All posts by James Humphreys

A Defense for Ron Weasley – The Potterverse’s Misunderstood Hero and Why Second Bananas Matter in Cinema

The legacy of the Harry Potter films over the last decade has been a fruitful one for those involved with it’s creation.  Author J.K. Rowling  has further expanded the universe in which she has created into, among other various things, several spinoff books, a whole backstory franchise called Fantastic Beasts, as well as an online community network where fans of the novels can experience a connection to the Potterverse with a uniquely personal touch.  But central to all of that is the seven volume series devoted to the boy wizard himself.  Harry Potter’s journey captivated the world, both on the page and on the screen, and nearly a decade after the conclusion of that journey, audiences have been left with a deep attachment to the Wizarding World.  But the interesting thing is that it isn’t Harry as a character alone that continues to hold a special place in the hearts of all, but really everything in the series as a whole.  Audiences of all kinds talk about everything from the rules of Quidditch, to which house in the school of Hogwarts is the best, to their favorite side characters, and often it’s Harry himself that factors least within their fandom, partially because what more is there to say about him.  It’s the discussions of the characters that inhabit Harry’s world that I find fascinating, because it reveals so much about how people project themselves into the story.  Because Rowling set her story within a classroom setting, we naturally think about the types of people we knew ourselves in school, especially our friends.  Harry’s story is shaped by his friendships, and in particular, those of his closest allies; the resourceful and bright Hermoine Granger and the clumsy but loyal Ron Weasley.  Most fans put more value into Hermoine’s role in the story, but I would argue that Ron’s role in the story has just as much merit, and sadly he far too often is misunderstood as a hero, even by the author herself.

I thought it was a very peculiar stance made by J.K. Rowling when she gave an interview to Wonderland Magazine back in 2014.  In the interview, she stated that she believed that Hermoine should’ve ended up with Harry Potter at the end of the series and not Ron as she did in the books.  The  reason she wrote their budding relationship into the books is because it was something that was always part of her overall draft of the full narrative of the books, and over time as she soured on the idea of bringing them together, she still stuck by the original arc, because it was already too intertwined into the full narrative.  She also made a shocking confession earlier that she even considered killing Ron off before the novel’s finale.  Thankfully, she never utilized these narrative angles, but you have to wonder, why did she feel so negative about such a beloved character.  It perhaps had more to do with the way his character meshed with that of Hermoine.  Their relationship is certainly one of those “opposites attract” types, with the hyper intelligent girl falling for the simple minded boy.  In a way, I feel that Rowling felt ashamed of the point that, by story’s end, Hermoine ends up turning into some kind of reward for Ron because of his good deeds, and she didn’t want her independent minded heroine turned into a trophy.  In addition, it seemed from her statements in the interview that she didn’t view Ron as the ideal kind of man, noting that him and Hermoine were likely to have gone through numerous couples therapy sessions.  That last point feels especially unfair once she states how she would have preferred Harry to have been Hermoine’s instead, as if Harry wouldn’t have had relationship issues himself, especially given his baggage throughout the story.  Regardless of what excuse she gave in her interview, Rowling’s feelings towards Ron I feel stem from a far more problematic issue found within most literature and media overall, which is the dismissive attitude against side characters that sometimes are referred to as “second bananas.”

The “second banana” moniker has come over the years to refer to sidekick characters, particularly those that are intended to get a laugh from the audience.  The term actually originates back to vaudeville, referring to a performer who is the recipient of the punchline from the headlining comic; namely, the one who receives the banana.  A staple of comedy for many years, the second banana served the role of punctuating the gags, but sometimes the role could be less meant for a comedic situation.  Sometimes, the role of the second banana could be filled by an assistant to a titular hero, as a means of reinforcing the good deeds or grand discoveries they have accomplished.  Think of the value that Dr. Watson adds in witnessing the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes’ deductions.  Think of the guidance that Tonto gives to the Lone Ranger as they travel across the Wild West.  Think of the undying assistance the Alfred the butler lends to Batman.  Second bananas have a narrative purpose beyond just being comic reliefs.  But, for the most part, these types of characters continue to be valued less for their actual worth as an individual character and more for what they do to service the story or just the punchline.  Interestingly, sometimes the second banana rises out of the shadow of his or her more famous star companion and actually becomes the star themselves.  When you think of comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis, the ones that standout is the person who gets the biggest laugh, and it’s usually the wackier of the two that is the recipient of the punchline.  Sometimes the whole direction of the story rests on the actions of the second banana, especially when the main hero is in their darkest point.  And that more than anything, is what makes a second banana character sometimes the most important character in a story overall.

One particular place where you see a lot of emphasis put on characters of this type is in animated films, particularly those made by Disney.  They have especially influenced the growth of sidekick characters over the years, mainly due to the fact that they usually are the ones that end up being the more marketable in the end.  With Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), they found their narrative drive in the comedic potential of the seven little men who give shelter and protection to the ritual heroine.  Down the line, they began to find that the sidekicks were the ones that audiences especially gravitated towards, favoring them in the toy tie-ins that naturally followed once the movie premiered.  Characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940), Tinker Bell from Peter Pan (1953), Sabastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989), Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King (1994), and Olaf from Frozen (2013) have risen out to be among the most popular characters of all time, even sometimes eclipsing their main stars, and becoming icons themselves.  Some of them get there by being the funniest character to be sure, but the best of them also stand out by having worthwhile arcs themselves.  Jiminy Cricket’s guidance of Pinocchio coincides with his determination to be a certifiable conscious, complete with an official badge.  Sabastian grows from being a hinderance to Ariel’s dreams to being someone intent in letting her be who she wants to be.  A fuller story benefits when the side characters go through as much change as their primary hero will.  One film, I would argue perhaps accidentally made it’s side characters the real heroes; Sleeping Beauty (1959).  In that film, it is the three good fairies who save the day.  They sacrifice their powers to protect Princess Aurora, they sneak into Maleficent’s castle without hesitation, and they are ultimately the ones who put the sword into the prince’s hand in order to slay the dragon.  The titular princess is almost an afterthought in the end.  While sometimes Disney misfires with these kinds of characters (the gargoyles from Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example), they nevertheless know that these characters matter a lot as a part of their on-going legacy.

So, to get back to the subject at hand, why does Ron Weasley not get the love as a character as he should?  The history that we associate with second banana types has something to do with that.  Ron is a character that is far too often played for laughs; more so in the movies than in the books.  He’s a mediocre student, a terrible spell-caster, and lacks a great deal of talent in most things that you would expect from a great wizard.  But, the thing that he makes up for amid all his failings is the moral compass that he provides through his friendship to both Harry and Hermoine.  Ron is Harry’s window into the Wizarding World, and he helps to steer him through all the negative aspects within.  It’s better as part of the narrative for Harry to have befriended someone who is so immersed in the this world that he kind of takes it for granted, never acting as a show off or making Harry feel that he should feel threatened.  This is apparent when Ron and Harry first meet aboard the Hogwarts Express.  Ron’s attitude towards meeting Harry is just the same as chatting with a new friend; no pretension about Harry’s celebrity status or how ill prepared Harry is for the world he’s about to enter.  He finds his value in helping ease his new friend into feeling like he belongs in this world he knows nothing about.  Much more importantly, he teaches Harry the real stakes of the Wizarding World, and who is worth trusting and who they should fight for.  Apart from the things that make Harry and Ron different, they do have one thing in common, which is an outsider perspective.  Ron is lower class and is looked down upon by the wealthy elite at the Hogwarts school, so while he himself is knowledgable about the world of Wizardry, he benefits very little from the fruits of such power.  Harry is born into the world a celebrity, but was raised on the outside, knowing nothing about what he truly represents.  That combination creates a mutually beneficial friendship for both, and combine that with Hermoine’s Muggle (non-magic) background and you’ve got a pairing of friends born through a shared desire to keep the others on  the right path.

If there is one thing that really defines Ron Weasley as more than just a second banana but in actuality a hero in his own right, it’s his position in the story as an ever crucial lifeline.  One thing that especially defines every hero’s journey is an inevitable descent into a dark place.  Famed scholar Joseph Campbell, who crafted the blueprint for the typical hero’s journey in his examination of the narrative, called this moment in the story the Abyss.  In the Abyss, the hero succumbs to either a tragedy or a temptation that shakes the hero’s belief in themselves, leading them to a point where they are on the verge of giving up.  Some heroes climb out of this moment by their own determination, but sometimes it takes a secondary element to help the hero see the light again, and sometimes that comes in the form of the sidekick who has stuck by the heroes side.  Sometimes, that comes from a forceful kick in the pants to bring the hero out of their despair, like you see from characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), who help a whiny little farm boy named Luke Skywalker believe in himself again after tragic moments like Obi-Wan’s sacrifice or learning the truth about his father.  Ron Weasley, though, owes more of his inspiration to another lifeline character named Samwise Gamgee, the famous companion of Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sam, like Ron, has little in the way of talents, which makes him an unlikely guardian, but he more than makes up for that in his determination to never leave Frodo’s side, not even in the darkest of moments.  Over the course of Tolkein’s trilogy, Sam grows into more than just a buffoonish companion; he ultimately becomes the one who carries Frodo on his back to the summit of Mount Doom and pulls him back from the abyss once Frodo succumbs to the Ring’s dark hold.   Had Sam not been there, Frodo would have failed.  Ron fulfills the same role in his story, as Harry grows ever more withdrawn and angry during their many trials.  A particular narrative element in the book is that Harry and his arch-nemesis, Voldemort, have a lot in common, but what ultimately separates them is that Harry has true friendship, which keeps him empathetic and kind, and ultimately a believer that good will win out in the end.

Ron gives that support that ultimately keeps Harry believing in himself, but he does more than just steer Harry the right way.  One of the pleasing aspects of the story that J.K. Rowling crafted is that Ron himself discovers his own strength as the story goes along.  Ron starts off as a squeeling coward in the earliest part of the series, but after facing trolls, giant spiders, a whomping willow, and even menacing classmates and faculty, he ultimately has faith in himself enough to stand his ground against dark wizards by series end.  It’s particularly crucial at one point in the penultimate film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010), when Harry gives the duty of destroying a Horcrux to Ron, knowing that at that point he has more of the aptitude to get it done in that moment, after Harry has been weakened physically and emotionally by the evil device.  With that, Ron overcomes the last bit of weakness in himself and ultimately serves as someone who can change the course of the story himself.  I think that when we look at the character of Ron Weasley, we sometimes get stuck in the image of that comic relief character from the earlier part of the story.  By the end, we almost forget that as Harry has grown into a hero, so has Ron.  By the end, Ron is just as likely to stick his neck out to save the day as Harry is.  The only difference by the end is that Harry is the one for a reason; the villain selected him as his foe.  I think that J.K. Rowling doesn’t in particular think she did a disservice to the story by involving Ron Weasley in it, and rewarding him with the same spoils of victory.  I just think she feels that by linking him with Hermoine that she ultimately didn’t satisfy her own desires for how she would have liked the story to end; that maybe she was just being too cliche with her choice.  But, I think in saying so, she is undermining the effectiveness that she had in making a sidekick like Ron more than just the average second banana in her story.

I for one, in the end, love the fact that he and Hermoine grow closer together throughout the story and by the end have cemented their love for one another.  He’s not perfect, but neither is Harry Potter for that matter, and I don’t see why J.K. thought any different.  Hermoine obviously has a mind of her own, and it’s apparent from the story that what drew her to Ron ultimately is his devotion to doing good even depite his limitations.  That, and I think that some of the push-back she would receive from Ron throughout the series also endeared him to her, as most geniuses want to be challenged.  What I like so much about Ron is that he does overcome that harsh stigma that follows characters of his type.  He becomes more than just the fool in the story on which the punchline is built; he becomes a hero in his own right by the end.  The real genius of J.K. Rowling’s series is that she gives that to just about every character as well.  Even the most absurd characters get their heroic moment, like Dobby’s heroic sacrifice or Neville Longbottom ultimately destroying the final Horcrux which leaves the villain finally vulnerable.  Ron especially gets to standout as a hero because, apart from a brief falling-out in Goblet of Fire, he never leaves Harry’s side.  We like to poke fun at the sidekicks and how worthless they sometimes are, but Ron Weasley is in that rare breed of sidekicks who is just as heroic as the hero he’s there to support.  One thing that especially makes these second bananas so important to a narrative is the fact that they sometimes are more interesting than the main hero.  Though that isn’t exactly the cases for the Potterverse, it is especially true in other media, where the story has to rely upon the supporting characters to add flavor when the main hero proves to be too boring.  I find that even though I do like Harry Potter as a character, I find Ron’s journey more fascinating, because of how undervalued his character type usually is.  The fact that he has a personality helps, which a perfectly cast Rupert Grint wonderfully supplies, and I can’t imagine what the story would have been like without him.  Probably not as good.  So, Ron Weasley shouldn’t be undervalued just because he’s not Harry Potter.  He’s a wizard with worth too, and the Potterverse as a whole might not have the same effect had he not gone above and beyond his second banana role in this story.

Leader of the Club – Mickey Mouse at 90 and the Magical Kingdom He Helped to Create

When you consider who the greatest icon to come out of Hollywood could be, the answer might surprise you.  It is not an actor, actress nor a movie mogul or filmmaker.  Instead, it is a little cartoon mouse named Mickey.  Sure, you have your Marilyn Monroe, or your James Dean, or your Charlie Chaplin whose images have transcended the work they have done and have inspired legends of their own purely through their existences alone.  But, Mickey Mouse is altogether different.  His impact is felt on all of us earlier on than any other entertainer in the world.  Apart from their mothers and fathers, Mickey Mouse is likely the first face that an infant will recognize due to the fact that for generations the first exposure that all children usually have to the world of entertainment is through watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Though distinctively American in creation and in personification, Mickey is known and beloved the whole world over, making him one of the world’s most effective ambassadors as well.  It’s been said that the only things more recognizable worldwide than Mickey Mouse would be either Jesus or the Coca-Cola bottle.  But, it really makes you wonder, why Mickey Mouse?  He wasn’t the first cartoon character, nor the most prolific.  Some would even argue that he’s the least interesting cartoon character because he’s portrayed so often without flaw or negativity.  But, regardless of personal feelings towards Mickey, the true reason why he is held up in such high regard is because of the of his overall effect on everything, from the legacy and power of the Disney company, to his affect on pop culture, to even the personal affect on our childhoods.  And with the marking of his 90th year in existence, we are left with an even more profound question: what would the world have been if there never was a Mickey Mouse?

The most immediate impact that Mickey Mouse certainly has had is in the creation of the largest media empire in the world.  When Walt Disney first conceived of the character back in the summer of 1928, I don’t think he would have ever had imagined that the company that bears his name would have the kind of reach that it does today.  The Walt Disney Company is an undisputed industry leader, having arms devoted to the business of movies, television, theme parks, consumer products, and even hospitality and cruise lines of all things.  They are just about to overtake one of their competing studios in an unprecedented merger, and will soon add streaming entertainment to their ever growing portfolio of services.  But despite all the growth and the broadening of collective properties that are brought into the Disney company’s fold, there is still one constant, and that’s the presence of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey remains the symbol of the company, embodying the wholesome, reliable face that the Disney company wants the world to recognize them as.  Mickey’s power as a symbol is crucial for a mega-giant corporation like Disney, but he’s also held up in such esteem because of his significance to the company’s survival.  Walt Disney said so himself in one of his many television specials, “I hope we never loose sight of one thing.  That it was all started by a mouse.”  This has become the motto of the company itself, as they recognize that after all the movie premieres, after all the earnings reports, the new attraction openings, the product launches, the ups and downs, the surprises and failures, that everything that makes Disney what it is stems from Mickey.  It’s a statement to say to all those working in the industry and in particular to those at the Disney company, that you should always have eye towards the past while looking forward into the future.

For Walt Disney himself, he fully understood what Mickey Mouse meant to him.  After working his way through early animation studios in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt set out to Los Angeles to embark on creating a studio of his own.  There, he worked closely with another young, ambitious animator named Ub Iwerks, who helped  Walt Disney experiment with groundbreaking techniques like mixing live action and animation together.  With the help of his business savvy brother Roy, Walt soon opened his first animation studio in a back office in the Los Feliz district of LA.  Having put together a robust staff and gained some notoriety for his cutting edge Alice shorts, Walt soon developed a new series devoted to what he hoped would be a cartoon star on the same level as Felix the Cat.  That character would be Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit.  But, after producing a handful of Oswald shorts, Walt soon learned that his distributor, Charles Mintz, had effectively written Walt out of his contract and signed away all his animators (except Iwerks), leaving him with nothing;  not even Oswald.  On the ride home after that fateful meeting, Walt brainstormed what to do next and out of that came the concept for a spunky little mouse.  With Ub’s help, they created the first drawing of their new character and gave him the name of Mickey out of the suggestion from Walt’s wife Lillian.  They now had their character, but what would make him different than Oswald?  The answer was a voice.  After the breakthrough of synchronized sound in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927), Walt made a gamble of adding this technique to the medium of animation, and it not only worked, it made history.  But, what voice would do for a cartoon mouse?  Well, for Walt Disney, the answer was simple: he would perform it himself.  Walt’s falsetto fit the character perfectly, and more important, it gave him personality.   That’s why Walt had such a lasting devotion to the character, because Mickey was such a part of him, and essentially is what saved him in Walt’s darkest moment.

