A Giant’s Journey – The Triumphant 20 Year Rise of The Iron Giant

The art-form of animation has many different faces, but it’s evolution over the years has heralded many different eras with the medium as well.  For the longest time, when people thought of animation, the thing that would pop into their mind was the traditional hand drawn, painted cel form of animation.  This was mainly because the people responsible for bringing animation into mainstream popularity were the people at the Walt Disney Company as well as those at Warner Brothers with their line of Looney Tunes shorts.  And for many years, they set the standard for what the public would accept as the look of hand drawn animation.  While the medium was pushed forward by leaps and bounds made by the artists at both studios, the success they saw also in a way stifled any artistic deviation within animation.  Disney stuck mostly with making safe, family-friendly fare while Warner Brothers stuck with cartoonish slapstick, and since they saw continued success because of this, other up and coming studios never strayed too far from the formula.  To really take the medium further into more daring territory and do something completely different in animation, you usually had to work independently like animators Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi did, and those guys were lucky to see even one of their movies turn a profit.  After a tough time for animation in the 70’s and 80’s, the Disney studio came roaring back with an era now known as the Disney Renaissance.  Again, with one studio dictating the popularity of the art-form, there was less enthusiasm for deviating from the formula in animation, and the business of animation became less about finding one’s own voice and instead more like seeing what Disney was doing right and trying to copy it.  That unfortunately led to many competitors creating what you could call Disney-lite animated films, which were movies trying way to hard to be like a Disney movie but lacking that one thing that made Disney stand apart.  In turn, this only drove down the different brands of these animation studios, as audiences lost their trust in them.  Sadly this happened at the worst possible time for that one movie that indeed stood out from the rest and was destined to become a classic on it’s own; The Iron Giant (1999).

If you could point to an animated movie that came from outside the Disney Studios that can be considered among the best of all time, Iron Giant would be that movie.  In fact, when I compiled my own list of the best non-Disney or Pixar animated films as seen here, this was the one that I put at the very top.  This movie is an absolute masterpiece of animation, and the thing that is great about it is that it can stand perfectly on it’s own without ever having to be compared to another film in the Disney canon.  It is stylistically very different, taking more of it’s inspiration from Cold War era character designs as well as using a Norman Rockwell style grounded approach to the environments.  In terms of narrative, it also deviates heavily from Disney.  It’s not a fairy tale, but rather science fiction.  There are no talking animals, no songs, no magical happy ever after.  It’s about real people in a real town who are suddenly introduced to a very massive visitor from outer space.  And it even deals with some very heavy subjects like death, social paranoia, war, and being ostracized for being different in small town America.  But at the same time, the movie is not the anti-Disney movie.  Classic Disney from the Golden Age of the 1950’s also gives the movie some inspiration, particularly in the color palette.  And it’s message of friendship between the unlikeliest of companions is something that feels like it could have appealed to even Uncle Walt himself.  The movie is rightly seen as a masterpiece today, but believe it or not, The Iron Giant was in it’s time one of the biggest box office flops of it’s day.  It performed so badly in fact that the animation studio responsible for it, Warner Brothers Feature Animation, closed it’s doors soon after.  Apart from it’s unusual road to becoming reality, the really fascinating story about The Iron Giant is how it managed to stay in people’s consciousness and eventually find it’s audience, sometimes even many years later.  It’s all a testament to the fact that great movies never die; they just get reborn.

The beginnings of The Iron Giant stem all the way back to the very Cold War era setting that is seen in the film.  The original children’s book on which the movie is based called “The Iron Man,” was written by author and poet Ted Hughes.  His book is a simple tale of friendship that is built around the bond between a boy and the living war machine that he befriends.  Within the tale, Hughes delivers a powerful yet subtle anti-war message, essentially exploring the idea of what would happen if a “gun” decided it didn’t want to be a “gun.”  It’s in choosing the path of refusing one’s destructive programming in favor of a pacifist life that defines the Giant’s story and it’s that message that became so appealing to filmmakers interested in adapting the story.  You can see echos of the tale in movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), but it wasn’t until a rising star in the field of animation named Brad Bird came across it that the book was finally going to see it’s jump to the big screen.  Bird, a contemporary of many now legendary Disney animators, managed to find his footing in animation outside the “house of mouse,” working on shows like The Simpsons and Amazing Stories instead.  Despite calls from Disney to come over and join their team, Bird instead set up home in the newly formed Feature Animation unit of Warner Brothers.  Warners was renowned for their Looney Tunes shorts, but until the 90’s they had largely stayed away from making feature films like Disney.  But, with the Disney Renaissance becoming a monumental success, Warners quickly cobbled together their own studio to take advantage of this new trend that was making a mint for their competitor.  Their first feature would be the very Disney-esque Quest For Camelot (1998), with Bird’s directorial debut coming up second right after it.  Though someone of Bird’s talent was capable of tackling any project, it’s still logical that The Iron Giant would be the thing that he would tackle first as a director.

