Category Archives: Tinseltown Throwdown

Tinseltown Throwdown – Independence Day vs. Mars Attacks

There is often a very fine line between the movies that we are meant to take seriously and those that are meant to be farcical in nature.  Sometimes a movie might be so pretentious that it makes us laugh out loud, while other times a comedy’s tone might be set so wrong that it ceases to be funny.  If one or the other falls into the opposite effect, it’s usually the sign of a terribly executed film.  But, that’s not always the case either.  One genre in particular where you see the lines blurred between the profound and the ridiculous is in the realm of sci-fi.  Pretty much every film made in this genre requires a level of suspended belief on the part of the viewer, and it’s up to the one telling the story to decide how far they will go.  There are many cases in the early days of sci-fi where you couldn’t really tell if the film’s creators were sincere or foolish when they made a genre flick.  Many films often felt like they were accidentally hilarious, due to cheap looking effects or awkward performances, or a combination of both.  That’s why sci-fi became known as the “B-Movie” genre.  Still, there were some sci-fi films that did take the genre more seriously like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1954), which helped to elevate the genre with a sense of credibility.  Since then, the Sci-Fi genre has existed with these two different shades that continues to define it.  Most of the time, they are distinct from each other, though there are some films that dare to mix the two together a little.  Star Wars, for example, indulges in plenty of campiness, but does so in a completely earnest way allowing us to take it more seriously.  Sci-Fi movies that follow the earnest or campy route usually avoid direct comparisons with each other, but sometimes a close release schedule and similar plotting provides an interesting contrast, and shows just how important the differences within the genre really are.

That proved to be the case in the summer of 1996, when we saw the releases of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks released just a mere month apart.  When you look at them on the surface, it’s hard to see how either of them could be comparable.  Roland Emmerich’s film is a mega-budget blockbuster that revolutionized visual effects in Hollywood and wowed audiences with it’s unprecedented sense of scale.  Tim Burton’s film is a throwback love letter to B-movies of the 1950’s; intentionally cartoonish and lavished with plenty retro nostalgia and flavor.  One movie takes itself seriously, the other does not.  And yet, there are some striking connections.  Both movies feature an invading alien force, both include the on-screen destruction of landmarks across the world, both center on a beleaguered American president who finds himself increasingly overwhelmed; hell, it even features a crooner in a supporting role (Day’s Harry Conick Jr. and Attack’s Tom Jones).  But even apart from the visual and thematic thing that the movies have in common, it’s also interesting to see how they differ in their execution.  Independence Day is earnest in it’s depiction of widespread destruction, and plays most of the situation with a sense of dread and suspense.  But sometimes the thematic elements are done in such an unsubtle and gun-ho way that it ends up becoming ridiculous by the end.  Mars Attacks is a parody all the way through, and never once intends to raise the tension level.  But in being so self-conscious about it’s intentions to mock it’s particular genre, does Mars Attacks also spoil the joke in the process and stops being funny?  That’s the interesting comparison that comes from analyzing these two sci-fi flicks from the summer of ’96, and by picking through all of their defining features, we can see just how thin that divide in the genre really is.

“Hello Boys!!! I’m BAAAAACK!!!”

First of all, let’s look at where the movies differ the most, which is in the visual department.  Independence Day came out at a time when CGI technology was just coming into it’s own in Hollywood.  Just a few years earlier, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) brought dinosaurs back to life in a strikingly realistic way.  Roland Emmerich and his producer/ co-writer Dean Devlin saw the potential of CGI for a whole different purpose and that was to push the boundaries of scale on the big screen.  They took the premise that we’ve seen a million times before in Sci-fi, which is the arrival of aliens riding around in flying saucers, only they did it in a way that we’ve never seen before.  Here, the alien saucers were not only bigger, but could cover entire cities; and those were just the small ones.  With the tools at their disposal, Devlin and Emmerich revolutionized the genre and showed that this silly, old premise could still present a sense of awe on the big screen.  The sequence where the saucers make their first landfall, coming out of the clouds and descending over New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. is still a chill-inducing moment of cinema.  Mars Attacks, by contrast, feels pretty quaint, but that’s not it’s fault at all.  Tim Burton made it intentionally feel dated, because he wanted to invoke the memory of of the B-movie sci-fi flicks, with all the kitsch that they were famous for.  All in all, Attacks is lovingly designed and appealingly retro.  However, unlike Day, it has the disadvantage of feeling inauthentic at times.  Burton is trying to give his movie a retro look, but with the modern tools of today, which kind of detaches the illusion just a little bit.  It unfortunately feels a little too polished to be a B-movie.  Independence Day may not be as imaginative visually, but it at least feels authentic to what it’s supposed to be, which gives it a slight edge in terms of the visuals.

“Don’t run! We are your friends!”

What also sets these two films apart is the cast of characters, or perhaps the way that the films are cast.  While Independence Day does feature some star power behind it, with Will Smith in particular being propelled to super stardom by his role, the overall cast is perhaps not used to their best abilities.  Some people in the movie do give decent performances (Jeff Goldblum in particular as the nerdy David Levinson), but the rest, I’m sad to say, are reduced to playing what are essentially a collection of stereotypes.  This is actually a problem with a lot of Emmerich movies, where he puts so little effort into creating unique individuality for his characters and instead just ends up defining them by what they are instead of who they are.  In some cases, that can unintentionally turn the characters into borderline offensive stereotypes, such as Harvey Fierstein’s effeminate boss to Goldblum’s character, or Judd Hirsch’s irritated old Jewish man.  What’s even more insulting is that these are actors who should know better than to play up the stereotypes of the communities that they represent.  Mars Attacks plays up some stereotypes as well, but they are namely of the types of characters that would’ve inhabited a B-Movie plot back in the 50’s (your military hotheads and damsel in distresses for example).  But, what is more impressive with Attacks cast is just how star studded it is.  Pretty much anyone that Tim Burton wanted to get is in this movie.  Not only does it feature Burton’s former Joker, Jack Nicholson, leading in a dual role as the President and a Casino Owner (probably as a nod to Peter Sellers multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove), but the remaining cast includes heavy hitters like Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, the afforementioned Tom Jones, and Pam Grier.  They even managed to fit in Hall of Famer Jim Brown as well.  And all for a throwback to old B-Movie Sci-Fi.  Unlike Independence Day, everyone in the film knows to be intentionally silly and not have that be a result of thinly defined characters.  They are archetypes as well, but better suited for their particular story.

Unfortunately, as impressive as the cast of Mars Attacks is, the movie doesn’t actually use them as effectively as you would think.  What ends up happening is that the movie is too overstuffed with characters, allowing the audience very little time to build a connection to any of them.  Nicholson’s President comes the closest to being an identifiable character worthy of investing in, but that’s only because he gets the bulk of the screen-time.  We barely get to know any of the other characters, which becomes especially problematic when they start to get picked off one by one by the Martian invaders.  There is even a shoehorned in romantic subplot involving Pierce Brosnon and Sarah Jessica Parker’s characters that is so not interesting, because we feel nothing for the characters.  I guess it was supposed to be another reference to awkward B-Movie romances, and it is kind of funny that both characters are reduced to disembodied heads by the point that they declare their love for each other, but still it doesn’t work as well as it should.  Independence Day by contrast does a better job of endearing it’s characters to the audience.  Though the characters are lazily written, Emmerich nevertheless devotes more time for us to get invested in their plight.  I think that it helps that he focuses in on three characters in particular; the ones played by Smith, Goldblum, and Bill Pullman as the President.  By centering the film on these three, we are able to get both the grand picture of the entire event, but with easily identifiable plot threads that open up a window to these characters’ own experiences.  Broad as they may be, they have arcs that pay off in the end.  Goldblum’s David gains more courage as he finds purpose in himself once he discovers the aliens’ weak point; Pullman’s President goes from being a timid leader to one that can inspire the whole world to fight back; and Smith’s hotshot pilot finally achieves his dream of reaching outer space.  Even Randy Quaid’s redneck pilot character gets an arch, and one that pays off in the most over-the-top way possible.  Independence Day may have had the less impressive cast, but it used them much more effectively.

“Forget the fat lady. You’re obsessed with fat lady.  Just get us out of here!”

One other big difference between the movies is the aliens themselves.  It could be said the the Martians are the real stars of Mars Attacks since they are the focus for most of the plot and are responsible for most of the gags in the movie.  Taking inspiration from the card game that the movie was based on, the Martians in Mars Attacks are also visually unique.  With the skull like faces and the bulbous, brain protruding heads, they are evocative of B-Movie aliens, but grotesque and off-kilter in a way that makes them unique. Interesting enough, each and every one of them is voiced by the same guy (veteran voice actor Frank Welker) who manages to get so much character out of just repeating the same word over and over again (Ack! Ack! Ack!).  More than anything, the Martians represent the more clear input from director Tim Burton, who clearly wanted to indulge in some of the more silly over-the-top campiness of B-Movie era sci-fi.  The film itself is intentionally a live action cartoon, and the cartoonish-ly evil Martians fit ever so well into that vision, allowing them to take center stage.  The aliens of Independence Day don’t quite get the same kind of love in their movie.  In fact, you could say they are the weakest part.  The movie eventually does have to show the aliens, but once we see them, the illusion of menace is greatly reduced.  We see the creatures as these vacant eyed creatures with translucent skin and giant craniums.  In essence, not all that untypical of most other aliens we’ve seen.  Once we learn that the aliens are just as fragile as we are, and not much bigger, they become less of a threat more quickly.  That’s the unfortunate result that happens in the latter half of the movie.  It was far more effective to have the aliens personified through the massive spaceships they pilot.  At least those were able to scare us.  Overall, the aliens in Mars Attacks works better because they are given the full attention of the story, while it seems that the ones in Independence Day were an afterthought.

The last thing that defines the difference between these two movies, and illustrates that fine line between the serious and the comical in the genre, is the execution of their different styles.  It is interesting that Independence Day attempts to make us take it far more seriously, and yet fills it’s run-time with a number of irreverent comical asides that breaks the tension up.  Make no mistake, the movie does have moments of sheer terror, especially in the harrowing destruction sequence where we see landmarks like the Empire State Building and the White House blown to bits, but then it’ll be followed with a bit of colorful dialogue from Will Smith or Randy Quaid, deflating the tension immediately.  Mars Attacks more or less remains firmly in the realm of comedy, never once crossing into more serious territory.  And that is primarily what become the biggest problem with Mars Attacks; that rigid adherence to tone.  Comedy, especially with parody, is especially hard to pull off without something there to balance it.  Tim Burton keeps things consistently ridiculous, but the tension is lost as we just begin to see the movie as a string of sight gags loosely strung together.  The parody only works when the jokes are able to land, and Burton seems to be too preoccupied with everything else to make it all work together.  Some sequences are funny, like a montage of the Martians destroying landmarks, with one flying saucer changing the trajectory of the Washington Monument’s fall for maximum civilian casualties.  But a lot of other gags fall flat, when they really shouldn’t.  Honestly, I get more laughs from Independence Day, just because of how out of place some of the humor is, making it land far better.  What Independence Day showed is that it works better in your favor to blur that line between the two styles.  Sometimes it makes for a messy, inconsistent tone, but it can be worth it if the result brings a bigger impact.  Mars Attacks, with it’s unwillingness to change tone, ends up being a even keel ride around a colorful carousel, while Independence Day with it’s sometimes unpredictable and awkward tone shifts, becomes a wild roller coaster ride that leaves far more of an impression.

“I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”

So, there you have the big differences between these similarly plotted, but wildly opposite toned Sci-Fi features.  One is an awe-inspiring thrill ride that unfortunately undermines it’s own tension with lazy writing.  The other is a well-intentioned and loving parody of old style Sci-Fi, that isn’t quite as funny as it should have been.  Both have value, but in the end, I think that the sum of Independence Day’s parts make it the more rewarding experience.  It may be wildly inconsistent, and just downright laughably bad in other parts, but you have to admire the boldness that Emmerich and Devlin undertook in order to get it made.  In fact, it still stands as career best work for both men, as everything they’ve made since then has failed to connect in the same way.  Mars Attacks on the other hand is one of Tim Burton’s more lackluster efforts.  The fact that Mars Attacks came right on the heels of Burton’s most critically acclaimed and award-winning film, Ed Wood (1994), probably hurt it’s reputation as well.  It’s just too over-stuffed with material that could have produced comedy gold, but just ends up getting drowned out by everything else.  Perhaps working with such broad material worked to Burton’s disadvantage, since his strength is more in the visuals of his movie, of which Mars Attacks still benefits from.  But, it’s narrow vision as a Sci-Fi parody limits it in terms of being a cinematic breakthrough, and that’s why it performed less spectacularly at the box office than the record-shattering Independence Day.  Day may be far from a perfect movie, but it’s ambition helps to make it a far more rewarding experience, and shows that in some cases, a little mixture of the serious and the absurd can create an overall rewarding film.  It’s a beneficiary of the best of both worlds in Sci-Fi.  Attacks has more interesting aliens, but Independence Day is the better invasion movie, giving the experience the right sense of awe that the genre deserves.  It’s a flawed masterwork that earns the points purely by reaching further to the stars.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Love Story vs. The Fault in Our Stars

Valentine’s Day; a long time traditional holiday celebrating the act of love and expressing love to others.  Everyone around this time of year is either preparing something special for their loved one, or are sending many valentines out to those that matter to them as an expression of their appreciation.  Either way, this is the season when romance is at the forefront and Hollywood knows very well how to focus on this time of year.  Romantic movies often are prepped for early February in order to take advantage of the date night crowds that you’d expect would be turning up at all the local theaters.  They usually run the full spectrum from romantic comedies, to romantic tragedies, to opposites attract romances, to puppy love romance.  Sometimes there is even romances from unexpected places, like between two robots in Wall-E (2008) or between a man and his AI assistant in Her (2013).  One or more of these will usually end up coming out around Valentine’s Day each year, although this year isn’t giving us much to look forward to with Fifty Shades Darker.  The unfortunate thing with romantic themed movies generally is the often difficult balance of tone that makes or breaks many of them.  Romantic movies, when done right, can touch audiences of all types, but when they are not (and this happens a lot) it can be infuriatingly off point.  Too many romantic films will tend to be too sentimental, or not have enough sentimentality, or in some extreme cases, fall into some really bad taste.  You often see too many romance that are too corny for their own good, and it’s usually the fault of lazy writing, or mistakenly believing that audiences will feel as strongly about these themes as the filmmakers do.  And that’s when you fall into the worst kinds of romantic films the pretentious kinds.  And if there is sub-genre of romance that falls victim to pretension far too often, it’s the ill-fated romance.