You don’t have to look further than the very hub of Disneyland park to see just how connected those two are to the history of the company and to the industry in general.  The bronze statue, dubbed “Partners” shows Walt and Mickey holding hands as they overlook the worldwide destination that they built together.  You’ll see no more a fitting representation of the bond between creator and creation in art outside of religious iconography.  But true immortality only benefits the creation in the end.  Walt Disney passed away with many of his ambitions left unfinished, and much of what the Disney company is today is quite different than what he would have intended it to be.  But, the Walt Disney Company still has an affinity for it’s past, and that’s no more apparent than in how they’ve maintained their icon for all these years.  Walt didn’t just give Mickey his voice, he gave him an identity.  Mickey Mouse became an icon because of the way that he embodied the every man hero that we all wanted to be.  That’s why he gained so much of his popularity during the height of the Great Depression.  The determination that Walt Disney put into the character to stand up for justice and pull himself up from the depths of despair gave hope to those who had all but lost it in those times.  The same proved true during the War Years as well.  Though Walt stopped short of putting Mickey in uniform (because he didn’t want Mickey to symbolize actions related to killing others as a part of combat), Mickey nevertheless represented the American spirit that helped unite the nation together.  You know Mickey had the right effect when dictators like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin wanted him banned from their countries.  One of the most compelling instances of Mickey’s powerful influence in the culture came when Walt Disney made a goodwill tour of Latin America in the midst of World War II.  Upon visiting Uraguay, Walt brought with him a collection of shorts that the South American nation had rarely seen before then, as well as plenty of Mickey dolls for the children of the country.  Mere days after Walt’s visit, the Uraguanian government told the German ambassador to leave and that they would be cutting diplomatic ties with the Nazi regime.  All that, because of a cartoon mouse.

Naturally, the Walt Disney Company recognizes that Mickey Mouse is a powerful symbol, and they’ve been careful to guard his image over the years.  Apart from the use of the character for wartime propaganda in the 1940’s, Mickey Mouse has never been used for anything more to do with government.   He’s thankfully never endorsed a politician nor any political party.  Individual groups unaffiliated with the Disney company have however adopted the image of Mickey Mouse into their own iconography, and usually depending on the level of objections you hear from the Disney corporate offices will tell you just how much they themselves stand on most issues.  Though Mickey is meant to symbolize neutrality officially from the Disney company, his image has been used among a variety of things like advocating for the environment, for civil rights, and for the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised.  I can tell you having been to the LA Pride festival that I’ve seen many members of the LGBTQ community showing off their pride with among other things shirts and pins with a rainbow flag shaped into that distinctive three-circle silhouette of the mouse himself.  Mickey may not officially be an advocate for all those things, but the effectiveness of his ability to spread a message is certainly not lost on all these groups.  In particular, many advocacy groups like to use the symbol of Mickey Mouse because it helps their message reach younger minds who naturally grow more interested when they recognize a character whose played such a big part of their upbringing.  Mickey Mouse is trusted in ways that most politicians would dream about, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.  The reason why the Disney company chooses to not make Mickey Mouse an official symbol of anything other than their brand is because they don’t want there to be any backlash brought their way when certain positions face fierce opposition.  Mickey is often used as a means of undermining the good aspects of the company and the character, as critics and troublemakers like to break down something that is manufactured to be portrayed so pure.  You see this in stuff as harmless as t-shirts with Mickey covered in tattoos or giving a gang sign to more extreme aspects like showing in some media Mickey committing murder, involved in a sex act, or using hate speech.  Mickey is almost too powerful a symbol, and the best we can hope is that the desire to see him remain a positive influence in our lives wins out over everything else.

Despite Disney closely guarding their the image of their iconic mascot, they still do their best to keep Mickey in tune with the times.  That, more than anything, has kept the character relevant for 90 years and will likely continue to keep him around for another 90.  Mickey has changed little in some ways, but at the same time is also greatly different than how he started.  The whistle-blowing steamboat captain of Mickey’s debut short, Steamboat Willie, set the primary look for the character, but several changes like the addition of pupils in his eyes and a more pear shaped figure that is easier to animate have been added over the years.  There are certainly benchmark moments that cemented new eras for the character; one in particular being the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia (1940), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of animation of all time.  Not every use of Mickey Mouse has aged well; I’m sure Disco Mickey is something that no one wants to remember fondly, Disney most of all.  But, the fact that Mickey never has fallen out of popularity after all these years is a real indication of the effectiveness that the Disney company has had with adapting the character over the years.  And the interesting thing is that Disney has done that sometimes by even returning to the things that have worked in the past.  Surprisingly, Mickey has returned more recently to a more retro look in recent animated shorts, with the color taken out of his skin and the pupils returned to their original black dots.  And when you look at most Mickey related merchandise, what ends up selling the most are the things that have sold well generation after generation.  I don’t think that it’s any mistake that one of the face options available on a newly purchased Apple Watch is one of Mickey Mouse designed to look like all the classic watches made throughout the years, with Mickey’s arms moving across the dial.  In some ways Mickey moves with the times, and then sometimes the times move to meet up with him.  That’s the power of a character who transcends all the rules and manages to endure no matter what else happens in the culture at large.

For me, Mickey Mouse has had a profound impact.  My journey into the world of cinema was, to say the least, all started by a mouse.  I had my first Mickey Mouse doll before I could even walk, and the first things that I likely ever saw on television were the Mickey Mouse cartoons that my parents let me watch on the then newly launched Disney Channel.  Since then, I spent many of summers in California, often visiting Disneyland, and some of the oldest pictures I have of myself are in the embrace of a Mickey Mouse walk around character from the park.  I have only worn watches with a Mickey Mouse face on it, and have numerous shirts in my wardrobe with some Mickey design on it.  Though my movie tastes have largely moved beyond just Disney related materials, I still hold a special place in my heart for the studio and their mascot, because they were the gateway to everything else.  And I’m sure that it’s the same for a great many other people out there, especially in the film industry.  Many people learned how to portray heroism through Mickey; because he embodied everything that made a hero great.  He’s also an embodiment of the every man ideal, much in the same way that the likes of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart often represented on film.  Though not always used perfectly, Mickey Mouse stands as an ideal for good-natured civility in a world that desperately needs it.  One of the most profound moments ever on the big screen related to Mickey Mouse came not in a Disney film at all, but in a sharp satirical comedy from Preston Sturges called Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  In that movie, a jaded filmmaker embarks on a soul-searching mission to go out into the country and find a sense of the real human condition in America, warts and all.  He casts aside his wealth and influence and lives life as a hobo, becoming more cynical and frustrated with how Hollywood seems to overlook the real plights of the average person.  At the end of the movie, he ends up in  a chain gang of prisoners and all of them are brought into a room and treated to a film after a long days work.  And it happens to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  The director, played by Joel McCrea, is stunned to find these downtrodden souls suddenly filled with joy and laughter when watching the cartoon, and for a moment, he too forgets his sorrows and laughs along with them.  From then on, he realizes the real effect that cinema has on uplifting the hearts of everyone and has faith renewed in his art-form once again.  The fact that it took Mickey Mouse to make that profound change is a real testament to how impactful he can be on one’s personal journey.

Like most influential things in our culture, Mickey Mouse is many different things to many different people; a symbol, a corporate logo, an ideal, a nuisance, a role model, a teacher, a celebrity, an icon, a relic, a revelation, and for many people, a friend.  90 years has made the character so monumental across the world mainly due to the fact that he is passed on through the generations.  Our parents and even some grandparents have known only a world with Mickey Mouse as a part of it, and for most of us, he was an essential part of our upbringing.  Most parents even intentionally bring their fondness for Mickey Mouse into the rearing of their own children, keeping that tradition going in the hopes that they can have that as something that helps to bond their family together.  Few other characters become a part of our lives the same way that Mickey does.  Walt Disney may not have realized it at the time, but he had stumbled upon one of the greatest assets to humanity that the 20th century likely ever produced.  The fact that Mickey has gone on to symbolize goodwill across the world is one of the greatest accomplishments that he’s ever had the privilege of being a part of.  Imagine a world where Mickey Mouse never came into being.  Would Walt Disney had found success with something else, or would he have faded into obscurity having given up on his dreams?  Would another cartoon character have excelled in his place?  Would the power and influence that the Disney company now yields have been scattered differently throughout the film industry?  Would America and Western democracy have battled back tyranny had they not had as powerful a goodwill symbol as Mickey Mouse?  The world would have likely been very different.  Historically and culturally, Mickey Mouse is an indispensable part of our lives.  That’s why, as the Mouse hits that monumental 90 year mark this month, we all are reminded of the personal effect that he had on our own lives and for most of us, it’s filled with fond memories.  Whether you are putting on your mouse ears, or watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for the hundredth time, or getting that ever crucial picture at Disneyland, it’s a celebration worth rejoicing over as that little Mouse named Mickey is still going strong.  Come along, sing the song, and join the jamboree; M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E.

Focus on a Franchise – Pirates of the Caribbean

The old phrase “dead men tell no tales” could also easily apply to forgotten genres within cinema.  And then, somehow miraculously, some genres rise from the dead.  That was the case with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise; the unlikeliest of blockbuster phenomenons in movie history.  You have to look back at the time in which the Pirates franchise first premiered to really understand just how unusual it was.  Pirates movies, as a genre, was all but dead around the turn of the millennium.  Once a wildly successful part of early Hollywood, with renowned classics like Captain Blood (1935) and The Sea Hawk (1940), the genre fell off deeply in the decades after, with only a handful of noteworthy films in all that time.  The final nail in the coffin came with Cannon Films notorious box office flop Cutthroat Island (1995), which all but spelled out for Hollywood that Pirate movies were poison in the cinema.  So, the fact that Disney not only took another shot this troubled genre but also poured a substantial budget behind it makes the creation of these movies all the more puzzling.  Couple this with the fact that the source of inspiration for these movies wasn’t a novel or a notable historical figure, but a theme park attraction.  So what exactly happened to make everything go right.  Turns out the “X” factor for the franchise’s success was an oddball, unconventional actor by the name of Johnny Depp.  Depp was not a box office draw at the time, but somehow he struck a cord with this role, and created one of the most original characters to have appeared on the big screen in quite a long time; the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow.  And not only did Jack Sparrow strike gold once for the Disney company, but he would continue to do so for a whole decade after.  But, like most other things, even this couldn’t last, and now the franchise is at a crossroads.  Because of waning box office, and Depp’s own off the set issues becoming a liability, it seems like Jack Sparrow’s days on the big screen are over.  So, let’s take a look back at the franchise that briefly resurrected the Pirates genre and turned Jack Sparrow into a household name.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

When action film producer Jerry Bruckheimer walked into then Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s office and pitched this idea of a movie based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name starring the actor best known for playing Edward Scissorhands, it seemed only logical to give the idea a heavy no.  And yet, Eisner bit and gave the go ahead to make this movie.  But, even with the project funded and well into production, the prospects still were negative given the recent box office flop of The Country Bears (2002), another movie based on a Disneyland attraction.  Eisner even intervened numerous times, raising serious questions about the direction that Johnny Depp was taking his eccentric performance.  But, probably to the surprise of everyone, including I’m sure even the people that made the movie, the film was a smash hit with audiences.  And Disney had no one better to thank for that than Johnny Depp.  Depp’s Jack Sparrow gave this movie, and the subsequent franchise, it’s identity and made it instantly stand apart from both the Pirate movie genre and all movies in general.  Like a mix of Errol Flynn and Inspector Clouseau, with a little extra inspiration from rocker Keith Richards, Jack Sparrow is equal parts the greatest and worst pirate you’ve ever seen.  Bumbling his way through harrowing situations, teetering between drunkenness and sobriety, Sparrow somehow seems to luck his way through any situation, making him the unlikeliest of heroes.  Depp’s performance embodies every bit of this and it’s easy to see why he was so endearing to audiences.  He’s also given one of the greatest character entrances in movie history, sailing triumphantly into port on a sinking boat; a perfect encapsulation of the character, and really of the impact he would have for the Pirates genre in general.  And the best thing is that, even with all the questions raised beforehand, Depp was still able to form the character his way and was free to experiment and improvise throughout filming.  It was risky, but rewarding as Jack Sparrow commands every scene he is in.  His performance even garnered a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars (his first) which once again just shows the unprecedented success this movie had surprisingly found.

But, it’s not just Depp alone that made the movie so memorable for audiences.  Director Gore Verbinski drew heavily from his background in visual effects to craft a movie that was not only felt epic, but was also effective as a showcase for cutting edge technology.  The movie’s central gimmick, the curse that haunts the crew of the Black Pearl, is effectively realized through some beautifully rendered CGI which transforms the villainous pirates into skeletal figures in the moonlight.  Though the effects are cool to look at, they are not distracting either, and actually mix in well with the period detail in the production design.  Verbinski also draws heavy inspiration from pirate movies of the past, delivering epic sea battles that would feel at home in an Errol Flynn swashbuckler.  The whole movie beautifully delivers on that mix of the old and the new, helping to remind audiences of what Pirate movies used to be like and what they could be in the years to come.  Johnny Depp also gets worthwhile support from the other cast members as well.  Keira Knightly saw a major career boost thanks to this movie, which propelled her into leading lady status in Hollywood.  Orlando Bloom luckily stumbled onto this new franchise just as his work on The Lord of the Rings was coming to an end, and he makes a perfect straight-man for Johnny Depp to work off of.  Other supporting players like Kevin McNally, Zoe Saldana, and Jonathan Pryce also stand out in the film.  But, it’s Geoffrey Rush who almost matches Depp in his equally eccentric role as the villainous Captain Barbosa.   The scenes with Depp and Rush alone are worth the price of admission, seeing two veteran character actors clearly having fun playing these characters.  Naturally, the success of Black Pearl opened the door for this phenomenon to become a franchise, and that would indeed happen, with Disney again taking another big risk with the sequels.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST (2006)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Shortly after the release of Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney made the logical choice to produce a sequel.  But, what many people didn’t expect was that not one but two sequels were planned, shooting back to back with a half a billion dollar price tag for both.  This was another costly gamble, but this time Disney had more belief in this property, especially now that they had a household name character like Jack Sparrow to carry it.  And indeed, the gamble not only paid off, but even better than they expected.  The first sequel, Dead Man’s Chest, remarkably grabbed the opening weekend crown with a then staggering $134 million three day haul.  And it’s easy to see why this became the high water mark for the franchise, because it’s, in my opinion, the best in the series.  Everything that made the original film a classic is ratcheted up in this sequel, with bigger set pieces, amazing visual effects, and a deeper mythology.  There are many things that makes this movie work so well, but none more so than the addition of a great and memorable villain; Davy Jones.  Actor Bill Nighy steals the movie with his wonderfully over-the-top performance, which remarkably still comes through even underneath the motion captured digital masking that creates the final look of the character.  Motion capture was still in it’s infancy at the time, but it saw a huge step forward with Davy Jones, who looks about as authentic as he possibly could be.  An equally memorable edition is the Kraken, a remarkable CGI creation that earns it’s rightful place alongside the most memorable of giant monsters on the big screen.  Hans Zimmer’s musical score also hit it’s peak with this film, with his already popular Main Theme from the original joined by memorable themes for the two villainous elements; Jones and the Kraken.  The film won a well-deserved Oscar for it’s visual effects, and became the highest grossing film ever for Disney at the time, cementing it’s place as key part of the company’s legacy.  At this same time, Disney even took the step of putting the characters of Jack, Barbosa, and Davy Jones into the park attraction that inspired them all in the first place.  With all this, and another sequel around the corner, nothing was going to slow these Pirates down in Hollywood.  Right?