For one thing, the Cold War era setting is something of a favorite for the director.  If you look through all of Brad Bird’s filmography, there is a clear heavy influence of the retro graphic style of the 1950’s throughout his films.  It’s there in The Incredibles movies as well as the movie Tomorrowland (2015), which practically is a time capsule of a different era in itself.  No doubt he wanted to explore that era graphically, but the movie’s powerful story of friendship no doubt played a big part in bringing him to the project.  Working with a script adaptation from Tim McCanlies, Bird’s approach to Ted Hughes original book is remarkably faithful, albeit it changes the original English setting to a distinctly American one, and it also removes the giant alien bat that appears in the original book’s climax.  No doubt the focus was put on getting the relationship right between the Giant and the young boy, and that’s where the movie really soars as a narrative.  There is nothing forced or schmaltzy about the bond that they form.  When we meet the young boy named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) he already has an interest in strange and out there ideas, so he would respond to meeting a 50 foot tall robot differently than a more closed minded individual.  The Giant himself is also wonderfully naive about his true nature, and the movie has a lot of fun showing him forgetting just how big and powerful he really is; acting like a giant, metal puppy dog.  There’s no dobut that the animated medium was the only way to effectively tell this kind of story, because through animation, you could best convey the wide range of emotions seen in the Giant’s transformation from monster, to playmate, to ultimately savior.  But, it’s also a testament to Brad Bird as a director that he grounds the movie in a sense of authenticity as well.  Even while the extraordinary is happening throughout the story, it never feels cartoonish nor fanciful.  And in that sense, Bird made an animated feature that indeed felt unlike anything else at the time.

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the film was going into theaters standing upon was far from solid.  The Disney Renaissance was already beginning to wane in it’s later years, with modest successes like Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) being overshadowed by the disappointing receptions of Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997).  Plus, all the copycat films trying to follow the Disney formula like Fox’s The Swan Princess (1995) and Don Bluth’s Anastasia (1997) all under-performed and made audiences grow weary of the animation medium as a whole.  At the same time, computer animation was growing into a bigger threat with every new release, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998) both becoming huge box office hits.  Naturally the timing was terrible for Warner Brothers who came too late into the came.  Quest for Camelot was panned by critics, being labeled as a cheap Disney knock off, which did not put the new studio on solid footing.  A lot of pressure was resting on The Iron Giant to pick up the ball after Camelot had dropped it.  The movie did, thankfully, receive widespread praise from critics, but that didn’t help it enough.  The movie was unfortunately released the same mid-August weekend as M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Sixth Sense (1999), which of course became a box office phenomenon.  After being buried in theaters, the movie only made a quarter of it’s original budget back, which only accelerated the downfall of Warner’s animation studio.  The studio cut it’s staff after The Iron Giant’s initial release and left only a handful to finish their next and last feature, the animation/ live action hybrid Osmosis Jones (2001).  Brad Bird left Warners soon after and made his way over to Pixar, where he was able to get a little pet project off the ground called The Incredibles (2004), which would of course help turn him into a household name thereafter.  It’s just unfortunate that once a studio finally had something special to set it apart in a Disney driven world, it was far too late to undo all the bad mistakes of the past.

But, like all great movies, the film didn’t fade into obscurity.  Those film critics who heralded the film in it’s initial release continued to sign it’s praises long after.  Eventually, word of mouth carried the movie along, and once it reached home video, it sold far better than Warner Brothers had expected.  After that, the Cartoon Network licensed the movie for airing on their channel, and again, it enjoyed solid viewership every time it played. With solid home entertainment numbers coming in, the movie no longer appeared to be the embarrassment that Warner Brothers had thought they had before.  Now, it was a modest success, albeit now at a time when Warner Brothers no longer had the infrastructure in place to follow up this success with.  It didn’t matter at the time that they no longer were making animated movies, since Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were already making them plenty of money.  But, The Iron Giant did become a clear sign that they could make an animated movie that could rival those made by Disney in terms of quality, if not box office success.  The fact that of all the animated movies released in the year 1999, including Tarzan, South Park, and Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant is the one that celebrated the most 20 years later is really a testament to it’s lasting staying power.  Eventually, Warner Brothers would reopen their animation studios, albeit for computer animation instead of hand drawn, and make celebrated films like Happy Feet (2006) and The Lego Movie (2014) out of it.  The Iron Giant may not have directly re-convinced the studio to invest in the medium once again, but it probably helped convince Warners that they had a place in the history of animation worth preserving.

