Category Archives: What the Hell Was That?

What the Hell Was That? – Les Miserables (2012)

Movie musicals can be very much a coin flip at the box office.  Many times some of the biggest flops in Hollywood history have been stage to screen adaptations, while at other times they have been a box office savior.  We’ve seen cases where a musical gone wrong can destroy a filmmakers reputation, like how Gene Kelley stopped directing after the disastrous production of Hello Dolly (1969).  But then you have The Sound of Music (1965), which helped to pull 20th Century Fox out of the financial hole they dug for themselves after the loses from Cleopatra (1963).  A lot of the time, movie musicals are susceptible to the ebbs and flows of audience tastes more than any other genre in film-making.  For the longest time, movie musicals had been considered box office poison after the late 60’s crash in the genre, and it wouldn’t be until the new millennium when it would start to come back in a big way.  The return of musicals came about with the box office and awards success of both Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002), with the latter earning a Best Picture win at the Oscars, the first since 1968’s Oliver.  This sudden renewed interest in the genre stirred Hollywood to look to Broadway once again for musicals that were ripe for adaptation.  Even as Hollywood had abandoned the musical for decades, Broadway was in it’s heyday, churning out mega-hit shows that became famous the world over, without ever needing to make the jump to the big screen like they had in Hollywood before.  Once it became profitable to make movie musicals again, the floodgates were finally opened up to get these popular stage musicals translated to the big screen.  But, as we’ve seen many times before, what played well on the stage may not necessarily translate the same way on film.  The quarter century has seen a few Broadway shows successfully get the big screen treatment, including the aforementioned Chicago, as well as Dreamgirls (2006) and Sweeny Todd; The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).  But at the same time, we’ve also seen many examples of musicals that fall flat when they make the jump to cinema.

Perhaps one of the harshest falls from stage to screen is the long anticipated 2012 translation of the musical Les MiserablesLes Miserables should have been a no-brainer adaptation for a movie musical.  The source material is one of the most famous works of literature, the 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, which on it’s own has spawned numerous non-musical film adaptations.  It was translated into a musical in France by the team of lyricist Herber Kretzmer and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, before eventually being picked up by musical theater mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh for the London West End, and then eventually on it’s way to Broadway.  Once it made it’s way to the Great White Way, it became a smash hit, eventually running continuously for over 16 years, plus numerous revivals.  It’s also got one of the most profitable touring productions in musical history, having been seen by audiences all over the world.  So, why did it take nearly 30 years for there to be a movie adaptation for this legendary Broadway show?  It wasn’t for the lack of trying.  The musical languished in development hell for decades, being passed around from studio to studio and through a slew of interested directors, including Alan Parker and Bruce Beresford.  What caused so many pauses in development was due to struggle to fill the extensive ensemble with the right actors.  Cameron Mackintosh, who was in charge of the movie rights, wanted the musical to feature a cast worthy of the epic material.  But considering the fact that movie stars and Broadway performers don’t always align given the different kinds of disciplines, it was difficult to get a cast of actors who could do justice to the material and bring in the box office appeal as well.  It also mattered who was going to be behind the camera as well.  It took a while, but the musical eventually got the momentum it needed thanks to the renewed popularity of the genre in the 2000’s.  But, once cameras got rolling, the dreams of a perfect translation to the screen would ultimately prove fleeting.

One of the most baffling decisions in the film’s development was in giving the directorial reigns to Tom Hooper; a filmmaker with no background in music whatsoever.  Hooper had made a name for himself as a television director, first on the BBC and then eventually on HBO, with acclaimed mini-series like Elizabeth I (2005) and John Adams (2008).  He won accolades for his cinematic debut The Damned United (2009), but it was his follow-up that would truly put him on the map in Hollywood.  The King’s Speech (2010) became a surprise powerhouse during it’s awards season run, and would eventually take home Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as a surprise Best Director win for Hooper.  With his Oscar darling now on his resume, Hooper was prime to take on any prestige project he wanted.  And at this time, the team in charge of the current development for Les Miz was looking for their director.  Hooper, for all accounts, is a competent director.  He delivers his movies and TV episodes on time and up to that point on budget.  Given that he had this workman quality about him, it seemed to the producers that he might be a good choice to undertake this grandiose project, given that he had the prestige without the baggage.  But, despite having some critical success, nothing about his background would tell you that he could make a musical.  Hooper’s style is very grounded in reality, which has made him a success at directing historical dramas, because of his ability to capture the look and feel of a bygone time period.  You could say that would work for a strait forward adaptation of Les Miserables, akin closer to the source novel.  But he was being assigned to that kind of movie; he was going to be making a musical.  And musicals are far from grounded.  By the very nature of characters breaking out into song musicals exist in this kind of heightened reality.  And as a result, you can’t just film it like another period drama.  That is where the fault in the hiring of Tom Hooper lies; he was a wrong fit for the material.

The big problem with Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables is that it feels small.  On the stage, the musical takes on this operatic magnitude, with the actors signing to the rafters and set design, as abstract as it may be in some productions, evoking the grandeur of the story it is telling.  Now, you can see that plenty of money was spent on the production.  There are lavish sets built to replicate France in the 1820’s and the costume design is period accurate as well, and owing very much to the inspiration of the original musical and the original book illustrations.  But, Hooper never gives us a good look at any of it.  His camera is held in tight on his actors, shot low and handheld like he was making a documentary.  It may be that he is trying to give the movie a visceral feel by putting the audience in the middle of the action, but it robs the story as well as the musical numbers of their impact.  Movie musicals should have a grandiosity to them, as by their nature they are meant to be spectacles.  That’s why musical numbers are often referred to as show stopping moments, because they stand on their own as big showpieces.  Hooper doesn’t seem to get that, and all of his musical numbers are filmed in this same actor focused way.  That may well work for one or two numbers to help set them apart.  Many have praised the one-shot take of the iconic “I’ve Dreamed a Dream” number within the film, but that song would have had an even bigger impact if it didn’t look like every other song in the movie.  The best movie musicals make all their songs feel distinct, with different stylistic choices used to set them apart.  But, Hooper’s direction doesn’t give the songs a chance to stand out.  And the lavish set pieces just kind of blend into the background as the actors are focused on with all their close-ups.  Most of the movie is really demanding wide angle shots, allowing the audience to see how epic this story really is.  The most absurd missed opportunity is with how the barricades are visualized.  Once one of the most mind-blowing set pieces on the Broadway stage just feels puny and insignificant when realized in the movie.  The barricades should feel imposing and instead it looks like it could come crashing down without much effort.  It’s a perfect example of how much Hooper missed the mark in bringing the musical to the big screen.

Of course, another make or break element of any movie musical is the effectiveness of the ensemble cast.  Les Miserables is not a musical that you should casually fill with any movie star.  The roles are demanding and require actors with powerful voices to carry the complex tunes.  For the movie, the casting in general is a mixed bag.  In some cases they found the right actors; mainly the ones they pulled right off the Broadway stage like Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Eponine.  But these are usually the ones who have the minor roles.  The headliners are in general more hit and miss, with one in particular being a big miss.  One thing that does the actors a disservice in the film is Tom Hooper’s insistence on live recordings of each song.  Musical films are typically not filmed that way, as songs are usually per-recorded by the actors beforehand and they are played back on set so that actors can focus on their performance without having to concentrate on their singing.  Once again, it points out Hooper’s lack of experience when it comes to filming musical numbers, so the actors’ performances feel constrained as they are having to both act and focus on their singing.  It’s doable, but it also works against the way the songs sound in the end.  This is very much evident with actors like Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette.  Sure they are capable of singing, but the pressure to get the melody right often causes their performances to feel flat.  The only one who seems to rise above this limitation is Anne Hathaway in the role of Fatine.  This is one of the most demanding roles in all of musical theater, and she seems very aware of that and took it as a personal challenge.  Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was filmed in a single unbroken shot, and with the fact that it was a live recording as well, it mattered that she get it right.  It probably took a number of takes, but they got what they wanted out of her performance and she has the Oscar win today to show for it.  But in general, the pressure of recording the song live stifles the actor’s ability to improvise, as what they sing will also be what’s given over to the soundtrack.  It may work when the actor feels they do their best singing on set, like Rex Harrison wearing a hidden microphone in his tie during the making of My Fair Lady (1964),  but to impose that on the whole cast is putting up an unnecessary barrier for their style of performance.

And then you have the cases of actors who are just not right for the roles.  Unfortunately for this version of Les Miserables, the worst choices in casting were the two leading stars.  First off, there’s Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  Jackman is undoubtedly one of the most talented musical performers the world has seen in quite sometime.  He already had numerous runs headlining on Broadway leading up to being cast in this film, which gave a lot of people confidence that he was going to shine in this film as well.  But here’s the thing, Jean Valjean is not the kind of role that plays to his strengths.  Jackman is at his best when he’s a song and dance man, showing off his physicality just as much as his vocal range.  Jean Valjean does not give him as much to work with other than just standing and singing.  And the kind of singing is also a bit out of range as well.  Hugh’s typically a baritone, but the role of Jean Valjean requires a tenor, so when you hear him try to sing these songs, you can really hear the strain in Hugh’s voice.  You’ve got to give him the credit for trying, but it might have served the movie better if they could’ve given the role to a more natural sounding tenor.  Overall, Hugh Jackman just feels miscast and that the performance just does not use his skills as a musical performer to their fullest.  But his misplacement in this film is nothing compared to Russell Crowe in the role of Inspector Javert.  Javert is one of the most coveted roles in musical theater, with some of the most powerful songs in the entire musical.  So, why did the filmmakers think that Russell Crowe was the guy for the part.  He doesn’t have the bass-baritone range required for the character and his only musical experience is having his own rock band.  This was clearly a case where the studio wanted a well known name in the part, and the Oscar-winning Gladiator star fit the bill.  His performance is the thing that is pretty much universally panned across the board with this movie; even amongst the film’s defenders.  He’s the one actor where the live recordings did an especially big disservice, as he just sounds like a high school drama student trying too hard to hit every precise note.  It’s embarrassingly stilted performance where you’re aware of every sour note Crowe delivers.

While the performances themselves have many unfortunate limitations, there’s inherent problems within the musical itself that pretty much makes a translation to the big screen impossible.  Les Miserables is different from a lot of other Broadway musicals in that it’s not a heavily choreographed show.  For the most part, Les Miz is noteworthy for it’s actors not doing acrobatic, intricate dances on stage, but rather for standing still in the glow of spotlight and singing.  With the right light design and an actor capable of singing to the rafters, you can make that compelling on stage.  But, translating that to the screen just creates too much stillness.  There isn’t a whole lot of physicality in the film, just a lot of actors standing in a room and singing.  And that just makes a film like this boring.  There’s no spotlight to draw the audiences eye.  Again, Hooper’s docu drama like approach just makes every shot look exactly the same, so these songs that are supposed to be emotionally wrenching just are not.  That in the end is the most glaring failure of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables; it a crushing bore.  And the failure is all the more crushing because you could see how this movie could’ve been great.  It’s based on one of the all time most celebrated musicals, adapted from one of the great books of western literature.  It has an all-star cast with actors who do have the ability to sing (mostly), and it clearly had a lot of money put into the production.  To me, the movie musicals that have a lot going for it and end up squandering it all are the worst kind of musicals.  Even among other bad musicals this one really falls below the standard.  In all honesty, I would rather re-watch another disastrous movie musical directed by Tom Hooper named Cats (2019) over this one any time.  Don’t get me wrong, Cats is an absolute disaster as well, and on the surface much worse in every way compared to Les Miz.  But, it’s also never boring.  Part of the appeal for some with the movie Cats is the train-wreck aspect of it all, and it shockingly has gained a bit of a reputation as a camp classic.  The same cannot be said about Les Miz, which is just a depressing experience that is not worth revisiting.

My hope is that this is not the definitive movie version of this musical.  Maybe someday we might see another filmmaker come in and try to do justice to the material.  This musical definitely demands a grander scope to it; something like the grand 70mm musicals of the mid-century Hollywood period, and not the flattened down version that we got here.  In general, what hurts the movie the most is the wasted efforts of all involved.  Tom Hooper is clearly out of his element here, and is far better suited for simple, elegant historical dramas, like the movie that was his follow-up, The Danish Girl (2015).  Of course, Hooper did make the mistake of going back to musicals with Cats, but that production strangely showed some growth in him as well as it didn’t have the same boring aesthetic that he gave Les Miz.  The problems with Cats extended well beyond Hooper’s direction, so he’s not the reason that it failed as much as he was the problem with this movie.  Overall, Les Miserables is just a poorly staged production, with uninspired musical numbers, awkward performances, and no sense of the enormity of the story it is trying to tell.  To be frank, I do know that my feelings about the movie are not shared by the whole of the critical community.  The movie in general did receive a lukewarm reception from critics, and it was a box office success, and did walk away with some Oscar gold.  But, over the years, it also has lost a lot of it’s luster.  No body celebrates it as one of the all time great movie musicals, and the only times it is discussed is with the things that people remember hating about it, particularly the whole Russell Crowe of it all.  For critics like me, it’s the missed opportunity that hurts the most.  It should have been great and instead it’s less than average.  All the performers in this movie have thankfully gone on to bigger and better things.  Hugh Jackman just finished an acclaimed run on Broadway in a Music Man revival, and his co-star Eddie Redmayne just began one for Cabaret.  Russell Crowe thankfully has kept his singing career off the screen and on the stage with his band.  And the genre of the musical still thrives and has seen better adaptations over the years; and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down with something like Wicked on the horizon.  For experiencing the musical Les Miserables, you’re still better off catching it on the stage, because for once the big screen turned out too be too small.