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (2007)

Directed by Gore Verbinski

Released less than a year after Dead Man’s ChestAt World’s End looked primed to cap this trilogy off strong.  In a post-Lord of the Rings world, much became expected of trilogy enders, as The Return of the King (2003) was easily the biggest film of that epic series.  As a result, it appeared that Gore Verbinski and Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to go out on a similar note, taking the franchise to even further epic heights.  Unfortunately, the end result did not have the same effect as Return of the King.  At World’s End is by no means a bad movie, but it doesn’t have the same focus that it’s predecessors had.  The movie is bloated, running nearly 3 hours long, with a lot of unnecessary sidetracks that lead nowhere.  The movie starts off promising with a beautifully constructed set piece recreating Singapore in the era of Pirates, which also brings in legendary Hong Kong cinema icon Chow Yun Fat as a nice addition to the cast.  There is also a wonderfully weird sequence of Jack Sparrow stranded in Davy Jones’ Locker, which seemed to be heavily inspired by the work of another favorite collaborator of Depp’s, Terry Gilliam.  But, after a strong opening, the movie sags as the uneven plot looses balance.  Alliances break down, characters plot behind others’ backs for no reason, and there are just too many scenes where there’s a lot of talking and not enough action.  Also, some of the pirate lore and magical elements are never fully realized, making the whole thing hard to follow.  Still, Depp shines as Jack Sparrow, and his final showdown with Davy Jones in the middle of a storming Maelstrom is breathtaking to watch.  While the whole is a convoluted mess, there is still a lot to like in the movie, and it does tie up the trilogy effectively enough.  But, it is still the weakest of the trilogy under Verbinski’s direction.  The movie made less than it’s predecessor, but still well enough to keep Disney in the black.  For the time, this should have been the time to hang up the swords and leave the franchise complete as is, because it was clear that by the end of At World’s End, the series was loosing it’s momentum.   But of course, with a property as profitable as this one, Hollywood just can’t leave well enough alone.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (2011)

Directed by Rob Marshall

After taking a much needed break, Disney went right back to the well to get more out of this franchise.  Verbinski had moved on, and was already deep into development on another collaboration with Disney and Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), so the studio turned to a different director in their stable to tackle this next chapter.  Rob Marshall had already made a splash in Hollywood with his Oscar-winning musical Chicago (2002), but had yet to apply his cinematic skills into an action film.  And that inexperience is the biggest problem with On Stranger Tides.  The whole movie is a pale imitation of it’s predecessors precisely because Marshall can’t stage the film’s action set pieces with the same flair that Verbinski had.  There is just a severe lack of fun to the whole movie, and Johnny Depp especially is shackled by this movie’s lack of creative drive.  More than anything, this movie feels like it suffered from the most studio interference, as the whole thing comes across as a paint by numbers rendition of all the thing that had come in the series before.  Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, is the movie’s villain; Blackbeard.  Casting a great, larger than life actor such as Ian McShane in the role should have made this character legendary, and yet Blackbeard is just a shallow, uninspired baddie that utilizes none of McShane’s charisma or menace.  Davy Jones he is not.  The addition of Penelope Cruz as a love interest for Jack Sparrow fairs a bit better, and the movie briefly comes to life whenever her and Depp share the screen.  Also, Geoffrey Rush returns as a more grizzled Barbosa, and is by far the best part of this movie.  Watching his work here really convinced me that Barbosa is my favorite character in the entire franchise, mainly because he can still shine in even the most mediocre of films.  Stranger Tides is rock bottom for the Pirates franchise, mainly because it makes the cardinal sin of being boring and safe, which is contrary to what made these movies work in the first place.  With bland action set pieces (apart from a sequence that miraculously makes mermaids scary), a wooden cast of new characters, and no real reason to exist, this was the worst possible direction that the studio could have taken their cash cow of a franchise.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017)

Directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg

A full fourteen years after the launch of the franchise, Disney believed they could wring just a little more out of these Pirates.  But given Stranger Tides lackluster results, was it really worth the risk.  Johnny Depp did not have the same box office appeal anymore after a string of costly flops (The Lone Ranger among them) and his recent bad behavior making headlines was also not beneficial to the prospects for a continuation of the franchise.  But, Disney still saw the potential.  They made the right choice and hired Norwegian directors Ronning and Sandberg, who gained notoriety for their critically acclaimed sea-faring Kon-Tiki (2012).  And while their grasp on Pirates convoluted mythology still wasn’t good enough to right the ship completely, they at least staged their action set pieces better than Rob Marshall did, especially a really clever one involving a gag with a guillotine.  The movie also benefits from a charismatic villainous turn by Javier Bardem as the half dead Captain Salazar, who at least comes off as more menacing than McShane’s dull Blackbeard.  Sadly, these are the only positive things to say about the movie, because the rest of the film is just the same old tired tricks again.  Johnny Depp especially looks bored in this movie, and while he still has moments that shine, it’s clear that the Jack Sparrow shtick had run it’s course.  Apparently he even needed an earpiece to feed him lines during filming, showing just how little he cared at this point.  The movie’s convoluted plot also drags the movie down, and even tries to drag up past plot points that we thought were done and over with (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly both appear in pointless cameos that add little to their character arcs).  And again, the mythology just feels lazy at this point; once centered around incredible icons like the Kraken and Davy Jones’ Locker, the series now wanted us to care about Neptune’s Trident, which I still don’t understand how the mechanics of it works.  And you bring Barbosa back to life, just to kill him off again? Seriously?  It was clear that this ship was wildly off course and should have been left in the harbor.  And given it’s lackluster box office performance, that seems to be the message that it left on Disney afterwards.

It is still remarkable that a movie that should have never worked managed to do just that, and spawn a five film franchise that spanned over a decade.  But, the Pirate revival was short lived, even while Pirates was still riding high.  Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t have the same carry over effect on the industry that other genre revivals like Gladiator (2000) and The Lord of the Rings had around the same time.  Other studios didn’t set out to make Pirate movies of their own.  Pirates of the Caribbean ended up just sitting on it’s own as an anomaly within the industry.  But, it was one that did help the Walt Disney out in a transitional time in their history.  As the Michael Eisner era gave way to the Bob Iger era, Pirates was the single biggest source of income for the studio, and it helped them gain the capital they would need to further expand in the years ahead with Marvel and Star Wars, and weather the disappointments along the way.  Though the decline of the series was disappointing in the long run, the fact that these movies exist at all and were worth seeing is a  miracle.  Pirate movies were a dead franchise, and yet somehow this franchise bucked the trend and became a success.  Finding the buried treasure in the character of Jack Sparrow was a key part of that, and I love the fact that he now is as noteworthy a part of the Disney legacy as the likes of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.  Also, the franchise was at it’s best when it had confidence in it’s own identity, even separated from the Disneyland ride.  The references in the early films were easy to spot, like the dog with the keys and skeleton Barbosa drinking a bottle of rum, but they didn’t distract from the story at large.  Pirates was it’s own unique thing, and the only thing that anchored it down in the end was it’s inability to be anything else.  I think that’s why Disney is deciding to retire Jack Sparrow as a character and relaunch the series anew.  But, the era that Jack Sparrow reigned was a weird and adventurous one, and even though the rum’s run dry on this series, it’s will still hold an infamous place as a true Hollywood original.  Drink up me hearties, Yo Ho.

 

Top Ten Scariest Places in Movies

When we want to watch a scary movie, we often seek out the films that have the most gruesome monsters or the most grisly of deaths.  But one thing that I don’t think gets enough credit for making scary movies work are the settings themselves.  The best horror movies have memorable monsters for sure, but it’s the location that makes them legendary as well.  Setting helps to build atmosphere, drawing the viewer in by giving them the stage on which the horror plays out.  Sometimes, it the setting that does most of the work, utilizing shadows and creepy sounds that both hide and spotlight the terror within.  One thing that is noteworthy about all the various iconic horror films is that they usually take the standard idea of a scary setting and try different things with it.  There’s no rule in horror that says that a horror movie needs to be set within a haunted house or even a spooky castle.  Horror movies have made just about any place scary over the years, including schools, hospitals, amusements parks, and even nurseries.  In fact, it almost works better to have a horror movie set in a usually safe space rather than a traditionally spooky one.  There are plenty of great horror movies that do make use of the tried and true scary settings, like graveyards and haunted houses, and that why those places have continued to carry an aura of menace to them today.  For this week’s upcoming Halloween, I want to list some of the greatest scary places to ever appear on film.  I am only limiting this to locations that are purely cinematic creations, and not based on real places (like the Amityville house).  Also, I’m opening this list up to scary places found in non horror movies as well, because some of those movies have frightening locations that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best found in horror.  So, let’s take a look at 10 of the scariest places in movies.

10.

DRACULA’S CASTLE from DRACULA (1931)

Let’s start this off with the groundbreaking film that really cemented the visual inspiration for Hollywood Gothic horror for most of the industry’s history.  Sure, Dracula was not the first movie to use setting to build spooky atmosphere.  The German Expressionist movement had been utilizing groundbreaking techniques of light and shadow and Gothic design to frighten audiences for many years before, with iconic horror classics like Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).  But director Tod Browning brought those techniques to the mainstream with Dracula and created the template on which decades of future horror films would be made.  The gloomy, cobweb adorned castle of Count Dracula perfectly accentuates the chilling performance of Bela Lugosi in the title role, and helps to give us the feeling of unease that danger lurks within every nook and cranny of this place.  The movie was made at a time when you couldn’t show any onscreen violence or blood, and even just implying the threat of violence faced scrutiny from censors.  So, with Dracula, the filmmakers had to let the setting be the thing that frightened audiences and made them feel that ever crucial sense of dread.  And they did this by implying the sense of decay of Dracula’s castle.  It’s dark, empty, and rotten, and yet is still a threat to anyone who enters; much like the master who inhabits it.  In the years since it’s release, you can see the fingerprints of Dracula in countless other horror movies, all of which still use the dusty, cobweb adorned interiors that worked so well before.  Even Francis Ford Coppola’s big budget remake took much of it’s visual cue from some of the same techniques found in the original.  It may not seem as scary today, but Dracula’s Castle from the original classic earns this spot just from the impact it’s had on the genre as a whole.

9.

BUFFALO BILL’S BASEMENT from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)

Not every scary place in movies needs to necessarily be haunted; sometimes it just needs to house a truly horrifying monster.  This was the case with The Silence of the Lambs, which has two such places that you could spotlight as among the scariest settings of all time.  One of those places is the cell block that holds Hannibal Lecter behind bars (or in this case bullet proof glass).  And though those scenes are terrifying on their own, I think they are edged out by the horror show that is the underground dwelling of serial killer Buffalo Bill.  At least with the cell block, you get the feeling that the monster inside is neutralized to a degree, but in Buffalo Bill’s basement, we see his full, deranged life laid bare before us in a truly disgusting way.  Most horrific is the dried up well in which he holds his victims captive before killing them and harvesting their skin.  The movie’s most terrifying scenes show Buffalo Bill psychologically torturing his most recent captive as he forces her to apply skin lotion or else he’ll spray her with a garden hose, all the while calling her an “it” which shows the disconnected, dehumanization that plagues his mind.  The dreariness of the setting is also very well realized, giving Bill’s living space this rotten feel to it.  The fact that these scenes are also the only ones colored with sickly greens and oranges in the movie, which is mostly filmed in cold grays and blues, also sets it apart and shows just how unnatural it is compared to everything else in the movie.  The whole setting may not be outwardly scary, but it puts the audience in a sense of unease that still effectively helps us dread every time the movie returns to it.  Creepy is just as effective as horrifying, and that’s what helps to make Buffalo Bill’s basement on of cinema’s most terrifying places.

8.

SHELOB’S LAIR from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Proof that you don’t just find scary places in horror movies along.  Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkein all have their fair share of memorable spooky locations; the mines of Moria, the tower of Orthanc in Isengard, the dead city of Minas Morgul, and even the expanse of Mordor itself.   But none of those places carries the sheer terror that is found in Shelob’s Lair.  The iconic scene from Tolkein’s novel is horrifically realized in the movie, with a remarkably grotesque representation of the massive spider who lives within it.  What Peter Jackson brilliantly gets across in the film is the sheer terror of feeling like a fly trapped in a spider’s web, or in this case a burrow.  After Gollum leads Frodo Baggins in the tunnel, we follow the harrowing experience through his eyes, and feel the same isolation that he feels.  The most terrifying aspect of the scene is the disorientation that Frodo experiences, not knowing from which corner the massive spider Shelob is going to pop out from.  The fact that even with all that extra weight, Shelob is still able to move with the same agility and speeds as a tiny spider makes the scene all the creepier.  It’s not surprising to learn that Peter Jackson is arachnophobic by his own admission, and it’s apparent that he funneled all that fear and anxiety into this scene, effectively terrifying us in the same way he would be terrified.  In a movie series already heavily populated with iconic and terryifying monsters, it really takes special effort to make something like Shelob rise above the rest, and the design of her lair really does a lot of help to make that happen.  The isolation and wildness of it really sells the terror of the setting, giving us the sense that this is a place where even the most evil of creatures would not set foot in.   And that as a result puts it in the same league as many of the scariest places from actual horror movies.  Even fantasies can rise to that level of terror.

7.

THE FREELING FAMILY HOME from POLTERGEIST (1982)

The movie Poltergiest broke new ground in the horror film genre by moving away from the old fashioned template that had existed for years in Hollywood.  It showed that a haunted house didn’t need to look rundown, broken and dilapidated in order to be effectively creepy.  A haunted house, it turns out, could look just like any other suburban home.  That’s the case with the Freeling family in this horror classic, as they move into a freshly developed new property with a house that has all the modern fixtures that a upper middle class household would want.  But, over time, it becomes apparent that they are not alone, as all sorts of paranormal activity begins to terrorize them, even leading to the capture of the youngest child who gets trapped in the spectral plane with all the terrifying ghosts.  This Tobe Hooper directed, Spielberg written film brings a sense of terror out of the audiences fears of witnessing a home invasion, only that the invaders are ghost.  We feel safe in our homes, but the sense that this peacefulness can be broken by the supernatural really drives it home for audiences, who probably return home wondering if their living space might also be haunted.  We do learn the source of the family’s haunting; their new neighborhood was built on land previously used a cemetery, and the greedy land developer moved only the tombstones and not the bodies underneath, desecrating the remains of many and angering their souls.  But even without that explanation, the fact that a pristine new home can turn into a house of horrors is one that still leaves audiences in a state of apprehension.  The impact of this movie is still felt in many modern day horror films, like the Paranormal Activity series, which uses the same aesthetic of a normal home violated by the presence of ghosts.  More than anything, it’s terrifying because it gives us the dreadful sense that no place is safe in the end.

6.

THE SEWERS OF DERRY, MAINE from STEPHEN KING’S IT (2017)

There is no doubt that the master of the horror genre for the last half century has been writer Stephen King.  His endless string of novels have inspired a whole generation of writers and filmmakers to shape the current identity of the horror genre, and his books have also been the source for some of the scariest movies ever made.  Probably most surprising is the fact that he still uses his home state of Maine as the setting for so many of these stories; which is odd because if you’ve been to Maine, there’s nothing there that really screams out to you as Gothic or spooky.  For Stephen King, he ‘s created his own alternative Maine, which is the focal point of so much of the world’s evil and home to many of it’s most frightening creatures.  One of the greatest creations of his horror mythology is the demon clown Pennywise, who is the focal point of the novel It (1986).  King’s iconic novel has since spawned two classic adaptations; a TV mini-series starring Tim Curry as the clown, and last years big screen feature, starring Bill Skargard in the same role.  Though the TV version is admirable, the movie does a much better job with making the setting truer to King’s vision, and that’s no more apparent than in the way it envisions the sewer dwelling of Pennywise.  Much like Shelob’s Lair, the sewers create the disorienting feeling of entrapment and that the monster could be lurking just about anywhere.  Thanks to the better resources from a larger budget, we are given a more surreal and terrifying setting that feels truer to the menace of the character.  But to the original TV series’ credit, it does match the same creepiness with the movie when it comes to that introductory scene of Pennywise lurking up from a storm drain.  Like what we read from King’s novel, it’s the darkness underneath the clown face that really is the thing of nightmares.

5.