It is pretty remarkable to see how widespread the legacy of The Iron Giant has gone beyond the film’s place at Warner Brothers animation itself.  It’s been referenced in many different films, most prominently in Steven Spielberg’s recent big budget extravaganza Ready Player One (2018).  The Iron Giant himself gets an extended cameo within the movie, even participating in the movie’s climatic battle scene.  It’s also interesting how it’s managed to influence the career of the actor who got to bring voice to the Giant himself.  Vin Diesel won the part over some long established veterans in voice acting, including legendary Transformers alum like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, and it was now doubt due to Diesel’s natural low bass voice.  Diesel, a relative newcomer at the time, brings so much humanity into the role, and remarkably does so with a limited vocabulary.  When your character says only a handful of lines, it takes talent to find the personality underneath those few words, and Diesel somehow managed to do it.  Much like how Karloff found the humanity in Frankenstein’s simple way of speaking, Diesel managed to create an endearing character with a few grunts and growls.  But where his performance really shines is in the closing moments of the movie, which is the film’s most famous scene.  When the film’s villain recklessly launches a nuclear weapon at the town where Hogarth and the Giant live, the Iron Giant consciously self-sacrifices himself to save everyone.  Before this, Hogarth has introduced the Giant to comic book icons, and in particular Superman, which the Giant takes a liking to.  As the Giant nears his fateful impact with the warhead, Hogarth’s words ring in his ear, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be,” meaning he didn’t need to be the weapon he was built as, and in a perfectly delivered line reading from Vin Diesel, the Giant realizes who he desires to be in that moment; “Superman.”  That moment still gives people goosebumps to this day in it’s absolutely perfect execution of uplifting pathos.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this role would one day lead to Vin Diesel delivering such an endearing presence through a simple reading of the words “I am Groot.”

There’s no doubt about it; The Iron Giant is an all time classic and one that thankfully has matured well over these last 20 years since it’s original premiere.  It’s a shame that it’s blundered original release only accelerated the further downfall of traditional animation as a fixture within the industry, but it’s not a reflection of the quality of the film itself, obviously.  Traditional animation sadly had no answer to the groundswell that was computer animation, which more or less took everything over in the new century.  It’s only thanks to the fond memories that we have for The Iron Giant and the Disney Renaissance that traditional animation still has a presence in our culture today.  The Iron Giant even shows that there is a place for films made outside of Disney that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their canon.  The Iron Giant has so much to offer for those who are looking for something different, or just for something that honors the medium of traditional animation with every lovingly crafted frame.  Brad Bird clearly put a lot of heart into the film, both as a fan of the story and of animation itself.  It’s no mistake that Hogarth’s surname is a nod to the original author of the book, and there is a wonderful little Easter egg for animation buffs when we meet the two elderly train conductors, based on real life Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who also provided their own voices too).  But what’s probably most important about The Iron Giant’s 20 year legacy is that it’s universal themes feel even more relevant today.  It’s all about a character built to be destructive choosing to reject those instincts and learning to be a good person.  The Giant chooses not to be a gun, which is the fundamental message of Ted Hughes original narrative.  In a world we live in now, when it’s become so easy to act out in destructive ways as weapons of division and destruction are more widely available to us, it’s all the more inspiring to see a literal weapon of war making the conscious decision to reject his programming and choose to be better than all that.  He chooses to be a hero; he chooses to be Superman.  And that’s what makes The Iron Giant more than just a great cartoon; it’s a great and profound movie in general, and one that will remain a Giant in cinema for all time.

What the Hell Was That? – Wild Wild West (1999)

It may be hard for a millennial film goer to know what the late 90’s were like for cinema.  For one thing, there was a lot less super hero movies released every summer.  Before Marvel and DC began flexing their muscles, the 90’s were a time when blockbusters were centered around movie stars, who at that time were starting to command paychecks reaching $20 million dollars a movie or more.  In this same time, you saw a lot more variety in the kinds of movies being made, because as long as a bankable star was attached, people would flock to the theater to see it.  It was a particularly strong time for things like the historical epic, the sci-fi adventure, and the romantic comedy; movies that you typically don’t see get the green-light for blockbuster treatment nowadays.  And in this time, we saw the meteoric rise of many a movie star.  If there was one whose ascent defined the 90’s in a nutshell, it would be Will Smith.  The former Fresh Prince had just wrapped up a successful run on television and felt it was time to branch out into television.  Starting with the modestly successful Bad Boys (1994), a buddy cop film from Michael Bay co-starring comedian Martin Lawrence, Will would later play a starring role in two of the 90’s biggest box office hits back to back; Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Each movie built on the one before and in a short span of time, Will Smith went from a cinematic neophyte to the King of Hollywood.  Couple this with a resurgence in his rap music career, leading the entire nation to start “getting jiggy with it,” and it appeared that nothing could stand in his way.  But, as we would soon find out, it could also take one disaster of a movie to grind that train to a halt.