What the Hell Was That? – The Haunted Mansion (2003)

To theme park enthusiasts around the world, the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland is considered hallowed ground.  The ride that opened at the Anaheim, California based theme park in the summer of 1969, and subsequently has spawned re-constructions of the same ride at Disney parks in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris, is to many the pinnacle of ride engineering and theming.  The ride system itself that propels guests through the attraction was cutting edge at the time; taking a conveyer line assembly of ride vehicles called Omnimovers (or Doombuggies in this case) and stringing them together in a continuous loop through the show building.  But what made the Haunted Mansion stand out even more was the incredibly detailed theming throughout.  Haunted house are commonplace in most amusement parks, but Walt Disney wanted to take the concept and do something special with it.  He assembled his best “Imagineers” together to create a ride through attraction that used every trick in the book to immerse his guests in the experience.  The team used old magicians tricks like “peppers ghost” reflections and endless hallway mirror effects and combined them with newer effects like the recently developed Audio-Animatronic technology.  Haunted Mansion was developed as part of the New Orleans Square expansion at Disneyland, along with another landmark attraction called Pirates of the Caribbean.  And while many guests were wowed by the effects and theming of the attraction, they were also intrigued by the mystery of the Mansion itself.  Before it opened, a sign on the outside gate promised that the estate would be home to 999 “happy haunts” but they also have room for one more.  Unlike any theme park attraction built before, even the nearby Pirates, Haunted Mansion had it’s own built in lore.

There was a story to the Haunted Mansion, which made it much more than just a ride.  The 999 happy haunts were not just some random specters; they had names and a backstory.  There’s the foreboding voice of the Ghost Host (performed by the legendary voice actor Paul Frees) that follows visitors throughout the ride; Madame Leota, the fortune teller trapped within her own crystal ball; the Bride who lurks alone in the attic; the Singing Busts that serenade your visit to the cemetery; the Hitchhiking Ghosts who follow you through the finale; and Little Leota who beckons you to “hurry baaack.”  These were original characters that were found solely within the ride itself, and over time, they became just as famous within Disneyland as Mickey Mouse himself.  Haunted Mansion revolutionized the idea of storytelling within a theme park attraction, and it would prove to be a forbearer for many attractions thereafter, both for Disney and elsewhere.  Over the years, the lore of theme park attractions grew to a point where Disney felt confident that they could adapt them into theatrical films.  The idea would be risky, because even though a ride like the Haunted Mansion has a story buried within it, it’s also not a linear narrative that could easily translate into a film.  Disney initially tried to play it safe by giving their first theme park to movie translation project over to an adaptation of the Country Bear Jamboree.  The Country Bears (2002) naturally didn’t light up the box office, but it also wasn’t a huge financial risk either.  The bigger challenge would be in adapting the more ambitious Pirates of the Caribbean to the big screen.  And while many thought Disney was crazy to spend a fortune on a movie based on a ride, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ended up being a massive hit, launching it’s own billion dollar franchise in the process.  With Pirates managing to succeed at bringing the experience of a ride to the big screen, it seemed only natural to select The Haunted Mansion as the next attraction to receive the movie treatment, given it’s already well known lore amongst the fans.  Unfortunately, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion would not be a repeat of that success.

On paper, it all looked like things were perfectly aligned for The Haunted Mansion.  Pirates of the Caribbean had proven the concept of turning a ride into a movie successful, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits at the box office.  There was a lot of crossover appeal for theme park fans, as both Haunted Mansion and Pirates have this shared history within the park and close proximity at Disneyland in particular.  There was all this built in lore that many fans of the ride couldn’t wait to see on the big screen for the first time.  Not only that, but the film was going to be directed by one of the talents behind The Lion King (1994), which was the studio’s biggest it at the time.  And it would star one of the biggest box office names in Hollywood.  However, once we found out who that star was, it likely became the first sign for many of what would ultimately go wrong for the film.  The Haunted Mansion had none of the creative spark that was found in Pirates of the Caribbean.  The Pirates movie made the smart move to become it’s own adventure tied to it’s own lore, with only brief little nods to the ride for fun.  It was less of an adaptation of a ride, and more of an original adventure piggybacking on a familiar name.  The Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, feels nothing like an adaptation, or a salute to the ride.  It just borrows the veneer of the well known ride and lays it over a lazily written, cliched family comedy.  There’s none of the rich lore in the film; it’s just a vehicle to showcase a bunch of ride highlights, without any context to their importance.  Sure, following in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean was always going to be a challenge, but it is very clear that one film was delivered with a lot of thought and care put into it’s presentation, while the other was just meant to be there as a product.

Fundamentally, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it doesn’t seem to really care about the ride it’s based on.  Tonally it misses the mark entirely.  Walt Disney envisioned the ride to be a place that felt spooky but never terrifying for the guests.  This is perfectly illustrated through the progression of the ride, where the experience begins with it’s scariest moment.  In an incredible effect that still wows to this day, guests enter a disguised freight elevator that is made to look like a portrait room.  As the elevator descends, the room gives the effect that it is stretching, visualized through the unraveling of the portraits “hanging” on the walls.  Once the room reaches the bottom level, the Ghost Host tells us how he managed to escape the room.  The lights suddenly go out, a flash of lightning draws our eyes up, and a hanging corpse can be seen dangling above us.  This is the scariest the attraction ever gets, and it’s right at the beginning.  Things remain spooky for the first part of the ride, heading down dimly lit hallways, but the Ghost Host says that the spirts are feeling our “sympathetic vibrations” and decide to materialize before us to make us feel more welcome.  From then on, going through a magnificent ballroom and then out to the cemetery, the atmosphere is festive, as the ghosts have their “swingin’ wake.”  Not surprisingly, The Haunted Mansion movie doesn’t have anything remotely scary about it, and any attempt at it just feels forced and clumsy.  The scariest part of the attraction, the Stretching Room, doesn’t even show up at all in the movie, though the opening prologue does show the origin of the hangman.  It’s very apparent that Disney intended this movie to never go beyond PG in terms of scares, which just defeats the whole purpose of translating the experience of the ride into the movie.  That’s why the movie leans far more into the comedy than the scares, because it’s just easy to play safe and within the bounds of the Disney brand that way.  But, as the movie shows, they couldn’t even make the comedy work that well either.

The most apparent problem with the movie is that it just feels like an easy paycheck vehicle for it’s star; Eddie Murphy.  Murphy is just a bad fit for this kind of movie.  I understand why Disney pursued him for the role.  Eddie was coming off of a career high point in the late 1990’s with the mega-successful remake of The Nutty Professor (1996), and he followed that up with well received roles in Dr. Doolittle (1998) and Bowfinger (1999), as well as successful vocal performances as Mushu in Mulan (1998) and as Donkey in Shrek (2001).  Disney certainly believed that having his name on the marquee would be a huge advantage for the film.  But, the style of Haunted Mansion the ride doesn’t fit well with the style of comedy that Eddie Murphy excels at.  Murphy has always been at his best when he’s a wisecracking jokester, like in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, or as a fully immersed, over-the-top character like he did as the entire Klump family in The Nutty ProfessorThe Haunted Mansion gives him neither to work with.  Here he’s just an over-worked Dad whose takes his family to the Mansion as a prospective real estate acquisition.  Eddie Murphy’s trademark wisecracks just butts up against the tone that needs to be set for the movie to be like the ride.  Every time the movie attempts to be spooky, you can always count on Eddie to deflate the moment with a poor attempt at a joke.  It’s this clash that proves to be the most frustrating, because we all know how funny Eddie Murphy can be when he’s in his element, and how atmospheric the Haunted Mansion can be when it’s allowed to build it’s presence.  The movie is trying to shoehorn the aesthetic of the Haunted Mansion, with all of it’s iconography and rich lore, into what is essentially a pale imitation of an Eddie Murphy family comedy.  And you can tell that Eddie’s heart is not in it.  Half of his performance is just going wide-eyed when he sees something scary, or delivering an over-the-top scream.  Not a single funny beat lands, and it’s pretty embarrassing to watch so much talent be wasted.

Eddie Murphy is not the only miscast part of this movie.  There is the completely non-sensical choice of casting actress Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota.  Like Eddie Murphy, Tilly can be quite good in a role that best fits her talents.  But, she is definitely a bad fit for a role like Madame Leota.  Leota is perhaps the character best remembered from the original ride; the disembodied head within a crystal ball.  Apart from the iconic structure itself, Madame Leota is the most visible element of the ride seen in most of the theme park marketing for the attraction.  Apart from her appearance, it’s her ethereal voice that also makes her stand out, delivered by the legendary Elanor Audley, a voice actress responsible for not one but two of Disney’s most iconic villainesses;  Lady Tremaine in Cinderella (1950) and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Jennifer Tilly’s high pitched, shrill voice just doesn’t sound right at all, and her appearance also makes Leota feel too young.  Leota should be this seasoned, old veteran and Ms. Tilly just sounds very amateurish and not at all ethereal like the character should be.  The rest of the cast also feels either too wacky or too wooden.  There’s a ghost footman and ghost maid played by Wallace Shawn and Dina Spybey-Waters that again tries to force out comedy in the film that just falls flat.  The movie even forces an “inconceivable” out of Wallace Shawn that just feels desperate.  Nathaniel Parker’s performance as the ghostly owner of the Mansion, Master Gracey, is unremarkable, as are the performances of the members of Eddie Murphy’s character’s family. The only passable performance is from Terrence Stamp as the villainous butler Ramsley.  His performance is almost the right amount of camp spookiness that feels right at home with the tone that the Haunted Mansion is supposed to set.

One of the other big problems from this movie is that it just feels so bland.  Director Rob Minkoff just takes this very flavorless approach to the filming of this movie.  You could argue that he’s a filmmaker more comfortable in the realm of animation, which is where he got his start at the Disney Studio.  But, The Haunted Mansion was not his debut as a live action filmmaker.  Just a few years prior, he had directed Stuart Little (1999) and it’s 2002 sequel.  He had already proven himself as a live action director, but like with Eddie Murphy, he was also a bad fit for this material.  He approached The Haunted Mansion like it was one of the same kids movies he had worked on before.  There is no sense of the foreboding atmosphere that the Haunted Mansion should have in this movie.  The film has this glossy, effects heavy feel to it that makes the film feel more cartoonish than eerie.  Albeit, there’s some interesting production design elements that’s attempting to make this mansion look unique and not just a carbon copy of the ride, and it features some great camera work from Award-winning cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth, Band of Brothers).  But the movie as a whole has no creative drive to make all of those elements come together.  Pirates of the Caribbean worked out because it felt like a lived in world where the characters were interesting and the adventure carried some heavy stakes.  It didn’t have to rely upon a viewers’ familiarity with the ride; though it did reward you with some well placed Easter eggs.  In The Haunted Mansion, the story and the characters lack any identity, which just makes the inclusion of the elements from the ride feel all the more unremarkable.  We see familiar things throughout like the ballroom dancers, or the Hitchhiking Ghosts, or a memorable line here and there, and none of it carries any weight because the movie around it lacks anything worthwhile.  The movie needed a vision behind it that was invested in doing justice to the atmosphere of the ride.  The Pirates films had Gore Verbinski, who had a vision that perfectly matched the assignment.  Rob Minkoff just feels like a hired hand who was just there to get the movie across the finish line.  There was at one time a version of this movie that was put into development with Guillermo Del Toro involved.  Sadly, nothing came of that movie, and it has since become one of those great “what if’s” in cinema history.

Disney did eventually return to the Haunted Mansion 20 years later with a second attempt at bringing the ride and it’s lore to the big screen.  Emboldened by the success of the Jungle Cruise (2021) movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, which grossed a respectable $100 million in a pandemic affected box office, Disney felt they could do right by the attraction with a new, more focused adaptation.  Director Justin Simien, who once worked as a Disneyland cast member, seemed to be far more invested in getting a Haunted Mansion movie right, and the end result is a marked improvement over the failed Eddie Murphy version.  Unfortunately Disney mishandled it’s release, choosing to put it out in July against tough competition like Barbie (2023), instead of saving it for a more appropriate Fall release in time for the Halloween season.  Unfortunately, the newer Haunted Mansion failed to do any better at the box office than it’s 2003 predecessor, though it is vastly better in pretty much every way.  I’d say that the one good thing about the failure of the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion is that it became quickly forgotten after it’s doomed release.  Because the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were so popular, it ended up pushing Disney into making changes to the original ride much to the objections of Disneyland fans.  The Pirates ride now has to reference the movies it inspired, with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow now shoehorned into scenes throughout the ride.  Thankfully, the Haunted Mansion remains untouched.  Can you imagine how bad a change it would be if they had Jennifer Tilly’s face in Madame Leota’s crystal ball (which Disney did seriously consider, before the movie tanked)?  And ultimately that’s the one saving grace about the movie, is that it is so forgettable that it doesn’t reflect poorly on the ride that inspired it.  The Haunted Mansion ride is still a timeless classic that remains just as popular as it has ever been, and the failed Eddie Murphy adaptation is just a footnote in it’s storied history.  Between the two adaptations, you are better off seeing the flawed but still more respectable recent Haunted Mansion (2023), which does a more valiant job of trying to capture the atmosphere of the ride.  It’s a deserving watch in this spooky time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight.