Hollywood loves to exploit il-fated romances in movies, because it’s a mostly sure fire way to illicit tears from their audience.  It’s the kind of movie that establishes a perfectly compatible couple falling deeply in love, destined to live the rest of their lives together, and through plot contrivances both small and grand, pulls the couple apart and dooms them to forever wonder how things could have been different.  When people go to see a romantic film, their hope is to see love triumph in the end, so when a movie denies them this, it creates an even more intense response to the story and characters within the film; hoping for any sign of hope.  It’s not always a bad thing for movies to exploit this in a romantic movie.  Perhaps the greatest romantic film ever made, Casablanca (1943), concludes it’s story with it’s ideal couple split apart at the end, and as the movie states, it’s for the benefit of the world that they remain apart.  Doctor Zhivago took the ill-fated romance to even more epic heights, with lovers torn apart by suffering and having their happy ending undone by the systems that overpower them.  And of course, there is Titanic (1997), which is the quintessential ill-fated romance.  But, even though those movies succeeded, it was largely due to the fact that they were telling larger than life stories where finding eternal love would be put more to the test.  Hollywood sometimes makes the mistake of thinking any tragedy in a romantic film will guarantee cinematic gold, and that’s when we see more of the ill-fated romances that fail to live up to that goal.  One particular sub-genre of this type has been romances centered around death, and in particular, the inclusion of terminal illness into a relationship.  There have been two famous romantic films in particular, from two very different eras, that has played around with this plot device, and it’s led them to varying degrees of success both commercially and critically.  Those movies in question are 1970’s Love Story, and 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars.

“I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep; Slowly, and then all at once.”

On the surface, both movies have little in common, plot-wise or with tone.  Love Story, directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, is an opposites attract connection between a rich, aristocratic young Harvard student who falls in love with a working class girl that he met at the school library.  They quickly fall in love, admiring each other’s intellect over their social status.  After getting married and starting their plans for the future, Ali MacGraw’s Jenny suddenly becomes incurably ill, and their fairy-tale romance is over just before it could ever take hold.  The Fault in Our Stars, based on the novel from best-selling author and popular internet vlogger John Green, begins and ends with the aura of death weighing over the minds of it’s characters.  It is about two teenagers, Hazel (played by Shailene Woodley ) and Augustus (played by Ansel Elgort), who are both dealing with terminal cancer, and end up falling in love after meeting at a cancer patient support group.  Though both are unrelated, they nevertheless follow the same formula of milking audience sympathy through the presence of tragic illness.  You would think that it makes both movies pretentious and cynical, because it’s such an obvious ploy for tug at the heartstrings of their audiences.  But, I do have to say that what ends up separating the two is the fact that one movie plays this card better than the other.  You would think that it’s the elder of the two, since it’s the movie that actually wrote many of the cliches that we find in so many ill-fated romances today, but no.  The Fault in Our Stars actually is the better of the two, and that’s only because it does a better job of being more honest with it’s intentions.   Love Story, on the other hand, is so heavy handed in it’s delivery, that it undermines any sympathy that it was ever trying to mine from it’s audience.

“Someday you’re gonna have to come up with the courage to admit you care.”

I’ll just come right out and say that I think that Love Story is a terrible film.  I don’t think I’m breaking new ground with that statement.  The movie was largely panned across the board when it was first released too.  But, it was also a huge box office hit as well.  That’s the only reason why we still talk about this movie today.  It may have been pandering and obscenely cynical in it’s intentions, but it was effective.  It’s like what we see with movies like Transformers (2007) in the action film genre.  Those films continue to become lazier in their storytelling and more shameless in their pandering to the audience with every new installment; enough to enrage anyone who wants to hold up film-making to a higher standard.  But, as long as they continue to make money, the less they’ll be willing to try harder.  Love Story is the Transformers or romantic movies; a big, aggressive pile of mediocrity that somehow has prospered and has left it’s mark on the industry.  Since it’s release, Hollywood has continued to look around for their next Love Story, and it created the awful trend of making pandering romantic films that never earn the right to bring their audiences to tears.  How many times do we see death or illness shoehorned into a romantic movie, just for the sole purpose of eliciting cheap sympathy points.  You can blame Love Story for inspiring most of those junk food Nicholas Sparks novels that we’re inundated with every year.  But, out of Love Story’s legacy, we also get a movie like The Fault in Our Stars.  Stars is by no means a perfect movie either, since it does it’s own fair share of pandering as well.  But, there is a sincerity to it that helps it to rise above.  It’s tonally more consistent, it’s characters are more authentic, and it more importantly never tries to pull the rug out from under it’s audience.

Let’s examine tone for a moment, especially with regards to how each movie deals with the theme of tragedy in their respective stories.  For most of it’s run-time, Love Story is just about the act of love, and not about the external forces that bring them together.  We see that the characters love each other, but nothing is ever understood from that.  We are never shown why it’s so important for these two to be in love.  The movie just seems to be one big windup to the inevitable tragic conclusion, and that’s why it feels so cheap.  A lot could’ve been mined from the story to make the tragedy more poignant, like having the couple maybe doubt their relationships before ultimately growing closer together again through tragedy.  But no, it’s all fairy-tale romance and then sadness and despair, with nothing in between.  Basically the movie’s message is that life is not fair because fate tore two happy people apart.  The Fault in Our Stars deals with the specter of death in a different way by putting it front and center.  The characters are not blind-sided by tragedy; it’s an everyday reality that they all have to deal with.  It’s the time that they have before the inevitable that becomes the driving force of their love.  For Hazel and Augustus, love is not about defying the odds and making the world notice how much they adore one another.  It’s about being there through the hardest days of your life and knowing that you are not alone.  How is it possible that a romance between teenagers has a more mature attitude towards love than the movie about two college aged adults.  Stars has it’s tug at the heart-string moments too (some cringe-worthy) but it earns most of them.  And that’s because it’s more upfront with it’s tone.   You know that the couple at it’s center is doomed, and they know it too.  For them, it’s a love about the precious element of time, and not wasting it consumed with grief and believing that life isn’t fair.

“You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do it’s killing.  A metaphor.”

The characterizations do a lot to help define each movie as well.  I for one despise the character of Oliver Barrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal in Love Story.  This preppy, rich white boy is about as mature as a whiny child, and any attempt by the movie to make feel sympathy for him fails in a big way.  He loathes the privileged life that his wealth and name has given him, and yet he still views himself with an air of superiority.  He doesn’t ask for a dime from his father, but feels persecuted when his university doesn’t give him a head start over other students with financial aid.  Ali MacGraw’s Jenny is not much more likable; claiming to be independent minded, and yet she’s submissive to the desires and choices made by her eventual husband.  The fact that they are also intellectual snobs also contributes to the loathsomeness of their characters, and it all ends up making me feel lees involved in their story arc overall.  Truth be told, both Love Story and The Fault in Our Stars are romances between a bunch of privileged white people, but Stars never adds this underlying bogus sense of persecution that Love Story adheres to.  What I do love about the characters in Fault in Our Stars is the fact that they always cherish the fact that they’ve made it through another day.  Life has been unfair to them, but they don’t lash out because of it.  What makes Hazel and Augustus appealing as characters is the fact that they try to always put the most positive spin on things.  They use gallows humor a lot in the story, and it’s done in an endearing way.  Whether it’s Augustus joking about his one leg, or Hazel saying she’s so excited that she can hardly breathe, it shows that these are two people defined by their situation and that they are not ashamed of the cards they’ve been dealt, making them much stronger overall.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

There’s also the fundamental flaw of pretension that also makes Love Story a loathsome film overall.  The above quote is what the movie is most known for and it is a notoriously awful statement about love that essentially spells out the cynical motive behind this movie.  It’s the kind of statement that’s supposed to be a fix-all to every hardship that that the characters deal with and intends to reinforce the idea that love conquers all.  But, it’s not the case.  Love is powerful, but it needs support, and it’s a support that shouldn’t be dismissed as unimportant.  After driving his wife away after an argument, Oliver goes out searching for Jenny, only to find her waiting for him back at home.  He says he’s sorry, but she answers with the above statement.  It’s as if to say, you did something bad, but you don’t have to answer for it because we have love and that’s what makes it all better.  It’s enough to make me scream at the movie to say, “That’s not how love works!!”  Love is about finding the common ground between you and your partner, and helping to bring out the best in one another.  Here, Jenny just put adoration over common sense, not asking Oliver to change but instead conforming to what he wants out of her.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least, that this movie was written by a man and told from the man’s point of view.  Fault in Our Stars is also written by men, both in the source and screenplay, but it gives the point of view to the female voice and allows her to have her own say.  Most insultingly, Love Story concludes with Oliver repeating the words to his father, as if to say, “you couldn’t understand our love, so saying sorry means nothing.”  If I was Oliver’s father, I would have slapped him for saying that.  That’s the rage that this movie has put me in.  Contrast this with a moment in Stars between Hazel and her mother (played by Laura Dern), where the mom explains how she intends to live with grief and that it should be a feeling that Hazel should share.  It’s a touching moment that reinforces the idea that love is all about understanding, and it is the antithesis to Love Story’s cynical and selfish view.

So, despite it’s long-lasting legacy, Love Story is far from a great romantic film.  It’s a cynical, formulaic piece of junk food that hit all the right buttons in order to become a success.  The Fault in Our Stars plays by the formula as well, but with far less cynicism.  It has charm, wit, and a fair share of genuine heartfelt moments.  That’s why when stacked up against one another, there is no contest between which is the better film.  I think the best thing about The Fault in Our Stars is how it goes out of it’s way to more honest with it’s audience, as opposed to Love Story.  It doesn’t try to sneak tragedy into it’s story and instead puts the theme right up front for the audience, letting them know that it will only be a matter of time for these characters.  I also admire the fact that with a story centered around characters that are doomed to die young, it is a surprisingly cheerful movie for the most part.  You despair in the fact that Hazel and Augustus only have a short time together, but you are also inspired by the fact that they made the most of that time.  Compare that to Oliver and Jenny, who spend most of their time together complaining that the world doesn’t understand them, and then lament the fact that life hasn’t been fair.  You found each other; that should be enough to tell you that some things in your life has been good.  Both movies unfortunately stand out as being the quintessential love story of each of their respective generations, both of which are among the most self-indulgent that we’ve ever seen in our culture; the baby boomers and the millennials.  But, Fault in Our Stars succeeds because it runs contrary to the attitudes of it’s generation and shows to it’s audience the ideal of what love can truly be, which is hope and compassion in the face of hate and tragedy.  That’s ultimately what makes The Fault in Our Stars a better love story than Love Story, and it’s the ideal kind of date movie that should be watched on any Valentine’s Day.

“I cannot tell you how thankful I am, for our little infinity.  You gave me a forever, within the numbered days.  And for that I am eternally grateful.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Pocahontas vs. The New World

pocahontas-new-world

Our own history as a civilization has provided Hollywood with countless inspiration for a variety of movies.  And oftentimes, historical events are so monumental, that they inspire multiple interpretations.  The same is also true with historical figures as well.  The interesting thing about how Hollywood presents history on screen is that oftentimes the interpretation changes based upon the values of the current day.  Heroes of older historical retellings can often be changed into the villains for more modern films.  New historical evidence presented can even make us view the same events in a new light.  Regardless of the truth behind the historical accounts, Hollywood has shown that the way we view history is as fluid as any other type of story-telling.  Some of the most beloved historical films in fact play very loosely with actual history.   Wildly inaccurate historical movies like Braveheart (1995) often get a pass because they have an emotional resonance that transcends the need to stay faithful to what actually happened.  In many ways, it’s expected of Hollywood to not be historically accurate when making their movies, because in order to keep to a manageable two hour running time, elements of history will inevitably have to be changed, condensed, or just expelled completely to serve the story.  The many different angles that can be taken with historical films leads to many interesting results, and it’s especially fascinating to look at how different films take on a real historical figure.  Perhaps the most extreme recent example I can think of wildly different portrayals of the same historical figure would be the two films depicting the life of Native American icon, Pocahontas; the daughter of a Powhatan chieftan in pre-colonial America who was one of the first to encounter and interact with the European colonists.  There could have been many angles to take with the character, but it’s surprising in the end that Pocahontas’ big screen identity is defined as a Disney princess in Pocahontas (1995) and as the subject of an art film named The New World (2005).