The downside to the much of the celebrity obsessed culture of the 90’s is that Hollywood put perhaps too much trust in the actor’s ability to bring in an audience.  This often led to a lot of movies either turning out mediocre, because quality mattered less than star power, or they let productions run amok solely hoping for the name recognition to help bail them out in the end.  That’s why the 90’s ended up being a mixed bag for a lot of movie stars, who would be responsible for a lot of the good and bad through much of the decade.  For every Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) there was a Father’s Day (1997); for every My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) there was a Runaway Bride (1999); for every Ace Ventura (1993) there was a Cable Guy (1997); all movies that pale in comparison to their predecessors.  But a lot of these movies could still benefit their selective stars (Robin Williams, Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey) respectively, since it kept them largely in the spotlight.  It had to take something tanking extra hard to change all this emphasis on movie star appeal leading the market, and that movie unfortunately had to involve Will Smith, who was a the peak of his powers in 1999.  Coming immediately off of the success of Men in Black, Will and director Barry Sonnenfeld were looking to collaborate on something again, given their great experience working on their last film.  Not wanting to go right into a sequel, Sonnenfeld latched onto a project that he felt would be an ideal follow-up; a big screen adaptation of a cult tv series from the 60’s called The Wild, Wild West.  The original series, starring Robert Conrad, was a quirky spin of Western tropes with a little bit of science fiction thrown in.  Having just succeeded making a comical science fiction action flick with Men in Black, Sonnenfeld hoped to do the same in the Western as well, and sadly, he would realize too late how wrong his approach would end up being.

The Wild Wild West series, was a product of it’s time; campy, and low budget; typical of other likewise shows of the time like Batman and The Green Hornet.  And that low budget sensibility is what helped it find it’s footing, because the show relied much more on it’s creative story-telling and quirky personalities.  Which leads to the very first problem you will find apparent with Barry Sonnenfeld’s mega-budget adaptation; it’s unnecessary excess.  The movie, Wild Wild West (1999) cost a then staggering $175 million to make (eclipsed only by Titanic’s $200 million at the time).  That’s an acceptable amount of money to spend on a historical epic, but not on an adaptation of a tv series, and one that was budget-minded to boot.  Understandably, a lot of people saw that the movie missed the point of the show, which was a point stressed at the time by the show’s original star Robert Conrad, who refused to cameo in the movie and has in the years since publicly mocked this film relentlessly.  But, exactly where did all the money go?  Well, upon viewing the movie, you will notice quite a bit of the film devoted to showcasing the many gadgets of the character Artemus Gordon (played by Kevin Kline), an eccentric inventor and government agent assigned to work with Jim West (played by Will Smith).  A lot of the gadgetry feels out of place, like holdovers from Men in Black, only in a post-Reconstruction America setting, and it shows just how devoid of creativity the filmmakers had in making this movie.  They weren’t interested in adapting the TV series; they just wanted to do Men in Black again, only as a Western this time.  From Artemus’ needlessly complex train, to the neck magnet death machine of villain Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by a very hammy Kenneth Branagh), to the infamous giant spider (more about that later); the film clearly wants to show off and it does it in the poorest possible way, showing very clearly that a little bit too much hope was vested in the ability of it’s movie star to carry this clunky mess.

Which brings us to the involvement of Will Smith.  Will could not have been more beloved around the world than he was near the turn of the century.  His movies were beloved, his albums were #1 hits; he was on top of the world.  But, that overconfidence probably clouded his judgement leading up to the making of Wild Wild West.  It’s been said that Will Smith took on the role of Jim West because he was a fan of the original series, and also having the role be written for him in a bit of color blind casting must have been appealing as well.  That said, this misguided career move also took Will away from other roles that may have taken his career in a different direction.  For one thing, he apparently turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix (1999) in order to appear in Wild Wild West.  Can you imagine how different cinema and his film career would have been had he taken the red pill instead?  All that aside, Will doesn’t look too bad in the role.  The costuming department clearly set out to make Will appear stylish in an all black cowboy suit.  The same effort can not be said about his performance, however, as it becomes very clear early on how out of place Will is in this kind of movie.  Not that portraying Jim West as a black man is out of place; the concept is actually well executed.  No, instead, Will just resorts to the same tricks that he used in other movies, which makes him feel too modern for this Western setting.  He’s a man out of his time, and that becomes distracting after a while.  Kevin Kline fares a bit better fitting into the Western setting, but he’s not a good match for Will Smith as the co-star.  There’s a rhythm that you need to have in order to work as a pair with another actor, and Kline’s delivery is a tad too mcuh on the quirky side for most of the movie; perhaps more to do with the terrible screenplay than anything.  You can clearly see that Will’s performance is missing the stoicism of Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black to work off of, and he more or less is acting opposite another actor who is acting in the same quirky tone, emphasizing the mismatch.  Needless to say, Will Smith has stated that turning down The Matrix is the biggest regret of his career, and it’s clear to see why.