What the Hell Was That? – The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003)

Cinema right now is being driven by a creative indulgence in expressing a vast knowledge of other media with the stories we are telling now.  Movies today are playing to an audience that is very much savvy about existing canons and continuing storylines across multiple stand alone projects, something that has definitely been driven by the rise of comic book movies in the last decade.  What were once Easter eggs in movies have now become seeds for future narratives, with even the most obscure of references blossoming into feature attractions.  Certainly Marvel Studios and their cinematic universe has executed this kind of long form storytelling to it’s fullest potential, creating the most successful franchise in movie history.  But the same kind of connected universe storytelling extends into even more surprising places in our current cinematic environment.  Recently christened Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), also plays upon the pop culture knowledge of it’s audience to imagine different creative universes within it’s multi-versal story that includes references to the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007).  But while cinema is only just now beginning to dive into this craze of combining universes together, the same thing has already been going on for decades in the comic books.  Not only have Marvel Comics and DC Comics been bringing their vast collections of characters together in event comics centered around the Avengers and Justice League teams respectively, but the two rivals have come together a number of times and had cross-over comics where their respective heroes and villains join forces.  Imagine what that would look like on the big screen.  But, what works on the comic book page doesn’t necessarily work all the time in movies.  Often when you are pulling multiple different characters together, all of whom are the centerpiece of their own stories, you also have to bring in the baggage of their continuing narratives as well, and it can sometimes make the story a tad bit messy.  There was a case back in the early 2000’s where Hollywood did try to create a shared universe super team, based on another comic book as it so happens, and it not only bombed, but it nearly killed the comic book movie genre in general and ended the careers of several industry veterans as a result.

That infamous movie was the 2003 adaptation of the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The movie was based on a series of comic books written by the legendary Alan Moore.  Moore is an interesting figure within the comic book industry.  As a writer, he is often critical of the conventions of comic book storytelling while at the same time participating in that same medium.  His work often subverts the tropes of comic book stories, like his most famous work Watchman, which deconstructs super heroes and their place in society.  His work has been so well received by the comic book community over the years that even big publishers have given him the chance of writing stories for their most iconic characters.  And, he has taken those opportunities to craft some of the best storylines in comic book history as a result.  Working primarily with DC Comics, he is responsible for one of the greatest Batman stories, The Killing Joke, and one of the best Superman stories, For the Man Who Has Everything.  But perhaps his most divisive work has been one that has deconstructed the idea of super teams like the Avengers and the Justice League, which is The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The league in question is not team up of various comic book heroes, but is instead a collection of characters from literary sources of all eras.  This is a comic book series where Captain Nemo teams up with Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man, and several other characters from famous literary works, forming yet another society of heroes to take on evil forces, which again, are also from various works of literature.  While this does seem like a fun idea for a comic book series, in Alan Moore’s hands, it is anything but that.  The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is very much a subversive novel, and definitely not for kids, as graphic violence and sexual situations are litter very liberally throughout the pages of the comic book.  At the same time, Moore is deconstructing the meaning of these classic characters, with a critical eye for how literary canons have shaped society in general.  Of course, the series that Alan Moore envisioned with his take on super hero team-ups doesn’t exactly lend itself generously to cinematic adaptation, but that didn’t stop Hollywood.

The early 2000’s was an interesting time for comic book movies.  On  the one hand, you could see a falling out with audiences who had seen the genre fall flat on it’s face due to ridiculous commercialized fair like DC’s Batman and Robin (1997).  At the same time, we were also seeing the emergence of more mature movie adaptations that would go on to influence what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would eventually become, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000).  In the midst of this came the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s first two volumes of his League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  20th Century Fox held the rights to the comic book series, which Moore had published independently through ABC Comics, and they were intending to turn it into it’s own franchise to compete with the likes of the DC’s and the Marvel’s (though Fox was also stewards of the X-Men and Fantastic Four as well).  Though the movie does retain the core concept of Moore’s comic book series as well as some of the core characters that make u up the team, the similarities end there.  The film just fall into the same stock action tropes of every other other comic book movie at the time and leaves out the sharp witted commentary of Alan Moore’s writing.  It basically betrays what Alan Moore intended by becoming the very thing that it was meant to critique.  But that’s not exactly new for comic book movie adaptations.  And it is not the worst thing about the movie either.  It was obvious that Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman would be Hollywood-ized to oblivion, but the way it was makes it even more of a colossal failure than anyone would’ve expected.

It is very clear from the get go that the movie League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses way too much on trying to appear cool without ever earning it.  The term that is most used to describe the style of this movie is Dieselpunk, which is retro-futuristic.  Think the image of the future that was imagined in the early 20th century, with diesel-based locomotion being the basis for aesthetics in everything from architecture to apparel, much like it’s spiritual cousin Steampunk.  As a result, the whole movie is murky and drowned out in this silvery sheen that makes the whole movie visually unappealing.  There are a lot of scenes that take place at night or in dark spaces, likely to hide the lackluster CGI effects, which definitely have not aged well.  And in addition to having the visual aesthetic and effects being hard to look at, the movie also dispenses with logic in order to make their ridiculous ideas work.  Case in point, a whole section of the movie that takes place in Venice, Italy.  We are introduced earlier in the movie to the Nautilus, the massive submarine transport of one of the league members, Captain Nemo.  In the movie, we are shown that the Nautilus is over a hundred feet in height when brought to the surface, and yet we also see the vessel traveling the canals of Venice, under it’s many bridges, which anyone with a brain knows is a city built in a lagoon with very shallow water.  The Nautilus being able to navigate like it does in the movie through Venice makes absolutely no sense.  Even more ridiculous, the heroes in the film also are involved in a car chase in the very same location.  I’ll excuse the movie for having Captain Nemo inventing the car long before Henry Ford created his first Model T; that’s an acceptable creative license.  But to have the car chase take place in Venice, a city without roads is far too absurd and illogical.  It’s clear that the filmmakers of this movie just wanted a car chase in their film and they didn’t care how they would make it happen.  They put it in there, because it’s a standard trope of comic book action movies.

There are a lot of other instances where it’s clear that the filmmakers are more interested in pandering to an audience rather than delivering a more interesting story.  This can also be found in the casting of it’s characters.  The movie does retain some of Alan Moore’s core characters, including Alan Quartermain (played by the legendary Sean Connery), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both played by Jason Flemyng).  In some cases, the casting of these characters is fine; Flemyng actually gives the film’s best performance in his dual role and I give credit to the movie for casting an actual Indian actor in the role of Nemo, which is true to Moore’s comic and also to the original text from Jules Verne.  But, some of the changes made to the team seem more in line with demands for what was expected for a comic book  movie at the time; which sadly meant more sex appeal.  One of the additions was the character of Dorian Gray, based on the character from the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name.  The character is not too dissimilar from his literary persona, but he’s kind of worthless as an element of this story, and it’s clear that he’s just here so they could hire an attractive actor in the role; in this case Stuart Townsend (who ironically took this role after being removed from the cast of a more beloved production called The Lord of the Rings, with Viggo Mortenson taking his place as Aragorn).  The even more cynical addition is the inclusion of Tom Sawyer as a character in this story, clearly as a means to include a character familiar with American audiences and make the team less Euro-centric.  Tom Sawyer’s inclusion here is ridiculous to say the least, and it again goes against Alan Moore’s intention of the story.  Tom Sawyer is far from his roots as the Mark Twain imagined scheming adolescent, and here is a secret agent trained by the American government; a literal Captain America.  Moore’s comic doesn’t glorify the characters by giving them these glow-up heroic arcs.  He’s critiquing the roles that these characters inhabit and examining what imagined encounters between them would be like.  For the movie, they clearly wanted to appeal to American audiences, plucked a character out of American literature, cast an up-and-coming American heartthrob (Shane West), and felt that it would do the same thing.  It clearly didn’t work.

What this movie is especially notorious for, and is rightly condemned for in general, is that it ended the legendary film career of Sir Sean Connery.  The man who turned Ian Fleming’s James Bond into a cinematic icon and gave us memorable roles in films as varied as John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), to Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), called it quits after playing the role of Allan Quartermain in this film.  Despite having the marquee role, Connery would later describe the shoot for this film demoralizing and the thing that convinced him that he couldn’t do this act in a movie any more.  So sadly the last image we have of Sean Connery on celluloid is this mess of a movie that is clearly beneath his talent.  At the same time, Connery himself is partly to blame for ending his career on such a sour note.  He chose to do this movie over more interesting roles that were offered to him, like the Architect in the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy and Gandalf the Wizard in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sadly, many attempts to coax Connery out of his retirement failed; including Steven Spielberg trying to coax him back into reprising his role of Dr. Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  And what made this role so bad for Connery.  Honestly his performance is not bad, but it also lacks weight.  Quartermain in this movie is never interesting in the slightest, just a grizzled old veteran being called into one last fight.  Essentially he’s here to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Tom Sawyer’s Luke Skywalker; showing the level of originality on the filmmakers part.  And the un-original take that these characters inhabit again goes against what Alan Moore wrote.  In an interesting twist, Moore actually makes Mina Hartley the leader of the league, because of all the characters she has faced the worst kinds of evil (Dracula) and lived, making her a bolder leader.  Mina in this film is just there to be the girl on the team, and that they made her a vampire on top of that (she isn’t in the comic) is another failing of the adaptation.

It wasn’t just Connery’s career that was prematurely ended because of the experience of making this movie.  The film’s director, Stephen Norrington also stepped away from Hollywood afterwards, with this being his last film to date.  Norrington likewise has his own self to blame too, as his directing style (which was ill-suited for big studio driven films) made the shooting of League of Extraordinary Gentleman chaotic for everyone involved.  In particular, him and Connery never got along on set and at one point an argument during the shooting almost ended with fists flying.  This definitely was a clear sign that a movie like this should never have been attempted in this way.  It was not something to cater to the expectations of the genre, but rather to critique it.  The movie overall lacks an identity, utilizing it’s familiar name and characters but doing absolutely nothing original with them.  This whole experience pretty much ended up badly for everyone.  Connery’s early retirement, Norrington’s bruised reputation, Stuart Townsend and Shane West falling quickly into obscurity after turning down better roles in order to be a part of this one.  Alan Moore himself even chose to distance himself even more from Hollywood after the failure of this movie.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the last film to credit Alan Moore as a creator of the source material.  Even the better received Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen (2009) doesn’t include the name Alan Moore in any of the credits; which was Moore’s request.  I don’t blame Alan Moore for his cynicism over this.  This was very much a case where Hollywood took a project that the author took great pride in and completely trashed it, robbing it of all meaning and making the extraordinary just ordinary.

But, strangely enough, it didn’t deter Alan Moore from continuing on with his series of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.  He would continue writing the comics for another 16 years after the movie, all the while making it even more subversive and weird.  It could be argued that the failure of the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fueled his creative flames even more, as he took his critical eye towards even more subject in pop culture, including more recent ones from literature and, yes, even the movies.  And he doesn’t hold back in his cynical takes either.  There are some absolutely insane ideas in those later books in the series, including one where Harry Potter is the Anti-Christ and is defeated by God, who appears in the form of Mary Poppins.  Honestly, I think a cinematic adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen happened way too early in the history of these books, because some of the most out there ideas from Alan Moore have appeared on the page post-movie.  I can only imagine what an adaptation of this would be like now, if Alan Moore could trust anyone with it.  The movie adaptation in comparison now feels so small and insignificant, more valuable now as an example of how not to adapt a comic book into a movie.  Could another adaptation happen today?  Should it happen?  Given Alan Moore’s frosty relationship with Hollywood, I would definitely say no, but it would be interesting to see maybe a series adaption on like HBO or Netflix, with the intent of capturing the original subversive nature of Alan Moore’s narrative.  It would never happen given the sprawling nature of Alan Moore’s series, and the fact that there are references to so many things that still fall under copywrite law.  As it stands, it is far better to read the weird and demented League for yourself to get the true experience and to avoid the movie all together.  In a time where we see the combination of universes becoming these big cinematic events, it’s worth checking out a twisted version of that same kind of story which in many ways critiques the very nature of pop culture itself as well as the extraordinary stories that we tell within it.

What the Hell Was That? – Godzilla (1998)

I’ve made no illusions to the fact that I am not a fan of Roland Emmerich’s work as a director.  Is everything he has made been terrible? No, but the vast majority of the films he’s made have been some of the worst things I have ever seen on the big screen, and his track record as of late has been especially rough to witness.  What is especially frustrating is the fact that he’s a filmmaker that has shown no growth as an artist over the course of his career.  Some directors like to re-invent themselves as they enter their later years, or they try a variety of different styles and genres and then apply their own unique voice to them.  Emmerich only does one thing; he makes big loud action movies with a lot of apocalyptic, environmental destruction thrown across the screen.  He’s a director that has chosen to make simplistically plotted crowd pleasers that often don’t even hit that mark.  But, why is he still allowed to make movies even though they are often seen in retrospect to be terrible.  One could say that he knows his audience and has managed to laser focus hit that target on a regular basis.  That, or he’s been coasting very much on the goodwill that he had built during his first few years in the business.  Working with his creative partner, producer/writer Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich started off as a science fiction director.  Emmerich and Devlin managed to secure a modest hit with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Universal Soldier (1992) and then they won raves for their ground-breaking follow-up, Stargate (1994).  But it was their third film that really put them on the map; the mega-blockbuster Independence Day (1996).  If anything, Independence Day is the sole reason Emmerich really still has a career at all, because that record breaking film is the movie that propelled him to the attention of all the studios in Hollywood.  But, with that meteoric rise, it’s only inevitable that something would bring a filmmaker like Roland Emmerich back down to Earth.  But, what kind of disaster would be the first crack in the armor for Roland.