Cinematically, these two movies could not be more different.  When Disney decided to take a shot at adapting Pocahontas’ story to the big screen, it was at a time when they were aiming high in the middle of their successful Renaissance period.  Then studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg believed that Pocahontas could be the Disney Studio’s equivalent of a prestige picture.  It was taken markedly more seriously than some of the other films from Disney Animation; with less of the usual Disney trademarks like talking animals (although there was still magical elements and musical numbers).  It also took on headier issues like cultural intolerance, colonial exploitation, and interracial love, which you wouldn’t normally see in an animated feature.  But, even with it’s higher ambitions, the movie only became a modest hit for Disney; grossing far under expectations and being overshadowed by the supposed “B-picture” that came before it (The Lion King).  Some would argue that Pocahontas suffered from the historical liberties that it took to tell it’s story, while others would argue that it’s story was just not up to the same level as previous Disney films.  More often, the former of the two complaints would win out.  Historians were just not happy with the Disneyfication of real events and people, because they felt that it presented the wrong lesson and portrait of the person that Pocahontas was.  Only ten years after, we were given yet another movie depicting the life of Pocahontas, only this time from art house icon Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life).  Malick’s take on the character felt truer to history in a production sense (with authentic locations and visual sense) but at the same time still felt like a big departure from actual history.  So, do either of them stand out as a worthier interpretation?  What I find more fascinating in comparing the two is not the ways that they are different, but the ways that they are similar, and how that better serves them as a cinematic experience.

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“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land.  You are our mother.  We, your field of corn.  We rise from out of the soul of you.”

Before we contrast the two films, we should probably look at the subject herself, and what her legacy has meant for the history of America.  Pocahontas, or Matoaka as she was first named, was born around the turn of the 17th century in what is now coastal Virginia.  Nicknamed Pocahontas, which in the Algonquian language means “playful one,” she was among the first native people to encounter the arrival of English colonists in North America.  When the colonists arrived in 1607, they established the settlement of Jamestown, and not soon after began clashing with the native population.  According to legend, one of the colonists named John Smith was captured by the Powhatan people and was brought forth to the chief to be executed.  Before Chief Powhatan lowered his club, Pocahontas laid her body upon Smith to spare his life.  This act of mercy is proclaimed as one of the moments in American history meant to represent an ideal of peace across cultures.  However, the historical account is often called into question (Smith himself is the one who documented it), and harmony among cultures is something that didn’t really pan out for much of Native American history thereafter.  But, what we do know for certain about Pocahontas’ life thereafter is that she left her life among her people and lived among the settlers, later marrying a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe.  Her iconic status grew when she visited England years later and was brought before the court of King James as a representative of the “New World.”  Her visit marked the first ever for someone from the Western Hemisphere to make it Eastward.  Unfortunately, she contracted smallpox before she could make her journey home at the age of 21.  Though her life was brief, her influence on native and colonial relations is still significant, and she remains a historically important figure in early American history.

Though well known in American history, Pocahontas has surprisingly not been the subject of many film adaptations.  It’s probably because Hollywood has had a complicated history with Native American depictions.  Like I stated before, the values of the times change, and for the longest time, Native American people were often portrayed badly in movies from the past; often playing the role of the villains in Cowboy flicks.  As we’ve developed a better understanding of native populations in America, the need to present them with more dignity and respect has become much more essential.  Disney, more often today, has been making an extensive effort to include more culturally diverse characters into their stable, and Pocahontas was their attempt to include Native Americans into the mix.  While you can’t really state that Pocahontas is a princess like so many of the rest, she’s often given inclusion within the “Princess” product line that Disney has.  Disney themselves were also guilty of less than flattering depictions of Native Americans in the past (the tribe in Peter Pan for example), so I can understand why they would want to embrace the character so much as part of their collection.  But in doing so, did they undermine the significance of the person in American history?   There can only be an answer to this by contrasting it with a more true life image of Pocahontas that we find in The New World.  The Terrnence Malick film is not without it’s own liberties as well, but at the same time, it tries to do what few other movies have, which is to examine the world that Pocahontas lived within and attempt to understand how this shaped her into who she was.

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“Pocahontas, the tree is talking to me.”

“Then you should talk back.”

The character of Pocahontas comes across very differently in both movies.  The two films do stress the identity of a free spirited individual.  As one character in the animated version states, “She goes wherever the wind takes her.”  In many ways, this is something that feels true to the actual person that Pocahontas was.  Pocahontas bridged the gap between two cultures, and in order to do that, she couldn’t be entrenched in tradition and committed solely  to her own racial identity.  She had to see the changing times that were ahead and embrace the change that was coming her way; whether it was for the betterment of her society or not.  This is handled a bit more delicately in the Terrence Malick version.  Both films cast authentic Native American actresses in the role of Pocahontas, and in The New World, they went as far as to cast someone age appropriate as well.  Then 15 year old Q’orianka Kilcher portrays a version of Pocahontas that feels very authentic.  Though of mixed Incan and Swiss-German descent, Kilcher is close enough to the physical likeness of the real Pocahontas, whose only physical representation is preserved in a English made portrait from her final years.  Her performance is also nicely understated, capturing the innocence of the young girl caught up in a turbulent time quite well.  Though she often has to work through some of Terrence Malick’s sometimes dense poetic indulgences, her performance still gives you a sense of a maturing and awestruck pioneer.  Disney’s Pocahontas, voiced by Native actress Irene Bedard, is a bit more heavy handed in her depiction.  Though Bedard is exceptional in her vocal performance, it’s the writing that lets the character down.  Disney’s Pocahontas changes little in the movie; starting off as stereotypically rebellious and naive as she begins to encounter the English settlers.  It’s the downside of portraying a historical character within a highly fictionalized world like animation; you lose some of the subtlety.  It makes her growth far less involving when she you have to buy into the fact that she’s speaking to an enchanted talking willow tree.  Which is why I give the portrayal in The New World the edge here.

 

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“There’s something I know when I’m with you that I forget when I’m away.”

I believe where historical critics took the most issue with the portrayal of Pocahontas’ story on film was in how it depicted the relationship between her and John Smith.  In reality, Smith and Pocahontas were mere countenances who’s paths crossed briefly during the early days of the Jamestown colony.  Like I stated earlier, John Smith is the only one who accounted for Pocahontas’ act of mercy, and he only shared it long after the fact.  But, I guess for the purposes of cinematic licence, John Smith needed to be a stronger male presence, and in the case of Disney, I think they fell victim to their own formula here.  Not only do Pocahontas and John Smith fill the lead roles in the animated film, but they also become romantically involved, in the fairy-tale romance kind of sense.  While this is natural in so many other Disney movies, the romance is so awkwardly fixed into this story, especially when you know about the real history.  In reality, John Smith was nearly 30 years older than Pocahontas, so Disney aged her up just for the purpose of giving her a love story and avoid controversy.  Truth be told, the movie does handle it okay (it’s probably the most mature Disney love story we’ve seen to date), but it’s clearly the most blatant attempt by the studio to give this story a more conventional appeal.  It would be more problematic if Disney alone was guilty of this, but surprisingly, Terrence Malick includes a romantic connection between Pocahontas and Smith as well.  This is actually a bit more problematic in The New World considering it’s cast age-appropriately with the 15 year old Kilcher sharing a kiss with 30-something Colin Farrell as John Smith.  While it’s out of place, the romantic angle is understandable from a filmmaking point of view, and Disney manages it a bit better by giving it more resonance.  Also, Disney’s John Smith is a more charming lead (voiced by a pre-scandal Mel Gibson), whereas Colin Farrell was still in his awkward, trying too hard, Alexander era phase.   In many ways, I feel Disney was unfairly singled out because of this, while Malick somehow was given a pass for doing the same exact thing.

But, perhaps the most striking difference between the movies cinematically is the way it uses the most defining moment of Pocahontas’ life; her self-sacrifice to save John Smith.  The movies both spotlight the moment, but their placements are very different and because of this, it defines exactly what sets the different depictions apart.  In The New World, the pivotal moment happens early in the movie, using it as a touchstone to set into motion all that would happen afterwards in Pocahontas’ life.  In the animated film, it serves as the climax, bringing to head the collision between cultures that has been building up so far in the story.  It’s a really interesting comparison, where you can see how the same event can serve as both the start and ending of a story, depending on how it’s used.  In Disney’s Pocahontas, the heroine’s moment of truth stands in contrast to the growing racial tensions between her tribe and the Jamestown settlers.  Her action inspires her father to reexamine his resolve to kill for vengeance and it in turn teaches everyone that peace between cultures is the better way.  It’s a well handled statement and It’s clear why Disney waited for this moment in the film to bring the legendary action into the story.  In contrast, Terrence Malick starts his narrative off with the moment of defiance, and then uses the rest of the movie to show the aftermath; how it affected the tensions between settlers and the natives, how it turned Pocahontas into a cultural ambassador, and how it moved her away from the culture of her youth.  Essentially, Pocahontas’ act of mercy becomes one of many pivotal moments in the development of her character, rather than her defining moment.  The New World essentially uses the story of Pocahontas a window into the experience of being in pre-colonial America, and it is there where Terrence Malick’s ethereal style kind of undermines the purpose of the story.  Where Malick’s film wants to create an experience, Disney’s film is more intent on delivering a lesson, and a noble one at that.  Neither is historically true, but in Disney’s case, it leaves you with a bit more to think about by film’s end.

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“I’d rather die tomorrow than live a hundred years without knowing you.”

I guess in the overall picture, the surprising thing is not that Pocahontas’ life became the inspiration for film adaptations, but that her journey to the big screen manifested in such unexpected ways.  An animated love story is something that I’m sure many historians never thought Pocahontas would find her way into.  And for the cinematically experimental Terrence Malick to take an interest in her story as well is something that I’m sure very few cinephiles and historians alike would’ve ever thought would happen.  And yet, we’ve ended up with two noteworthy and unique adaptations of Pocahontas’ life.  Neither work very well as a history lesson, but they are interesting cinematic experiments regardless.  I tend to favor Disney’s version over Malick’s.  Despite all of it’s formulaic flaws, it’s heart is in it’s right place.  I feel like Disney made the film as a means to right some of their earlier wrongs and give Native American cultures the same level of dignity as any other.  I especially like how she is embraced today as among one of Disney’s most endearing Princess characters, despite the fact that she’s somewhat out of place in that category.  The New World is also a flawed work of art that still has much to admire.  The cinematography by Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki is unbelievably gorgeous, as is the production design.  Malick’s poetic style may not be for everyone, but it can’t be disputed that his movies are beautiful to look at, and it’s interesting to see that style attached to Pocahontas’ story.  I’d say watch The New World in order to understand who Pocahontas was, and then watch the Disney version to understand why she’s so important.  They both serve their purposes, but the more resonant one will be the animated version.  Sometimes historical liberties are essential to help us learn more about figures from our past.  And in this case, Pocahontas evolved from a chief’s daughter, into an ambassador, to American icon, and is now viewed many years later as a princess.  That’s history for you.

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“You can own the Earth and still all you’ll own is Earth until you can paint with all the Colors of the Wind.”

 

Tinseltown Throwdown – Troy vs. Alexander

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Epic movies probably define the character of Hollywood more than any other type of film.  They are big, excessive monsters of cinema that reflect the over-the-top excesses of the industry itself, and that’s what draws many audiences to them.  They are the epitome of what the art of cinema can do, as long as they are done well.  One downside to epic film-making is the enormous cost behind them, and not just in terms of dollars and cents.  These productions are painstaking efforts that take much longer to make and must include long commitments from their actors and crew to pull them off.  David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for example filmed over a 18 month shooting schedule in the Arabian desert where temperatures would consistently rise to over 100 degrees during the day.  It took a lot of commitment on the people involved to see that through, and they were making a film that wasn’t even recreating a far off time period.  Epics, in turn, are some of Hollywood’s most prized accomplishments, at least in regards to the classic era of cinema.  Apart from historical dramas like Lawrence or Gone with the Wind (1939), the most popular form of epic in these early days tended to be the Biblical epic.  Sure, the biblical stories could satisfy some of the moral backbone that many audiences wanted from their movies, but they also gave other audiences something more and that was spectacle; bloody battles, sword fighting, romance, and pageantry on a massive scale.  These in time became known as the “Sword and Sandal” Epic and during Hollywood’s Golden Era, they also proved to be big business.  Films like The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960) dominated cinemas and despite their astronomical costs to make, they also proved to be profitable.

But, like many other fads in Hollywood, the “Sword and Sandal” epic spectacle saw it’s own decline.  Costly failures like Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1965) brought the genre down to it’s knees, and for many years the genre was deemed to risky a venture for most studios.  But, after the renegade 70’s, Hollywood began to return to spectacles again with the rise of the “Blockbuster.”  Though spectacle became widely accepted by audiences again, it would take some time for the “Sword and Sandal” epic to find it’s footing again.  A major push came unexpectedly in the form of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), which presented an entertaining throwback to the excessive epic dramas of old Hollywood, but with the benefit of less censorship over the brutal violence that defined the time period.  Meeting Braveheart‘s challenge, director Ridley Scott created his own throwback homage to “Sword in Sandal” epics in the form of Gladiator (2000), which completely reinvigorated the genre for a new generation.  Gladiator took all the elements of the “Sword and Sandal” epic and gave it an earnest approach that clicked with modern audiences, thanks to charismatic performances from the likes of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix and astounding epic sense of scale.  It was a box office hit and even surprised everyone by winning Best Picture at the Oscars.  But, like with most unexpected hits in Hollywood, it also spawned it’s fair share of copycats.  Warner Brothers, hoping for big profits of their own, took the ambitious step of releasing two “Sword and Sandal” epics months apart from each other in 2004, and let’s just say that what worked for Gladiator didn’t exactly work for them.  In this article, I will be looking at these two attempts at modern epic film-making, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), and see which one better satisfied as a true representation of it’s genre.