THE PALE MAN’S DINING HALL from PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Guillermo Del Toro has left his mark in numerous fields, such as science fiction (which earned him a coveted Oscar), fantasy and horror.  Of those different genres, however, he feels more closely at home in horror, which is clear from his most direct cinematic and literary inspirations.  An devout fan of the writings of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Del Toro has often tried to fill most of his movies with creatures that stem from the darkest of nightmares, even if the movies themselves are not inherently scary.  The most interesting visions of horror actually come from his trio of historical dramas set around or are influenced by the dark history of the Spanish Civil War.  There are Cronos (1993) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001), both of which have their spooky elements, but it’s in the third feature, Pan’s Labyrinth, that we see his twisted imagination in full display.  And in this film, we find what is probably the single most terrifying figure that the visionary director has ever conjured up in his entire career; the terrifying Pale Man.  Played through breathtakingly detailed make-up by Del Toro regular Doug Jones, the Pale Man is a literal nightmare come to life.  With it’s pale, drooping skin, monstrous teeth, and creepy eyeballs that it holds in it’s hands, it’s like no creature you’ve ever seen before or would want to see again.  Paralleling this creature with the very human monster in the real world, the Fascist captain Vidal, Del Toro visualizes the nightmarish realities of his characters lives in a terrifying way, and this is emphasized very vividly in the Gothic decadence of the Pale Man’s banquet hall.  Del Toro’s twisted designs extend from the character through the setting, and makes yet another dark web like others on this list ready to entrap it’s prey.  Though briefly seen in the film itself, the Pale Man’s Hall is still scary enough to frighten our memories long after we’ve left it behind.

4.

THE NOSTROMO from ALIEN (1979)

Ridley Scott’s Alien may seem on the surface like any other science fiction thriller, but there is plenty of things about the movie that owes more inspiration to the genre of horror.  The cargo freighter space ship Nostromo is essentially a cosmic haunted house and instead of ghosts, we get a bloodthirsty humanoid alien.  Scott manages to make the ship terrifying by using the same techniques used in horror; darkness and shadow, loud disorienting noises, and creepy scenery throughout every moment.  The Nostromo is not some clean, pristine interstellar vehicle that you would find in an episode of Star Trek.  It’s a beat up, unglamorous utility ship meant for shipping cargo.  And the fact that it looks so dingy and corrupted helps to reinforce that sense of it being just as menacing to the main characters as the creature that hunts them from within it.  There are some inspired moments where Ridley Scott stages some of the movie’s most frightening scenes, like a hanger where Harry Dean Stanton’s character is caught by the alien, with water leaking from nearby pipes and iron chains dangling from the ceiling.  It really does make the scene feel like a haunted house, even though the setting is wildly different.  The movie released with the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” so they knew the connection they were making with this.  Ridley Scott did an effective job of melding genre tropes together to make Alien arguably the scariest science fiction movie ever made.  And it all is due to the fact that they created a space ship that lends itself perfectly to that horror aesthetic.  Other horror films set in space would follow in it’s footsteps, like 1997’s Event Horizon, but there’s no doubt that the Nostromo still holds that iconic place in Sci-Fi and horror fans hearts today.  It’s still a place that makes us scream, even if it’s lost out in space.

3.

THE BATES MOTEL from PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock proved with the movie Psycho (1960) that not all scary places needed ghosts to be haunting.  With the iconic Bates Motel as the setting for much of this movie, we see a very real depiction of the lingering effect that evil acts have on a singular location.  The murders that occur within the unassuming walls of the hotel suites are shocking to first time viewers, who will probably come away worrying about the next time they stop for the night in while out in the middle of nowhere.  The reason why the Bates Motel turns out to be so frightening in the end is because it’s true nature reveals itself to us quietly.  The rooms themselves are accommodating, but the large Gothic house that looms over it projects that feeling of unease very quickly.  The interesting thing about it is that the house is not where the danger lies.  It’s a haunted house without a ghost.  The real menace is the low lying rooms themselves, with the caretaker Norman Bates being the real monster.  The Bates Motel is like a rattlesnake ready to pounce on it’s victim.  The house looks ominous, but it’s just the warning rattle, as it’s the fangs that are really the danger.  All that said, the Psycho house is rightfully iconic in it’s own right, and is enough to scare audience on it’s own.  It still exists in it’s original state on the Universal Studio’s backlot and is still a highlight of the tour.  The genius of Alfred Hitchcock was to present a false sense of anticipation on the audience’s part, as they never expected the Motel itself to be the real house of horrors.  He created another icon of the genre by subverting the idea of safe zones, and showing us how evil can indeed lurk just about anywhere.

2.

REGAN’S BEDROOM from THE EXORCIST (1973)

There is no more terrifying idea than the invasion of evil into the most innocent of places.  We see that played out to the extreme in William Friedkin’s iconic horror classic The Exorcist.  The movie details the possession of a young girl by a particularly menacing demonic presence.  As the movie goes along, we see the demon progressively corrupt young Regan (Lind Blair) and make her nearly unrecognizable by the end.  That same corruption manifests itself as well into the room where she is kept.  The bed she sleeps on is broken and the posts are padded in order to prevent any further damage to her body.  As the movie goes on, all light and warmth is also removed from the room.  All that’s left is minimal lamplight in an otherwise pitch dark room.  And that effect perfectly constructs the very unsettling atmosphere that makes the film’s climatic finale so memorable.  It’s disturbing to think that this once warm living space for a young, full of life child has devolved into this chilling battlefield between good and evil by movie’s end.  William Friedkin makes this all the more effective by gradually changing the room over time, until it becomes the nightmarish setting of the finale.  An extra special detail is found in the way that we see the breath of Fathers Karras and Merrin blow out when they speak, giving us the feeling of how cold it really is in that room.  The stark lighting is another effective feature, taking cue especially from early German Expressionist techniques.  But perhaps the reason that this setting is so memorably scary is because Friedkin made it feel so authentic.   There’s no feeling of manipulation on the director’s part; no jump scares or visual effects.  He puts you in that room with the characters and makes you feel the terror right alongside them.  That’s what helps keep this little bedroom one of the greatest visions of hell on earth ever put on film.

1.

THE OVERLOOK HOTEL from THE SHINING (1980)

All of the places on this list have their own great effect on exploiting the fears of the audience.  But none are more relentlessly frightening than those seen in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  Another original creation from the mind of Stephen King, the Overlook is without a doubt single most terrifying place in all of cinema, and that’s because it’s shocking presence doesn’t come in just small doses; it permeates the entire movie.  From the opening credits on, Kubrick puts his audience into a state of unease which doesn’t let up until the end, and even beyond that.  The effectiveness of the movie comes from the feeling that there is no escape.  Every corner of the Hotel is ripe for scary the hell out of us, and that’s largely because Kubrick broke one of the crucial rules of horror film-making.  He casts every scene in bright light, making shadows non-existent.  Most horror movies usually use a brightly lit scene to reassure a moment of safety for the characters, as all the shadows are the bastions of evil, lurking in places unseen to entrap our heroes.  Because the shadows are absent in The Shining, there is a consistent sense of feeling that no place in the hotel is safe, and that is terrifying.  There are countless moments in the movie that could rank high among the scariest of all time; like the confrontation between Jack and Wendy on the staircase, the chase in the hedge maze, the horrifying encounter in room 237.  Perhaps the most iconic moment though is the appearance of the two twin girls at the end of the hallway, beckoning young Danny to come play with them.  Again, it’s brightly lit without shadows and sneaks up on us the audience without warning, reinforcing the idea that not one part of this hotel is safe.  King was not happy with Kubrick’s adaptation, because he felt that the movie minimized the evil of the hotel, but I would argue that Kubrick amped up the terror that was in the novel by making it so random and immediate.  For all the scary places in other movies, they at least bring the audience back home to a sense of comfort.  Kubrick dismantles that idea and gives us the most horrifying place in movie history with a setting where there is no place to hide.

So, there you have my choices for the scariest places in movie history.  Some are certainly scarier than others that rank higher on the list, but the effectiveness of each is also what really matters.  One pattern that I noticed from my own tastes on the subject is that the scariest places I observed are usually traps set by evil creatures to prey on the innocent.  Whether it’s actual monsters like Pennywise from It and Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, or human monsters like Norman Bates from Psycho and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, the home bases of these different monsters often are terrifying reflections of the evil they embody.  Of course, there are also the places that are transformed by evil acts like the house from Poltergeist or the Nostromo from Alien.  And then you have just the relentless evil of a place like the Overlook in The Shining, which just leaves it’s dark mark on anyone unfortunate enough to be living within it.  Whether it is haunted or not, a place often becomes an embodiment of our greatest fears and it’s aura permeates even beyond the evil deeds done there.  This can be attributed to entertainment reinforcing superstitions throughout the course of history.  There really is no real inherent danger when you walk through a graveyard, especially during daylight hours, but because they have this connotation with the supernatural, most people avoid venturing through them without reason.  We give places the power to scare us, and it usually is the result of wanting to create a notorious reputation for something that is otherwise benign.  And that’s something that has helped horror become as beloved a part of our collective narrative as anything else.  It’s interesting to see that a dark past can be put on just about anything, and that’s evident in all the greatest scary places found in film.  The ones from this list are perfect examples of that and there are plenty of more ways we can continue to scare one another by finding the mystery and terror found in even the unlikeliest of places.

The Haunted House That Blum Built – How an Indie Producer Saved Horror and Changed Hollywood

It’s hard to think of it now, but there was a time when it looked like the Horror film genre had lost any and all credibility in Hollywood.  For much of the late 90’s and through the 2000’s, the horror genre was plagued by a number of mediocre films that were neither scary nor entertaining.  More telling, the complete disdain that the industry had for horror films could be seen in the way that the studios were simply just making films for a target audience, namely young adults 18-25, and no one else.  This led to the dreaded notion of PG-13 rated horror movies, that were far more reliant on jump scares rather than actual violence and gore.  And this wasn’t always the case with Hollywood horror.  There had been decades of noteworthy horror flicks that had left a major impact on the industry.  Starting from the Universal monster movies of the 30’s, all the way through B-movie horror of the 50’s and 60’s like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), to the slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  The genre even became so admired in Hollywood that it won the coveted Best Picture Oscar with Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  But, like most other genres, Horror saw a decline when studios tried to interfere too much in the direction of where the genre was headed.  Soon it became less important creating memorable monsters and spooky atmosphere and more about hitting those cheap scares, or trying to one up themselves in the over the top gore.  Mostly, the horror films of the 2000’s fell flat because they pretty much all look and felt the same.  Sure there were exceptions like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2001), and Saw (2004), but even those were undermined by lackluster, play-it-safe sequels.  Towards the end of the decade, the consensus was that horror was just not as effective at being scary like it used to be.  But, that would change once someone came along and changed the industry standard.

In walks Jason Blum, and his newly formed production outlet, Blumhouse.  Blum, probably without intention, has become the most valuable name in the Horror genre today, and has brought back a bit of prestige to this long neglected genre.  Though there are a lot of factors that have led to Blumhouse’s success, none is more key than the business model that the company has set out to identify itself with.  The Blumhouse model simply involves producing films on a controlled small budget with complete creative freedom for the directors and releasing them wide through the studio system.  By doing this, Blumhouse is able to have an output that is artistically unique without carrying a whole lot of financial risks, making them easier to sell to the major studios as well as to theaters across the country.  Because of this, the cost to profit margin has been extremely beneficial to the production company, with each film grossing significantly more than what they cost to make.  And with the huge profit margin, they have been able to build a great deal of personal capital which has allowed them to grow their business and increase their output.  Today, Blumhouse is not only putting out quality horror films, but are venturing into genres of all kinds; comedy, romance, family, even Christian drama.  They even recently announced a joint production with Dreamworks Animation (tentatively titled Spooky Jack) which will be their first venture into cartoons.  They also have also delivered several documentaries and TV movies, mostly for HBO so far, which has shown that they are not just a one trick pony within the film industry.  Even with all the continued success, the stated business model still drives the output of the company.  They don’t spend more than they need to, and they are keenly interested in discovering new talent and giving them the tools they need to make a mark in Hollywood.  That’s the key to making a difference in Hollywood; showing a commitment to a working strategy.

It wasn’t an overnight change for Blumhouse and the industry as a whole, however.  Blumhouse was launched in the year 2000, but it didn’t see it’s first theatrical release for 6 years.  It wasn’t even the intention of the company to take a look at horror, but that changed when a little project named Paranormal Activity (2009) dropped into their lap.  The found footage style film was not a novelty at the time, since Blair Witch pioneered the technique nearly a decade earlier, but under the guidance of the Blumhouse model, this little haunted house flick would prove to have a significant impact on the industry.  The movie cost a paltry $15,000 to make, utilizing unknown at the time talent, a single location, and cheap digital cameras.  The movie’s stripped down, cheap look actually proved to be it’s biggest blessing because it made the movie stick out greatly among all the other “polished” horror movies.  The jump scares didn’t feel cheap because they appeared more natural through the limitations of the presentation, and the lack of CGI manipulation helped to give it that ever crucial element of authenticity.  In the end, Paranormal Activity actually became even more monumental than Blair Witch, because it cost less and made even more, which only emboldened it’s creators to trust their instincts going forward.  Hollywood soon took notice once they saw how much return Blumhouse got on it’s investment.  Naturally, the sequels followed, but the quality of the finished films didn’t matter as the business model continued to ensure positive dividends on their side.  They were certainly continuing to figure things out from a creative standpoint, but ensuring that they weren’t making any rising financial decisions early on really helped to set up the foundation that would carry them forward over the next decade.

Since Paranormal Activity, the continued focus of Blumhouse has been less on building their capital, which has been steadily flowing for them for years, but instead to procure and propel top tier talent to and from their company.  Their goal has been to convince the industry that they are an artist friendly outfit, and that directors, actors and producers will have more creative freedom under their tent than they would anywhere else.  This became especially beneficial for the horror genre as one of the first directors to make the jump over to Blumhouse was James Wan, the creator of the Saw franchise.  After leaving his series behind, Wan was ready to explore a different side of the genre with the more subdued and eerier project, Insidious (2010).  Insidious was a very antithetical style horror film compared to everything else at the time, because it was a quiet, low key film which used silence and atmosphere as more effective ways to build tension and chills for it’s audience.  It was also a movie that calls for a lot of patience on the viewers part, which is a risk, but one that pays off well if it works.  Thankfully it did, and James Wan was able to carve out a new trend in the horror genre that he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he shopped his idea anywhere other than to Blumhouse.  Since then, other directors have sought out Blumhouse as the place to get their unique ideas off the ground.  You wouldn’t have had horror flicks with a noir sensibility like Sinister (2012) nor another with political commentary like The Purge series had Blumhouse not embraced new concepts through their model.  The most interesting aspect of their artist friendly ideal is that they’ve attracted filmmakers who feel they have been compromised too much elsewhere.  You can say that Blumhouse has single-handedly resurrected the career of M. Night Shaymalan, with his recent hits like The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), and that’s only because it seems like he’s finally getting back to the movies that he wants to make again, with their support.  The financial model has helped Blumhouse to build significant capital, but in attracting the talent they have, they’ve ensured a treasured reputation amongst filmmakers that will greatly help them in years ahead.

Perhaps the thing that is especially noteworthy about Blumhouse’s intent on attracting new artists into their fold is that it’s also opened the door for voices within the horror genre that we’ve never been able to see before.  This was very evident with the production of comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Not only did the movie manage to become a hit with horror fans, but critics and industry insiders took notice as well, mainly because of the film’s content.  Unlike most other horror films, this was a movie that tackled it’s subject with a clear intention to provoke discussion and take very clear shots; in this case, with the very touchy issue of race relations in America.  Peele used the horror genre as a clever mirror held up to society, and framed the tropes of the genre in a way to make the cutting commentary even more insightful.  More than anything else, this opened up a very crucial door for the genre as a whole because it introduced a distinctly African American voice into a genre that has largely ignored it.  It’s surprising that it has taken this long for a horror movie from a black perspective to have been made, or at the very least become mainstream.  African-American audiences are some of the most reliable consumers of the horror genre, so it seems like a no-brainer that there should be one made that speaks with their own voice, tackling issues important to their community.  Hollywood took notice of this breakthrough and honored the movie with several Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod.  Peele won the Oscar for his original screenplay, a first for a black writer, and for the first time since Silence of the Lambs, horror had been recognized by the industry as prestige entertainment.  The most positive aspect of Get Out’s success is that it has convinced places like Blumhouse to look into other disenfranchised communities to find new voices to add to their every diversifying body of work.  Blumhouse, maybe unintentionally, might have broken the glass ceiling that has kept the horror genre a predominantly white, male centric world and shown that it can indeed be a genre that can carry a million voices within it.