Following up right after the historic success of Independence Day (1996), which was the most popular film of that year by a long shot and at the time was in the top grossing movies of all time camp alongside the likes of Star Wars (1977), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), Emmerich and Devlin were seeking their next project.  Instead of crafting a film off of their own fresh idea, they decided to next work on an already established IP that Hollywood was seeking to re-boot.  Columbia Pictures had for many years been trying to get an American adaptation of the classic Japanese monster movie Godzilla (1954).  They had been trying to coax some of the biggest directors in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, who was very much against the idea, stating the nothing could replace the original.  Eventually, they got cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont to sign on, fresh off his success on the Keanu Reeves thriller Speed (1995).  However, de Bont eventually realized that he couldn’t pull off the vision necessary for the film, and Columbia was once again left to shop the project around.  The timing proved fortunate as Emmerich and Devlin were just leaving their contract with 20th Century Fox and were open to signing with a new studio.  Emmerich initially wasn’t that interested in directing an adaptation of Godzilla (1998), but he later agreed to take the job after Columbia granted him creative license.  With Emmerich and Devlin in place, the multi-million dollar Godzilla remake was underway.  But, as the studio would soon learn, the creative license granted to a director that was initially indifferent to the prospect of directing a Godzilla feature would prove in the end to be a recipe for disaster.  Unfortunately for the studio, failure on the part of the team of Emmerich and Devlin had yet to materialize and they had no insight into what was to come next.

The original Godzilla is a renowned classic the world over.  Despite it’s primitive effects at the time, basically a guy in a dragon suit stepping on a bunch of model buildings, it nevertheless managed to successfully convey a sense of terror for audiences upon it’s release. The movie played upon Cold War anxieties about nuclear war and annihilation, which especially rang true in it’s native Japan, the only country in the world to this day that suffered an atomic bomb attack.  The gigantic terror that is the King of Monsters, Godzilla is very much a metaphor for the uncontrollable chaos brought on by a nuclear attack.  That’s why the original movie resonates so much still, because of the earnestness of it’s message, and how much the movie maintains that tone of terror.  Because it was a hit both in Japan and abroad, there were demands for further tales of Godzilla on the big screen.  So, Toho Productions, the creators of the character, put him in many more films in the years that followed, not just terrorizing humanity, but also fighting a whole variety of monsters, which in time became known by their Japanese moniker; kaiju.  Joining Godzilla were foes like Rodan and King Ghidorah, as well as allies like Mothra and Gamera, who themselves would spin-off into their own series of films.  During that time, Godzilla even evolved from a malicious terrorizer of humanity to an eventual protector of humanity.  And though the movies themselves were popular in the states, despite the often awkward voice dubs and the weird shoe-horned clips of Raymond Burr, they still remained a uniquely Japanese import on American cinemas.  But, with visual effects improving greatly in the 80’s and 90’s, Hollywood believed that the time was right to finally take their shot at Godzilla movie.  Though Toho was reticent to the idea of a Hollywood studio using their iconic character in one of their movies, they did eventually grant Columbia Pictures the chance to make their own film version.  Of course, once the film finally did get made, they probably should have trusted their initial cautious instincts from the outset.

On paper, the movie has promise.  Godzilla let loose in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan Island; seems right up the alley for the director that had an alien ship blow up the White House in Independence Day.  But there is one thing that was key to the success of Independence Day that becomes very apparent when watching Godzilla (1998); the lack of a compelling story.  Though Independence Day lacked subtlety and was full of cliches, it still had a well constructed through-line built around it’s very high concept premise that made the shortcomings feel inconsequential by the end.  But, in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, you get very little in the way of a compelling plot.  Basically Godzilla finds his way to New York, wrecks havoc for two hours, the “characters” do their best to survive and then roll credits.  While Independence Day knew that you had to hang the interest of the audience on the sense of peril, the same never applies in Godzilla.  Honestly, the threat of Godzilla the Monster feels small compared to the city sized space ships that destroy everything in their path.  There are shots that Emmerich tries to convey the sense of scale that feels comparable to Independence Day, like seeing a Godzilla sized hole in the middle of the MetLife Building.  But, that’s the unfortunate thing about how Godzilla ends up being used in this movie.  The only sense of awe that we get is when we see the aftermath of what he has done.  The more we actually see of the monster in the movie, the less scary he becomes.  And there is a reason for that.  The design of Godzilla, let’s just say, is not very good in this movie.  The iconic design of the original creature, with his small snake like head on top of a bulking body with massive spikes running down his spine, is very much missed in this movie.  The new Godzilla looks like an escapee from Jurassic Park.  The head of the new Godzilla is unique, but you can’t tell me that the rest of his body was not stolen from a model of Tyrannosaurus Rex.  In fact, the DNA of Spielberg’s blockbuster can be felt all throughout this movie, and not in a good way.

There is no doubt that part of the reason this movie was greenlit in the first place was because of the monumental success of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  And in particular, it was the groundbreaking visual effects that spurred a revolution across the industry.  Jurassic Park not only had stellar practical effects, but it also showed the world for the first time what computer animation could really do.  Even 30 years later the computer animation in that film remarkably still holds up, even though it was done large with primitive software compared to what’s available today.  The same cannot be said about Godzilla, even though it’s basically using the same level of effects.  One big difference is how the director utilizes the visual effects.  Spielberg is a master of set-ups, and he manages to move his camera around in a way that compliments the computer animation and makes it feel natural.  The sweeping introduction of the brachiosaurus, the first full shot of a dinosaur that we get in the movie, is a perfect example of this.  But in Godzilla, Roland Emmerich moves his camera around a lot, never really allowing us the time to soak in the visual effects.  Not to mention that most of the movie is cast in nighttime darkness with an extra layer of rain, which no doubt was there to cover up the seams of the less than spectacular computer animation.  Even the practical stuff looks cheap.  The miniature models used for the buildings of New York City all look flat and texture-less, which really breaks the illusion.  Not only that, but the marquee attraction of the film, Godzilla himself, is seen as briefly as possible in this movie.  Instead, most of the film’s climax is spent with the human characters being chased by baby Godzillas, which are essentially velociraptor rip-offs.  All together, it makes this movie feel smaller than it should be.  It’s no wonder that when future Godzilla movies were made at other studios, they returned to that traditional bulky Godzilla look that resembles a man in a dragon suit.  That, strangely enough, feels more true to the character than this oversized hybrid of a Tyrannosaurus and an iguana.

But, lackluster visual effects can be forgiven to a degree if there is a compelling story and likable characters that drive the rest of the film.  Godzilla sadly did not have any of those things.  The story is pretty much just a cat and mouse chase through New York, as the main characters try to coax the monster out of hiding and bring him into the open, hopefully to exterminate him.  And the characters themselves are sadly the typical Roland Emmerich mix of archetypes and stereotypes.  He resorts to his favorite trope once again in this movie, with the awkward nerd managing to save the day with science, which we saw previously with James Spader in Stargate and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.  Like some sliding scale, we go from those actors to Matthew Broderick, playing yet another awkward nerd who seems to know all the right things necessary to take on a 200 ft. tall giant lizard.  And if his character wasn’t portrayed weird enough, Emmerich and Devlin gave him the needlessly complicated name of Dr. Niko Tatopolous.  Unique name does not equal unique personality.  On top of Matthew Broderick in the lead, the rest of the movie’s cast is just, shall we say, weird.  The movie features not one, or two, but three different actors who are part of the voice cast of The Simpsons: Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Nancy Cartwright.  Of those three, only Hank Azaria has substantial screen time, but seeing all three here does take one out of the movie.  One even more distracting bit of casting in the movie are character actors Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman playing Mayor Ebert and his aide Gene respectively, in a clear and obvious parody of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.  Why Emmerich and Devlin would throw this kind of satirical characterization into a movie about Godzilla makes absolutely no sense, and it almost feels like a petty move on the filmmaker’s part, either taking revenge on bad reviews of the past or perhaps doing it as a bit of pandering.  Suffice to say the real Siskel and Ebert were not amused and they predictably gave the film two thumbs down.  The one bit of casting that is borderline acceptable in the movie is Jean Reno as a military man lending his expertise in stopping the rampaging monster.  The renowned French actor isn’t particularly well-used here, but out of all the actors in the movie, he’s the one that comes closest to maintaining his dignity by the end, mainly due to a suitably subtle performance.  Overall, when most of your sympathy is with the giant monster, and barely even that, you know that you’ve centered your movie around some pretty bad characters.

Besides the production and story problems themselves, this movie also put a strain on the creative relationship between Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich.  This was the last screenplay that they collaborated on, and after their next film, the Revolutionary War epic The Patriot (2000), they stopped producing movies together.  Though Godzilla is not explicitly the movie that caused the filmmaking duo to pursue different paths, but you can definitely see how it started forming the cracks.  Roland Emmerich’s free reign on the project created more than enough headaches for the executives at Columbia.  Strangely enough, the problem with this movie was not constraints made by budget cuts, but rather the opposite.  The budget expanded significantly during production, which Dean Devlin later stated that it caused him to be overwhelmed as a producer, and caused him to neglect fixing the script during production.  For Roland Emmerich, he was working with a large canvas on a subject that he honestly didn’t have that much interest for in the first place.  As a result, we get all of the different Roland Emmerich elements (massive destruction, hollow archetypal characters, and sophomoric humor) all thrown into a Godzilla shaped blender, where it all feels like the creation of it’s director, but not anything like what a Godzilla movie should be.  Columbia/Tri-Star executive Robert N. Fried even stated that, “the team that took over Godzilla was one of the worst cases of of executive incompetence I have observed in my 20 year career.”  It’s been told that studio heads didn’t even see footage of the movie until it was months away from release, realizing too late that they had a mess on their hands, making this a rare case where a movie might have benefitted from studio interference.  But alas, the movie released in theaters in the summer of 1998, and quickly faded.  What was especially unfortunate for Roland Emmerich is that his poor performance with Godzilla came in the same summer season where Michael Bay released his new hit, Armageddon (1998), thereby taking the crown away from Emmerich as the King of Disaster Movies.  That, probably more than anything is what spurred on the career path that Emmerich carved for himself in the years after.  Spending the next 20 years making one disaster movie after another, including The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009) and most recently Moonfall (2022), Emmerich has been trying to take that crown back.

For a time, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla effectively killed off the giant monster movie for many years.  In the decade that followed, only Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) remake was able to be made, and that struggled to break even on it’s own, even with Jackson riding the wave of clout after The Lord of the Rings.  There was a bit of a revival when Guillermo Del Toro made his critically acclaimed action thriller Pacific Rim (2013), with giant robots fighting giant monsters.  But for Godzilla himself, the rights to the character landed with Legendary Pictures, who began to devise a series of films featuring the King of Monsters as well as all the many other different kaiju creatures made famous from the original Toho run of movies.  They enjoyed modest success with the first Godzilla (2014), which took a far more serious tone with the character than what Roland Emmerich brought to his film.  Though the movie’s plot was still a bit undercooked, there was a lot of praise thrown the movie’s way with regards to Godzilla himself.  For old and new fans alike, these new Godzilla movies felt truer to the character.  For one thing, this Godzilla could actually breath fire, or more accurately atomic breath.  The human characters in these movies are still hollow archetypes, but they are far more likable than the ones that Emmerich put in his film.   Ultimately, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla is a perfect case study in how not to reboot a legendary character.  It’s especially a good lesson to note that when you hire a director for a movie reboot, make sure that he actually has enthusiasm for the idea of bringing new life to an old character.  Otherwise, he’s just going to do whatever he feels like with the character and in the end, your Godzilla doesn’t look or act at all the way he should.  This was clearly an example of a studio wanting to capitalize on a growing trend in filmmaking, which was monsters brought to life through computer animation, and having a director more interested in his own quirks failing to deliver on that fundamental action.  Today, Godzilla ’98 is more of an unintentional comedy of errors given how almost none of it’s elements work together.  But, the fact that the movie doesn’t even take itself seriously to begin with makes the enjoyment factor of it’s failure feel disappointing as well.  Godzilla deserved much better than this, and thankfully with his more recent string of movies, the King of Monsters has managed to have the last laugh in the end, or more appropriately, ROAR.

What the Hell Was That? – The Golden Compass (2007)

Let’s journey back to the early 2000’s.  As the world was welcoming in the new millennium and all the highs and lows that would come, cinema was likewise going through it’s own period of transition.  The digital age was blooming to a point where there was limitless potential to what could be made real on the big screen.  And in the the early 2000’s, we saw the newest advances in visual effects help revive what had long been a dormant genre in cinema: Fantasy.  Though fantasy films were popular through the blockbuster 80’s, they more or less dissipated going into the 1990’s, which seemed to favor action films and epic dramas.  That was until 2001, when two film franchises made their debuts and brought the fantasy genre roaring back to life.  They were the Harry Potter franchise and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Both premiere films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) were smash hits, and all but secured the continuation of their narratives in subsequent follow-ups.  But even more importantly, it reawakened Hollywood to the fact that there was indeed big business in the Fantasy genre that they had too long ignored.  Even more than their box office performance, Potter and Rings proved to be highly marketable franchises as well, boosting book sales of their respective source material, as well as creating a whole market for tie-in merchandise the likes that Hollywood hadn’t seen since Star Wars twenty years prior.  With all this huge business driven by these two valuable properties, other Hollywood studios became very interested in finding their own fantasy property that they could mine for all it’s worth.  Thus began a decade that saw a frenzy over bringing beloved fantasy literature to the big screen, all with the hope that it would bring the same kind of riches that Potter and Rings had found.  But, as many Hollywood studios would find out, it was gold rush that ultimately reaped very few rewards, and in turn, it created this shockingly high number of incomplete movie franchises that ended long before they could even begin.