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“Do you know what’s waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it!  It’s yours!”

When both Troy and Alexander premiered in 2004, many had hoped that they would follow in Gladiator‘s footsteps to box office and awards glory.  Instead, they were received tepidly by critics and fell way short at the box office, more so in Alexander‘s case.  On the surface, you can’t really pinpoint exactly what went wrong.  They followed the Gladiator formula both visually and narratively.  They both come from very familiar epic stories; Troy based on legend and Alexander based on real historical figures.  Both are lavishly constructed and display every cent of their nearly $200 million budgets.  So, how did they both fail?  More than anything it’s their flawed executions that sunk both films.  Despite having Gladiator to thank for their existence, living in it’s shadow may have also been one of the factors against them.  When Ridley Scott created his Oscar winner, he was tackling an old, out-of-date genre that no one had any regards for anymore, which allowed him more creative freedom to create a more cohesive and engaging vision.  By contrast, Troy and Alexander had Gladiator to live up to and both buckled under the expectations put on them.  But, what is interesting about the two is that while flawed, their failures and strengths are so different that it does offer up some intriguing contrasts.  Namely it’s in the style of the film-making that was given to their productions, the strengths of their overall casts, and the seriousness that they approach their subjects and themes that separate the two.  Of these two ambitious failures that represented the collapse of this short-lived revival of the “Sword and Sandal” epic, one must clearly stand as the better effort and it’s that contrast that will help determine which one stands taller than the other.

First of all, what does define the genre more than anything?  Spectacle.  Troy has the benefit of being directed by a filmmaker comfortable with bringing spectacle to the big screen.  Wolfgang Petersen made a name for himself with his ambitious war epic Das Boot (1981) and he continued to grow as a filmmaker, taking on both gritty action thrillers like In the Line of Fire (1993) and Air Force One (1997), and effects heavy spectacles like The Perfect Storm (2000).  His The NeverEnding Story(1987) however represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, showing a great sense of pageantry in his work that could have made him a great fit for the “Sword and Sandals” epic genre.  The results in Troy are a little mixed however.  His sense of scale is impressive, especially the grandiose battle scenes and the epic flyover shot of the Greecian fleet on it’s way to war with Troy.  But, there’s also a severe lack of character to the film’s presentation.  All the battle scenes look the same as the movie goes along, which seems to be an unfortunate result of the film’s singular location; with the Baja Californian coast playing the part of the Trojan harbor.  Most of the movie is washed out in constant sunlight and we see the same drab stone walls and sandy beaches for most of the film’s runtime.  It’s a lack of diversity that hinders the visual presentation.  Alexander by contrast benefits from a more varied approach.  Oliver Stone, while not known for tackling the epic genre much in his career, does take an ambitious approach to his staging here.  The film was shot all over the world in locations as varied as Morocco and Thailand, with some of the battles being spectacularly staged and distinct.  One in particular, against an army riding aboard stampeding elephants is jaw-droppingly beautiful and shows more creativity than any of the many battles in Troy.  This is one element that Alexander has over Troy, and it makes for a more visceral experience as a result.

alexander elephant

“Conquer your fear, and I promise you, you will conquer death.”

Unfortunately, despite Oliver Stone’s strong visual sense, he has less success with the direction of his actors.  The cast of Alexander is a really big mish-mash of poor casting and really bizarre performance choices.  Some of the cast are surprisingly effective; Jared Leto as Hephaistion for example.  But there is also a fair share of really over-the-top and terrible performances from normally talented people here; some funny (Val Kilmer as historical Macedonian king Philip) and others that are just awful (Angelina Jolie as Queen Olympia, with an indeterminate accent).  But, worst of all is the lackluster effort by it’s lead: Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great.  This is one of histories most influential figures; a man who conquered the entire known world in his day.  To pull off this role you need someone inspiring, and Farrell is not that.  The casting of Colin as Alexander probably had more to do with his rising star status at the time and less to do with his actual potential in the role.  Thankfully he would mature as an actor years later in movies like In Brudges (2008), but when you seem him staring blankly and looking foolish in a blonde wig as he does here, you can easily see how his miscasting hurt the movie.  Troy doesn’t fare much better with it’s lead.  Brad Pitt is out of place as legendary hero Achilles and he can’t bring more to the character other than a few ominous stares and grunting arrogant tough guy dialogue.  The rest of the cast in Troy is a bit more balanced than in Alexander however, especially the veterans like Brian Cox and Peter O’Toole.  The casting of Sean Bean as Odysseus alone makes me wish that they had continued on with him in an adaptation of The Odyssey; plus it’s a rare role that leaves him alive at the end.  Also in addition, Troy has the best performance overall from both movies and that’s Eric Bana as Hector.  He comes off as the true hero of the film; sympathetic and very much within the story’s world.  So, the use of it’s cast benefits Troy more, because they at least feel more at home in their roles overall.

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“Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity.  And so we ask ourselves: will our actions echo across the centuries?”

Another thing that distinguishes these movies from one another is the effectiveness of their presentations on the stories they tell.  In a way, both movies suffered from the fact that we all know the narratives already.  Troy takes it’s cue from Homer’s The Iliad, which is commonly read in schools and literary circles across the world, and Alexander follows the exploits of it’s real life historic figure.  What benefited Gladiator was the fact that it was an original, fictional tale set within a historical setting around real historical figures.  As a result, we were able to get a look into historical ancient Rome through the eyes of a protagonist whose story was completely new to us, thereby making it more intriguing.  Troy and Alexander needed to make the familiar feel fresh again due to the fact that we already know what happens by the end; Troy is destroyed by a wooden horse after Achilles is undone by exploiting the weakness in his heel, and Alexander’s empire falls apart after extending his armies too far and succumbing to the conspiracies led by his commanders, leaving him dead while still in his prime.  To Alexander’s benefit, Oliver Stone takes a less than conventional approach to telling the life story of Alexander the Great.  The story is told through the recollections of Alexander’s trusted ally Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) as he dictates his memoirs, and through this motif, the story unfolds out of order.  We begin the film with Alexander at his most triumphant, defeating the Persian Empire, but then as the film goes on, new recollections come into play, revealing new layers about the character and it deconstructs the man from the legend.  Troy on the other hand tells the story as a straight forward action thriller.  It works in that respect, but it lacks the engaging disjointedness of Alexander‘s approach, as well as the magical elements of Homer’s poem.  In this respect, I find that Alexander‘s confused focus actually works to it’s benefit.  It’s disjointed, but it keeps it from being bland.

This is something that’s more of a result of the different filmmakers styles than anything.  Petersen is a very commercial director, able to deliver scale and action exactly the way that the studios wants them.  Oliver Stone on the other hand is a bit of a rebel as a filmmaker and it’s any wonder why he was able to secure enough clout in order to make a big screen epic like this one given his reputation.  But, Stone’s instincts as a filmmaker does give him something that Petersen doesn’t have, and that’s the ability to be subversive with his movies.  Alexander may be a mess with many things, but there is something to admire about it’s ability to tackle more challenging themes with it’s story.  In Troy, the themes tend to center more around the making’s of a hero, and most of it is delivered in a clunky, unsubtle way.  We hear Achilles talk about immortality and his place in history in a way that feels too self aware.  It also treats it’s themes in a very commercial and non-controversial way.  Alexander on the other hand tackles some very heavy issues, such as the relativity of good and evil and the responsibilities of kings.  But perhaps the film’s most commendable act is that it does’t shy away from the historical account of Alexander the Great’s homosexual relationship with Hephaistion.  For a big budget epic like Alexander to openly address this at a time when gay themes were still absent in Hollywood movies in general was a bold step on Stone’s part.  It’s also a missed opportunity on the part of Troy too.  Homer’s epic poem stated that Achilles had a male lover as well named Patroclus, but in the movie the character (played by Garrett Hedlund) is turned into Achilles’ cousin, thereby removing the sexuality angle.  Wouldn’t it have been revolutionary to have an epic action movie where the tough, heroic main character played by one of Hollywood’s A-list leading men portrayed as openly Gay?  Sadly, Troy was not that progressive, but on the other hand, Alexander was and in that respect, it’s the much more admirable film.

alexander farrell leto

“My poor child.  You’re like Achilles: cursed by your greatness.”

By no accounts are either Troy and Alexander great movies.  But, neither are they embarrassments either.  Despite mediocre premieres, both movies still do well in the home video market.  Oliver Stone in fact seems to hold the movie up as a passion project of his, having done three more cuts of the film since it’s debut a decade ago; each released separately on Blu-ray and DVD.  His final cut even includes a classic Hollywood Roadshow presentation and a three and a half hour running time that greatly fixes may of the plot holes in the theatrical version.  But, as the years have passed, I find myself drawn more to Alexander over Troy.  And the simple fact is this; despite being more coherent and better acted, I just find Troy to be the more boring of the two.  Alexander is a colossal mess, yes, but it’s an intriguing mess, made by a true artist.  Wolfgang Petersen delivers on the action, but there’s nothing visionary about it.  Troy just feels like a studio driven mandate rather than a genuine cinematic wonder.  I just love Oliver Stone’s eccentricities in Alexander more, and it stands up over time much better, even though I still feel the main character in it is a bore.  Are either movie worthy of the historical legacies behind them?  Hardly, but hey, few Hollywood epics are historically accurate.  Both films of course pale in comparison to their predecessor Gladiator, and it’s sadly a result of the quickly changing tastes of the audience that these movies didn’t hit their mark.  The “Sword and Sandal” epic had a short reprieve before it was inevitably done in by deconstructive efforts like Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007).  Even Ridley Scott failed to keep it alive when he followed up with his own ambitious Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven (2005).  Given the cost and the lackluster results these two movies ended up being, it’s unlikely we’ll see it revived again.  For the brief time that it was reborn, it was interesting to see the “Sword ad Sandals” epic become a part of Hollywood again.  And between the two, Alexander proved to be the victor just because it failed in a far more epic-ly appropriate way.

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“Alexander used to say that we are most alone when we are with the myths.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Antz vs. A Bug’s Life

antz bugs life

Whenever Hollywood studios develop projects that are similar in story or style, it usually can be explained away as just a coincidence or more likely companies just capitalizing on a trend.  And then there are cases where the two movies are so alike that it can’t be seen as anything other than pure competitive one-ups-man-ship.  This becomes especially true when you have two companies that have a long history of trying to out-do each other, especially if one is playing catch-up.  And for much of the 2000’s, that was the situation with animation giants Pixar and Dreamworks.  Pixar hit the market big first with their groundbreaking Toy Story (1995).  But in the mid-90’s, Dreamworks was also formed with the partnership of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, music mogul David Geffen, and former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg.  With Katzenberg on board, Dreamworks naturally set out to create an animation wing of their own that would be competitive against the juggernaut that is Disney; Pixar’s parent company.  Admirably, they set out to attract the best talent in the business that wasn’t already under contract with the House of Mouse and they came out of the gate swinging with their first feature in development, the traditionally animated epic The Prince of Egypt (1998).  The Prince of Egypt did fairly well at the box office, and even garnered an Oscar for Best Original Song, but with the success of Toy Story from Disney/Pixar, the animation industry began to shift dramatically towards computer animation.  To stay competitive, Dreamworks partnered with PDI (Pacific Digital Imaging) to create an CGI feature of their own.  And the subject they chose to animate seemed a little too familiar to those who were seeing what Pixar was also following up with themselves.

For any animation studio out there, one of the hardest subjects to try to animate is the world from the point of view of an insect.  You’ve got to take in the sense of scale of the miniature world and how life-like it has to appear to feel real.  Needless to say, it takes ambition to pull it off, so rather surprisingly, both Pixar and Dreamworks landed on this subject very early on in their life span.  Within a short window of time, Pixar announced that A Bug’s Life would be their follow-up to Toy Story and Dreamworks announced that Antz would be their first computer animated feature ever.  It’s understandable that this would seem like a logical choice for both companies to come to in order to assert their positions as animation pioneers, but when it was announced that Antz was being rushed through production in order to beat A Bug’s Life to theaters by a couple of weeks, it started to make people wonder if this was more than just a friendly competition.  Certainly the tumultuous departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg from Disney may have led some to believe that this was a direct challenge against his former company, hoping to prove that he can do them one better.  Regardless if that was his true intent, the tight release schedule between the two movies marked the beginning of a decade long battle between the two animation powers, with multiple films released over time that featured strikingly similar plots, characters, and/or settings. These included 2000’s The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New GrooveFinding Nemo (2003) and Shark Tale (2004), and also How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Brave (2012).  It was an interesting battle of like-minded films for many years, but in this article I’d like to focus on where it all started with Antz and A Bug’s Life because it represented a time when both studios were on an even playing field, which makes the contrasting of the different films all the more interesting separated from the legacies they launched.

antz 2

“Yes, Z. You are insignific-ANT.”