But, when your business model involves taking creative risks rather than financial risks, an open production company like Blumhouse still needs to be moved in the right direction before it can fully make a significant change happen.  Jason Blum recently put himself into hot water recently with a not very well thought out statement that he would like to “make a female centric horror movie,” but there just aren’t enough women directors in horror right now to make that happen.  This rightfully sparked outrage from female critics and horror movie aficionados alike, who felt that Blum showed a very narrow-minded outlook on the relationship between women and the genre at large.  He’s not opposed to the idea of more female-centric horror movies, but his words showed how little effort he’s put into changing that situation.  First of all, he clearly hasn’t been looking hard enough, as there are plenty of aspiring and budding female filmmakers who are huge fans of the horror genre.  Secondly, you don’t have to look just for women who work exclusively in the horror genre; there are filmmakers out there who would gladly make the jump into horror if it allowed them to bring their own unique voice into the genre.  Apparently, Jason Blum did make the attempt to court director Jennifer Kent, who made the cult horror hit The Babadook (2014), over to Blumhouse, but she refused and this seemed to convince him that women directors were just not interested to a great extent in horror.  He thankfully went back on his statement and reassured that he’ll try harder to bring a female voice into Blumhouse’s future output.  But this is something that’s indicative of an overall problem with the genre, which has sadly objectified women throughout the course of it’s history.  Women are not opposed to horror as a genre, but they have clearly lacked control over their own representation in the genre and it’s more important than ever that they be given that opportunity.  With the kind of clout that Blumhouse has right now, they can make that change happen, but they also need to realize that they need to look harder than they already do.

Despite their recent hiccups, the overall direction that Blumhouse has moved Hollywood in is a positive one.  Not only have they opened the door for more diversity in the creative talent behind their movies, but the industry is taking strong notice of their successful financial model.  More and more film companies are seeing that more modest budgets for movies with unique character is the best way to generate profit in the long run.  Also, allowing artists creative freedom helps to manage the high costs of the movies because actors and directors are more likely to take a smaller salary if they are allowed to do whatever they want instead of asking for 7 or 8 figure paydays for movies that they know full well are going to be garbage and are just using their name recognition to boost box office numbers.   Blumhouse has already made a name for themselves as a likely place for actors who want to make their first directorial effort, like the already mentioned Jordan Peele as well as Joel Edgerton with his horror thriller The Gift (2015).  Their model has already clearly had an influence on their nearest competing rival, the Michael Bay created Platinum Dunes production company.  Platinum Dunes spent much of it’s early years following the already uninspired horror film formula of the mid-2000’s, largely being responsible for critically panned remakes of horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  But, thanks to the Blumhouse influence, who they co-produced The Purge (2013) with, they have changed their focus to reflect the new direction that horror has been moving towards.  Their recent hit, A Quiet Place (2018) reflects that, with a modest budgeted production built on atmosphere and crafted as a pet project from an already established star, John Krasinski; written, directed, and starring him and his real life wife, Emily Blunt.  Whether or not Krasinski would have made his movie there or somewhere else, it’s clear that Platinum Dunes wouldn’t have taken on the risk had they not seen Blumhouse’s success with like-minded films before.  As a result, you can see the way that more and more of the industry is seeing the benefits of Blumhouse’s model as a way of maximizing their output with all the future movies they have in production currently.

So, where does that leave Blumhouse in the future.  It’s clear that even though they have certainly become synonymous with the horror genre, they don’t intend on relying just on that alone.  They are already venturing out into other genres and while at the same time continuing to leave their mark with horror movies.  Their more long term goal is to make their business model the ideal for all Hollywood, especially when it comes to finding new talent.  They already have reinvigorated the careers of already established directors, like James Wan and M. Night Shaymalan, and have propelled the likely all star filmmakers of tomorrow too.  They are responsible for discovering director Damien Chazelle with his debut film Whiplash (2014) which was one of Blumhouse’s first non-horror theatrical releases and their first Best Picture nominee.  Chazelle of course went on to become the youngest Best Director winner in history, so you can see just how well a launching off point Blumhouse can be for fresh new talent.    But most horror film fans are grateful to Blumhouse for bringing the genre back to it’s basics.  Relying less on visual effects and more on atmosphere, Blumhouse horror seems much more in line with the roots of the genre, which always were more effective when dealing with the constraints of a modest budget.  That’s not to say that Blumhouse is making horror feel old-fashioned, but rather using the idea of not spoiling a good idea with too much film-making.  They are also revolutionizing the genre with fresh concepts never seen in the genre before like pointed social commentary directly from the minds of oppressed minority groups.  It’s also telling just how much trust they’ve earned within the industry when they are being trusted with carrying established genres into the next decade like Halloween and Spawn.  Both as a creative factory and as a role model for the industry at large, Blumhouse has managed to accomplish a lot over the last decade and it looks like their success will continue for many years to come.  More than anything else, they are beloved by horror fans around the world for helping to bring prestige back into the genre and show that these are films that are much more than scary movies, but worthwhile and provocative entertainment just like with any other genre.

First Man – Review

It’s a career long struggle to be at the top of your field for most people in the film industry.  It’s even rarer to see someone reach that level before they even reach middle age.  That’s been the case with film director Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood over the last couple of years, with only three feature films to his credit.  Starting off from the critical darling Whiplash (2014), Chazelle would undertake a very ambitious project for his second feature, which was also a long time dream project of his.  The musical feature La La Land (2016) caught fire immediately upon release and instantly made the thirty-something phenom a force to be reckoned with.  Of course, the movie has now garnered the notorious reputation of having lost out the Best Picture race, even despite it’s record tying 14 nominations, and having been mistakenly named the winner at the ceremony.  But, Damien still managed to walk away from the Oscars as the youngest Best Director winner in history at the astonishingly young age of 32.  Now, certainly, coming from an already affluent family and earning a degree from Harvard helped to give him a leg up that few others have the privilege of having in the industry, but it’s still undeniable that he is an enormously skilled filmmaker who, more than anything else, has a bold sense of how to use the medium to tell some larger than life stories.  Many rising stars among filmmakers tend to fluctuate between taking on big risks or steadily working with intimate, personal stories.  Damien Chazelle, it would seem, is eager to build upon what he has already built and push even further with the medium of film.  After taking on a tumultuous character study with Whiplash and a whimsical love story with La La Land, what appears to be the next adventure for the young director to pursue is the skies itself with the space based biopic, First Man.

First Man is another in what seems to be a quasi-Renaissance of films about the cosmos.  Starting off with Alfonso Cuaron’s ground-breaking thriller, Gravity (2013), we have seen a new film nearly every year that continues to use the final frontier as it’s point of interest.  Christopher Nolan delivered his epic exploration of deep space exploration with 2014’s Interstellar.  Ridley Scott followed that with The Martian (2015), a harrowing stranded on a desert island adventure where that lonely island just happens to be the fourth rock from the sun.  These were critical hits, but more recent space themed movies, like 2016’s Passengers, 2017’s Life, and this year’s Cloverfield Paradox have all proven underwhelming by comparison.  But what set’s First Man apart from all the more recent space themed movies is that it’s not looking into the future, but rather the past.  All the other movies are speculations of what space travel will be like in the years ahead, but First Man tells the story of how we got there in the first place.  It tells the story of the monumental Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, and more importantly, sheds light on the personal story of the man in charge of the mission iteself; Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.  There have been many celebrated movies that have celebrated the achievements of the space race, from Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995).  There was also the delightful earthbound, behind the scenes movie of Hidden Figures (2016), which told the story of the women who figured out the math that made space travel possible.  But strangely, we have never seen a feature film about the historic mission to the moon itself, nor about Armstrong; which is partly due to the legendary figure’s insistence on privacy.  With First Man, director Damien Chazelle hopes to change that and shed light on what led to the giant leap for mankind.

The movie starts off showing Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) in his early career as a test pilot for rocket jets that were designed to launch into near orbit around earth.  After the tragic death of his young daughter from cancer, Neil is grounded due to questions about his mental stability.  He soon learns that the NASA program is seeking candidates for it’s Gemini program, which is intent on testing the possibilities of taking men on a mission to the moon.  Armstrong moves his family closer to the Houston command center and performs well at his interview.  He joins the Gemini team, where he quickly builds a friendship with his fellow trainees, Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward White (Jason Clarke).  Armstrong builds valuable experience along the way and is soon selected by the program’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) to pilot the Gemini 8 rocket.  Not long after getting the honor, he learns of Elliott See’s tragic accident on a test flight.  Suffering another loss in his life, Armstrong finds solace in his work, which he takes to an almost manic level of seriousness.  Neil’s self imposed seclusion puts a strain on his relationship with his two sons, Rick and Mark, as well as his patient but over-burdened wife, Janet (Claire Foy).  Neil manages to successfully conclude the docking test aboard the Gemini 8 capsule, but a malfunction nearly brings him to the brink of death and casts doubt on the future of the moon landing itself.  This coupled with the tragic Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts, including Ed White, and the future of NASA becomes pretty dire.  Out of all this, Neil Armstrong is selected alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) to command the pivotal Apollo 11 mission that’s been picked for the actual landing.  With so much at stake, both personally and historically, Armstrong must pull together in order to do the impossible.

The first challenge for a filmmaker tackling a historic event is to make a story that everyone knows the outcome to feel brand new.  We all know how the Apollo 11 mission turned out; everything went according to plan without incident and all three astronauts returned home safely and lived prosperous lives for many years after.  First Man needed to find another way to build tension for it’s retelling of the mission in order to work as a film, and it does so by chronicling the enormous struggle it took to get to the moon.  The movie isn’t so much a film about the Apollo 11 mission itself as it is a personal journey through the years long process it took for NASA to finally work out all the problems and get everything right.  In this regard, the movie succeeds spectacularly.  The most fascinating aspect of the movie is in witnessing the human cost that it took on the people in the Gemini and Apollo missions.  Lives were lost in tragic ways, which left a deep scar emotionally on those left behind.  Damien Chazelle does a great job of showing the emotional toll that keeps building on these people over time, as they watch friends and loved ones die suddenly.  And the shocking aspect of the movie is that very little time was allowed for these men and their wives to grieve, because the mission to the moon was so paramount and they all had to bury their sorrow quickly and move on.  What the movie brilliantly lays out is the fact that reaching the moon was a hard fought victory, and by the time the lander does reach the surface, you feel the full weight of what has just been accomplished.  I love how poetic the actual scene on the moon is, because it’s almost tranquil compared to the whirlwind of emotions that preceded it.  The movie finds it’s greatest success in building the tension through the human experience of what these guys went through to get to this moment, and once we finally do reach the moon, the film graciously lets us breath and enjoy the beauty.

Unfortunately, in order to do justice to the tumultuous trial and error that it took to reach the moon, the movie sacrifices something important that might have helped to elevate it just a little more.  The movie is strangely emotionally vacant when it comes to the human story, as we don’t really get a good sense of who these people are and what makes them tick.  The movie attempts it’s best shot at understanding the person that was Neil Armstrong, but I feel that by the end he remains an enigma to the viewer.  That’s not to say that Ryan Gosling gives a bad performance; quite the contrary, he gives one of his best performances yet in this movie.  I think the problem lies in the fact that Damien Chazelle is working from a script that is not his own (a first) and from a writer whose style is very different from what Chazelle likes to work with.  The script was written by Josh Singer, an Oscar winner for the movie Spotlight (2015).  What Singer is great at as a writer is detailing historical events through meticulous detail and finding a compelling story within, which he managed to do so well in a movie like Spotlight and more recently Steven Spielberg’s The Post (2017).  But, at the same time, his scripts are not character studies.  The people within his scripts fill their roles, are often very interesting, but are ultimately not what drives the story, that instead being the event itself.  Chazelle on the other hand is much more comfortable exploring the minds of his characters, often to uncomfortable points, like the tumultuous relationships he explored in Whiplash and La La Land.  First Man finds the director out of his comfort zone and I don’t quite believe he found the emotional center of this movie the way he would’ve liked to because of the scripts limitations.  The details about the mission are still brilliantly staged, but when it cuts back to Armstrong’s domestic life, the movie feels like it looses it’s way.  I wanted to understand more about what Armstrong was like as a person, and I feel that the movie didn’t quite deliver on that.  It does show flashes where Armstrong seems to still be haunted by the memory of his daughter, which might have been true, but it just comes across as a fabrication on the filmmakers part to try to find some explanation that they honestly didn’t have an answer for.

Despite the shortcomings of the film’s script and emotional weight, I still have to commend the craft that was put into it.  The movie is visually stunning, and shows that Damien Chazelle is still exploring new ways to play around with the medium.  I like the fact that he is continuing to experiment with different kinds of film stock for his movies.  After shooting La La Land in the rarely used Cinemascope 55 format, which helped to give that movie an old-fashioned Hollywood musical texture to it’s lavish visuals, he takes a whole different approach to First Man which not only affects the aesthetic of the movie, but also offers up some underlining thematics as well.  The majority of the movie is actually shot in 16 mm, a very grainy format often used by small budget movies and documentaries.  The effect really helps to sell the intimacy of the production, putting the viewer right in the center of the action, as if they were watching a documentary.  This really helps to amp up the tension in some of the more intense scenes when the astronauts are launching into space.  Damien Chazelle really captures the cramp, claustrophobic feeling of being inside one of those capsules, something which the grainy detail of the 16 mm image really enhances.  It also feels appropriate to the era, as most of the footage we have of the behind the scenes workings of NASA during the 60’s also comes in the form of 16 mm stock footage.  But, once the moment arrives when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the moon, Damien Chazelle does something very bold.  The two astronauts open the hatch, and suddenly the movie shifts to stunning 70 mm IMAX.  You don’t really get the full effect unless you see the movie projected in IMAX (like I did), but it’s still an incredible effect.  Suddenly the film shifts to ultra high definition and bold colors that only IMAX can fully exploit, and it spectacularly presents the majesty of the moment.  Thematically it fits with the rest of the film itself, with grainy 16 mm signifying uncertainty before the mission and IMAX revealing the clarity of what all this was leading up to.  It shows that cinematicly, Damien Chazelle is still using his position as direction to really make some bold choices, and this movie benefits greatly from that in a visual standpoint.

Damein Chazelle has actually stated that he’s looked at the movies of Christopher Nolan as an inspiration point when it came to finding the epic scope of the film’s biggest moments, and it’s very apparent from the way he stages the crucial parts in outer space.  There are a few parallels with this and the movie Interstellar, especially the shots showing the exteriors of the spacecrafts, but First Man breaks from it’s predecessor by never venturing too far away from those crafts either.  Christopher Nolan balanced a lot of his movie out with close up shots of his spacecrafts as well as wide shots that accentuated just how insignificant they were in the great expanse of the cosmos.  First Man never goes that far, and keeps much of the visuals close to the human element as possible.  There are one or two wide shots of the moon in all it’s glory, but most of what we see is from the point of view of the astronauts.  This helps to give the movie a very valuable “you are there” experience, and we the viewer feel like we’ve been dropped into the cockpit with Neil and Buzz.  When you see the surface of the moon coming closer and closer through the port windows of the lander, you have the same amount of anticipation as the astronauts do, and that landing sequence is easily the film’s most effective moment.  I have to give a lot of praise to both the film’s visual effects unit and it’s sound design team.  The movie makes brilliant use of large scale models in it’s recreation of the rockets that launched the astronauts into space, as well as the moon itself.  It’s all shown very subtly, further enhancing the realism that the movie is intending to achieve.  And if there is an absolutely certain Oscar win in this movie’s future, it’s the sound design.  You hear every moan, clank, and bang of these spacecrafts as they go through the harrowing experience of launching past the Earth’s atmosphere and reaching the vastness of Space.  Those sounds especially reinforce the claustrophobia of every scene as well, and drives up the tension even further.  I love the fact that all the noise of the movie completely disappears once the hatch is opened on the moon and all that we hear thereafter is the actual recordings of Armstong on the moon followed by a graceful musical underscore by Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz.  For a movie that so aggressively amps up the cacophony of noises that the astronauts had to endure to reach their goal, the movie ends on a wonderfully quiet and peaceful climax.