This is the other thing that defined much of the cinema of the 2000’s; the abandonment of failed franchises.  For a lot of the studios chasing after new IP, they ultimately found that audiences had little interest in obscure tales that often felt too much like the bigger franchises that they were more fond of.  There were several fanchises in those years that were either a Harry Potter clone; like The Seeker (2007) or a Lord of the Rings clone like Eragon (2005).  Mainly the studios were taking in the wrong lessons from those popular franchises, believing that anything that followed the same plot points would lead to the same success.  What really set Potter and Rings apart was the fact that they had richly developed worlds, and were also in many ways uncharacteristic of Hollywood formula.  Reading The Lord of the Rings, you would almost think that it’s an un-filmable story.  Or that Harry Potter’s tonal shifts might be too much for younger audiences to take.  But, it took passionate filmmakers on both franchises to bring out the best of those books and make them work on the big screen.  Most of the failed franchises of the 2000’s lacked that passion.  They were made more out of a mandate than out of love for the source material.  There were some unexpected hits during this time, like Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), but even there you could feel the heavy influence of a studio mandate behind it.  Unlike Potter and Rings, many of these franchises, most of which were based on multi volume book series, ended up throwing in the towel after one failed film, which became even more awkward if that movie concluded on a cliffhanger.  And surprisingly, one of the worst offenders of this failed attempt at a new fantasy franchise was the same studio that brought The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen: New Line Cinema, with their catastrophically failed adaptation of The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass is the first in a three volume series of novels called His Dark Materials, written by English author Phillip Pullman.  Pullman published his trilogy over five years between 1995 and 2000, and won wide acclaim from the literary community.  What really set the novels apart in the fantasy genre was it’s very strong and pointed allegory.  Pullman, an unapologetic and outspoken athiest, made religious hypocrisy a central theme of his series, with the clash between faith and science being a crucial element in the narrative.  The His Dark Materials books have often been dubbed by some as “Narnia for Athiests,” which makes it surprising that any movie studio would take on the material, knowing that religious groups would possibly protest the movie upon it’s release.  It’s interesting that Pullman himself views the books as less fantasy and more as “stark realism,” but there is certainly a lot within the books that helps to characterize them as either fantasy or science fiction.  Talking animals that are the living manifestation of a person’s soul, witches, a kingdom of polar bears, and interdimensional travel.  There was certainly a lot of potential to mine from Pullman’s books.  Unfortunately, by the time Hollywood took notice of His Dark Materials as a potential franchise, it was very much beyond the point where studios cared less about doing right by the material and more about how much money they could make from it.  Not only that, but the His Dark Materials books fell into the hands of New Line Cinema, who at this point were embroiled in a series of controversies related to how they were handling the success of The Lord of the Rings.  Pete Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of Rings, quite rightly took notice of how inadequately New Line was dispersing the profits of The Lord of the Rings, especially with the final film, The Return of the King (2003).  Jackson soon took New Line Cinema to court to get the fair compensation for his company in New Zealand, which derailed plans from both parties to continue working on a possible adaptation of The Hobbit.  And that led to the interest in the Dark Materials series, as New Line decided to end partnership with Peter Jackson and Co. altogether, believing that they could make a hit franchise on their own without them.

What happened after with The Golden Compass is a text book example of studio hubris in action.  New Line Cinema not only intended to fill that Middle Earth sized hole with this new franchise; they intended to make it even bolder and grander.  The budget was estimated to be in the realm of $200 million, which was double the expense of just one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and almost 2/3 of the entire trilogy.  It would also feature an all star cast that included actors as diverse as Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, and even Lord of the Rings alum like Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee.  And of course, there were millions poured into the movie’s extensive visual effects.  But, there was one problem.  Who do you get to steer the ship of this franchise.  New Line Cinema would end up bringing in Chris Weitz to write and direct the film; the co-creator of the American Pie (1999) series of movies.  Suffice to say, all the problems that followed could be stemmed back to this decision.  Weitz, while being a decent writer and a serviceable director, clearly was just a filmmaker for hire on this movie.  That made a big difference because you can tell he was just on board to do a job. This was not a grand artistic statement.  When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, which you could tell from the years of planning that Jackson put into that project.  There is passion in every frame of The Lord of the Rings that is visibly absent in The Golden Compass.  Chris Weitz didn’t have years of connection with the material like Jackson had with Rings.  It’s clear that New Line Cinema just gave him the book to adapt with an enormous budget and he tried to deliver the best he could, but ultimately ended up being overwhelmed by the task.

First of all, what ultimately sinks the movie as a whole is that it rushes through it’s narrative in order to meet a theater friendly two hour runtime.  When adapting a dense, multi-layered world like the one in the Dark Materials books, it’s clearly not enough time establish what we need to know.  It becomes clear what you’re in for when the movie dumps a whole lot of exposition on you in just the first ten minutes.  You suddenly have to accept the knowledge that this world is an alternate reality Earth, where people have souls manifested into animal companions named daemons, many of whom are capable of speaking human language.  And the movie never lets the world-building rest and allow itself to immerse the audience.  It’s just a collection of beautiful but ultimately empty set pieces.  Besides the extra length to allow for better world-building, The Golden Compass also lacks the gateway for audiences to connect with the world that’s being portrayed on screen.  The best fantasy films all have that special element that helps the audience grow acquainted with the world it’s showing, and that’s usually giving them a grounded entryway that the rest of the movie can build upon.  Think of the early scenes in the Shire from The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter’s pre-Hogwarts life living under the stairs in his Aunt and Uncle’s home, or Narnia’s WWII prologue.  Each of these moments helps us to relate to the world of those movies, before they begin to open up and show all the crazy wonders beyond those simple beginnings.  The Golden Compass doesn’t have that.  It just immediately drops us into an already alien world and hopes that we can catch on fast.  And with the rush to get from one plot point to another, it also excises some crucial things that would’ve help set the movie apart; in particular, it’s anti-theocratic allegory.  The removal of the novel’s harsher stance against organized religion is probably the clearest sign of this movie being driven by a studio and not a filmmaker, as New Line Cinema obviously did not want to push any buttons in fear it might alienate more religious movie goers.  But, in doing so, it also took the bite out of the source material, and left the movie without an identity other than just being another fantasy film.

The movie’s condensed run time also works as a disadvantage towards character development.  There are just far too many characters to get familiar with in such a short amount of time, that none of them end up endearing themselves to the audience.  The only character that comes close is the main heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), and she barely resonates beyond any other child protagonist from a dozen other fantasy narratives.  We only get to see how her adventurous side plays into her desire to go on the journey, but she grows very little throughout the narrative and ultimately, you care little about what she has to do because she’s not a terribly interesting character as a result.  And this is the best the movie can muster.  What the movie really wastes are it’s big name stars.  Nicole Kidman is a bland antagonist, with her persona reduced down to icy cold stares.  Daniel Craig, who was heavily promoted in his first post-debut as James Bond role, is only in the movie for maybe a total of 10 minutes, if that.  Only Sam Elliott stands out in the movie, and that might be because he’s the one American in this mostly British ensemble.  What I also find strange about the movie’s characters is that there are large chunks of the film where a whole group of them will just disapper for an extended period of time.  Perhaps it’s close to how the novel’s plot progresses, but to have the film just forget a bunch of characters as it chases a whole different plot thread just feels awkward.  This is evident at the end of the second act in the film when we suddenly shift to this whole different sub plot involving the polar bears.  Suddenly, we ditch the main story and follow this one of a Polar Bear prince named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) who seeks to reclaim his birthright from a usurper king (voiced by Ian McShane).  Now, truth be told, it does lead to the best and most memorable moment of the whole movie, when Iorek smacks the jaw off his rivals face in a shockingly violent and gory moment for a PG-13 film, but even still, it’s connection to the rest of the story is meaningless in the long run.  It’s that lack of cohesion in the narrative and the little investment in the characters’ motivations and desires that ultimately sinks any investment that the audience has with the movie.

But, probably the most notorious mistake that the movie makes is it’s cliffhanger ending.  Here is where the hubris of New Line Cinema’s petty one-up-manship against Peter Jackson becomes especially embarrassing.  New Line seemed so sure that they had a winner on their hands, that they believed the best way to end the movie was to leave it open-ended and unresolved, believing that audiences would be excited for the next chapter.  Suffice to say, they weren’t.  More accurately, they were confused and upset by this movie not closing on a satisfying note.  And cliffhanger is a stretch of the term in this case.  The Golden Compass book actually ends differently, with a moment that clearly fits the definition of a cliffhanger much better.  In the book, Lyra sees one of her companions betrayed and killed while a portal to another dimension is opened up, which she passes through in the book’s final moment.  The movie just has our characters traveling to their next destination talking to each other about what to expect next.  It’s horribly anti-climatic, especially when you know how the story really ends in the book.  I don’t know why New Line Cinema went for the more ambiguous ending instead of the more exciting one.  Were they looking at the more open-ended conclusions of the Rings films and thinking that they should repeat that formula?  Whatever the case, it’s a choice that ended up blowing back in New Line’s face, because there never was a follow-up to The Golden Compass.  The movie made only a third back of it’s original budget at the box office.  The significant financial blow began a continued downward spiral for the studio that saw many more financial failures that was only exacerbated by the continued legal dispute with Peter Jackson.  After a few more box office flops, the once mighty mini-major ended up seeing it’s independence wane as parent company Warner Brothers assumed more control, leading to the exit of the executives who initially greenlighted The Golden Compass.  And wouldn’t you know it, Warner Brothers settled the dispute with Peter Jackson and put into action the long delayed Hobbit adaptation that New Line was certain they could live without.  In the end, Golden Compass’ awkward, unresolved ending is probably the clearest example of a studio believing too much into it’s own hype and setting itself up for embarrassment.  It’s just too bad for those involved in the production, for the filmmakers and cast, that their work is just left hanging there awkwardly for eternity because of a studio’s poor attempt to build a franchise and hitting the brakes after one film.

I distinctly remember being excited for this film when it was originally released.  I wanted another Lord of the Rings franchise out there, just out of my love for extensive and imaginative world-building, and The Golden Compass had all the makings of a fantasy film perfectly suited to fill that vacancy.  Unfortunately, because it lacked the heart of other great fantasy films, and was clearly just an attempt by a major studio to chase after a fad and show another filmmaker who’s the boss, it ultimately fell flat.  I think it’s just the pettiness behind it’s making, as a way of New Line to turn up it’s nose at Peter Jackson, that makes it such an unpleasant relic of that period in fantasy filmmaking.  And even more egregious, it wasted good source material as a result.  Thankfully, many years later, Warner Brothers saw the potential in Phillip Pullman’s novels and decided to take another chance on this story again.  Only this time, instead of limiting the narrative to a short theater friendly run time, they gave it a 10 episode series order.  The His Dark Materials series, made in collaboration with BBC Studios, has aired on HBO here in the states, and by all accounts does better justice to the novels, particularly when it comes to characterizations and plot.  It also succeeded in going past the original film’s end point and has been able to adapt the other two books in the trilogy as well, with a final third season premiering later this year.  That’s a whole lot better than having the story forever sit unfinished like the movie did.  In the end, of all the failed attempts to start-up new fantasy franchises in the 2000’s, The Golden Compass probably stands out the most as the biggest blunder of them all.  It’s substantial cost ended up burdening a studio that saw a meteoric rise and in the end cost them their autonomy as their parent company assumed more control.  And the fact that New Line Cinema banked so much of their certainty in the success of the film that they didn’t even bother to give the movie a proper ending just caused the film to become a punchline rather than a fantasy epic that helped to define a genre.  It’s movies like this that ultimately tanked the resurgence of fantasy films, which ended up slipping back into dormancy as comic book movies would dominate the following decade.  If The Golden Compass offers up anything, it’s a cautionary tale of the folly of petty one-up-manship in Hollywood, and trying to chase after success without heart and devotion put into the work.  New Line Cinema tried to count all the chickens before they hatched and The Golden Compass became the rotten egg that defined it’s reputation for many years after.

What the Hell Was That? – Pearl Harbor (2001)

I remember hearing a quote somewhere about the extent that a healthy amount of religion and patriotism should be injected into our own personal lives, and the one who said the quote commented that both are great things to have in one’s life as long as they are done in good faith and with a sense of humor.  Essentially, it is not a negative thing in life to be religious and patriotic, just as long as you remain humble and respectful about it.  Unfortunately, in our culture, we do not live such subtle lives, and in many cases, people either show too much or too little of either, which are both corrosive to society at large.  Too much patriotism, for example, can lead to jingoistic and exclusionary nationalism, which has led to some dark periods in world history.  A severe lack of pride in one’s home and society can also achieve the opposite effect and lead an individual down a nihilistic route towards anarchy.  Both are dangerous, and it’s a fine line that our culture constantly has to balance in order to function for it’s citizens.  As is often the case, cinema has been an effective tool for pushing forward national agendas, with the intent of promoting exactly what the country expects of it’s citizenry.  Propaganda films have been a part of cinematic history ever since the invention of the medium itself, and has been used throughout the 20th and 21st century to drive national efforts that otherwise would have been hard to manage without the broad reach that movies can provide.  In many cases, propaganda has propelled some terrible political movements in the past, but not all of it’s applications have been negative.  During World War II for example, the combination of wartime propaganda and the talents of Hollywood actually helped the nation come together behind the war effort that eventually saw victory for the Allied forces; something that might have seen a different outcome if our nation had been more divided on the war.  There are good uses of propaganda, but there are also bad uses as well, particularly as the quote says above, when someone uses it in bad faith.