Certainly by looking at the surface of both films, you can definitely see a great deal of similarity.  Both are about bugs, with ant colonies being the primary focus.  Both feature an underdog hero that upsets the established order.  And both feature a princess who becomes the love interest of the hero as well as the catalyst for that social change.  But, when watching both movies, you will actually find that the plots themselves are not as similar as you’d think and that’s the most interesting difference between the two.  Antz is about a lowly worker ant named Z (voiced by Woody Allen) who wants to challenge his place in the social order by leaving his job in the tunnels and fighting in the army, hoping to prove himself.  He does just that, trading places with his army friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), only to find himself way in over his head.  After escaping to the outside, Z learns of a sinister plot by General Manible (Gene Hackman) to commit an ethnic cleansing of all the worker ants, leaving only the stronger fighter ants loyal to him in charge.  As you can see, even despite being a family film for all ages, there are actually some very heavy themes throughout.  That works as Antz biggest strength, because it feels much more original in story than most other animated films, particularly when it’s dealing with themes of individuality in a totalitarian system.  For a class of film that has so often dealt with themes about the nobility of royalty (like most of the fairy tales told by Disney) it’s kind of refreshing to see an animated film invoke the ideas of political authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (whose novel Brave New World was a particular influence here) that speaks more to the heroism of the lower, oppressed classes.  Though not new concepts explored in Hollywood film-making, this was certainly something different for animation, and it helped to make Antz a standout right away.

A Bug’s Life by comparison seems a bit more familiar and less of a gamble in the story department.  It involves a lowly worker ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who seeks to help out his colony by hiring “warrior bugs” who will help them fight a gang of Grasshoppers who are terrorizing their community, led by their lethal leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey).  Flik finds the bugs he needs, only to learn too late that they are in fact “circus bugs” and not real warriors.  Overall, while still entertaining, A Bug’s Life doesn’t really feel that original, and not because of some similarities it has with Antz; it’s basically Seven Samurai (1954) with insects, and not much else.  True, it does alright with the formula, but after the groundbreaking Toy Story, you would think that a place like Pixar should’ve done something wholly original as their follow-up.  Instead, the story of A Bug’s Life plays by the rules of a standard underdog against the oppressors story-line, which granted Antz did as well, but with a much more sophisticated angle.  When you look at all the Pixar films together, A Bug’s Life actually ranks among the less popular, following in the company of Cars 2 (2011) and Brave (2012), two other very formulaic pictures.  A Bug’s Life is better than those two though, but it’s not all that surprising that it’s place in the Pixar library has diminished over time as the studio has continually pushed the boundaries with movies like The Incredibles (2004), Wall-E (2008), and Inside Out (2015).  As story-lines go, Antz takes more chances with their story by not being afraid to go into darker and deeper themes, which helps to give it a slight edge.

bugs life 1

“I only got twenty-four hours to live, and I ain’t gonna waste it here.”

Though the stories share many similarities, and differ greatly in their presentation, the bigger difference between the two would be the development of the characters.  And again, there are different levels of effectiveness that define the two films.  First off, we look at the main characters of Z and Flik.  In this case, the better of the two would be the former.  Flik, though likable, is sadly the more generic character, and that’s probably because of the story’s insistence that he be too likable.  Flik is clumsy, yes, but the movie never portrays him in an unflattering light and he continually plays the role of the misunderstood every-man who has all the answers.  This sadly robs the character of any individuality; Flik is just too nice for his own good.  Z on the other hand is not as easy to like right away.  He’s a smart ass who talks behind peoples’ back and for most of the movie he acts only in his self interest, up until the point that he discovers that he must stand up for what is right.  Also, he’s continually plagued with self-doubt and a feeling of inferiority, which often explains why he lashes out at others in the movie.  This is where the casting of Woody Allen makes all the difference with the character, because this kind of personality has been a trademark of his throughout his career.  Allen contributed some un-credited dialogue into the movie and I’m sure that was  primarily geared towards shaping the character of Z.  He’s an unconventional hero, one who never intended to make a difference but did so anyway, and that’s what ultimately makes him more interesting.  By contrast, we know Flik will rise to the top in the end and that sadly makes him less interesting as a character.  What he needed was a less telegraphed story arc that would’ve opened up more depth to his development.

antz 1

“Time stands still for no ant.”

Where A Bug’s Life actually gains an advantage over it’s competition is in the rest of the film’s characters.  One thing that has really differentiated Pixar and Dreamworks over time is the way they cast their characters.  Dreamworks tends to favor marquee names that will help to sell their films, while Pixar leans more in favor of casting actors better suited for the role (including having their own in-house artists voicing characters in the final product).  This was true from the beginning with these two movies.  Antz does have the benefit of getting a name like Woody Allen on board, who brought a lot to the role.  Unfortunately, the rest of the acclaimed cast leaves much less of an impression.  Apart from actors Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain playing the WASP-iest of wasps, no one else makes their characters distinct, which is especially problematic when it’s hard to tell them apart.  A Bug’s Life on the other hand has a wonderfully diverse set of characters all voiced by many talented character actors who were perfect for the roles.  There’s something a little genius about having a ladybug voiced by hard-edged comedian Denis Leary.  But, the unconventional casting also helps to set these characters apart from the rest, giving them easy to define personalities.  This even extends to the ant colony, which had voices as diverse as Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Phyllis Diller, Alex Rocco, and Roddy McDowall among them.  But, the best bit of casting that puts A Bug’s Life ahead of Antz is with the villain.  As legendary as Gene Hackman is, he’s saddled with a rather generic villain to play as General Mandible; never once deviating from the typical identity of the military a-hole character trait.  A Bug’s Life on the other hand has Hopper, one of the best animated villains of all time.  Kevin Spacey brings a lot of menace to the part and makes the character truly terrifying, something I’m sure he picked up from roles in Seven and The Usual Suspects.  He stands out because he oppresses not out of a need to keep a sense of order, but instead for his own sadistic fulfillment, which makes him a far more terrifying and effective villain overall.

Now, one thing the films share in common is that they were both made during the infancy of computer animation.  You look at the textures and the fluidity of the animation found in both movies and hold them up to the standards of today, you’ll definitely see how far we’ve progressed in the technology over the last decade.  But, despite the fact that both were made in a less advanced time and look dated today, one still manages to hold up better than the other.  And again, this is where A Bug’s Life’s diverse cast helps to give it an advantage.  A Bug’s Life makes the most of it’s limitations by giving the movie more color and different styles of character design.  When you look at the cast of Antz, the characters all look the same, showing a rather lazy attempt at character design on the art department’s part.  Sometimes while watching it, I couldn’t pick our hero Z out of a crowd because his design was no different than the rest.  By comparison, Flik stands out more because he interacts with many different types of bugs, and not just his own kind.  Antz unfortunately didn’t attempt to give it’s movie more than just a unified design for all it’s characters, and that unfortunately diminishes it’s visual presentation, especially when seen today.  I think that A Bug’s Life had the advantage of having been preceded by Toy Story, which helped Pixar learn a lot of lessons about character and environment design.  Dreamworks wouldn’t be able to differentiate itself by style until years later when movies like Shrek and Madagascar (2005) relied more heavily on stylized animation.  Unfortunately, their advances have left Antz more forgotten over time, while A Bug’s Life still holds a more esteemed reputation in the eyes of audiences today.

bugs life 2

“It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, princess.  One of those Circle of Life kind of things.”

The fierce battle between the two animation giants provided a interesting era of creative growth over the last decade, sparking a lot of advancement in the medium.  But, what is so fascinating about the rivalry between Dreamworks and Pixar is that it existed right from the beginning.  Really, it seemed that much of their identity as companies was defined by their desire to out do the other and it began right here with these two very similar movies.  Over the years since, both studios would be vying for greatness in different ways; Dreamworks would garner the bigger box office success, but Pixar would win more of the year end awards.  Sadly Dreamworks and Pixar have both fallen victim to their own success, with the former seeing lower box office due to an overly aggressive release schedule and the latter having to make less effective sequels to their biggest hits (Cars 2 and Monsters University) which in turn alienates it’s audience from the originals.  Not to mention their success has enabled other producers to up their game, including Disney itself and Illumination Entertainment with their pesky Minions, causing a more competitive market.  But, without the competition we’ve seen, we wouldn’t have the high quality of animation that we see today, so we should be grateful that Dreamworks and Pixar were trading blows so early on.  Though they both have their strengths and weaknesses, I’d say A Bug’s Life comes slightly out on top thanks to it’s more appealing visuals and iconic villain.  That being said, Antz isn’t worth ignoring eithe , thanks to an engaging main hero and a surprisingly intelligent story-line.  Though both movies were produced and released at a time of bad blood between the studios which continues to this day, it’s still refreshing to see a fine legacy born out of that conflict.

bugs life 3

“Finally.  I have become a beautiful Butterfly.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Armageddon vs. Deep Impact

armageddon deep impact

Hollywood is in the not so enviable position of having to fill every week of the year with big, new and expensive movies.  Not all of them are going to be great, but usually the big studios can ride upon the success of one huge hit to help with the financing of all the others.  Usually, these kinds of movies are the tentpoles of each movie season and they are the ones that movie companies place all their resources into.  It’s no wonder why huge action films get more publicity and exposure than the small indie flicks released along side them as a result.  But, in order for the tentpoles to do well each and every year, they must be able to connect with what the audiences are in the mood for, which can change unexpectedly.  Unfortunately for Hollywood, it means that they must rely heavily on fresh new ideas for films, something that they sadly don’t have all the time.  When ideas are sparse in the industry, filmmakers then resort to playing it safe, relying on the tried and true genre flicks.  Now, this strategy works well sometimes, but resorting to old genre standbys sometimes results in making movies that are less original, and more like every other film out there.  And sometimes, Hollywood will even run the risk of not only having an idea that’s already been done, but is also being done at the same time by someone else.  Thus we get what is commonly known as the “copycat” pictures, where two different studios will have competing movies in development with almost the exact same premise. Sometimes there will be a space in between their releases, but there are other times when both movies end up in direct competition with each other, which is what happened in 1998 with the big summer disaster movies Armageddon and Deep Impact.

The releases of Armageddon and Deep Impact came out at an interesting time because it was at a point of ferocious contention between two different studios.  Deep Impact was released by the newly formed Dreamworks Pictures, a joint venture created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, music publisher David Geffen, and exiled animation producer Jeffrey Katzenberg.  Katzenberg only years prior had been unceremoniously let go by the Walt Disney Company, then under the leadership of Michael Eisner, and part of the formation of Dreamworks came as a direct response to the very public feud between the two studio heads.  Some of that resulting tension manifested itself over the next few years as each studio tried to top each other with their upcoming projects.  After the success of Toy Story (1995), Dreamworks soon put into production their own gritty toys coming to life movie called Small Soldiers (1998), directed by Joe Dante.  After Pixar announced their next film would be A Bug’s Life (1998), Dreamworks quickly announced their own film to launch their animation wing called Antz (1998).  To answer this, after Dreamworks announced their new disaster tentpole, Deep Impact, Disney owned Touchstone Pictures announced that they would have their own doomsday action flick, Armageddon.  For these few years, both Disney and Dreamworks were trading serious blows, and the releases of these two movies represented one of the most contentious battles in the war.  Coming out of battle of egos like this, it’s interesting to see how the two movies measure up against one another, which is what I’m going to look at with this article, and see if there were any winners in this cinematic war, or just all losers.

armageddon couple

“I’m leaving on a Jet Plane.”

First of all, it should be stated that neither film is any good.  They’re both perfect examples of the dumb action tentpole that Hollywood was fond of in the late 90’s, when CGI opened up the possibilities of the medium.  When the style trumps the substance of the picture, all that you’re left with to the define each movie is the premise, and for both of these movies, it is almost exactly the same story.  A giant celestial object is heading for a collision with the Earth, capable of wiping out all life on the planet.  The fate of mankind rests on the success of risky manned space missions, aimed at intercepting the objects and destroying them with nuclear bombs before time runs out.  That’s pretty much the plot of both movies right there in a nutshell.  Sure, there are subplots throughout, but does anybody really remember them, or care?  All people remember from Deep Impact and Armageddon is the scenes where parts of the earth are nearly destroyed by these massive objects (a comet in Impact, and an asteroid in Armageddon).  But, are any of these films less bad then the other.  The most interesting comparison made about them is that they are flawed, but in very different ways, particularly from a film-making standpoint.  Deep Impact’s main flaw is that it takes itself way too seriously, which comes across as ridiculous once the film tries to portray this over the top premise realistically.  Armageddon on the other hand is more playful with the premise, but is way more excessive; which is no surprise given who made it.  Some of these flaws are definitely attributable to the demands put on them by the studios, but certainly the decisions made by the filmmakers also contribute to the big differences between the movies.