The humor of the movie is also something that is painfully awful about this movie.  For one thing, none of it ever works the way it way it was intended.  A lot of that has to do with the over abundance of CGI to bring a lot of the gadgets to life.  This came out at the point in the late 90’s when the wonder of CGI was starting to wear off on audiences.  Having started the decade off with something as mind-blowing as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), we were now being treated to computer rendered machines that stood in as a phallic sight gag.  Essentially, audiences stopped being impressed.  You also have Will Smith and Kevin Kline bickering throughout most of the movie in a way that I guess was intended to be charmingly funny, but we never get a chance to grow to like these characters, so it just feels forced.  These characters are not Riggs and Murtaugh; they’re just archetypes built for the actors who are portraying them, who are mismatched to begin with.  And some of the scenes that are meant to be the show-stoppers in terms of hilarity just end up stopping the show; grinding the movie to a halt and going on for what seems like forever.  A scene where Will Smith dresses in drag in order to distract the villain is especially painful to watch, because it’s both pointless and a shameful desperate ploy to get a laugh from the audience.  Yes it establishes early on that dressing in drag is a go to technique for Atremus Gordon for going undercover, but when the movie has Jim West doing the same thing, the plot just essentially breaks down and you feel embarrassed for the movie at this point, because it’s exploitative.  It makes it even worse that West’s drag persona is named Ebonia.  Yikes!!

Will Smith may have had the charisma to live through some sophomoric comedy bits, but the movie goes even more off the edge when they interject some very misguided racial undertones to the mix.  The absolute worst part of the movie lies in the absolute piss poor way that it deals with the issue of slavery in America, and the resulting racism that still persisted post-Civil War in the Old West.  The film tries to add some pathos in Jim West’s backstory, telling how he lost most of his family from a Confederate Army raid that destroyed a settlement of black refugees who escaped on the Underground Railroad.  Had the movie given more depth to West’s character, this backstory would’ve carried more resonance, but instead it’s just dropped on us as exposition, giving it absolutely zero power.  The racism prevalent in the Old West is nothing to take lightly, and it can even be dealt with seriously through humor, as Mel Brooks proved with Blazing Saddles (1974).  But, Wild Wild West is no where near as clever, so the fact that it tries to shoehorn in a tragic backstory like that just feels exploitative in the end.  But that’s nothing compared to a downright cringey scene where Jim West tries to smooth talk his way out of a lynching.  You heard that right.  Will Smith resorts to his “slick Willy” charm shtick in a scene where there is literally a noose around his neck, surrounded by a crowd of torch wielding white settlers.  For all of those who complained about Will Smith in blue skin from Disney’s Aladdin remake, you need to relax because Will can and has done much worse on film, and this scene is proof of that.  This lynching scene from Wild Wild West is without a doubt rock bottom for Will Smith as an actor, and may very well be one of the most offensive scenes that any mainstream film has ever put on screen.  There’s a lot about Wild Wild West to be embarrassed about, but this is the moment for me in particular where it just flat out became un-redeemable.

A lot of blame can be put on director Barry Sonnenfeld for taking the absolute wrong approach to the material, or on Will Smith for allowing his ego to cloud his own judgement, but as with many other runaway movie productions, you have to put much of the blame on the one responsible for the money itself.  That just so happens to be the infamously eccentric producer Jon Peters.  The hair-dresser turned producer had gained a steady stream of hits throughout the 1980’s, culminating with the mega success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  Into the 90’s, his track record began to wane, and he split from his producing partner Peter Gruber to venture out and make movies more suited to his own tastes.  He tried for many years to get Wild Wild West off the ground, including having Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner attached at one point, but it never came together.  Some of the problems arose from a few of Peters’ sometimes bizarre demands of the story.  One in particular arose out of another project he had been working on, which was a reboot of Superman called Superman Lives, directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage.  For that film, Peters commissioned fresh new director Kevin Smith to write the screenplay.  Among the many puzzling demands that Peters wanted Smith to put into the script one stood out; Superman had to fight a giant spider.  Kevin Smith left the project before it fell apart and always remembered that weird addition he put into script, which became an anecdote that he would retell for years after.  But what makes that anecdote so funny is that many years later, we would get a giant spider in a Jon Peters movie, and it was in Wild Wild West, where it felt even more out of place; appearing as the colossal steam-punk monstrosity built by Dr. Loveless in order to conquer the United States.  It’s the thing that Wild Wild West is probably most infamous for, and also the thing that it gets the most mockery from.  When the best your movie is good for is to be the punchline of a Kevin Smith anecdote, that’s when you know your movie is an absolute failure.  It’s not even bad enough to be a joke;  it’s a punchline.