When we look back on the experience of World War II, as we lose more and more people who experienced it first hand every progressive year, what we understand becomes more and more reliant on the artifacts that are left behind.  The personal accounts, as harrowing as they may, from the soldiers who lived it begin to not be as captivating as the propaganda that has endued beyond the war.  A soldier’s story presents the ugly side of war; the sleepless nights, the panic in the thick of battle, the wounds both external and internal, and the many, many defeats that made victory seem unreachable at times.  Propaganda presents the glory of victory, and for many people, including the soldiers who eventually came home, that’s the thing that they wanted to promote in a post-War world.  Unfortunately, it also had the effect of making the culture at large falsely believe that it was invincible, and that led to an unhealthy amount of patriotic fervor in the decades that followed.  It’s the kind of thinking that led to a proliferation in the armed forces despite being in peacetime, which then President Eisenhower decried as a “military industrial complex.”  This also led to a period called the Red Scare where people tried to use patriotic fervor to silence those whose ideologies didn’t line up their own agenda, and it prematurely ended the careers of many people, especially in Hollywood with the infamous Blacklist.  Over time, as attitudes shifted back the other way due to the quagmire of the Vietnam War, the wartime film began to fall out of favor because they were viewed as propaganda tools of a dangerous militaristic view of the past.  However, as the years past, and more soldiers who served in World War II were reaching their twilight years, many people wanted to find some way to respectfully honor the service they gave while not appearing to promote the necessity for armed conflict.  In 1998, Steven Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan, a movie that managed to bridge that gap, portraying an accurate picture of the atrocities of war while at the same time honoring the sacrifice of those who fought in it.  And with Private Ryan, Hollywood found that special movie that balanced patriotism and realism, revitalizing the war film with a modern sensibility.  But, as we know about Hollywood, once one movie succeeds at something, it’s only inevitable that someone else is going to try to replicate it.  And unfortunately, this is where the good faith patriotism of something like Saving Private Ryan gives way to the bad faith exploitation of a Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor’s production came about in a confluence of different factors at the turn of the millennium.  Like I previously mentioned, Saving Private Ryan was a major influence on getting the movie greenlit, but it had less so to do with the message behind the movie and more so to do with it’s substantial $217 million gross at the box office, as well as the 5 Oscars it picked up (including Best Director for Spielberg).  The movie was greenlit at Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, with uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer behind it.  Bruckheimer had brought his action movie centric sensibilities to Touchstone and produced two back to back hits for them with a rising star director named Michael Bay, which were The Rock (1996) and Armageddon (1998).  What Bruckheimer, and especially the executives at Disney, liked about Bay the most was that he could deliver big, expensive movies on time and on budget, which was valuable to bottom line conscious investors who wanted to get the most for their money.  Both The Rock and Armageddon, despite mixed to negative reviews, managed to make a healthy profit for the studio, and that gave the Bruckheimer/Bay team more sway over future projects.  When the success of Saving Private Ryan proved that their was an audience for gritty, R-rated war movies out there, it convinced Disney CEO Michael Eisner to jump on the bandwagon and approve development for a big wartime epic of their own.  Pearl Harbor was coming on the heels of a decade that saw a brief revival in the historical epic genre.  With movies like Private Ryan, as well as The English Patient (1996), Braveheart (1995) and the biggest of them all, Titanic (1997), Hollywood was suddenly finding that people were happily consuming big, large scale films that ran 3 hours long or more.  Up to this point, Disney was one of the few studios that had yet to have their own historical epic, and they were now poised to jump into the fray in a big way.  Unfortunately for them, the gamble would not pan out like they had hoped and instead, Pearl Harbor was one of the movies that effectively killed off the historical epic as a viable genre in Hollywood.

Though I have talked mostly about the influence that Saving Private Ryan had on Pearl Harbor’s development, I should also point out that it has a fair amount of influence it owes to the movie Titanic as well.  And in particular, the piggybacking of Titanic is where the movie really becomes an embarrassing misfire.  At the center of the film is a love triangle, between two hot shot pilots (played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and the army nurse that they both have affection for (played by Kate Beckinsale).  To show just how uneven the movie is as a whole, the love story takes up the first 70 minutes of the 3 hour runtime before the attack on Pearl Harbor actually happens.  It’s roughly the same amount of time devoted to the build up to iceberg strike in Titanic, but there’s a huge difference between how the two movies use that time.  In Titanic, director James Cameron does devote the first half of the movie to bringing his two ill fated lovers together and endearing them to us as an audience.  But, their whirlwind romance also takes the audience on a tour of all parts of the ship itself, which itself is on an ill-fated collision course.  So, while the love story is central, it also functions to build the atmosphere, with scenes like the juxtaposition between the banquet on the upper decks and the party in the lower decks putting us on that ship with the characters themselves.  No such care is given with Pearl Harbor.  It is an achingly shallow love story that feels unconnected with anything of real importance with the actual event.  The characters of Rafe (Affleck) and Danny (Hartnett) do not go on a self-discovery journey like Kate Winslet’s Rose does in Titanic.  They are already pre-set archetypes just fighting over a girl, who herself is barely distinguishable as a character.  What makes this love story so insulting is that it takes precedence over the actual build up to the attack itself.  The movie keeps cutting to intelligence officers learning about advancements of the Japanese navy, with Dan Ackroyd (for some reason) cast in the role.  We also see brief glimpses of the Japanese themselves preparing for battle, in a half-hearted attempt to appear even-handed on their portrayal, which doesn’t work because again, they are merely archetypes.  But all this just seems like Michael Bay spinning plates for an hour so he can get to what he really wants to do; blowing shit up.

Truth be told, when the movie does get to the actual attack itself, it does finally start to come alive.  Michael Bay, for all his faults, is an expert craftsman, and he manages to depict the attack on Pearl Harbor with an impressive sense of scale.  But even here, the movie doesn’t work as well as it thinks it does.  While there are some really impressive moments captured on screen, including actual pyrotechnic explosions ignited on real battleships, it at times feels more exploitative of what happened than actually presenting a genuine portrayal of the day’s events.  In particular, the movie features one too many indulgent Bay moments, where the director just ends up showing off.  One of the most famous of these is the famous falling bomb shot that was featured heavily in the movie’s trailer.  Using heavy amounts of CGI, this shot in particular starts off from the sky showing one of the Japanese war planes releasing it’s payload.  Instead of cutting away, the camera then follows behind the bomb as it drops down to it’s target below, either the USS Arizona or the USS Oklahoma, one of the many that sank that day.  It’s a big epic shot that director’s like Michael Bay believes as a shining example of their talents as a filmmaker.  But the problem is, that shot shows an actual moment that happened in real life, and it just comes across as exploiting real tragedy for the sake of artistic indulgence.  Going back to Titanic, James Cameron makes you feel for the hundreds of unknown faces aboard the ship as it sinks, because we see the terror in their eyes, helping us to see the reality of their situation.  No such care is given to showing all the soldiers, pilots, and sailors coming under fire from the hailstorm of bullet fire in Pearl Harbor.  They are just pawns in greater scheme of things within the movie.

Though I don’t think it was the intention of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, but their lack of attention to the actual bravery of those who were there at Pearl Harbor in many ways is as disrespectful to the memory of the people who died that day than anything else.  In the movie, we get big swooping shots of the mayhem, but the people caught underneath the action are just faceless extras, that the movie almost seems to delight in slaughtering throughout.  Again, this is not what Bay intended and I’m sure he wanted to go in respectful of those who died.  But the fact is, his strengths as a director is ill-suited for this kind of movie.  He is best suited for escapist entertainment, where stakes are nowhere near as high.  But, when he applies his indulgences to a real tragedy, it belittles the true history in a way that just feels wrong.  It’s compounded by the fact that the movie really has no direction in it’s story.  The aforementioned love story really just hits pause so the attack scene can play out, and then the movie awkwardly tries to restart it again thereafter.  It also doesn’t help that the characters are so thinly drawn that you end up not caring who lives and who dies by the end.  And this includes a cast with a lot of actors who would go on to better things, like Michael Shannon in an early role and the future Mrs. Affleck, Jennifer Garner, in a blink and you’ll miss it supporting role.  Perhaps the most egregious example of wasted casting is in the inclusion of a real life hero named Dorie Miller, a low ranking African-American naval cook who broke ranks and commandeered artillery aboard his under siege battleship and managed to successfully shoot down a couple Japanese planes, saving countless of his fellow officers.  He was awarded the Navy Cross for his act of bravery, the first African-American to receive the honor.   Private Miller’s story is worthy of a movie on it’s own, and Pearl Harbor did cast the part well with Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr.  Unfortunately, his presence in the movie is miniscule, and it almost feels like Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer put it in there merely as window-dressing.  Pvt. Miller and many other soldiers like him deserved better than to have their true life heroism and sacrifice take a back seat to fictional love triangle that we care nothing about.

It goes back to the question of why exactly did this movie need to be made.  It doesn’t honor the people involved in the actual “day of infamy.”  It’s love story is shallow and unimaginative.  And it offers no real message about the nature of war itself and America’s role in fighting in it.  It’s not even good as a piece of propaganda.  Michael Bay, for one thing, sure is trying hard to connect his movie with some patriotic fervor.  I can’t tell you how many shots there are in this movie where the Stars and Stripes are clearly visible, but it’s a lot.  Granted, it takes place at a time when such a thing would have been normal, as patriotism was strongly connected with the war effort, with the Uncle Sam “I Want You” posters plastered seemingly on every wall.  But, Bay also throws in a lot of glory shots of the flags and the soldiers and the weapons of war throughout the movie, almost to the point of parody.  As the film goes along, these glory shots feel hollow, with a significant tendency towards pandering.  The reason why it doesn’t work as well as Michael Bay seems to think it does is because it’s just spotlighting the artifice of what the movie actually represents.  Even when the movie first came out 20 years ago, audiences immediately sniffed out what it was trying to be.  It was a major studio trying to capitalize on a trend and not understanding that it’s a formula you can’t replicate.  Titanic worked because it didn’t try to show off it’s artifice  to the audience and instead focused on bringing everything to life in stunning detail.  Saving Private Ryan worked because it put us in the life of a soldier without trying to sanitize a thing, and showed us the real graphic cost of war.  Touchstone, and by extension Disney, only saw the potential for profit with Pearl Harbor, and didn’t even consider how it would reflect on the legacy of the actual event.  Strangely enough, Pearl Harbor came at a time when such a brazen cash grab wouldn’t be viewed as something problematic.  It came out on Memorial Day weekend in 2001 to mild box office success and mostly poor reviews.  A couple of months later, the 9/11 attacks occurred, with carnage and horrific imagery eerily reminiscent of the Pearl Harbor attack.  Suddenly, America was reminded of what such an event feels like, and it ended up refocusing Hollywood on what the right approach is to depicting a horrific national tragedy on the big screen.  In particular, Pearl Harbor stood out in this new atmosphere as an example of how not to portray a tragedy on screen.

Overall, the biggest failure of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is that it teaches no lessons about the events of that day, and instead just stands as another mindless action spectacle.  Like the case of Pvt. Dorie Miller, there are so many fascinating stories that could have been told about the events of Pearl Harbor, and instead, the movie just panders an easy to swallow story and message to it’s audience.  One thing that I am happy about in the long run is that Pearl Harbor is such a universally reviled movie that nobody is going out of their way to turn it into a propaganda tool for their own agenda.  I’m especially glad that the movie came out before the events of 9/11, because if it came out after, you might have had a lot of bad faith propagandists latch onto it and proclaim it falsely as a bright example of American patriotism, thereby using it as a tool in the ever increasingly vapid “culture wars.”  Imagine right wing pundits suddenly saying if we don’t like the movie (which most people don’t, left and right) than you hate America, like so many of them have done over the years to a variety of cultural hot buttons.  I often hear the claim that movies like Pearl Harbor recall back to a time when America had pride in itself, like the movies made during the war.  I’m not saying propaganda movies of the war era are not valid works of art (Casablanca for example).  It’s just that many reflected the times they were in and culture is not set in stone.  Pearl Harbor‘s jingoistic patriotism works as a detriment and not a positive, and it’s a clear example of how improperly patriotism can be used in the culture at large.  I think that it is interesting that in the same year that Pearl Harbor made it to the big screen that Jerry Bruckheimer made another war film starring Josh Hartnett that was more true to the wartime experience; that movie being Black Hawk Down (2001).  In that film, the movie focuses solely on the experience of soldiers caught in the middle of a losing battle (a little remembered skirmish in Somalia in 1993), and more accurately depicted the terror or war while at the same time honoring the fighters who were in it.  It probably helped that legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott was behind the camera on that one.  But like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down doesn’t revel in it’s cinematic indulgences, and instead presents what happened unvarnished.  Pearl Harbor failed because it was trying to please everyone with an easy to digest, PG-13 presentation, and in the end just ended up dishonoring the memory of those who lived through it.  Cinema is a powerful propaganda tool, but it’s only used at it’s best when it is built upon honesty and done in good faith.  Pearl Harbor was just a dud of a bomb that neither improved the world nor set it on fire.