That’s the thing that has favored Armageddon now 17 years later.  It has the distinction of being one of the earliest movies from the King of Excess, Michael Bay.   Bay up until that point had made a name for himself as a highly regarded and stylish commercial director, which he then transitioned into a career as an action filmmaker.  He found success with his first movie Bad Boys (1995), and even more with what I would consider his best movie to date, The Rock (1996).  Coming off back to back hits, Touchstone and Disney trusted him with this huge production and the result was a movie that indeed catapulted Bay’s status as a filmmaker, but also began his decline as a quality storyteller.  Honestly, you can pinpoint the origins to all the problems with Michael Bay’s style from this movie.  The lack of restraint, the excessive running times, the macho bravado of his characters, and his just hyper-kinetic and distracting editing style.  By contrast, Deep Impact is much more subdued, under the direction of Mimi Leder, but that’s also not such a good thing.  Mimi Leder was, and continues to be, an accomplished television director, but her career as a big screen filmmaker unfortunately was short-lived, thanks in no small part to the lukewarm response to this movie.  It was a cool move on Dreamworks part to entrust a big budget production to a female director, something which hadn’t happened before in Hollywood up until then, but Leder’s inexperience unfortunately sinks the production in the end.  Leder doesn’t have a distinctive style, so the look of Deep Impact is very plain and uninspired.  For all the awful, excessive choices made by Bay in his film, like the pointless strip club scene or the way too long space station rendezvous, at least they leave an impact on the viewer.  Deep Impact is sadly the more forgettable of the two.

deep impact comet

“Well, look on the bright side.  We’ll all have high schools named after us.”

If there is one thing that does work in Deep Impact‘s favor, it would actually be how it uses it’s story.  By taking the more subtle approach, the movie does help to audience garner more sympathy for the characters.  Not only that, but it chooses to place less emphasis on the mission itself, helping to make the scenes where the astronauts make contact with the comet all the more interesting.  Armageddon makes the space mission almost 70% of the movie’s running time, which after a while can become grating on an audience as Michael Bay doesn’t give us any time to rest between the big action sequences.  Now, that’s fine for a movie to do if it’s paced well enough, but Armageddon is over 2 1/2 hours long, and by the end of that audiences are exhausted with the sensory overload that the movie presents.  Deep Impact is more of a slow build, which can be boring at times, but it makes the big action set pieces more worth it in the end.  The landing on the comet is an especially impressive sequence, and is made all the more impressive today after the recent landing of the Rosetta space probe, which sent back pictures of a terrain not unlike the one seen in the movie.  Deep Impact also tells a bigger story, showing the lives of many characters both on the ground and in outer space, and does so within a nice compact 2 hour run time.  Unfortunately, most of the subplots of in Deep Impact are really boring, but the variety is what helps to make it a more enriching story-line compared to Armageddon’s relentless action.

“Look, we’ve got front row tickets to the end of the Earth.”

Another distinctive difference between the two movies would also be the cast.  Dreamworks clearly wanted Deep Impact to be a special event movie and that’s represented by the stellar, all star line-up of actors they assembled.  It’s actually quite impressive when you look at all the names on the cast list; Robert Duvall, Elijah Wood, James Cromwell, Jon Favreau, Morgan Freeman, and even unlikely participants like Maximillain Schell and Vanessa Redgrave.  With a cast like that, it’s a shame that they are wasted with such a bland script.  Armageddon on the other hand, you could say, is filled with all the usual suspects.  Action main stay Bruce Willis seems like the natural choice for the lead, and he’s backed up by many notable character actors like Will Patton, Peter Stormare, and William Fichtner.  Sure, there are some award winning actors thrown into the mix, like Steve Buscemi and Billy Bob Thornton, but everyone is operating at pretty much the same low level in this movie, which is to say that no one is giving a damn in their performance.  Now, that can be a plus as it gives some of the more eccentric actors like Buscemi some room to improvise, but otherwise it leads to stilted performances from the other less talented actors.  Chief among the worst performances in the movie are the two actors in the love story; Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler.  This was at a time long before Argo and Gone Girl would elevate Affleck’s acting chops, and his performance here is absolutely laughable.  Couple that with zero chemistry with Tyler, and you’ve got the makings of one of the worst romantic subplots in action movie history.  By contrast, even though Deep Impact‘s characters are boring, at least the actors try their best to make the performances resonate.  Hell, that whole cliche of having the President of the United States be African-American in these disaster movies stems from Morgan Freeman’s stand out performance here.  They may be working with nothing, but at least they do the work.

But, what does elevate Armageddon beyond it’s rival, and has kept it fresh in people’s minds since it’s release is in it’s visual effects.  Both Armageddon and Deep Impact portray global destruction on an ambitious scale.  Unfortunately for Impact, it has become a victim of it’s own adherence to a more realistic style.  Both movies were made in the early days of CGI in film-making, at a time when the industry was still trying to feel out all the different avenues that they could go.  Movies like Twister and Independence Day (both 1996) showed that you could indeed make mass destruction look real on film, and just a year prior, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) showed that CGI could even put the audience right in the middle of the chaos seamlessly.  But, at the same time, what looked cutting edge in the late 90’s unfortunately can seem dated today, especially if it’s presented unmasked without a distinctive style.  Such is the case with Deep Impact.  Though the comet surface scene does hold up, thanks to the help of hand crafted sets, the actual destruction scene at the end is painfully dated.  The exploding comet and ensuing tidal wave have an unfortunate cartoonish look when seen today, which spoils some of it’s impact it has (no pun intended).  In a way, that’s why Armageddon is helped by the excess of Michael Bay.  His very eccentric style helps to mask the dated CGI and make it less distracting.  Really, it’s everything else in the movie that proves distracting, and the visual effects are just impressive enough to make the action scenes work.  I actually like how the asteroid itself is not realistic by any means, and is almost alien in design, with it’s jagged and dark green terrain, making it a much more interesting setting.  It’s not the most impressive CGI ever done, but Armageddon looks less dated thanks to it’s director’s distinctive style, which has changed little over the years, for good and bad.  Deep Impact unfortunately is now relegated to being a product of it’s time purely by it’s own limitations.

deep impact cycle

“The waters receded.  Cities fall, but they are rebuilt.  And heroes die, but they are remembered.”

When the movies are as deeply flawed as these two, it’s hard to see how any can be considered better than the other.  If I were to choose between the two, I would give the slight edge to Armageddon, just because it sticks more distinctly in my mind, even though it’s mostly because of just how notorious it is.  Deep Impact, despite a capable cast and noble intentions, just falls flat by comparison, not leaving a single impression on me in these last 17 years.  Even after re-watching it, I’m still struggling to remember exactly what happened in the plot.  I think the only reason both of these movies continue to be talked about in the same breath today is because of the once contentious rivalry between two studios.  Things have changed dramatically since then.  Eisner left Disney in the mid 2000’s and the studio no longer competes heavily with Dreamworks Pictures.  In fact, Dreamworks had it’s own schism a few years back when Jeffrey Katzenberg split his animation wing off from it’s parent company and made it independent.  The remaining Spielberg and Geffen wings of Dreamworks ironically teamed up with Disney after this and are now partnering with Touchstone, the distributor that they were once in direct competition with.  For these two movies, it represents probably the most extreme case of two competing “copycat” films in the marketplace and are probably more distinctive as being weapons in this little skirmish rather than as stand out films on their own.  Still, they weren’t the first time Hollywood placed two like-minded films into competition, nor were they the last.  But, even though the fight is interesting to observe, it’s clear that the battle was a losing one for both ends.

armageddon walk

“Get off…the nuclear…warhead…NOW!!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Pacific Rim vs. Transformers

pacific rim transformers

Finding a franchise that not only hits the jackpot once but many times is usually hard to find in Hollywood, let alone sustain.  The subjects on which you can build these franchises can also be just as unpredictable.  I’m sure Hollywood never believed that movies centered around giant robots would ever become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut in the worldwide box-office, but that’s what they found out when Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) made it to the big screen.  Transformers, for better or worse (mostly worse), has become one of the most successful franchises in recent memory, with three of the entries from the series making it past the billion dollar mark in worldwide grosses.  But, even with all the success it has achieved, it has it’s fair share of detractors, who certainly have justifiable complaints about the bloated and insipid movies in the series. Though Transformers has it’s many faults, there’s no denying that they’ve made an impact on the industry, including opening the door for many other like minded action films.  Most of them have been even more ridiculous knockoffs like Hasbro Studios Battleship (2012), which was nothing more than a $200 million game commercial.  But among all the bad movies in Transformers wake, one that did stand out was Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013).  Like TransformersPacific Rim involves great battle set pieces set in our real world with giant robots.  But, there was one thing that del Toro’s movie got that Bay’s film didn’t; critical praise.  On the surface, these two films should be received almost exactly the same.  So why is one more highly regarded than the other.  In this article, I’m going to look at how the two movies shape up against one another, and see where this disparagement comes from.

To understand these movies, one also has to look at their influences, and how well they are used to back up both the action in each movie as well as the story.  For the most part, the most obvious influences for both franchises comes from Japanese pop culture; particularly with regards to the embodiment of the samurai warrior and the mythologies around giant kaiju monsters.  The Transformers we know now started off as a toy line in the early to mid eighties, which spawned a popular Saturday morning cartoon series which ran from 1984 to 1987 and culminated in a theatrical animated film.  Though conceived and developed in America, most of the animation was completed in Japan and South Korea, and was always meant to appeal to audiences from both sides of the Pacific.  Much of the Japanese influence comes out of the sense of duty from the Transformers themselves, not unlike the warriors code of the samurai, as well as with the aesthetic look of the characters themselves.  One look at characters like Optimus Prime and Megatron, and you can see the influence of feudal Japanese armor in their design. This is coupled with the gigantic size of the characters and how their constant skirmishes wreck havoc in our world.  That’s where the Kaiju influence comes about in the series, which is the same kind of inspiration that Guillermo del Toro draws from.  Kaiju monsters have long been a part of Japanese literature and cinema; including the highly influential Godzilla series.  With Pacific Rim, del Toro put his own fresh spin on the material, delivering a mash-up of all these different influences, but with a narrative that stands well enough on it’s own.  And like Transformers, it takes these very culturally distinct aspects and makes them work towards a worldwide sensibility.  In that sense, both do an equally fine job of presenting their influences well in their selective stories.

tranformers 2

“Autobots, roll out.”

Where the two movies ultimately part ways, at least in the effectiveness of the story-telling, is in their executions.  Primarily, it all has to do with the intents of their selective filmmakers.  Michael Bay is very style oriented, choosing to highlight the camera work and visual effects of his movies above the plot and character development.  Guillermo del Toro concerns himself with the opposite, devoting much of his movie to character interactions as well as building the world in which they live in.  That’s not to say that del Toro’s movies are not without style either; it’s just that sometimes the plot moves along so briskly that you hardly even notice the creative designs that del Toro has added.  But, if you look at the movies separated from their respective filmmakers, you would almost think that they were crafted by the same people.  So, what makes Transformers so loathsome and Pacific Rim so enriching?  The difference comes from the self-awareness that is found in each film.  Guillermo fills his movie with cheesy dialogue and flat characterizations, but he did that by design.  These are staples of many often unintentionally funny and campy sci-fi thrillers, and Guillermo is celebrating that aspect by making it an essential part of his own movie.  Michael Bay’s film on the other hand uses the same kind of cheesy dialogue and stale characterizations, but it seems to be the result of neglect rather than intent.  Because Bay spends so much time building the look of his movies, the things that matter most like plot and characters seem to be forgotten.  Instead, plot convenience and character archetypes are in place instead of real, meaningful development.  Not to mention a lot of pointless filler, like most of the stuff with the insufferable Witwicky parents.

The lack of development is one of the things that I have found most problematic with the Transformers franchise.  The series seems to have no thrust behind it, because Michael Bay never tries to explore something new in each entry.  Watching them all together (which I don’t recommend) it is astonishing how very little differences there are with the the plots.  It’s just the same movie done over and over again.  What’s even more infuriating is the fact that with every rehashed plot, they introduce brand new characters and then never address them ever again in the follow-up.  Hence, why so many of the characters are superfluous in the Transformers series.  But, to compare this aspect of the movies with Pacific Rim is a little unfair, mainly because Transformers has seen four releases in the franchise, compared to Pacific Rim’s one (though a sequel is on the way in 2017).  So, let’s just compare how the story holds up in it’s initial outing; the original 2007 movie, which is by default the best one as well.  What Michael Bay got right in his first film easily was the look of the movie; making a surprisingly gritty take on a Saturday morning cartoon work out beautifully.  For a movie based around such a simple premise, he managed to set the world up effectively, making it believable that giant robots from space could find themselves at war on our planet.  But, by minimizing the emotional development of the characters and the complexity of the plot, Transformers also feels remarkably minor in the grand scheme of things, and no amount of visual scale and scope can hide that.  Pacific Rim on the other hand, presents the global ramifications of it’s world much more effectively.  We see the destruction of the Kaiju and the toll it puts on our heroes; the ones who pilot the giant robot suits called Jaegers.

pacific rim 2

“Now we have a choice here; we either sit and wait, or we take these flare guns and do something really stupid.”