As a chronicle of the greatest achievement of mankind in the 20th century, First Man largely succeeds.  I found myself fascinated by the steps that it took to get to that moment, and what that meant to the world as a result.  I certainly never considered the human cost that was involved before and the movie really shows how this moment in history was hard won.  I just wish that the film had balanced that with a closer look at the people themselves.  Everyone’s personalities are fixed and there are no great arcs for the people in this story; not even Neil Armstrong.  I feel that this is the one disappointing thing in what is otherwise a brilliantly staged production.  I believe that this is more a flaw of the script itself rather than anything else, because the very talented cast does their best to work as much personality as they can into these historical figures.  Corey Stoll does the best out of the bunch as his version of Buzz Aldrin comes off as obnoxious in the most humorous kind of way.  I also thought Claire Foy used her brief moments of passion as the long frustrated wife of Neil Armstong to great effect, finding the strength in what is otherwise an underwritten role.  Gosling, probably had the hardest job to undertake as Neil Armstrong was one of the least known figures of the early days of NASA.  Armstrong never sought publicity or actively argued that he should be the first.  He was the first man to walk on the moon simply because someone had to be.  The movie, as well as Gosling as an actor, seems to have had it’s arms tied as a result, because there is very little to actually mine from this man’s life.  Armstrong rarely did interviews, never wrote a memoir, and all we know about him is from the recollections of his friends and family.  As a result, the movie works best as a chronicle of his achievements, but not as an examination of his character.  For a director like Chazelle, whose work up to now has been primarily focused on intimate portraits of personal struggles, this unfortunately feels like a step backwards for the director.  But only in a storytelling sense, as he continues to impress as a visual artist, becoming even more confident working with a larger scale.  It is still great to see an ambitious film finally devoted to this moment in history, emphasizing it’s importance and how much it propelled us forward as a civilization.  And Chazelle and company do honor it with a great deal of profound respect.  For this still young director, it will be interesting how he takes the next leap forward himself in future projects.

Rating: 8/10

Off the Page – I am Legend

With the month of October arriving once again, audiences begin to crave the twisted thrills of horror on the big screen as it provides the right kind of atmosphere to match the tidings of this Halloween season.  Hollywood has long provided generations worth of taut, scary thrillers of all kinds to satisfy their audiences, and it’s interesting to see how many different varieties have sprung up over the years.  Universal Pictures popularized the monster flick with their rogues gallery of classic baddies.  The 1950’s sci-fi craze began the era of the creature feature, which also saw the international contributions of Japanese cinema which popularized their giant Kaiju creatures like Godzilla (1954).  Then of course the 70’s and the 80’s brought the rise of the slasher flick, which would go on to popularize new, very human monsters like Jason Voorhies, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers.  But the current era of horror has yet to yield it’s own definable icons like ages past.  More often than not, the nostalgia heavy culture we live in is more concerned with reinventing past movie monsters rather than creating new ones, like the upcoming Halloween reboot is about to.  But if there is one cinematic creature that has really carved out an identity in the last couple years, it would be the zombie.  For a while, zombie flicks became a red hot property in Hollywood, with both major studios and independent companies all taking their stab at it.  Some would say it probably became over saturated for a while, as it seemed like it was all that Hollywood was producing at the time.  But it’s all been in response to a genre that largely became devoid of anything original for a long time, and at least with the zombie flick, you didn’t have to rely on the same monster every time.  Zombies became popular because of their lack of definition and because audiences recognized that the scariest possible thing in the world is that the monsters could be us.

The zombie flick may be popular now, but it’s roots extend further back.  There were many films about the rising of dead dating back to Hollywood’s early years.  There was the Bela Lugosi headlined thriller White Zombie (1932), though that was more about hypnotic control rather than the undead.  Ed Wood had alien controlled zombies in his camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  But, the genre wouldn’t see it’s true cinematic emergence until George A. Romero’s universally beloved Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero’s film has since become the gold standard for all zombie movies since, defining among many things how the creatures would appear and act, what their weakness are, how they pose a danger to society, and most importantly, showing how survivors react when faced with the threat of a zombie attack.  The legacy of that low budget, but extremely effective film are still felt today.  But, despite how ground-breaking Living Dead was as a touchstone for the zombie sub-genre, the movie still owes a great deal to another inspiration; one that of course comes from literature.  George Romero does point to the novel I am Legend as an inspiration for his film, and it’s clear to see what left an impression on him.  Published in 1954 from writer Richard Matheson, I am Legend is largely seen as the originator of the modern zombie narrative, chronicling the aftermath of a pandemic that wipes out most human life on earth and showing a lonely survivor’s livelihood in a world now filled with the infected.  It’s easy to see that the concept of the survivors’ story in a post apocalyptic world really resonated with the likes of Romero plus many others, and it’s effect no doubt touched Hollywood as well.  Several adaptations have been made of I am Legend, including some wildly disparate versions like The Last Man on Earth (1964) and The Omega Man (1971).  A far more earnest take on tackling the novel faithfully didn’t come until 2007 however, with the big budget version directed by Francis Lawrence (Hunger Games series) and starring Will Smith.  But earnest doesn’t always mean faithful, and the 2007 film I am Legend shows how trying to bring a modern sensibility to a classic story doesn’t always result in a film that’s as effective as the written word.

“My name is Robert Neville.  I am a survivor living in New York City.”

For the most part, the movie does a fairly good job of following the basic premise of the story.  Society has fallen due to a pandemic that caused the human population to turn into vampiric zombies.  In the novel, Matheson does have rely on this hybrid concept of zombies that act like vampires, including retaining the same weaknesses like aversion to garlic and holy images, which in a way seems like a rather unnecessary addition to the story.  Why would a disease suddenly make these once human creatures react so harshly to crucifixes and the like?  Just wondering.  But, the one vampiric trait that does help drive the story is that these zombies cannot survive in the daylight.  The movie wisely uses this as the basic trait of the zombies, as they only pose a threat in the nighttime, which drives the feeling of isolation for the main character.  Neville, or as he’s known Dr. Robert Neville in the film, is the only human left immune to the disease that transformed humanity, surviving by himself in the crumbling infrastructure of a once booming metropolis (Los Angeles in the book, New York in the movie).  There, he scavenges for food, supplies, and other essentials before barricading himself up in his home while the zombie vampires swarm around his home at night.  All the while, he researches to find the cause and possibly a cure for the disease in the hope of reversing it’s affects and bringing society back to where it was.  The book and the movie stick very close together for the first half, and most of the movie’s earliest scenes do a really effective job of world building.  The images of Manhattan Island crumbling after years of neglect and foliage now overtaking the once concrete jungle are strikingly realized.  In this regard, I am Legend does the best job we’ve seen yet of capturing the landscape of the novel.  Only once the plot starts to deviate that some of the problems in the adaptation begin to arise and the film itself starts to fall apart.

“This is ground zero.  This is my site. I can fix this.”

It’s actually frustrating watching the movie version of I am Legend after reading the original novel, because there are many points that the movie does get right.  For one thing, Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good in the movie.  The actor forgoes his usually “slick Willy” swagger in favor of portraying a broken man who’s slowly losing his faith in a better tomorrow.  I love how the movie also portrays the way he deals with his isolation.  Throughout his daily routine, Neville goes out into the city and visits the same locations for his rations, including visiting a video store where he picks out something to watch back home.  In every spot, he has set up department store mannequins, posed individually like they are going about their lives, and he interacts with them as if they were real people.  One might look at this as a sign of insanity brought on by extended isolation, but it’s also a clever coping mechanism to allow for Neville to keep his remaining sanity in tact.  The mannequins are an addition to the movie not found in the novel, and it works really well, helping to add another dimension to Neville’s character that is worthwhile.  The film also expands on a subplot from the book involving Neville befriending a dog, who becomes his companion for a while.  The film’s highlight is the heartbreaking point where the dog becomes infected and Neville has to put him down, which is effectively staged for the maximum amount of pathos.  And these moments hint at a movie that not only could have been faithful to the source material, but also could have transcended it.  Unfortunately, the film’s second, more conventional half reveals a different story, and one that sees a revisit from that old cinematic menace; studio interference.

The problem first begins when Neville is visited by other survivors who have the same immunity that he does.  There is a similar episode in the books, where Neville finds another person walking the streets in the middle of the day just as he has been.  This mysterious person, named Ruth, plays a wildly different role for the original story than the two new surviors in the movie, named Anna and Ethan (Alice Braga and Charlie Tahan) do in their roles.  For the most part, Alice and Ethan serve merely as motivation for Neville to do what he was already on his way towards doing without the despair getting in the way, which is using his resources to find a cure.  They are largely superfluous and are clearly there to give the movie a more conventional hero arc to Neville, basically meant to live to tell his story and make him a “legend.”  But that’s not the message that the book had in mind.  The big revelation about Ruth is (spoilers) that she is one of the infected as well, and has proven to Neville that those who have been infected have not lost all their humanity in the process.  In fact, during the nighttime hours in which Neville has been sleeping in fear, the more sentient of the infected (mainly those who succumbed to it while they were still living) are still conscious of their being and have been trying to live their lives normally under the conditions, even seeking medication themselves.  They have even domesticated some of the more feral (undead) zombies in the process, and have used them to hunt those who would hurt them, like Neville.  It’s through this revelation that Neville becomes aware that as he has grown to fear and hate the zombie infected, they have reacted the same to him, and that he is even more of a monster from their perspective.  It’s revealed that Neville was responsible for killing Ruth’s own husband, making Neville realize that his lack of view of their humanity has made him aware of just how much he has lost his own.  In the novel’s closing chapter, Neville reflects on how he has become the monster that preys on these new creatures while they sleeping, saying, “I am a new superstition entering the unassailable fortress of forever.  I am legend,” the passage which gives the story it’s name.

“The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off.  How can I? Light up the darkness.”

Through this plot development, we see how Richard Matheson takes his story about vampire zombies and turns it into an allegorical story of mankind’s cruelty towards the natural world.  It never dawned in Neville’s mind up until that point that he might be the villain; he was just doing what he could to survive another day.  It’s that compromise of morals in desperate times that becomes the message of Matheson’s story, and it’s one that has likewise been very influential in zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic stories ever since.  You see this in stuff like the Mad Max franchise and the Walking Dead TV-series, where the biggest threat isn’t the environment nor the undead zombies that have infested it. but rather the other desperate survivors among you who would just as readily kill you if it meant they would live another day.  Desperation is the great leveler of civilization found in the story of I am Legend, and it’s a powerfully delivered message as well.  So, it makes it doubly frustrating when the movie that is a direct adaptation of the book, completely disposes of that message.  The truth is, when Hollywood invests so much into a big budget film, they are less willing to accept a more downbeat moral such as the one found in the book as the backbone of their story.  Instead of being revealed as the layered character that he is the books, Neville falls into the mold of your typical savior figure who ends up saving the world.  The movie even has him going out in a blaze of glory, blowing himself up with a grenade in the middle of a swarm of zombies, after conveniently discovering a cure minutes earlier and giving it to Anna and Ethan as they make their escape.  There’s no allegory, no satisfying turnabout of Neville’s character.  Everything is shaded in the black and white morality of humans beating back the scary monsters, which makes the story feel very unoriginal and contrary to the way it started.

And yet there is even a more problematic aspect to the way that the movie ended; it wasn’t always supposed to be that way.  Director Francis Lawrence actually shot another ending for the film that was closer to the original.  In this alternative ending, after Neville and the other survivors are cornered in his basement laboratory by a swarm of enraged (and poorly animated) zombies, Neville makes the shocking realization that the test subject that he retrieved days earlier was in fact the mate of the zombie’s alpha leader.  In this moment, he realizes that he committed a kidnapping and that the zombies are only there to get back one of their own, and not to kill, unless provoked.  Like his novel counterpart, movie Neville realizes he’s been a monster by not seeing the humanity that’s still in these creatures and he makes the conscious choice to let his last chance at a cure go in order to settle a peace with the creatures.  This more complex ending, as it turns out, did not focus group well, and Warner Brothers decided to force a last minute re-shoot of the scene to create the more conventional ending.  But, in doing so, it robs the remainder of the story of any real satisfaction.  The ending from the book may not be ideal, but it is nevertheless though provoking.  The ending of the movie is generic and forgettable.  The movie may not have gained a bad reputation if this alternate ending was never seen, but for some reason Warner stuck it onto the home video release and marketed the alternate version as well, like they were proud of it.  But if you were so proud of it, why didn’t you include it in the original movie.  To me, it’s an extreme case of the studio not having the faith in the original story and not trusting their audience to be open to something more complex than the “save the day” narrative.  Couple this with a lot of unnecessary scenes of explaining to the audience what led up to this (including a weird cameo from Emma Thompson in the prologue, playing the doctor who inadvertently caused the pandemic with her believed cure for cancer) and you’ve got a clear indication that the studio was not fully on board with all this, and tried to dumb the movie down.  The thing that made I am Legend so memorable was that it made the reader feel unsafe and as a result terrified of what turn might come next.  The movie leaves no surprises and scares absolutely no one.

“God didn’t do this.  We did.”

And that’s a shame too, because there are flashes of brilliance in the movie adaptation.  Will Smith’s performance is effective up until that unnecessary ending, and I love the fact that his version of Neville is proactive in trying to retain some level of normality in this world.  I get the feeling from that and the alternate ending that both him and the director wanted to come close to the message of the original story, but were undercut by the powers that be at Warners.  In the end, the movie is a pale imitation of what could have been had the studio been more confident in the story.  Richard Matheson knew that he was making a story not about monsters, but about people, and how sometimes evil acts are committed once we begin to lose that grasp of humanity that is ever so crucial in our society.  There are so many cases where horrible, evil movements are created by demonizing another group as the “other” in modern society, and it’s even scarier when a person doesn’t even realize they are falling in that hole.  Like many others, Neville believes that he is doing the right thing by fighting back against these zombies, but once he sees that these are beings who are struggling to survive just like him and that he’s been the menace in their lives, then the horrifying realization becomes apparent and he has to cope with the awareness of the evil that he has wrought.  We are all susceptible to same downward spiral that Neville succumbs to, and that’s a frightening concept that has made this such a profound horrific story over time.   Unfortunately, we have yet to see a movie capture Matheson’s story faithfully, though many films inspired by the novel have lived up to the spirit of it.  Zombie movies can be quite scary when done right, but it becomes all the more unsettling once it shows the toll that it takes on those who manage to survive, and that even overcoming such a threat can awaken an even greater evil among the survivors.

“Nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen.”

Rule Breakers – When a Game-Changing Movie Disrupts the Order of Hollywood

Hollywood doesn’t like surprises, unless they are the kind that benefits them exclusively.  External things like controversies, disasters, and all sorts of calamities can throw the industry in a state of turmoil, but even smaller factors tend to put the business in a state of worry.  The obvious thing that Hollywood deals with is being able to forecast the state of the industry, and this is often much harder to do than anyone thinks.  That’s why surprises are not always a great thing for Hollywood, because it disrupts the careful order that many in the industry desperately want to manage.  Every year, all the production companies and studios would like to believe that they will make more this year than in the year prior, and because movies take a long time to develop, sometimes over several years, their hope is that the industry doesn’t fall into a major upheaval that sabotages their best laid plans.  You can have any major catastrophe be a part of that disruption, like an industry wide financial collapse or worldwide events like wars and natural disasters causing a cut in revenue, and sometimes Hollywood would rather deal with those situations; they have insurance after all.  But, it’s the other situations that cause a disruption that Hollywood dreads every now and then, and this is usually the sudden emergence of a trend.  Predicting how trends develop is often impossible, and usually when one happens, it will benefit those closest to it, but also affect the ones left behind in a negative way.  Sometimes those are disruptions that need to happen in order to help the industry evolve, but make no mistake, revolutions never happen without mayhem in it’s wake.  And the most strongly identifiable kinds of disruptions that we find in Hollywood are the ones in the form of game-changing movies that suddenly become successful.

It’s hard to identify a game-changing movie without also looking at the context of the times of the release.  Often, we identify these movies long after the fact in retrospect; as sort of a ground zero for where the changes in the industry sprouted from.  For a movie to have been a game-changer, it first had to be made with the intent of not following the standard expectations of the industry, whether it’s in the story-telling or the technique of filming.  Then it has to be released at a time where it’s impact is felt immediately, finding it’s audience and gaining the attention of the industry.  Many films break the rules of Hollywood, but they often go unnoticed upon their initial release.  A game-changing film breaks the rules and overcomes the odds towards success regardless.  And their success suddenly creates a demand for more just like it, which causes the industry to rethink it’s strategies.  This is the disruption that Hollywood tends to dread, because with the pipeline of movies that takes many years to push through, the sudden shift suddenly throws the timing off of all these other projects.  What seemed like a sure thing only a year ago can suddenly feel old-fashioned or insignificant just as quickly.  For the game-changing film, it’s an experience that it likely never thought it would have.  Filmmakers know that they have something unique on their hands, but they can never know if their movie is about to blow up and change the world.  Their movie satisfies a craving on the part of the audience, as they are looking for something out of the ordinary but are quite sure what it is.  But once they find it, it all becomes a perfect storm that leaves ripples across the film-making landscape.