Since it’s premiere, Wild Wild West has become the poster child for misguided, runaway studio productions built around the hubris and ego of it’s creative team.  In many ways, it spelled the end of the era of movie stars being the driving force of the industry, because if Will Smith, at the height of his celebrity, couldn’t lift this mess to a less embarrassing box office run, then it meant that name recognition wasn’t the magic key Hollywood after all.  Studios became a lot more cautious in the years since, and as a result movie stars took a back seat when compared to the appeal of the brand in Hollywood, with stars taking rolls in smaller films in order to keep their names in the spotlight.  Will Smith, likewise, retreated from making big budget movies for a while, at least on the same level.  It’s only recently that he’s gotten back to the box office numbers that he had been pulling from the 90’s with his two most recent blockbuster hits Suicide Squad (2016) and Aladdin (2019).  Even still, you can see how negatively Wild Wild West left a mark on his film career for a while.  It effectively screeched the momentum of his career to a halt, and completely forced him to reassess what he was doing when picking his film roles.  He’s fared okay since then, with modest successes and a couple Oscar nominations, but those early years still stand out as the ones that people most fondly remember.  Wild Wild West is more of a cautionary tale than anything.  It shows us what happens when a movie production becomes too over-confident and too reckless with it’s own indulgences.  It also proves that It seems foolish to try to invest so much money into the  Western genre; a lesson that foolishly was forgotten in the wake of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and was overlooked once again with the equally disastrous The Lone Ranger (2013).  Some of these may have fumbled good intentions, but Wild Wild West was just doomed from the beginning, with it’s lazy approach towards the material, it’s reliance on self-indulgent excess (a giant, freaking Spider!!!) and just flat out offensive use of serious, real world injustices.  I could go on and on, but the flat out point is that Wild Wild West is a travesty of a movie that unfortunately ruined the solid reputation of the people involved, and now is just best referred to as the punchline that it is.

Who’s in Charge? – Directorial Vision and the Shifting Dynamics of Control in Hollywood

Last week, director Quentin Tarantino released what he considers to be his 9th (if you count both volumes of Kill Bill as a single movie) and penultimate feature film; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and set in and around the heart of the film industry at the height of the 60’s counterculture, with the upending Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate as the backdrop, is quintessential Tarantino, which is good news for anyone who’s a fan of his work.  It’s indulgent, lengthy, and extra violent, but also hilariously observant of all the quirks of both the world of Hollywood and the people who inhabit it.  But what makes the movie even more remarkable is the way it stands out in the current field of the summer box office.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it turns out is a real oddity in today’s Hollywood; an original concept film from an acclaimed director that’s not a sequel or a remake, and one that is capable of opening to healthy blockbuster numbers against tough competition.  Had this movie come from another director, I don’t think it would have nearly been as successful as it has, and would have probably quickly run through the art house circuit before fading into obscurity.  But because Tarantino has built a reputation and a fan base over the last few decades, he was able to generate enough hype around this movie to give it the best opening weekend box office of his career.  And even more amazing is the fact that he did it without ever having to compromise his vision.  Once Upon a Time is through and through a Tarantino film, and that is why people are showing up in big numbers to watch it.  All this makes Quentin Tarantino one of the most envied filmmakers in the business, because he has the power to deliver the movies he wants to make and have them succeed at the box office.  For most others, power like that is very hard to come by.

There really are only a handful of directors today that have the kind of artistic sway that Tarantino has on his movies, and even fewer are able to consistently deliver at the box office as well.  The only other director who is able to deliver an un-compromised vision like that and still generate huge grosses is Christopher Nolan.  Nolan certainly has his history working in mainstream franchises (the Dark Knight trilogy) but it’s his own original work that people have become most fascinated with.  His 2010 film, Inception, became one of that year’s most profitable movies, and cemented him not only as one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, but also gave him the goodwill to pursue even more ambitious projects in the future, something he has continued to do with Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and his upcoming Tenet (2020).  And like Tarantino, his name now is synonymous with big screen grandeur, which may seem strange today to think as being unusual for a filmmaker, considering the fact that there are so many big name directors out there.  But, here’s the thing: how many directors out there can sell a film purely on their own name alone, let alone have it be their untarnished vision brought to the big screen.  Most of the time, for a director to see their complete vision make it to the big screen, they either have to tamper expectations or compromise, because Hollywood just doesn’t invest in bold, directorial styles anymore.  If a director is lucky or talented enough, they may be able to work outside the system to maintain the purity of their vision within their body of work, but it’s a rare thing, and rarely do you get to the level of Tarantino or Nolan from it.  You have your Wes Anderson’s and David Lynch’s in this group, but you also have your Richard Kelly’s and M. Night Shaymalan’s as well.  The director is a powerful position within the film business, but over time the role of a director has diminished as a level of importance when it comes to determining whether or not a movie will be a hit.