For the most part, Pacific Rim stands ahead of Transformers purely because it treats it audience intelligently, rather than pandering to them.  Guillermo del Toro knows that if he puts conviction behind the silliness of his movie, the audience will feel rewarded for having witnessed a creative experience.  Michael Bay just takes moves from his own playbook, and transplants that into anything he desires.  Michael Bay is a talented director, but directing skills alone doesn’t make a movie watchable.  Anyone can get good at shooting during “magic hour” or capturing different angles of a controlled explosion; but in the end that means little unless it elevates the story.  Michael Bay seems to think that his style can carry any story along, regardless if it’s good or not.  Now, to be fair to the man, it is a plan that has indeed paid off for him over the years.  His movies are huge money-makers and that’s primarily because they are easy to digest action thrillers; simplistic and not challenging to follow.  The casual viewer doesn’t mind what’s lacking in story, and indeed they’re the one’s who drive Bay’s films to huge box-office numbers.  And, even though it’s a rough pill to swallow, Pacific Rim would not exist today if it weren’t for Transformers.  That movie’s success is what got del Toro’s movie green-lit, so really it stands on the foundation that Bay cemented first.  But, after seeing something that delivers the same kind of action, but with a degree of clever creativity behind it like Pacific Rim, we can clearly see that Guillermo del Toro is trying to cook us up a gourmet dinner while Michael Bay is serving us just more Happy Meals.  Bay could honestly do better and has done so too.  When given a better script to work with, he can actually deliver a worthwhile film, like 1996’s The Rock, 2005’s The Island, or even 2013’s Pain and Gain.   Why he can’t put that kind of focus into what is arguably his biggest claim to fame is beyond me.

transformers 1

“At the end of this day, one shall stand, one shall fall.”

Focus is primarily what is lacking all the Transformers movies, even in the less problematic first film.  What is most infuriating is the way that the movies actually push aside the characters that matter most, namely the Transformers themselves, in favor of characters that nobody likes.  This should be problematic for any fans of the original cartoon series, seeing as how their beloved characters have been reduced to supporting characters.  Michael Bay does deserve credit for preserving actor Peter Cullen as the voice of Optimus Prime (something which he’s done from the very beginning), but the fact that he’s sidelined so that we can have more scenes of douchebaggery from the series’ very unlikable protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a big mark against the franchise.  If Sam were a more likable and interesting character, there would be no issue, but given that his presence is so pervasive and in place of character development for the ACTUAL TRANSFORMERS, it’s just another sign of Michael Bay’s lack of focus and concern for what’s best for the series.  Compare that to the characters in Pacific Rim.  They are cliched and simplistic, but are given enough screen time to become sympathetic as well.  Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to force his characters into slap-sticky situations or have them deliver cocky, one-liners.  Letting the characters breathe allows for those things to come through naturally.  That’s why we cheer when Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentacost delivers his rousing speech, even though on paper it sounds ridiculous, as with the intentionally campy scientist characters played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.  Devote attention to the characters in the end, and the audience will warm to them.  Try to force characterizations like Transformers‘ Sam’s unwarranted cockiness, and you’ve got characters worthy of scorn.

Even the lack of focus on the visuals can hurt a movie, and with all the visual flair that Michael Bay can cook up, he still manages to undermine his movie with too much style.  The first film in the Transformers series is a bit more focused than the others, but what I found to be problematic is the frenetic nature of the editing and camera work.  Michael Bay loves to move the camera around, which is fine for a kinetically charged action scene, but problematic for everything else. The animation of the Transformers, in particular, is indeed impressive, with hundreds of individually moving parts.  Unfortunately, any time the movie gets close to showing us all the intricacies of the CG artists hard work, Michael Bay chooses to hide it with some of his stylish film-making.  I don’t understand why he keeps distracting the viewer when it’s not needed.  Did he really not have the confidence in the visual effects team to give them the showcase they were calling for?  It becomes more annoying in the later films, that remarkably feel even less focused despite their longer running times.  Pacific Rim by contrast not only gives the visuals the screen time they deserve, but at times almost indulges us in how impressive they are.  I especially like the way that Guillermo del Toro presents us with scenes devoted entirely to showing off the mighty Jaeger robots.  Early on in the film, we get an almost step-by-step demonstration of the Jaegers in action, which even details how the pilots are able to make the giant contraptions move; grinding gears and all.  It may seem indulgent, but plot wise it’s very worthwhile, because it presents us visually with all we need to know about how this whole world works.  Del Toro also holds the camera still, allowing the audience to understand what is going on even in the big action sequences.  That is ultimately why it’s important to have a focus on your visuals in any given movie.

pacific rim 1

“Fortune favors the brave, dude.”

Overall, it’s unusual to see two movies that follow many of the same visual cues and same cultural influences end up with such different outcomes.  Transformers is a box office phenomenon that at the same time has been blasted by critics and audiences alike.  With Pacific Rim, you have a critical darling that surprisingly had to fight to get barely above $100 million domestic.  And yet, by looking at the two together, you can clearly see how intent and execution really comes to play with each of the different films.  It’s clear that Guillermo del Toro crafted Pacific Rim out of love for the things that he’s parodying.  By contrast, Michael Bay is just exploiting an already established franchise for his own gain.  Not that Michael Bay doesn’t value what he’s creating for the series; he wouldn’t have stuck with it for so long if he wasn’t enjoying the end result.  But, he’s the kind of filmmaker who would take that approach to any other established intellectual property, without regard for what has come before it.  Transformers just so happened to be the franchise that caught his eye at the moment.  And I’m sure it won’t be the last to get the Michael Bay make-over either.  We already saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles become the next victim.  It’s a financial situation that has worked out for Bay, but I think the lack of empathy for the direction of the series has unfortunately left a black mark on both the filmmaker and the Transformers brand.  I’m sure the original creator of Optimus Prime and Megatron never expected to have their brand associated with racially insensitive stereotypes and up-skirt shots of the movie’s female leads.  Transformers is a franchise in desperate need of a new vision, while Pacific Rim is one of infinite potential.  Luckily del Toro’s movie has developed enough of a following to warrant a sequel, which I too am anticipating.  In the end, even when it’s about giant monster fighting robots, substance still triumphs over style.

pacific rim 3

“Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!!”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale

hunger games battle royale

It’s inevitable that sometimes two or more movies are going to be so similar that they’ll raise suspicions from audience members of idea theft.  The Young Adult novel adaptation craze has been the foundation of a current swath of similarly themed movies, and it’s one that currently is being dominated and dictated by the success of the Hunger Games franchise.  Based on the book trilogy by author Suzanne Collins, Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic tale focused on the destinies of a select group of young fighters that are forced into combat for the benefit and amusement of their oppressive political system.  Both the novels and the films have become monumental successes and are continuing to inspire many like-minded franchises based around many of the same themes, like this year’s Divergent  and The Maze Runner.  But, even though The Hunger Games is a standout series, many people have questioned it’s own originality, and have even gone as far as to claim that it was a complete ripoff of another popular story.  That story happens to be the Japanese made Battle Royale series.  Originally created in Manga comic form in 1999, the book quickly inspired a film adaptation that was released in 2000, which also spawned a 2003 sequel.  Battle Royale precedes Hunger Games by nearly a decade, and it’s very clear that there are some strikingly close similarities between the two.  They both depict young people forced into combat by an oppressive government, they both have a central love story between it’s main heroes, and they both show the characters working the system in their favor in order to undermine it.  But, even with all the similarities, did Hunger Games real steal the idea, or did it do enough to differentiate itself from Battle Royale.

A simple argument in Hunger Games favor is that Battle Royale isn’t all that original either.  In fact, the basis for these stories goes back a long way, as themes of oppressive governments and conformity gone horribly wrong has been present in literature and media for centuries.  Just look at George Orwell’s 1984, and you can see the inspirations for much of the Hunger Games visual aesthetic.  Likewise, Battle Royale’s setting on a deserted island far off the Japanese mainland recalls a similar backdrop from the Richard Connell 1924 short-story The Most Dangerous Game, which of course was all about the hunting of human beings.  Other literary inspirations include the 1948 Shirley Jackson short story, The Lottery, which very directly served as an inspiration for both Hunger Games  and Battle Royale.  In The Lottery, a small American town selects one of their youngest citizens at random out of a basket of names to be ritually sacrificed in order for them to have a prosperous harvest season.  Obviously, that random choosing from a lottery of names sounds familiar to any Hunger Games fan out there.  Another influence on these movies could also be the 1982 Stephen King novel The Running Man, which later spawned the 1987 Schwarzenegger headlined film adaptation.  That film not only influenced the human vs. human combat seen in Battle and Games, but it also inspired some of the sharp satire of the media seen in each, to varying degrees.  Suffice to say, both Battle Royale and Hunger Games are following a long line of similarly themed stories, so to say that one is stealing from the other is ignoring the fact that they’re all part of the same trend.  In the end, it’s not about the same ideas but how well they execute them in their individual stories that makes these movies distinct from one another, and as a result, they are much more different than you might think.

hunger games 1

“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

One way in which the two are very different is in terms of scale.  Battle Royale is ambitious, but is also crafted on a modest budget.  Everything takes place in the same location and the visual effects are kept to a minimum.  In some cases, the only effects that Royale actually employs are pyrotechnics and specialty make-up on the actors.  Hunger Games on the other hand has all the visual splendor of a grand scale Hollywood epic.  It’s clear that Hunger Games benefited from a full studio treatment when you see all the work put into the set design, the visual effects, and even the costumes.  The dresses worn by actress Elizabeth Banks as the flamboyant character Effie Trinket probably boasted of a seven figure budget alone.  But, all this works to the different movies’ strengths.  Battle Royale feels very immediate and closer to reality, so a smaller scale helps to make that feel more authentic.  Hunger Games is otherworldly, so it’s got to reflect that by immersing us into sights unseen, and that obviously costs a lot of money in the end.  Overall, it’s the big advantage that Hunger Games has over Battle Royale.  It does a much more effective job at world-building, or to put it more directly, presenting us with the why, where and when of the film’s setting.  With the help of Suzanne Collins novels as the groundwork, we get a better sense of how the titular Games fits within the society, and how the characters’ struggles fit within the larger picture.  Couple this with the fact that Hunger Games also retains it’s own identity because of it’s unique setting and by how well the filmmakers have brought that to life.  Less capable hands may have not brought out the subtlety in the material and would have let the movie’s visuals run amok, but Hunger Games has thankfully transported us while still feeling firmly grounded.

Battle Royale doesn’t have the same amount of time, however, to explain the details of why these events are taking place.  The movie quickly takes us right to beginning of the battle without presenting too much in the way of context.  All we see are a group of 40 teenage students all gathered together in a rundown school on a deserted island where they’re all told that they will be thrown into forced combat with one another.  Any attempt to disobey and try to escape will result in their death and the last survivor will be granted their freedom.  We get just the basic outline of the rules, laid out by the overseer of the Battle, Kitano-sensai (Takeshi Kitano), who represents in a subtle way the embodiment of government oppression that’s forcing this cruel act on these kids.  And it’s this subtlety that works very much to Battle Royale‘s advantage.  It doesn’t waste any time plunging us into this strange new world.  Instead, it lets the audience piece together all the rules and has us discover the intricacies of the plot as they happen.  I particularly like how character details that weren’t apparent before come out in interesting ways as the characters are pitted against one another.  Hunger Games allows character moments to happen as well, but they feel a bit more telegraphed due to the fact that the they’ve been established long before the Games even begin.  When characters are thrown through an ordeal like this, different emotions come out and the characters turn to more animalistic instincts in order to survive.  Battle Royale shows this in a much more interesting way, and I think that’s partially due to the blank slate that we are given with these characters from the beginning.  In this case, the more visceral, small scale approach gave this type of story the edge it needed.

battle royale 2

“Life is a game. So fight for survival and see if you’re worth it.”

The same subtlety also works well with depicting the theme of government oppression.  Both stories do a good job of presenting the competitions as a means of dehumanizing the less fortunate and offering them up as fodder for the upper classes’ amusement.  What I believe Battle Royale achieves to a better degree than Hunger Games is showing the face of that oppressive body on screen.  In Royale, the government body is brilliantly humanized in the form of the character Kitano.  Takeshi Kitano brilliantly portrays the inhuman coldness of an oppressive government through his portrayal of an unforgiving social servant.  Once a school teacher to all the same students forced into competition, Kitano applies the same attitude to this inhuman practice that he would apply in the classroom.  Throughout the film, he is constantly talking down to the kids, as if he was still delivering them a lecture, which is a great subtle way to reinforce the idea of how governments can devalue human life in order to get them to do what they want.  Hunger Games is less subtle with it’s depiction of government oppression, showing the whole fictional land of Panem ruled over by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), a pampered aristocrat who rules with an iron fist from his lofty palaces in the Capitol.  It’s made very apparent from the beginning who the bad guys are in the story, and there’s no sense of any other interesting layers with the antagonists in the Hunger Games; although Sutherland still performs the hell out of the role, and is a joy to watch.  I think the reason the theme of oppression works better in Battle Royale is because of how unexpectedly it comes out of the story.  It’s an added layer to a violent story-line that is very well appreciated.

hunger games 2

“I don’t know how else to put this: Make sure they remember you.”

But, what Hunger Games lacks in one theme it makes up for in another.  One thing that I did appreciate a lot from the story was it’s very shrewd observations on the role of media.  The influence of propaganda is particularly focused on in the story, as is how different parties can manipulate the media to their own advantage.  What I particularly like about this aspect of Hunger Games is that it works both as a subtext to the story and as a functioning element in the growth of the characters.  Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is depicted throughout the story as a the most skilled and resourceful fighter in the entire games, but throughout the story, we also learn her one weakness, and that’s the ability to fit within society’s expectations.  Once she becomes a part of the games, Katniss must not only be a good fighter, but also be beloved by the public as well.  Considering her rebellious attitude, as well as her awkwardness in  front of a camera, this becomes a challenge for her.  And considering that her livelihood inside the games is dependent on her ability to find sponsorship, it becomes a life and death situation as well.  This is a great way to make the theme of propaganda and media manipulation work both as satire and as a plot thread in the story-line.  The film does a great job of skewering the way media works, especially with the absurdity that we find so abundant in reality television.  But, it also helps to define the characters as well.  With it, we see that even Katniss has flaws, and by overcoming them, she’s better able to be a true hero.  This is something that is only hinted at in Battle Royale, and never truly explored or explained.  I’m not even sure the whole event is even televised.  Only a subplot with computer hackers gives us any hints into this kind of theme in the film.  So, it’s definitely a case where Hunger Games presented something very different and interesting.