One of the most notable examples of this to have come out in the last 20 years was a little movie called The Matrix (1999).  No one would have guessed that this sci-fi vehicle for star Keanu Reeves would end up influencing almost all of cinema heading into the new millennium.  Almost none of the typical Hollywood rules applied to this movie.  It had a grungy, techno-punk atmosphere to it; it was philosophical;  it took place in an online world, which was still very much in it’s infancy at the time; and it had some really bizarre visual effects that no one had even seen nor attempted before.  Also, it came out in early April, normally a quiet point at the box office each year.  And yet, audiences ate the movie up and it was proclaimed an instant classic.  It even fared well against expected blockbusters that year like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and completely wiped the floor with Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, despite him being the biggest movie star at the time.  But, even though it’s impact was felt immediately at the box office, we wouldn’t understand it’s true affect on the industry for many more years.  The real big change that The Matrix had was changing the way that movies looked.  Look at all the movies released in the 1990’s and the 2000’s; there was a dramatic shift between then, and you could easily point to The Matrix as the movie that made the industry turn.  The big difference is that movies in the 2000’s had a more decidedly digital look to them.  The Matrix, while not shot digitally, still managed to convey the slickness of a digital world, and that in turn caught the eye of Hollywood and led them towards investing more fully in digital technologies for their productions and in the cinemas, all to capitalize on that more Matrix look.  It could be said that The Matrix marks the beginning of the Digital Age in Hollywood.  Matrix’s groundbreaking techniques like bullet-time and 360 pans also permeated the industry, maybe not as extensive as the visual look of the movie, but nevertheless proved influential.  It’s one thing for a movie to become an instant hit at the box office, but when the actual structural look of movies in general begins to change, that’s when you know that a single movie has left a tremendous impact.

The best way to identify movies that leave an impact on the industry like The Matrix is to take an aspect of movie technology or storytelling and trace it all the way back to it’s roots.  We owe standard film editing to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and sound to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927).  And while some techniques may have started in lesser known films, we owe blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz for popularizing color photography and Fox’s The Robe (1953) for widescreen and helping to make them standards for the industry as a whole.  Game-changing films can also jump start a media empire, like what Walt Disney did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first ever feature length animated film.  Cultural movements can also find their focal point in a movie that hits a cord at just the right moment, like what Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) managed to do for the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s.  Essentially, these movies started turning points that continue to manifest in Hollywood today.  Sometimes it takes just that special film to help Hollywood see the necessity of a new technology or to embrace a new way of thinking.  But at the same time, you could never have said beforehand that these were going to be the movies that would do it either.  Often these movies were created in a bubble where the filmmakers decided to ignore Hollywood and their rules and venture forth because they were following their gut feelings.  Now, this is not always a guarantee of success, and most risk-taking movies do tend to fail and be forgotten.  But, when these movies do happen, then the risks suddenly become  worth it.

The reason Hollywood becomes weary of these types of movies is because they are often hard to sustain in the long run.  Not every movie has a legacy that lasts over 20 years.  Even The Matrix couldn’t repeat it’s own success, as their creators, the Wachowskis, would learn once they released their underwhelming sequels a mere four years later.   Perhaps the rarest exception would be the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster, Star Wars (1977).  The fist movie, which has since been re-dubbed A New Hope, was an undeniable game-changer when it first premiered, creating a whole industry wide flourish of big budget science fiction and fantasy in it’s wake and also revolutionized everything from visual effects to marketing within the industry in the years since.  But, even more remarkable is that the brand has remained impenetrable even 40 years later, remaining resilient to this day.  It’s even survived the backlash against the receptions to some of it’s chapters and continues to be a juggernaut at the box office.  With that itself, Star Wars has proven influential for other studio fixtures in terms with how they market their brands.  You could say that the entire nostalgia heavy mixture that we find in Hollywood today is because of the example of Star Wars and how well it has retained it’s relevancy for so many years.  With toy products, commercial tie-ins, and even theme park experiences, you can see the Star Wars example taking hold throughout the industry.  It’s primarily how brands like Jurassic ParkTransformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Harry Potter have maintained their relevance for far longer than they were expected, or should have lasted.  But, with a long lasting resilience like Star Wars, the industry might mistakenly believe they have found a safe level ground to coast the flow of the industry on, and that is not really the case.  Star Wars is an exception to the rule, as most game-changers are, and believing that they are reliable is a mistake that could turn costly in the long run.

Hollywood is a high stakes industry where money flow matters greatly.  Because of this, Hollywood needs reassurances, and that becomes a problem when your project works outside of the accepted margin.  So, the best way to be prepared in Hollywood is to thoroughly examine the landscape of the industry often and see if there are any patterns emerging that can benefit the industry as a whole.  Perhaps the thing that is having the most significant effect on the industry right now is how the demographic shift in viewership is changing.  For most of it’s history, Hollywood has focused mainly on gaining viewership in suburban Middle America, where they were most likely to find the most reliable, weekly visitors to the local movie theaters.  Because of this, the movies that have come out for so many years have often reflected the make-up of that body of population; mainly white, working class suburbanites.  But, as audiences have grown more culturally savvy, and internet connectivity has made on demand viewership more possible, such as through Netflix, there is far less of a need to make movies that target specifically the average Middle American movie-goer.  Now, we are seeing a huge rise in global cinema and that has changed the look of movie audience demographic significantly.  We are now seeing the mainstreaming of stories about the struggles of oppressed minorities, and it is changing the attitudes of the industry significantly.  You look at just the last two years, with Wonder Woman (2017) and Black Panther (2018), two genre specific movies that transcended their pedigree to finally give a cinematic identity to groups that are often largely marginalized in both society and in the movies (namely women and black people).  This has opened the door for even more cultural diversity, as other groups like homosexuals have recently enjoyed more mainstream exposure through hits like Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018).  And right now, we are witnessing a revolution in Asian representation with Crazy Rich Asians (2018) becoming a hit with audiences of all kinds.  At this moment, the trend in Hollywood is to no longer ignore marginalized groups and recognize that their stories are just as capable of making lots of money as any other.

But, Hollywood must also understand that these movies must be freely allowed to either soar and fall on their own.  Movements don’t flourish when the system they are fighting against is also the ones pulling the strings.  A good case in point is the largely failed attempts by other studios to follow in Marvel Studio’s footprints with creating cinematic universes of their own.  The reason most of them have failed is because too many of them have put the cart before the horse and expected the trend to do most of the work for them.  One example is the laughably mismanaged Dark Universe that was supposed to take all of Universal Studios famous movie monsters and combine them all in a Marvel style shared universe.  The Dark Universe was ended barely out of the gate with the catastrophic performance of The Mummy (2017), which even Tom Cruise’s star power couldn’t save.  And the large reason for that was the fact that Universal played it’s hand too strong.  It was so obvious that this was a marketing ploy that it robbed the actual movie of any real impact.  And it didn’t help that The Mummy was a lazy mess as well; built solely to promote future installments and nothing else.  It shows the failure of Hollywood trying to have control over something that is best left to flourish on it’s own.  The same goes for trying to reach certain parts of the audience.  People today know when they are being pandered to and it’s often enough to make them react negatively to a film when it becomes so apparent.  That was the mistake the female led Ghostbusters (2016) made.  The studio, Sony, made such a big deal that their movie was going to be this feminist breakthrough film, but in the end all it did was stir up a backlash that only negatively impacted it’s female cast and ended up setting things back for a female voice in the industry with it’s also lackluster performancesomething that was thankfully remedied somewhat with Wonder Woman the following year.  For a trend to take hold, trust needs to be put in the hands of outsiders who know what they are doing.  You can’t manufacture a revolution; it just happens naturally thanks to circumstance and excellent timing.

Hollywood may not always be ready for these game-changing films, but they are essential for the survival of the industry.  We wouldn’t have had the progress in the art of film-making had some of these films had not come along and popularized changes necessary for the industry.  Though the movies themselves may no longer be culturally relevant (especially in the case of Birth of a Nation), we can’t deny their importance for what they brought to the medium.  Where would we be now had sound, color, widescreen, and digital technology had taken longer to reach the industry.  Each advancement builds on the other and the evolution of Hollywood is built on the foundation of these once thought to be outliers.  But, Hollywood likes to be in charge of it’s own destiny, and that often makes it hard to accept these changes at first.  Disruptions in the industry does cost a lot of capital for those left behind and you can see many companies throughout Hollywood’s history rise and fall depending on how well they respond to a new order, leading to some often major layoffs in the process.  It’s a painful process, but essential for the future.  And Hollywood might be in a better position to have a less hands on presence in the development stages of their productions.  Why do you think so many filmmakers are flocking to Netflix right now?  Because Netflix’s platform relies less heavily on focus grouping a film to make it play better in Middle America.  This has opened up the flood gates for more diverse voices, which we have recently seen are an untapped market that is ready to explode.  I’m excited by the fact that the game changers of today are people who have often been ignored in the past, and that because of movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians we are about to see a Hollywood that is going to be less homogenized and far more world savvy than ever before.  Changing the game in Hollywood also allows for more opportunities for to try new things in Hollywood, which has always left long lasting impacts on the industry.  We may not know which movies may make that difference, but when they arrive, it rekindles what we love best about film in general and renews confidence in the art of film-making once again.

Not What You Expected – When Expectations Affect the Responses to Movies

I think that a lot of people outside of the industry don’t quite realize the enormous risks that are undertaken when making a movie.  And I don’t just mean financial wise, even though that is a significant factor in most cases, but in storytelling as well.  When setting out to make a movie, one has to consider first and foremost, is this something people will want to watch?  Movies are not meant to indulge the artistic tastes of their creators, and those who think that they are will find themselves in a significant financial quagmire.  Movies are first and foremost entertainment, with the intention of finding an audience that will justify the costs of making it and hopefully generate a profit in order to move forward another project afterwards.  We are only lucky to have this very commercial enterprise also be capable of creating art in the process.  Now, when the stakes are lower when it comes to storytelling, then so is the financial risks.  Small movies have small costs so that they can make the most of a smaller audience.  But, with Hollywood, the stakes are significantly higher because of the industry they have built up over the years investing in epic scale productions.  There is big money to be made in big films, but the industry also has the greater risk of having to manage the greater risks that come along with that.  Thus, we get a heavier reliance on tent-pole films, because of the way that they can rely on a built in audience to help reduce the risk of not getting enough back in box office returns.  But, every so often, game-changing movies shake up the established order of Hollywood and those sure-things are not so reliable anymore.  This has been the case with movies like The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Dark Knight (2008), which not only broke new ground in Hollywood, but also raised the bar for what the industry would have to follow in the years ahead.  And in this rapidly evolving business, the industry finds itself having to live up to expectations that are no longer within their control.

Audience expectations have become a very problematic thing in recent years for the film industry, as social media and online chatting have made it almost impossible to gain a consensus on anything in the pop culture.  Traditional film criticism from media sources has sadly lost most of it’s pull on the industry, as anyone with a Twitter account or a YouTube channel with enough followers can suddenly become a film critic.  In many ways, it’s nice to see something like film criticism become so democratized, but the sheer volume of voices out there has made conversations around movies in general a little bit chaotic and in some areas, hostile.  In response, Hollywood has tried to cherry-pick whatever fan response best makes them look the best, but when opinions become so diverse and divided, favoritism often breeds contempt.  And this has made the film industry more susceptible to backlashes from general audiences.  As voices online have grown louder, so have their demands on the industry.  Now, making some demands on Hollywood from the online world has been a good thing, as most of the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, but that’s in the case where vocal outrage is justified.  Other cases, like when a film studio decides to move in a different direction with one of their intellectual properties, or when a movie makes a bold cinematic choice that contradicts what it’s set out to do before, tend to fall more in the inconsequential to petty reasons to show outrage online.  And yet, Hollywood is increasingly finding themselves walking more and more into a minefield of online criticism that often comes their way regardless of what their movies ended up doing.  And this is leaving a very problematic effect on how movies are made now and what kind of movies get made.

One of the most recent examples of Hollywood facing such a backlash from it’s audience is with the reactions that resulted after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).  When one takes a look at the movie by itself, it has all the hallmarks of a typical entry from the franchise.  But, the movie also took risks as well, particularly when it came to the plot.  It didn’t extend the lore of the Star Wars cinematic universe, it completely dropped plot elements that were teased in the previous film, and it fundamentally changed the status of the world it’s created going forward.  Now the movie still did very well at the box office, and many people (including myself) were satisfied by what we saw.  But, a significant portion of the audience were not happy with the results, and they made their dissatisfaction known.  One critic went as far as to create a petition to strike The Last Jedi from the official Star Wars canon, deeming it unworthy to even exist.  And that was not the most severe reaction either, as some people even tried to scapegoat their frustration on certain players involved in the movie, as the horrible racist comments made towards actress Kelly Marie Tran (who played Rose in the movie) showed in a very extreme way.  But what is interesting is the fact that most of these complaints were made by people who proclaim themselves as fans.  The reason for The Last Jedi to be singled out for such a reaction is peculiar because it is by no means the worst thing we’ve seen from the Star Wars franchise (these guys must have clearly forgotten about the prequels).  What’s changed is the fact that our world today is so wrapped up in responding both positively and negatively to pop culture, and as a result, things like Star Wars are now held up to a higher and some would say an unrealistic standard that it must apply to.

The fandom around such things like Star Wars has become more and more ingrained in the pop culture and much of it now actually shapes the lives of the people who makes up it’s audience.  Star Wars, throughout it’s 40 year history, has grown beyond just a cinematic experience.  People devote their lives to the fandom of Star Wars in some pretty extreme ways.  For the longest time, the original trilogy was all that fans had to base their love of the movies on, and then creator George Lucas expanded upon the lore with his prequel trilogy, and then eventually the sale to Disney really opened the floodgates for this cinematic universe.  Now, George Lucas’ previous attempts to tell the story his way ended up causing fans to react negatively to his movies, because they felt that it tampered with the thing that they fell in love with in the first place.  Though it was a severe backlash, it was still not something that fans just had to learn to deal with.  Lucas was the creator of this world, and despite fan’s dissatisfaction with the movies, they knew there was nothing to be done because it wasn’t their story.  This is why The Force Awakens (2015) was given so much leeway, because fans overlooked any flaws it may have has as long as it felt like the Star Wars of old again.  Force Awakens also renewed fan interest in the lore of the universe, which would end up backfiring in time once Last Jedi premiered.  J.J. Abrams established new mysteries to get fans interested, like who Rey’s parents were and who this Snoke guy really is, which were immediately dropped once Rian Johnson took over in the director’s chair.  The result feels far more of a personal betrayal than before for Star Wars fans, because of how extra invested they’ve become in the years since the prequels.  Just go on YouTube and see all the many fan theory videos that started after The Force Awakens, and how so many of these same fans are now The Last Jedi’s most vocal critics.  Many of them mistakenly look at the movie as wasting their devotion and dismissing their opinions, when in reality, The Last Jedi is actually trying to challenge their perceptions and think about the lore of this universe in a different, more unexpected way.

That has become the biggest challenge for all filmmakers that are trying to great mass appeal entertainment in Hollywood today.  All audiences are more culturally aware than they were decades ago, and most of them are going to carry their own pre-conceived notions of what to expect going in to the movie.  For some of these high stakes properties, it’s come to the point where you have to make a movie that’s better than the one that the audience member has thought of for themselves.  And this falls into two forms; people who are familiar with the source material on which the movie is based on, or people who are well versed in the universe that has been created thus far.  Any cinematic adaptation based on a literary source often has to be subject to this.  You’ve all heard the common phrase, “The Book Was Better,” which indicates that the movie did not live up to what they imagined in their minds as they read the original book.  Film plays by a whole different set of rules than the written word, and what plays well on the page may not work as well on the screen.  Time is condensed, characters are excised, and whole plot threads are ignored because a movie needs to contain a story in a short, two hour amount of time.  Some movies have exceptionally managed to do this, sometimes by changing so much that it becomes it’s own unique thing, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  But, you’ll find even the most dedicated critic who holds it against a movie because it didn’t fit their own imagination.  That’s something that affects franchises that are still writing their own lore as they go along, like Star Wars, more dramatically, because people with such a strong feeling towards this universe are imaginative themselves and will come up with their own takes on how they would tell the story.  And when fandom becomes so intense as that surrounding Star Wars, people become more defensive about their own vision for the universe and more upset when the rules change so much regarding the direction the story is headed.