What the Hell Was That? – Chicken Little (2005)

My whole life I have been pretty devoted to the long, diverse legacy of The Walt Disney Company.  Since childhood, Disney was the gateway to all cinema, helping me to form a strong sense of the artform and business from an early age.  And it was a good time to grow up as a Disney fan.  My formative years fell within the height of the Disney Renaissance, from The Little Mermaid (1989) to The Lion King (1994).  I would obsessively pour over all the new information I could get about what Disney was working on next, and discovering more and more of the deeper titles within the decades long Disney library.  Even before I had entered high school, I could boast that I had seen nearly every Disney animated film that had been made up to that point; The Black Cauldron (1985) being the notable holdout because of it’s lack of availability at the time.  To this day, even though my interest in cinema has expanded far beyond walls of a single studio, I still hold a special place in my heart for most things Disney, so you can still say that I am a fan.  At the same time, I would also say that I am not a member of any Disney cult either.  Like any other big corporation, the House of Mouse does it’s own share of questionable activities in order to keep their profits going strong, and if it does cross the line, I will call them out on it.  Their labor disputes with workers in their vast company over the years have reflected badly on them, even in Walt Disney’s time.  More recently, their cozy arrangements with the Chinese Government has raised some eyebrows, especially with claims of forced labor behind things like product supply lines and the production of the recent Mulan remake.  Those are serious questions for a different time, but I also point out that there are creative failures from the company as well that have left me questioning the judgment of those working at Disney.  And that’s something that I find right at the heart of what may be my least favorite Disney film of all time; 2005’s Chicken Little.

Chicken Little came out in theaters at a very turbulent time for the Walt Disney company.  The later part of the Disney Renaissance post-The Lion King did not see the same kind of success that the earlier films had.  Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Hercules (1997) all underperformed and received mixed reception, while Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) saw only modest success.  At the same time, Pixar began to rise in prominence, with the Toy Story movies leading the way to even bigger hits like Monsters Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003).  This diminishing of returns for hand drawn animation coinciding with the rise of computer animation began to seriously challenge the notion within the industry about what kind of future the traditional form had left.  Then came two pivotal moments.  One was the release of the movie Shrek (2001) from newly formed rival studio Dreamworks, which saw record box office and critical praise, earning the first ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  A year later, Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) became the biggest money loser in the company’s history.  The writing was on the wall; hand drawn was out and computer animation was in.  Now, Disney already had their partnership with Pixar to guide them into this next era, but it was a limited contract, and Pixar was itching to go solo.  Disney CEO at the time, Michael Eisner, was not happy with what Pixar was demanding as a part of the renewal offer, so he set out to shift Disney’s fledgling animation department to be a Pixar competitor, focused entirely on CGI animation.  However, by the time the first of these new CGI Disney films were about to enter production, Eisner’s tenure was ended in a shareholder revolt, and soon after Bob Iger was left in charge of the company.  Iger not only soothed over tensions with Pixar, he negotiated a full purchase of the studio altogether, making them officially a part of the Disney company.  Though the duel with Pixar was ended before it even started, Eisner’s final push to bring computer animation to the legendary animation department still continued on.

Though a number of projects received a green-light at the same time, it was Chicken Little that was fast-tracked to be the first of this new breed of Disney movie.  Put in charge of the project were Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer, fresh off their surprise success with the sleeper hit The Emperor’s New Groove (2000).  Many of the animation team were also Disney vets from the Renaissance period that had to quickly re-train themselves in order to work in this new field of computer animation.  Also notable was the fact that the movie was going to deviate from the traditional Disney formula; it would not be a musical, aside from licensed songs and new pop tunes scattered throughout the score, it would be taking the classic nursery rhyme story and giving it a “modern” twist, and it would be banking on irreverent humor as a base for it’s entertainment.  The movie came out the year after the last of Disney’s hand drawn animated films, Home on the Range (2004) and ironically only a few short months after Eisner’s ouster and Iger’s purchase of Pixar, casting something of a shadow over the movie upon it’s release.  While there was anticipation over what Disney might deliver with their first CGI feature, there was also worry.  Chicken Little did perform modestly well at the box office, banking $150 million domestic for Disney, but critically it was a different story.  The movie was seen as too generic and lacking an identity.  And that really is the thing that characterizes the failure of Chicken Little the most as an entry in the Disney canon; the fact that it doesn’t feel like a true Disney film.  More than anything, it feels like Disney was trying to answer the competition of Dreamworks and Pixar with more of the same formula, and it backfired.  For the first time in it’s storied history, it looked like Disney were the ones playing catch-up.

The story of Disney’s Chicken Little, for lack of a better word, is weak. Pretty much every underdog cliché you can think of is thrown at you with regards to Little’s character development.  He’s ostracized for having been responsible for mayhem due to his assertion that the sky was falling and has to build his reputation back up, which is only compounded by the fact that he is a small statured little chicken.  They also throw in a cliched parental issues with his father, Buck Cluck (voiced by the late Garry Marshall), which of course is something that has been done to death in countless other Disney films.  Even with these tired tropes at it’s heart, the movie can’t even focus on this the whole way through, as later on, the movie turns into an alien invasion plot which comes straight out of nowhere, and makes the second half feel like a whole other film.  There is no heart or drive to the movie.  It just hits the points when it needs to and then moves onto the next point.  Pretty good case in point is when the town that the characters live in begins to be completely invaded by aliens, Chicken Little (voiced by Zach Braff) and his father are holed up in a theater for safety, and as the tension of the moment begins to rise, Little just stops the scene to finally speak his mind to his emotionally distant father.  Had the movie been able to build up a more contentious relationship with Little and his dad, this moment might have landed better, but here, it just stops the movie cold so that script can scratch one more thing off it’s list.  That’s emblematic of the movie as a whole, it just forces it’s moments through without letting it flow naturally.  It’s yet another sign of the filmmakers looking at other movies, like those from Dreamworks and Pixar, and just cutting and pasting what they saw.  For a storied studio like Disney to resort to this, it shows a shocking bit of desperation.

I should also point out that none of the characters are likeable at all.  Maybe with the possible exception of Buck Cluck, based on the charm of Garry Marshall’s vocal performance alone, all the characters are either too flashy and “hip” to be believable, too obnoxious, or too generic to leave an impression.  Chicken Little is easily the most underwhelming protagonist of any Disney movie, and that’s mainly because he changes little (no pun intended) throughout the film.  It was clear that Disney wanted actor Zach Braff’s vocal performance to drive the personality of the character, but he’s left with nothing but his own persona to guide him through that process.  Like many of Zach Braff’s other characters throughout the years, Chicken Little is nerdy, neurotic, and put down by society, and by the end of the movie he is still nerdy, neurotic but only less put down by society.  It’s not Chicken Little who changes, but all those around him that dealt him a bad hand.  It’s just not the hero’s journey that you expect from a Disney protagonist, who in some way or fashion have to struggle with some of their own shortcomings in order to become the hero.  It doesn’t help that the sidekick characters that follow him along are also devoid of interesting personalities.  There’s the ugly duckling, Abby Mallard, who like Braff’s Chicken Little is more defined by who voices her (Joan Cusack) than anything else as a character.  There’s voiceless Fish Out of Water, who is just there to deliver visual gags.  And then there’s Runt of the Litter (voiced by Steve Zahn) who may be the most insufferable comedic character ever put into any animated movie.  He’s just there to be the butt of fat jokes and to break into pop music tunes, because Disney’s trying way too hard to be culture savvy.  Coming off of the glory days of the Disney Renaissance, which gave us classic original characters like Sebastian the Crab, Mrs. Potts, the Genie, Pumbaa, and many more, this bland cast of characters really feel out of place, because there clearly was no care in making them stand out in the way that the other had.

I should also note that the movie is visually uninspired as well.  Now, to be fair, none of the computer animated movies of that era particularly look great over fifteen years later.  Computer animation was fairly new and still experimenting with a lot of techniques with each successive film.  But, most people don’t pay attention to the dated look of early CGI when the story and the characters are engaging enough to carry the rest of the movie.  That is why Toy Story has endured a quarter of a century after it’s original release.  With a story and characters that are less than engaging, people are bound to take notice of the shortcomings of early computer animation even more, and it is painfully obvious how lackluster Chicken Little looks.  The movie just has this obvious low texture look to it, like all the characters and the environments are made from plastic.  The village that the movie takes place, called Oakey Oaks (*eyeroll*) also has this strange visual style to it, where it’s supposed to look cartoony, but the blockiness of early CGI doesn’t completely smooth out the edges, so it becomes this weird mish-mash of painfully simplistic environmental design.  The only interesting visual idea in the whole movie is the way that the sky is made up of hexagonal plates that sit on the bottom of the space ships that are stealthily hovering over the town, and when the ships pull apart, it maintains that pattern.  The false sky element leads to some of the only visual gags that work as well, but sadly it doesn’t get nearly enough time on screen.  I almost think that a large part of what drove the visual look of this movie was probably coming from Disney’s consumer product line, who were possibly pushing the filmmakers to create character and structural designs that would appeal better as potential toys to sell in conjunction with the movie’s release.  It wouldn’t have been the first movie at Disney to have given consideration to the marketability, but with so little else that stands out in the film, it just further illustrates how this movie was made as more of a product and less as a work of art.

It’s interesting that Disney would attempt to devote a feature film to the story of Chicken Little at all and do so without giving any importance to the ultimate message behind the story.  The story of Chicken Little, which goes back to early European Folklore, is a cautionary tale about hysteria, and the dangers of giving into one’s fears.  Disney in fact had tackled the story before in the 1940’s in a short cartoon.  The short is noteworthy by the fact that it ends on a decidedly dark ending, with Chicken Little being tricked by the evil Foxy Loxy into convincing the other chickens on the farm to believe his belief that the sky is falling.  They all follow Chicken Little into a cave where they think they will all be safe, but to their tragic mistake, Foxy Loxy is there waiting.  The last we see is rows of chicken bones laid out like tombstones on the cave floor.  Pretty dark right.  It was originally supposed to be even darker, because Disney started out making the short as a wartime propaganda piece, explicitly connecting the hysteria spread by Chicken Little as the seeds of dangerous ideologies like Fascism and Communism.  Though cut out of the original short, Foxy Loxy was shown getting his ideas from reading passages out of Mein Kamph, Hitler’s notorious manifesto that became the backbone of Nazism.  Disney later changed it to a “psychology” text book, though some of the passages are still from the same source.  Though 2005’s Chicken Little didn’t need to be that explicit in it’s message, it nevertheless missed a prime opportunity to have a meaningful lesson at it’s core that stems from the original story.  Instead, the movie plays it safe.  It reminds me of how starkly it contrasts with another film about animals who live in a human like society that is way, way better in it’s execution; Zootopia (2016).  Not only was Zootopia far better looking and had more interesting characters, but it was also not afraid to lean more into a sharp social critique that you otherwise wouldn’t have expected.  The fundamental success of Zootopia just illustrates even more how squandered the entire Chicken Little experiment was, and what it could have been had it been brave enough to have an identity.

There are worse animated movies out there, but for a studio like Disney that has raised the bar so high for the artform, Chicken Little is definitely the bottom of the rung of the ladder.  It looks cheap, it’s derivative of too many other features, and it lacks an identity.  And the most sad thing of all, it just reeks of desperation.  It’s scary to think that this is what Michael Eisner was ready to herald as the touchstone for a new era in Disney animation.  Thankfully, once he was on the way out and the Pixar deal was reached, the weight of what Chicken Little was supposed to carry was somewhat lightened.  Thankfully, Disney animation only improved from there, and has remarkably not fallen under the shadow of Pixar but has instead thrived alongside of it.  A new regime now was in charge of the Burbank based animation studio, with former Pixar chief John Lasseter taking the reins.  The follow-up to Chicken Little was 2007’s Meet the Robinsons.  While not an all time classic, Robinsons was nevertheless an improvement as it had more likable characters and an emotional core at it’s heart.  Disney even briefly tried to reboot their hand drawn animation division with The Princess and the Frog (2009) though limited success led to a renewed focus on CGI, and that eventually led to mega successes like Tangled (2010), Wreck-It Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), Zootopia and Moana (2016).  That’s the best thing I can say about Chicken Little is that it’s embarrassment didn’t reflect badly on Disney in the long run.  It’s a good thing too, because had it become a bigger success, I think it would’ve creatively bankrupted the studio for a long time.  Disney has long been an industry leader, being the gold standard by which all other studios strive to reach harder towards in order to match or even surpass them.  With the Dreamworks wannabe that was Chicken Little, it would have been the point where Disney ceded the crown to another studio, and let them be the drivers of the artform.  Thankfully, Disney chose a different direction, and reclaimed their dominance in the following decade, making some of the greatest animated films ever in the process.  Chicken Little only remains as a reminder of the dark path that they could’ve taken, and a sits alone as sad relic of the point where Disney was just ready to give up and choose commerce over art.