There is one plot thread that did manage to become a part of both story-lines, and that’s the romantic subplot.  The romantic plots are so similar in fact, that it probably is what has sparked so many claims of plagiarism among many Battle Royale fans.  Both stories find two of the combatants from the same background and social class linked together from early on and bound together to the very end, relying on each other for survival.  And in each story, they are also the last two to survive, subverting the rules of the competition as a result.  In Battle Royale, it is love that bounds the two survivors Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) together, though their relationship is played up in an innocent way.  In The Hunger Games, the love story is more complicated.  Katniss has had one love back home (played by Liam Hemsworth), but during the competition, she finds herself more drawn to her friend and fellow competitor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), whom she relies heavily on for comfort and assistance as the Games grows more deadly.  Though Hunger Games has a love triangle in it’s story-line, it’s the relationship between Katniss and Peeta that drives the heart of the story more, and in that sense, it feels as much the same as Battle Royale.  Both work to varying degrees, but are never the main focus.  I don’t believe that it represents Hunger Games being a copycat in terms of story, however.  Suzanne Collins drew inspiration from a lot of other love stories built around adversity, so the fact that it feels so similar to Battle Royale is just a byproduct of the fact that some themes have universal meaning and usually wind up going towards the same places.

battle royale 1

“What’s wrong with killing?  Everyone’s got their reasons.”

So, with two similarly plotted movies, is it true that one stole from the other.  I think that history has shown that this kind of story has been done many times before, and neither is really as original as either of their fan-bases would claim.  Still, they are close enough to draw comparisons and some of their similarities work better in one over the other.  I do admire the subtext underneath both, showing that they are more than just a collection of brutal action scenes.  But, based on my own personal tastes, I would actually give the edge to Battle Royale over Hunger Games.  Games is a beautifully constructed series of films that does translate the material in a smart and engaging way.  Battle Royale does, however, feel more visceral and it gets away with a lot more.  Hunger Games feels like it’s shackled by the PG-13 rating that is standard for all blockbuster franchises from Hollywood.  Battle Royale, on the other hand, displays everything in full graphic detail.  Whenever a character dies in the movie, you feel the full impact of the horror of the moment, no matter how minor the character is.  Hunger Games feels tamer because so much happens off-screen.  In fact, most of the other combatants in Games remain nameless to us, and are therefore more expendable, as the movie only focuses on the main characters.  That works to The Hunger Games advantage, but for me it didn’t have the same impact.  Battle Royale is a very interesting import from Japanese cinema and presents a very interesting look into their culture.  After all, Government oppression is something that is all too familiar in Japanese history, so it’s not surprising that they would have such a grounded view on the theme.  Hunger Games by contrast plays it safe, and that’s it’s disadvantage.  So in a direct competition between the two like-minded films, it turns out that the odds fall into Battle Royale‘s favor.

battle royale 3

 

Tinseltown Throwdown – Twister vs. Sharknado

twister

There are many cases in Hollywood where films with similar premises arise at the same time; sometimes so identical that they’re hardly distinguishable.  Oftentimes these movies tend to be ridiculous popcorn flicks that more or less are trying to cash in on a fad or a topical event.  Sometimes these movies go into development at the same time and are released within months of each other.  Others are made in response to another’s success, either trying to duplicate the same formula or taking the earlier film even further.  Either way, movies like these are often looked at as the reason why people believe that Hollywood is running out of ideas.  That could be true, but then again, why would somebody put effort into making a movie that they already know has been done before.  I wrote an article about copycat films earlier this year, and in that article I noted that following a trend usually factors into why these movies get made, but what I find interesting here are films that follow similar formulas that seemingly rise out of nowhere.  The blockbuster era of the 90’s saw a lot of this, with disaster movies dominating the cineplexes.   It seemed like at this particular time, studios were sold more on concepts than stories and it ended up starting a race to see who could capitalize on them first.  This particular idea of concepts driving development has led me to create this new series where I take a look at movies with similar scenarios, and decide which one did it better.  In particular, I will take a look at these so-called “cinematic twins,” as well as movie remakes, copycat films riding the coattails of other popular flicks, and movie homages where they copy other films on purpose.  And by contrasting these movies, I will hopefully make it clear how one or both succeeds and/or fails with the premises that they share.

For my first article in this series, I thought I would look at two movies separated by 17 years of film history, but are still deserving of a comparative analysis.  Sticking with the disaster movie genre, I am bringing Jan de Bont’s 1996 thriller Twister and SyFy Network’s 2013 blockbuster Sharknado into the ring, and see which one is the better cyclone-based action film.  Now, on the surface, you may think that these two have nothing in common.  Apart from the lengthy space of time in between their premieres, the movies are also significantly different in scale and production values.  One is a big budget film that features a star-studded cast and top-notch special effects work, while the other movie is a made-for-TV schlock-fest featuring D-List actors and C- grade CGI.  But, the question that I pose is whether or not those differences in film quality make any difference.  Let’s be honest, they are both incredibly flawed films, but does one of these movies actually benefit from it’s flaws, while the other is sunken by them?  Do lowered expectations come into play, or must a movie purely be judged on the quality of it’s production?  I put forth the idea that Twister and Sharknado are very comparable movies, because of the way that they exploit their premise with very little thought for anything else like plot and character development; or science for that matter.  In some ways, that’s what makes them both entertaining to watch.  But what definitely separates these two movies significantly is their tone, and that’s primarily where I will find the strengths and weakness in each.  So, between Twister and Sharknado, who made the better corny Tornado movie?

sharknado

“We can’t just wait here for sharks to rain down on us.”

First of all, we’ve got to exclude comparisons in the quality of the special effects in the two movies, because on that front, Twister clearly would win.  On top of that, Sharknado isn’t even attempting to try to match Twister’s quality of CGI animation, nor would it be allowed to.  The only way that the two films can be comparable here is when it comes to and how they use their production values.  What I find interesting about the way Sharknado uses it’s effects is that every special effect is there to punctuate a moment in a hilarious fashion.  In Twister, the effects are there to create a foreboding atmosphere, something that it does very well.  Honestly, the best thing you can say about Twister is that it actually looks like the characters are really caught up in a storm.  Sharknado on the other hand doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it was shot in the middle of Summer in Los Angeles, with the titular “Sharknado” appearing out of clear blue skies.   But, then again, Sharknado delivers on what it promises, which is the mindless destruction of a famous city.  While it does look cheap as hell, it nevertheless paints a broad picture.  Twister on the other hand, with all it’s endless resources, tends to keep things squarely grounded, and as a result it feels smaller in ambition.  All we get in Twister is a lot of torn up farmland, but not much else.  The only time that Twister really goes a little nutty is towards the end, when Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt’s characters are fleeing the massive F-5 tornado, including a part where they drive their truck straight through a displaced farm house.   By keeping things a little more subdued in the beginning, Twister almost undermines it’s ability to entertain with it’s premise, something that the more outlandish Sharknado takes full advantage of.  So, yeah the sharks in Sharknado look totally artificial, but they’re used to their full potential.  Better looking tornadoes in Twister cost more, so it limits how much they can be used, thereby lessening their impact.

But, restraint can be a blessing.  Those moments when the tornadoes appear in Twister are very impressive, even by today’s visual effects standards.  And by limiting their presence in the film, it also make them stand out and be more impactful.  If only everything in between worked as well.  Twister’s main flaw, above all the other big ones, is that there is no consistency of tone.  It goes from melodramatic to absurd many times over throughout the very thin plot, and sometimes the tonal shifts are jarring.  There’s also a certain uncomfortable grimness through many of the scenes, particularly regarding ones centered around Helen Hunt’s character, Jo.  She has a tragic past that is alluded to frequently, but is never fully explored.   This has actually resulted in some of the movie’s most notorious scenes, like the infamous “finger of god” moment halfway through the film.  The moment’s attempt at sincerity falls flat on it’s face, and ends up being hilarious instead.  But, while a moment like that is remembered fondly for how awful it is, it unfortunately is not true for the rest of the movie.  Twister never cohesively comes together, and is only remembered for parts than as a whole.  Sharknado on the other hand is consistently absurd from beginning to end.  It wears it’s preposterous-ness proudly and manages to carry it through to the end.  But in many ways, that can also work as a negative.  At some point, when your film is consistently ridiculous, the humor can run it’s course and start to feel old.  To it’s credit, unlike so many other SyFy films, Sharknado doesn’t lag too much.  But there comes a point where you begin to get tired of those long scenes inside the getaway truck with inconsequential dialogue between characters .  There is a balance that these kinds of movies have to adhere to in order to keep them from going to either extreme, but when comparing these two films together, it seems like Sharknado benefits a little more by going further in one particular direction.

twister cow

“I gotta go Julia.  We’ve got cows.”

What ultimately determines what makes one of these ridiculous movies better than the other is the intent vs. result factor.  Did each film do what it was meant to do ends up being the defining question, and in this case, the results work more in Sharknado’s favor.  Sharknado was conceived from the very beginning to be exactly what it is; low-budget cheese meant to exploit an already ridiculous premise.  And in every respect, it fulfills that promise.  Lowered expectations makes the shoddy production values acceptable for audiences wanting just that, and Sharknado never disappoints by always disappointing.  Twister on the other hand is trying to reach higher aspirations, but the results don’t reflect that.  Twister was never intended to be seen as a joke, but rather a sincere look at the destructive effects of tornadoes in America.  The fact that it fails at this so measurably is what has made it noteworthy, but it also makes the film much more notorious.   Sharknado actually encourages it’s audience to laugh along with it, but when you laugh at Twister, you can’t help but think that it’s at the expense of someone else’s serious intent, deserved or not.   Twister is exceptionally well made, but because it failed in the story and script department ultimately makes it seen as a failure with regards to making it’s premise work.  Sharknado accomplished it’s goal of giving us a tornado filled with sharks along with intentionally bad acting and dialogue, and that was a result worth rewarding.  Sometimes it helps to step back and embrace the absurdity whole-heartedly.

And again, the tone shifts matter with this distinction.  There are instances in Twister where the film does deliver some memorably absurd moments.  They had cows flying in tornadoes long before there were sharks.  But, whenever the love triangle story-line works it’s way in, the story derails.  And what’s more, the movie tries to make it’s science seem logical, when any meteorologist will tell you that it’s complete nonsense.   Whenever the movie tries to sell itself as thought provoking when it’s obviously based off of junk science, that’s when you begin to question it’s validity as a whole.  Sharknado on the other hand so obviously doesn’t care about scientific accuracy, and it actually makes the absurdity of the movie all the more enjoyable.  The character’s big plan for stopping the “Sharknadoes” in the movie is to drop explosives into the vortexes and blow them up.  That idea is so ridiculously stupid that it’s genius, on the part of the writer I mean.  What better way to end a movie with this ridiculous a premise than by having the characters take on the most absurd actions possible.  At least the filmmakers had the good sense to make it purposefully dumb.  When Twister tries to make the implausible happen in their movie, we can’t just turn our brains off and accept it, because the movie’s tone hasn’t allowed us too.  When Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt survive a tornado’s path of destruction by strapping themselves to a pipe near the movie’s end, we don’t know whether to accept that as a believable conclusion or to laugh at it’s preposterous-ness, because the movie never makes the tone clear.   With Shaknado, madness is it’s ultimate purpose, while there never seems to be any purpose in Twister other than to get the plot where it needs to go.

sharknado chainsaw

The reason why I feel that these two movies should be judged against one another is because it shows how Hollywood movies ultimately rise and fall in unexpected ways.  Here we see a big budget blockbuster fail to make good on it’s premise despite having all the resources available to do so, while another film gets made on a shoe-string budget with very little expectations and delivers on what it promises.  In the end, both movies are absurd disaster flicks that end up being more stupid than thought-provoking.  But what makes one better than the other is that one movie was made that way on purpose, while the other squandered it’s potential.  It’s amazing that a movie with wooden performances from the likes of Ian Ziering and Tara Reid could be more entertaining than a film with future Oscar-winners like Helen Hunt and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in it’s cast.  But then again, Twister is a movie where Hoffman is reduced to saying the phrase, “I’m talking imminent rueage.”  Twister hopes that people will excuse it’s lack of subtlety while Sharknado draws attention right to it, and that ultimately makes it feel like a more honest film.   The independent film market can be full of itself sometimes, but so can blockbuster movies, and that’s why I cherish the ridiculousness of Sharknado, because it shows that movies like Twister can never be taken seriously or should.   Yes the conditions for each film’s productions are different, but in the end, they are not that dissimilar, and that’s a result of Sharknado‘s success and Twister’s failure.  So, in the end, Sharknado stands as the better movie, thanks to a consistent tone and a knowing sense of humor.  Twister has it’s moments, but it hasn’t aged well over the years, and considering that a made-for-TV monster movie has done the tornado disaster premise better (and with sharks no less), it doesn’t reflect well on the studio movie-making machine.