One interesting phenomenon that has occurred in this era of heightened pop culture is the rise of fan fiction and fan made films.  In many ways, this is a far more positive outlet for the disgruntled fan than shouting outrage online.  For some people, it’s a way to show their devotion as a fan while at the same time “fixing” their perceived problems with what Hollywood did wrong.  Fan fiction can be self indulgent, but interesting new ways to look at the fictional worlds that they are revisiting can spark more interesting story-lines that deepen the worlds as well.  Fan films are also a great way to express something about a franchise that some people believe has lost it’s way.  Some can be amateurish, but others are done with such love and care that they even gain the notice of Hollywood.  One online demo reel made showing an actress in a Wonder Woman costume fighting in a World War II setting helped convince Warner Brothers to use that as a basis for the time period of their well-received big screen adaptation of the famed super heroine.  Fans even go as far to re-cut films to their own liking, using their own editing tools at home.  One story came out recently that actor Topher Grace dealt with the frustration of playing notorious Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, for Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman (2018) by taking the 9 hours of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy and editing it into a tighter 2 hour run time, all on his own.  That’s certainly one way to occupy yourself, but it’s indicative of a lot of people who can create the version of a story they want now that the tools are more easily available to them.  No one can profit from such things, obviously, but it is interesting to hear how different ways of watching a movie can change your reaction to it.  Even things like alternative cuts or canons are interesting to look at.  Star Wars has one called the Machete Order, which goes in the order of Episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6 (Phantom Menace is wiped from existence in this canon) which does change up the story quite a bit).  Even in frustration, some creativity can still flourish, and is not altogether worth dismissing.

The question remains, however, if Hollywood should listen to all this and take it seriously.  The one thing that should be noted is that the internet magnifies everything, so taking into consideration all the grievances made online by fans should be taken with a degree of caution.  Still, fan input is integral, and it matters to have a pulse on how the world is responding to the work you put out.  The only thing that matters is that it be constructive criticism.  Lashing out in a hateful way towards a member in the cast for example is the wrong way to express frustration, and honestly anyone who does that should honestly take more of a look at themselves than what they thought about a simple movie.  The last thing that I would want to see Hollywood do, though, is take fewer risks.  I think that’s what I appreciated about The Last Jedi; it broke new ground and unshackled itself from traditions of the past.  I guess the reason this caused such a backlash in the Star Wars fandom is because the series doesn’t have the footing yet to deviate from it’s established lore.  Even as it begins to open up to exciting and endless possibilities, Star Wars is still a brand with it’s own singular identity and because of that, fans expect more out of it that feels true to what they’ve always seen it as.  One place where I feel the company has managed to perfectly balance delivering on expectations and then subverting them is at Marvel Studios.  The comic book giant has decades worth of lore to draw from, and yet the movies take chances that you wouldn’t expect.  Sometimes with specific story-lines from the comics, like Civil War (2016), they use just the basic premise and little else.  I think that it’s because they’ve remained true to the spirit of the characters, and turned them into the focus of their Cinematic Universe, allowing for fans to be more forgiving of the plot lines that are dismissed.  By stating up front that this is their mission with the movies, they’ve found that gentle balance, and it allows them to take liberties that make sense in the long run, like Thanos’ motivations in Infinity War (2018) or the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).  The Last Jedi seemed to be pushing for a similar dramatic change for Star Wars, but the fan base just wasn’t ready to make that jump again.

With the coming years ahead, as social media continues to drive up anticipation and disappointment to fever pitch levels, Hollywood is going to find it a little more difficult to manage.  I would say the most positive thing to come out of The Last Jedi’s contentious reaction is that it made us more aware of the positives and negatives of thinking about these movies too much.  I do think healthy speculation about what we’ll see in an upcoming movie is something worthwhile; I honestly have done it myself many times here on this blog.  But, we all must understand the fact that not all of us get to make these movies, and the ones who hold the responsibility are often put into a very hard position.  There are times when I had wished that a movie had been done much better, and I sometimes hold some things to an impossibly high standard.  It’s probably why I’m extra critical of some of the Disney remakes that have been made recently, because I hold the originals in such esteem.  But, I try to keep my reactions civil and not try to lash out at the people involved in an unreasonable way.  The only times where I show real disdain is if a movie was made for cynical reasons, like either to make money and nothing else or if it’s purely there to push a problematic agenda that cares little for the entertainment value.  The Last Jedi found itself in the precarious position of having to fulfill the promise of more adventures in this cinematic universe while also laying out new paths for the future, and part of the Star Wars community was not happy with it.  At times, I think that the people who made the film were expecting this backlash and tried their best to prepare for it.  Snoke actor Andy Serkis, for instance, was seen in the publicity circuit one time wearing a sticker that said, “Your Snoke Theory Sucks.”  It is hard to please everyone, and we’ll probably see more divisive movies in the future that face a similar high profile backlash, warranted or not.  It’s the price of having more voices heard in the discussion around movies.  Everyone brings their own baggage with them into a film, and one hopes that any movie inspires more creative thinking and criticism, instead of just vile anger.  After all, the message of the movie is that our strength is best used not to destroy the things we hate, but to protect the things that we love.

The Predator – Review

To be fairly honest, the Predator series has never really been my thing.  I don’t hate the movies, nor really dislike them at all.  I just don’t have the overwhelming admiration that some people have for these films.  I guess as action movies they are alright.  I’ve even found myself quoting the original 1987 film out of context many times, including the usuals like, “Get to the Choppa!!” or “Ain’t got time to bleed.”  But if you were to ask me now to complete a retrospective of all the movies in this series, it would be a short one, because this is a franchise that has largely flown under my radar.  And strangely, unlike most other franchises born out of it’s era, this has been a largely dormant series for long periods of time.  There was a sequel starring Danny Glover that premiered in 1990, shortly after the original, but after that it wasn’t until 2010 that we saw another entry into this franchise; the Adrian Brody-headlined Predators.  Sure there were the cross-over Alien vs. Predator series that launched in the early to mid 2000’s, but that’s a whole different franchise to itself.  Predator, 30 years after it’s beginning, only had 3 films total as a part of it’s own canon, which is pretty small compared to all the Star WarsDie Hards, and Jurassic Parks that we’ve seen in the same time frame.  Hell, we are up to our 9th Fast and the Furious, and that series has only been around half the time that Predator has.  One the one hand, it’s helped keep the mystique of the character fresh, because he hasn’t been diluted by dumbed down sequels for many years.  But, on the other hand, his long absences from the big screen may be due to the limitations of the character.  There’s only so much that you can get out of an alien hunter with no name or backstory.  But, like most other things with nostalgia value, the Predator has caught the eye of Hollywood once again, and the call for a reboot has brought him back to the big screen.

First thought about doing another Predator movie now is that this is just a studio grabbing after some easy cash.  And when a studio makes that choice, it usually leads to a sub-par effort that doesn’t rightly value the thing that it’s trying to exploit.  This was the worry that a lot of fans of the series were worried about going into this new reboot.  And then it was announced that the duties of bringing Predator back to the big screen would be going to writer/director Shane Black, and that suddenly made people interested once again.  The choice of hiring Black is an interesting one.  He of course is a rock star among screenwriters, having penned some of the most highly regarded action films of the last 30 years, from Lethal Weapon (1987), to The Last Boy Scout (1991), to The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and in more recent years he has distinguished himself as a director with equally beloved films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2004) and The Nice Guys (2016).  But, the other interesting aspect is that Shane Black already has an established history with the franchise, as he was a part of the original 1987 film’s supporting cast.  During his fledgling early days in Hollywood as a wannabe actor, Shane managed to land the role of Hawkins in the now classic film, working opposite heavy hitters like Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, and Carl Weathers.  But once his screenplay for Lethal Weapon sold and went into production at the same time, Shane said goodbye to acting and never looked back.  So, it’s interesting that he would make a return to a franchise that represented a very different chapter of his career.  Clearly, he doesn’t need The Predator; his career is already on solid ground.  I think he took this opportunity mostly because he saw something that he could add to it, and possibly make it his own.  Regardless, it got a lot of people excited to know that this franchise was in the hands of someone with a unique voice like Shane Black.  But, does that promise result in a worthwhile entry into this famed franchise.

The movie begins with a Predator ship crash landing in the jungles of Southern Mexico.  There, a black ops unit of American soldiers are about to eliminate a drug kingpin, and have their mission disrupted by the crash.  One of the soldiers, Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) finds the Predator’s gear, including a helmet and armband, and uses them to survive the creature’s deadly attacks.  After subduing the alien, he sends the contraband back home by mail, so that he can have evidence of his encounter that will prevent the army from declaring him insane as a way of silencing him in order to keep the incident under wraps.  The package makes it’s way to McKenna’s home, where his Autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) begins to play around with it, unknowingly unlocking and decoding it’s computer systems.  Once captured and interrogated, Quinn is taken to a transport which will take him to another place for further examination (meaning the loony bin).  On the bus, he meets fellow soldiers who themselves are dealing with a variety of mental disorders; self-destructive Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes), joke-telling Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), pyromaniac Lynch (Alfie Allen), Tourettes plagued Baxley (Thomas Jane), and Christ complexed Nettles (Augusto Aguilera).  Meanwhile, on the same base that this crew is being held, the same Predator specimen is being examined by a team of scientists, including the chief commander of the investigation, Treager (Sterling K. Brown) and biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), who has found the shocking discovery that the Predator species is using different DNA from multiple species to evolve into more deadly beings.  This becomes evident once a much larger and scarier Predator arrives and kills the smaller one found earlier.  Discovering all this, Bracket enlists the help of McKenna and his outcast soldiers as they try to reach the Predator before he finds the source that brought him to their home; Quinn’s son Rory who’s been using the Predator gear as a Halloween costume.

There’s a strange dynamic to this movie that might make or break one’s viewing experience.  For one thing, it feels like both a Predator movie and a Shane Black movie.  Neither deters from the other, and in some cases it actually helps the other out and makes it work better than it otherwise would have.  But, at the same time, this movie does feel like two movies mashed into one, and that is why it suffers from some rather drastic tonal shifts.  You do have some neat looking action sequences that feel right at home in the Predator franchise, including some rather grisly and often hilariously over the top slaughters.  And the movie also maintains the Shane Black trademarks that we’ve all come to love over the years; the quippy dialogue, the ridiculed masculinity, the strangely empowered young child, and of course the holiday setting (only this time he has swapped out Christmas for Halloween).  Black’s affinity for comedic situations stemming from testosterone fueled showboating also feels strangely in character with the Predator series, and the movie is definitely at it’s best when it exploits this aspect.  But, when Shane Black does indulge his own tastes, it does undermine any attempt on the movie’s part to build any tension.  There isn’t a whole lot of plot here, and what there is of it comes across as fairly convoluted.  In many ways, I liked this movie better when it was working as a Black comedy (excuse the pun), and less so as another entry in this franchise.  In many ways, it seems that Shane is just piggy-backing on an already established franchise to deliver some of his ideas for situations that he otherwise couldn’t fit into any other film.  At the same time, he still isn’t undermining the lore of this series; why would he since he was there right at it’s inception.  A more hack job could have been done with this movie and Shane Black is a better filmmaker than that, but even still it’s a movie that feels more disjointed than his usual efforts.

I almost wonder if he is much better at delivering his own original ideas to fruition than being handed over already established material.  That seems to be the case, because his only other disappointment as a filmmaker was the lackluster Iron Man 3 (2013), which neither showcased his trademark style very well and disrupted the very solid foundation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bunch of unnecessary plot twists.  The Predator is a better movie than Iron Man 3, but it does share many of the same issues.  One is the lack of a cohesive tone, and two is because Shane Black’s ideas tend to run contrary to what the movies actually need.  One area where I found this to be problematic is in how the movie deals with some of it’s more serious issues.  In particular, it’s with how the movie deals with mental health problems.  Each of the soldiers that make up the supporting cast have a condition that should be discussed with seriously, and for the most part are, but there are points where Shane Black does play their conditions off for laughs.  This could prove problematic for the movie in the long run, because there are many veterans out there whose mental problems are no laughing matter, and though this movie doesn’t ridicule them, it nevertheless makes light of something that is very serious.  The movie does treat the Autism of Jacob Tremblay’s Rory with a bit more seriousness, and it’s to the still very young actor’s credit that he portrays his character’s affliction in a realistic way.  But seeing how his character’s issues are worked into the plot of the story also creates some head-scratching after a while.  Also, Shane Black is a master of great many things, but none of them are excellence in world-building.  If you’re looking for a movie that builds upon the lore of the Predator universe, you’ll probably be disappointed, as this movie is kept pretty earthbound for the most part.  Not a huge problem for this movie in particular, but it’s pretty clear that Shane Black is just making his own kind of movie where the Predator just happens to be a part of it.

The movie’s greatest asset in the long run are the characters.  This has always been Shane Black’s greatest strength as a writer and director, because he specializes in quirky, memorable characterizations that often transcend the stories of the movies themselves.  I particularly like the interactions between the collection of misfits that help out our hero.  Despite the problematic uses of each soldiers ailments, the actors still manage to make them endearing throughout the movie; something you wouldn’t expect in a Predator movie.  I think it’s because Black likes to find the humanity in even the biggest of outsiders, and he quickly finds ways to break through the rough exterior of each to find the decent person underneath.  I especially liked the performance of Trevante Rhodes, who we last saw in a breakout performance in the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016).  He takes what could have turned into a shallow, stereotypical character and makes him deeply layered, with a great deal of quiet subtlety.  Boyd Holbrook also does decently in a role that typically comes off as wooden in most other action films; the straight man protagonist.  His interactions with the aforementioned Jacob Tremblay are extremely effecting, and you see a genuine bond between the two actors that makes the father/son relationship feel real.  Olivia Munn also does the best she can with probably the trickiest role in the film.  Credit to Shane Black for not pushing the female presence to the side in this otherwise testosterone filled movie.  Also, I really enjoyed Sterling K. Brown’s more antagonistic role, as his often lackadaisical attitude to the situation runs contrary to what you’d expect from this type of character.  All in all, the one character that gets the short end here is the Predator itself, which has been typical of the series thus far anyway.  At least with every other character being rich in personality, it makes up for there being little interest in the Predator.

The film is also a mixed bag when it comes to the action scenes.  The thing with Shane Black as a director is that his strengths have always been in the dialogue and characters.  When a movie emphasizes those things, like The Nice Guys, you don’t need the action set pieces to be spectacular.  But, when working with a bigger budget like Iron Man or The Predator, Shane’s limited vision becomes more apparent.  The visual effects are not particularly ground-breaking, especially when it comes to the Predator himself.  No new territory is explored, particularly when it comes to the Predator himself.  The CGI in fact robs the movie of some of the effectiveness of the character, as we’ve moved away from a man in a suit to a digitally rendered model that is larger and has an biotechnological exo-skeleton.  The effect just isn’t the same because we as an audience can tell that he’s a special effect.  There is still a traditional Predator present early on, but he’s dealt with early and the last, weaker half of the movie contains the digital character through the remainder of the film.  Like everything else, the titular Predator is the weakest part of the movie.  Shane Black does make up for it with some of the over-the-top violence however.  There are some hilariously unexpected kills committed in this movie.  One character, who I won’t spoil, even manages to blow up a drunk frat boy on the balcony of his house through a freak accident, which got quite the laugh from the audience I saw.  And that’s mainly where the movie’s action works best; when it’s intended to get a laugh.  This can be a very funny movie at times, and I liked how creative it would be at times with the violence.  Even still, for a Predator movie, this may not exactly be what you were hoping for.

The movie as a whole isn’t an insult to what has come before, but it’s not exactly the series in it’s prime either.  Shane Black was dealt with the unenviable task of bringing new life into this long dormant franchise, and while it may not be among his best work, he still managed to make it entertaining.  In many ways, this works much better as a Shane Black movie than as a Predator movie.  It’s got all the filmmaker’s trademarks, and it’s interesting to see them utilized in a film like this.  I really liked the way he wrote the human characters in this movie, but it might have worked better if they were in a story that wasn’t already tied to a pre-existing franchise.  Still, it’s interesting that Fox gave this franchise over to him, given how it represents a part of his own early career.  I think that Shane wanted more than anything to see what he himself could do with this franchise, and it’s clear that he does have an affection for the original movie and the series as a whole.  It’s just sad that none of what he brought to the table made the Predator himself any more interesting.  The Predator is just the same old monster, which was quite a breakthrough creation back in the 80’s, but now seems quaint compared to all the monsters we’ve seen on the big screen since in things like Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings, and all the MCU films to date.  Perhaps that was the purpose of bringing in Shane Black to breathe some personality into a series that has long outlived the originality of it’s fairly flimsy premise.  Whether or not this leads to a future of more Predator films is hard to say, but Shane gave it his best shot.  The Predator is neither a great action thriller, nor is it a waste of time.  You may end up enjoying yourself watching this movie, but more because of the comedy rather than the action set pieces.  As a character, I think the Predator is played out and should probably be put to rest.  But, it is good to see Shane Black still delivering something worthwhile with his characters and comedy in what is otherwise a very underwhelming reboot.

Rating: 7/10