prime, then go buy the season one Blu-ray boxset. It really is one of the very best tv shows out there.
I’m not a film editor, or a cinematographer. I wouldn’t know how to stage a scene or design a set suitable for filming. I wouldn’t know how to produce a film or organise all the various departments that make a film, or even organise the on-set catering for a days shoot. And moan as I do about CGI, I wouldn’t know where to start regards designing or executing an effects sequence. So I can only imagine how annoying it must be to an artist or craftsman or director or producer when someone like me on the internet moans about their work or states that a film they worked on is terrible. Any idiot can voice an opinion about a film these days; a domain once dominated by professional critics has been swamped by all sorts of blogs and videos of teenagers stating their unreasoned opinions. And I do sometimes wonder if that’s to the detriment of films as a whole, that we are now getting the films we deserve because the voice of Joe Public is affecting the film-makers and the studios and their decision making.
Good films have suffered by the advance word of mouth of the loudest idiots who might have their own undisclosed and biased viewpoint. Bad films have triumphed simply by aiming at the lowest possible common denominator and then championed for it by that same denominator. I have sometimes thought that film-critics are just talentless hacks making a living off the work of others (the film-makers), under the misguided belief their opinion carried any particular importance- but multiply that by the genuinely untalented people sharing their sometimes mindless and unreasoned views on the internet and it becomes rather something scary.
I’m a part of that with this blog. I’m just a very small voice in a cacophony of opinion, praise and vitriol. I don’t expect my voice to be heard by anyone particularly important, although I did get a very nice comment from one of the editors/producers of Fantastic Films magazine when I praised the mag in my previous blog some years ago. I just love film, both as a serious art-form and a piece of entertainment. It can be mindless fun or incredibly thought-provoking or emotionally devastating, utterly disposable or something to be treasured. But how much weight my opinions carry, or even should carry, is hardly worth thinking about. I couldn’t make a film (although I like to think I could script one, which is why bad scripts and plot holes particularly occupy me in my reviews) but I know what I like, or at least, I like to think I know a bad film when I see one. I also think I try to see the best in a film; that no matter how cynical a film-maker can be, that no-one really sets out to make a bad film, and that most bad films at least have something going for them.
I was recently talking to my brother and he set upon trashing San Andreas as a truly terrible, worthless film. I started feeling rather defensive about the film, although my own review here on this blog awhile ago was pretty negative, and rightly so- its not a very good film. My point regards San Andreas was that while the script was daft nonsense and most of the actors seemed to be just in it for the pay cheque (and that must happen more often than we like to think), Alexandra Daddario, at least, seemed to be making some effort, perhaps because she thought the film could be good or if only because she reasoned that the film was her big break in movies. Some of the effects work was spectacular, particularly the physical stuff which is largely forgotten in these days of CGI. It wasn’t a very good film, it didn’t offer anything new or challenging- it was mostly just popcorn entertainment and, yes, cynically so with a bad by-the-numbers script. But was it a terrible film?
Is it realistic of us to expect all war films to be a Schindler’s List or The Thin Red LIne? Should standards be that high? Is that at all realistic in what is, essentially, an entertainment business? Or are we complicit in Hollywood making bad films simply by watching them, or in my case, seeing something good in a bad film and forgiving that film being bad if only because, well, a pretty actress seemed pretty good or was making some effort in it with her performance?
No-one works in a vacuum and there must be so many forces in play that conspire to make a ‘good’ film ‘bad’. There’s likely a lot of people working their absolute hardest to make a film the best that they think it can be, only for it to wind up in the DVD bargain bin in twelve months time. And yes, there’s a lot of people just going through the motions just doing it to pay the mortgage or buy a new sports car/yacht.
Which all seems to be a long-winded way of getting to the subject of this post- The Hobbit trilogy, the story of which seems to have finally come to an end with the Blu-ray release of the extended edition of the third entry, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Well, let’s be clear on one thing- The Hobbit films are not terrible films by any means. A lot of gifted artists and craftsmen worked on these films and they are a feast for the eyes and ears, like the LOTR films before them. The actors all do pretty good jobs- some of the work is excellent. Yet there’s a ‘but’ hanging in the air whenever people talk about The Hobbit films. Some people love them. Some people adore the Hobbit films and see little wrong with them. What could be wrong with another excursion into Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth? As for it being a trilogy, the more the better.
For the rest of us, well…
Was it too much of a good thing?
The LOTR films… they just… amazed me, basically. I’d read the Tolkien books many years ago and loved the Radio 4 dramatisation that transformed so many Sunday lunchtimes years before with what I was sure would be the definitive LOTR. But films? It was surely one of those unfilmable projects. And yet Peter Jackson, somehow he pulled it off. They were just magnificent. Yes, Tolkien purists had much to frown upon, but surely even they had to admit, that as films they were pretty damned amazing and could have been much, much worse. And even more astonishing, as good as the theatrical versions were, Jackson every year served up extended editions that just made them even better (although to be fair there are some that much prefer the theatrical versions). Okay, maybe there were a few issues and wrong turns but on the whole the films were sincere. We’d all heard the tales of earlier, aborted LOTR film-projects, of Sam being recast as a female hobbit and other characters altered to ensure an optimum audience demographic, of changes that made it less Tolkien and more, well, Hollywood. We’d all seen earlier fantasy films like Krull and Hawk the Slayer and Willow and Conan and how blatantly silly it could all look when things went wrong. I mean, Dwarves and Elves and Wizards and Orcs… on paper its wonderful but onscreen? Jackson’s LOTR took the Star Wars route. It took itself very seriously and while it diverted in places on the whole it at least felt fairly faithful to Tolkien’s work, certainly more faithful than we might have realistically hoped. As a body of work, as a trilogy, it was as magnificent as anything we could have hoped for.