The power over what gets made and how it gets made has shifted dramatically over the years.  For many years, the movie star became the biggest selling point of a movie.  The output of a studio was very much determined by the strength of their stable of contract players and, as was often the case, the bigger the profile of the movie star the better choices of movie roles they would get.  And the studios would push their movie stars heavily, whether or not the movies were any good, because it was what the audiences wanted to see more than anything.  But, after the break-up of the studio system in the early 50’s, the movie star appeal was no longer the driving factor in Hollywood.  Now it was spectacle, as new technologies were created to help movies compete against the rise of television.  Widescreen, surround sound, 3D, and other gimmicks were introduced as the main selling point of movies of this era, and it brought to audiences larger than life productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of which were defined by the epic size of their productions.  And then came the 1970’s, which ushered in an era that very much changed the landscape of Hollywood, to the point where we are still feeling it’s effects today.  For decades before, the concept of the auteur in film-making had been gaining traction within the industry, thanks in  part to European film scholars who themselves became auteur filmmakers themselves and ushered in the New Wave era in movies.  Celebrating uncompromising directors of the past like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood embraced the auteur theory of it’s past glory, and gave more power to the director than ever before.  The 70’s was the era of the movie director, with up and comers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and William Friedkin being allowed creative freedom from the powers that be in the industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have been given in any other time, and gaining success at the same time.  This continued with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would continue to keep the identity of the director a powerful force within the industry, even as it continued to change.

Now, the seas of change have shifted again, and right now it is neither the director nor the movie star that has become the biggest draw in Hollywood.  The power of one’s brand has become the leading currency in today’s film industry, with all the biggest movies coming out today in some shape or form stemming from a pre-established franchise.  Whether it’s your Marvel, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Fast and the Furious, it doesn’t matter what the name of the movie is or what level of quality it represents, if it’s attached to the a popular brand, people will watch them.  Disney is even taking their own classic animated films and remaking them in live action, to the point of completely copy and pasting the original scripts like with The Lion King (2019), and people are still seeing these movies in droves.  For the most part, people are seeing these movies for what they are and for how they are placed within their franchises as a whole.  It matters less now who is starring in them and even fewer people in the audience are aware of who is directing them too.  Avengers: Endgame didn’t become the top grossing film of all time because the Russo Brothers directed it or because it starred Robert Downey Jr. (though both things probably helped that out a little).  It became the top grossing film because it was the Marvel movie to eclipse all other Marvel movies.  This is a business now clearly concerned with finding name brands that will capture the imagination of audiences, and the role that the actors and directors play only matter as a mean of making the brand look better.  There’s nothing wrong with using brand appeal as a means of selling a film, but as some would tell you, it’s not an ideal place for filmmakers who want to carve out their own identity.  The filmmakers and cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all incredible, but they also understand that the movies they are making only have the attention they have received because they are part of the Marvel franchise, and therefore are identified as Marvel creations rather than independent films.  And in a market where franchises are continually becoming the dominant force, this leads to far less individuality and ingenuity on display in the broad market.

Which makes the Tarantino’s and Nolan’s so rare today in Hollywood.  For them to get to this point in their careers, it had to take years of establishing themselves as the brand; that their movies bear the unmistakable mark of their vision.  As their audiences grew, so did the budgets allowed to bring their visions to life, to the point where they can now make any film with their name attached into an event.  But, it has to be understood, these guys are the rare cases.  They are at the point of their careers where they can deliver on ambitious projects, because they have the trust of the studios behind them, and in many cases, they lucked out by making movies that find their audiences at just the right time.  For many other directors, they have to work through different channels in order to do something ambitious, and in many cases this leads them to sacrificing some ambition.  Unfortunately, if you are a beloved art house director who wants to make something grander, and that involves making compromises with a major studio in order to find the funding, it sadly leads to claims by their fan-base that they’ve “sold out.”  The fear of being labeled a sell out is enough to deter many a director from taking that next step.  It’s probably why you still see filmmakers with very definitive vision like Terrence Malik working well outside the system, making movies limited by smaller budgets, but are purer to the director’s intended vision.  That’s why you see far fewer “auteur” style directors working within the system.  Sure, these directors are all excellent at what they do, but their direction is far more flexible and open to compromise, which in turn makes their work less “visionary.”  For some directors, vision is everything while others value the work and the paycheck, and for the studios, they have far more confidence in investing in the latter.