Bear in mind where I’m coming from with this- I grew up in the age of stop-motion dinosaurs and blue screens and matte lines and grainy matte shots and static matte paintings.For the new generation, well, anything goes, the sky is the limit with effects technology now. For my generation, some of the things we have now, whether it be LOTR or Gravity or The Matrix, its just astonishing stuff. Unfortunately I’d suggest the sophistication of scripts and storytelling have been left behind by that tech- perhaps even taken a step backwards. But certainly it brings to mind Batty’s speech in Blade Runner, “…the things I’ve seen… you.. people wouldn’t believe”. We have digital characters now. Digital characters who at times seem to ‘act’ better than the ‘real’ characters they share scenes with. What used to be static process shots extended by paintings on glass have been replaced by sweeping camera moves through virtual worlds, of virtual sets featuring virtual people.
So after the success of LOTR, The Hobbit seemed inevitable, mired as it was in rights issues. Eventually it would happen, if only so the people with the rights could turn those rights into money. After all, thats all the rights were for anyway, and greed conquers all, at least in the film industry.
But The Hobbit isn’t The Lord of the Rings. As seriously as fans might treat it, it’s just a children’s story, a fairly simple fantasy of a quest involving a Hobbit and Dwarves and a magic ring and a dragon. Its fun. It never had the gravitas of Tolkien’s later opus. It was an exciting, three-hour film at most. When it was announced as two films, I figured it was envisaged as a pair of two-hour films, so the whole thing would be four hours- maybe a little excessive but I thought it might ease any pacing issues a single film might be saddled with. I expected a bright, breezy treat, a pleasant diversion to complement the LOTR epic.
I was wrong of course. What was actually intended was a ‘proper’ prequel to LOTR; something ultimately as reverential and serious as that trilogy. It became less Tolkien’s The Hobbit and more something else. Finally even two films would not be enough and it was turned into three. I won’t debate the obvious arguments on whether this was an artistic decision or a cynical financial one. To me the ultimate sin was a betrayal of basic storytelling; in my eyes, what should have been the finale of the second film (Smaug attacking Laketown and the conclusion of that whole Smaug section of the tale) being moved to the start of the third film, crippling the second film by taking away its thematic endpoint and handicapping the third with a major sequence divorced of all build-up and context.
The sad part about it is that, to be honest, The Hobbit films are pretty good films. I quite like them. I just think there’s too much of them. There is some great work both in front and behind the screen.But the films being made into a trilogy, and saddled with characters and character arcs and sequences not at all contained in the original book, have generally left a bad feeling about them, certainly a shadow of negativity. A feeling that they might have been great, had they just been The Hobbit, just been two films at most, just told the original story without the excessive ties being planted to bring it into line with the trilogy that follows them. There’s an unfortunate ‘what might have been’ over the whole project that LOTR wasn’t hampered with. I say unfortunate as it’s inevitable that the whole debate distracts from the films and what they do well. Some of the acting is great and what isn’t is often due to characters and situations being altered to better manage the whole ‘trilogy/prequel to LOTR’ thing, or simply because some characters shouldn’t even be in it at all. Even the LOTR extended editions cut scenes/events/characters from the story that bettered it overall. The Hobbit seemed to go the other way entirely, saddling it with stuff that should never have been scripted, let alone shot, to the detriment of the film/s as a whole.
The cynic in me thinks its just about the money. The Hobbit, for me, needed to be smaller, more intimate, a separate entity from LOTR. I just suspect that the money took over the project, that it suddenly became too big, too epic. I mean, really, pretty much a whole film dedicated to just the big battle? Tell me its not about putting more bums on seats, three sets of cinema tickets compared to two or even one, three sets of DVDs and Blu-rays as opposed to two or one (die-hard fans buying both theatrical and extended editions have bought six releases on either format in order to ‘own’ The Hobbit?). The cynic in me thinks the money wins because artistically The Hobbit wasn’t better for being three films as opposed to two or one. There’s probably a fan edit doing the rounds even now that tightens things up to a three-hour version, maybe it could be tightened even more, it’d be interesting to see. I think its a shame. Nobody set out to make a bad Hobbit trilogy, but it just kind of turned out that way. Maybe the project just got out of control, became too ambitious, lost its roots (a very simple book). It isn’t terrible, there’s plenty of good in them. Two good films anyway. But three was just pushing it too far.
Well, at least that’s what I think, for what it’s worth…