The turn to devalue the auteur identity of the director and embrace the value of the brands occurred mostly because of two reasons.  One, was the decline of the studios trust in the director’s ability to deliver through on their ambitious projects.  Despite seeing the rise of the prestige directors in the early part of the decade, the latter part of the 70’s saw many runaway film projects that got to big to handle, all because the directors had been given too much power.  This was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s massive Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, which went massively over-budget.  Coppola actually had to be sent back home by Paramount, because he was just continuously filming with no real idea of where to end his movie.  Thankfully for Coppola and Paramount, the movie recouped it’s massive budget, but Coppola was never trusted with anything as ambitious ever again.  The same luck didn’t pan out for Michael Cimino.  Having just come off the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino was granted almost complete control over his next film, which was going to be the epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980).  It too went massively over-budget and over-schedule, but unlike Apocalypse Now, it didn’t recoup it’s then record breaking budget, and it even put it’s studio, United Artists, out of business as an independent producer.  Heaven’s Gate is widely regarded as the movie that spelled the end of the era of the director in Hollywood, but it was the rise of the blockbuster in the 80’s that really diminished the impact of the director even more.  Even though a name like Spielberg still carried weight in this time, general audiences were far more interested in high concepts and broader entertainment than they were interested in who was behind the camera.  People didn’t watch Back to the Future (1985) because Robert Zemekis’ name was attached to it; they watched because it was a movie with a time machine made out of a DeLorean.  The time had arrived when the movies far out-shined the people who made them.

It is interesting how time has flipped the power dynamics in Hollywood.  First it was the movie star and then director, now it’s the name recognition of the franchise itself that carries the weight in the business, and that mostly puts the power within the industry into the hands that control the brands themselves; the producers and executives.  That’s probably why so many cinephiles lament this time in Hollywood so much, because far less power belongs to the artists and far more is given to the people running the business.  But, when box office grosses matter, fewer creative risks are taken.  We just have to trust that the people investing the money and organizing the productions have a vested interest in entertaining as well.  That’s mainly what separates a Marvel from everything else; because producer Kevin Feige has a clear intention on doing justice to the brands that he’s in charge of.  But even as the business of theatrical film-making has been coursing in this direction for years, the industry itself is also evolving once again, which in a way is allowing for more creative freedom to return to the directors.  Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+ are giving filmmakers a chance to experiment once again with more ambitious budgets, because they are being funded by companies less concerned by box office results.  That’s why we’re seeing so many directors flocking to these channels, because they are finally being given the opportunity to make more personal projects again, but with unbound ambition thanks to platforms that care more about having something unique on their platform and less generic.  This is something that recently has challenged the status quo within the industry, and it will be interesting to see if this does open up a new era where the director becomes king once again.

For one thing, you’ll never see Quentin Tarantino leap over to streaming only for his films.  He’s a stickler for the in theater experience, which is why he always shoots his movies on film with the intention of having them screened in large formats.  Christopher Nolan likewise shoots most of his movies in IMAX, which demands the viewer to watch his films on the largest screens possible, as they lose much of their impact in home viewing.  But, they have reached the point where they can comfortably survive doing things the old fashioned way in this “new Hollywood.”  For other directors who haven’t gotten to that point, there is a dilemma that they have to face.  To deliver a movie on the big screen, they either have to compromise or work within a budget, or they can see their visions fully realized with substantial budgets in the streaming world, but never have it play theatrically as a sacrifice.  If anything, streaming has given back some clout to the brand of a director, but with their insistence on exclusive access, they also restrict the ability for the director’s vision to be seen in the way it sometimes should.  Movies like Roma and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman should be seen on the big screen, but unfortunately Netflix just doesn’t have the ability or the desire to give these films wide releases.  As a result, maintaining one’s vision now has another compromise within this industry; albeit, one that at least grants them more access to funding than what’s been allowed in the last couple decades.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as streaming becomes a far bigger player within the industry.  In the meantime, it is reassuring that some visionaries like Quentin Tarantino still have the clout within the business to pull together un-compromised films that still find a large audience.  It’s also pleasing to note that this new stand out film from him is also a love letter to the glory of Hollywood itself, particularly hearkening back to an earlier time when movie stars and directors were the star attractions.