What the Hell Was That? – The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Living through a global crisis is not unfamiliar, but still thankfully rare.  Whether it’s world wars, or a geologically caused catastrophe, or an economic collapse, or as is the case right now a pandemic, the planet at one point or another tests the strength of it’s people and despite a lot of hardship in the process, we emerge out of it.  Though it’s a distressing time when living through it, Hollywood will often look at crises in hindsight and find it to be great fodder for movies.  The disaster movie in particular has been a favorite among epic movie makers, because of the larger than life aspects of the ordeals that the characters go through.  Often these movies are showcases for visual effects, with massive budgets and a cast of hundreds.  For the most part, there is an understanding between the audience and the filmmaker that it’s all about the entertainment value of the experience, and that is why so many disaster movies are not afraid to be a little cheesy sometimes.  The movies of Irwin Allen in the 1970’s are a great example, like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) which were star-studded extravaganzas that took place within structural disasters.  For the longest time, apart from the all-star casts, the biggest draw of these movies would often be the grand scale destruction, especially if it involved an iconic structure.  And for the most part, these movies would retain it’s sense that it’s all just a movie, and that none of it’s supposed to be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, the world works very differently, and silly old disaster movies suddenly don’t feel so harmless once an actual real life disaster happens.  That’s why you sometimes see periods of retreat for these kinds of films, so that it won’t appear that Hollywood is exploiting a tragic moment in any way.  Eventually the periods of reverence recede, and it becomes okay to treat disasters as popcorn fare again.  It may take decades like getting our romantic Titanic movies when nobody is left alive to complain, but it always happens.  The only time when it doesn’t feel right is when a filmmaker who works solely within this type of genre continually exploits disaster sized imagery to make his own half-cooked points about the here and now.

Enter Roland Emmerich, best known as the “king of disaster movies” among film critics.  German born Emmerich has made a career out of making movies that seemingly are made solely to see landmarks destroyed.  This was certainly the case with his breakthrough sci-fi epic Independence Day (1996), which won an Academy Award for it’s ground-breaking effects, depicting an alien invasion that destroys many of the world’s largest cities.  The kind of grand-scale destruction that was found in Independence Day captured the imagination of it’s audiences, especially when seeing the Empire State Building and the White House being vaporized in a colossal fireball.  But, Emmerich was able to make that work  in sci-fi, because it fell within the understanding that Hollywood and audiences have always had; it’s all just a movie.  He continued the same principal to lesser effect in his Godzilla remake in 1998. And then two things happened after that.  In 2000, Emmerich broke away from his sci-fi pedigree and made for the first time a period set war film called The Patriotstarring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.  Garnering some of the best reviews of his career, Emmerich took this as a sign that it was time to become a more serious filmmaker, while at the same time working within the genre that he knew best.  From this, he set out to start writing a script centered around the theme of global warming, and it’s disastrous effects on the world, complete with the catastrophic destruction he had previously imagined in his sci-fi pictures.  And then came the second pivotal moment, which was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The kind of destruction that seemed so trivial and popcorn fodder in Emmerich’s previous films was now so very tragically real and traumatizing for most of America, and to return to that mode of film-making no longer seemed sensible anymore in Hollywood.  For Emmerich, he too would refrain from delving back in to his old ways, but that lasted little over a year, as the king of disasters went right back to his old ways by starting production on The Day After Tomorrow.

Pretty much every thing you can hate about Roland Emmerich’s style can be found in The Day After Tomorrow, and it marks the point in his career when his film-making sensibilities really began to devolve into self-indulgence.  One thing that can account for this is that The Day After Tomorrow was his first movie working solo after breaking from his partnership with co-writer and producer Dean Devlin.  Devlin, who himself has a penchant for loud, disaster filled action movies, for the most part was a grounding influence for Emmerich, helping to give his movies a more tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.  Mainly, Devlin helped to shape the tones of Emmerich’s scripts, giving them more of a sense of what they could be rather than what Roland wanted them to be.  This includes shaping the characters and the world to better service the plot and visuals, which were always Emmerich’s bigger strength.  But, without Devlin there to reign him in, Roland was more or less left to fill his movie with all sorts of his haphazard ideas, without any sense of how to make them work into a cohesive story.  At the same time, Emmerich was also developing a more politically conscience mind during this time, which also was a bit half-baked to say the least.  Like many surface level thinkers, Emmerich has opinions, but not the knowledge to translate those opinions into a workable story.  And the result ends up being a movie that tackles a serious subject and unfortunately trivializes it, causing the opposite effect that it was intended to have.  In this case, the issue is global warming, something that was indeed a hot button issue at the time when Emmerich was drafting his script during the 2000 presidential election.  Though the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars that followed took the focus away from the issue, it nevertheless remained a part of the discussion even up to the premiere of The Day After Tomorrow in 2004.  Around  that same time, presidential candidate Al Gore appeared in the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which drew more attention to global issue.  And the reason why a documentary like that raised such an alarm is because of the catastrophic way that movies like The Day After Tomorrow failed to do the same.

Emmerich’s films often share one characteristic, and it’s the allure of the conspiracy.  He is an avid conspiracy theory enthusiast, and has often used it as fodder for many of his movies; often exploring them with complete disregard to the actual truth.  Some of it is harmless enough, like theorizing what went on at Roswell (Independence Day) or who built the ancient pyramids (Stargate) or were the Mayans right about doomsday (2012, and no they weren’t).  Then there are some conspiracy theories that he indulges that are more insidious and irrational like the false one about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays (Anonymous) because some of it’s arguments stem from imperial nationalistic hate groups.  Not that Emmerich prescribes to some of these more extreme conspiratorial beliefs, but the fact that he indulges many of them is something that is very irresponsible as a story-teller with immense sway within the industry.  What’s especially problematic with The Day After Tomorrow is the fact that Emmerich’s conspiracy thinking mixes in with actual science, and takes a very real problem like climate change and turns it into something as convoluted as one of his zany theories.  What was especially fool-hearty about his attempts to legitimize his vision was  that he called in actual experts from the field of climate science to observe his movie and give it their thumbs up.  The plan did not go as he expected, as scientists from NASA were especially critical of the “made-up” science of the movie and the agency even barred them from even speaking their mind about the movie any further, critical or otherwise.  Many other scientists called the movie “silly” which probably did not please the director, who wanted to be taken more seriously at this point.  In the end, Emmerich went ahead with his vision of a world overcome with sudden climate change, and the end result is no where close to real science nor towards a comprehensive narrative.

First of all, it’s clear that the science was never going to matter to Emmerich.  He just wanted to show cities being destroyed again, and doing so with a grand scale event like a natural disaster made sense to him in a post-9/11 age.  One thing that climate scientists will tell you is that global warming and climate change are two different things, with one resulting from the other.  They will also tell you that it is a gradual process that just doesn’t manifest overnight.  But, in Roland Emmerich’s eye, global warming means extreme weather happening without warning in places that it shouldn’t exist.  It’s clear from watching the scenes of destruction that Emmerich just wants to destroy landmarks, as they seem to be suspiciously prone to attracting natural disasters in this movie.  We see the Hollywood Sign and the Capitol Records building being blown away by tornadoes.  Why those specifically?  Because people who aren’t from Los Angeles will recognize them right away.  Also the Hollywood Sign being blown apart by a tornado is scientifically absurd to begin with, because tornadoes can’t climb mountains; they only manifest on flat terrain.  There is also the storm surge that floods the city of New York, which supposedly happens because of a week’s worth of constant rain.  Again, the science here is so nonsensical, because storm surges are cause by a rush of water brought in by a hurricane or tsunami, and not a long-running rain storm.  The flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is the most recent example, and it didn’t nearly flood the city up to the armpits of the Statue of Liberty like it does in this movie.  Emmerich clearly saw the time tables of the effects of climate change and felt they were too slow and too minimal for what he imagined.  The problem is, when you put that kind of rushed thinking into your movie, you give the audience the wrong impression of what actual climate change is going to be like, and that makes the job harder for climate scientists to give their own informed and researched warnings.

What’s also a problem with the movie is that the story itself is also fairly flimsy.  Emmerich’s movies typically center themselves around a nerdy loser who somehow stumbles across the key to saving the world.  You see this with Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, Matthew Broaderick’s in Godzilla, John Cusack in 2012, and of course Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow.  There’s not much we learn about with Quaid’s character, other than he knows that an imminent natural event caused by global warming is about to destroy most of the Northern Hemisphere.  The only other aspect that we learn about him is his estranged relationship with his son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Gyllenhaal’s character was originally written to be 12 years old, but was changed when the rising actor expressed interest in the movie, and became a teenager instead (Gyllenhaal was 24 at the time by the way).  As a result, this becomes the focal point of the movie, which otherwise would have been a aimless globe-trotting series of different disasters hitting the planet with unrelated characters all witnessing the destruction.  In some ways, you could have gotten away with this arrangement of characters had they been quirky enough, or charming, like those found in the ensemble of Independence Day.  But the characters, even the ones played by Quaid and Gyllenhaal, are so generic that we can’t connect with them on any level.  So, when the movie calls for them to be witness to a cataclysmic event, all we see in the audience is exactly what is on the screen; disinterested actors staring at a special effect.  It makes it all the more ridiculous when the movie can’t even hold it’s own logic together.  Supposedly, the massive storm at the end of the movie, which causes the city of New York to go into an immediate deep freeze, can destroy infrastructure and envelope interiors killing everything in sight.  And yet, our main characters can survive in a solitary room with a working fireplace?  This ludicrous logic exists solely to give us one of the most justifiably mocked moments in the movie, where “climate change” is literally chasing the characters down a hallway, like a monster.  Suffice to say, this movie is dumb.

What it also reveals is a hubris on the part of Roland Emmerich that is also the hubris of many others in Hollywood.  What The Day After Tomorrow and most other Emmerich movies reveals is the worst kind of Neo-liberalism that ends up trivializing so many important issues that should be given a more serious examination.  Roland Emmerich believes that he is a liberal thinker, that his movies are doing a lot to help left-wing causes that mean a great deal to him.  But, as is the problem with a neo-liberal mindset, he is only interested in the surface level aspects of such causes.  His movies are all about tackling the soft targets, like politicians and industrialists, but never actually takes addresses the larger societal problems that also contribute to the rise of global warming, such as consumerism and increased human activity.  He never wants to point a finger at the audience themselves to make them consider what they could be doing differently to help slow down the rate of climate change.  No, instead he presents an easily identifiable antagonist that we can all project our disgust on, putting the responsibility on the individual and not on the masses.  This is shown through the portrayal of the vice president character, played by Kenneth Walsh, who repeatedly ignores the warnings of Quaid’s character.  Walsh was clearly cast because of his resemblance to the then VP Dick Cheney, and it’s Emmerich’s lame attempt to win some political points by picking on his straw man representation of the divisive politician.  The problem is, Emmerich is no where near clever enough to make this political parody work so it comes off as petty.  This kind of neo-liberalism is often referred to as “limousine liberalism,” meaning it’s a political mindset that claims to be progressive but is formed within a bubble of comfort that has no connection from the actual plights of the world, and as a result minimizes the arguments that the subject is trying to make.  This unfortunately leads to right wing forces in opposition to progressive causes having more fodder and reason to dismiss the arguments of the other side.  Emmerich probably doesn’t know how counter-productive his half-baked arguments are to actually solving the problem that it intends to address, and that is probably The Day After Tomorrow’s biggest crime of all.  It, probably more than any other film, set back the progress this country has made in fighting climate change because it gave the other side of the argument the perfect example of the kind of overblown exaggeration that they always claim is coming from the environmental side.

Suffice to say, there is much to dislike about the movie, from it’s mediocre script, to it’s bland characters, to it’s self-indulgent direction.  But the fact that it bungles it’s important message so fiercely that it may have set back the environmental movement at a time when we need them the most is probably it’s greatest crime.  Emmerich is clearly out of his league as a social commentator, and his attempts to make a statement on the politics of this issue and point fingers at certain people doesn’t do anything to help what actually needs to be done.  Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did so much more to address the actual problem and what needs to be done to solve it than Roland’s movie ever did, and that was because it didn’t let it’s audience off the hook.  It’s not a simple good vs. evil story-line; it is man vs. nature and about bringing balance back into the world, which calls upon us to change a lot of our own behavior.  The Day After Tomorrow just whittles the issue of climate change down to a simple series of experts vs. skeptics arguments and some big budget mayhem that seemed to be his main goal in the end.  Emmerich’s main problem is that as much as he wants to be a serious filmmaker, he never will able to be, because it’s not his strength.  He’s a loud, bombastic filmmaker who excels at portraying destruction on screen.  And as often the case, his attempts at making a profound statement often get drowned out by the sophomoric indulges he puts in whenever he fears he’s losing the audiences attention.  He has to understand, he is not a serious filmmaker.  It is okay being genre man, and indeed, he can find moments of truth even within something as outlandish as Independence Day.  But with The Day After Tomorrrow, he is only further poisoning the discourse, which should always be focused on delivering the cold hard facts about the realities of climate change.  It may not be Emmerich’s worst made movie, but it is certainly his most irresponsible, and should stand as a reminder of what it looks like when a filmmaker’s own self-interest ends up doing a disservice to the very issue it is trying to solve.  It seems appropriate that a movie like The Day After Tomorrow would in itself prove to be a destructive disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Hell Was That? – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

With the past year at a close, the next few weeks present to us the season in which the last year was all leading up to; awards season.  One thing that is commonplace pretty much every year is the scramble to get in last minute consideration before the deadline of the year’s end cuts off prevents any more inclusion.   In these final weeks of December, the goal is very clear from all contenders; get the most attention that you can.  As accolades begin to pile up from various year end awards, this is when the attention from the Film Academy is at it’s highest, and the potential of making their shortlist of nominees becomes even higher.  Some movies have better chances than others because they appeal to the general tastes of the Academy’s voting body, which can be frustratingly predictable at times.  These movies are what we generally know as “Oscar Bait,” which are films that are specifically manufactured to appeal solely to the people within the industry who vote for the Academy Awards.  And given the insular, sometimes out of touch voting body of the Academy, these movies tend to always end up being small dramas that tackle some social issue or features a performance where the actor goes through some body transformation that makes them(how to put this lightly) less glamorous.  Essentially, they are movies that are pandering to a specific group of elitists, and typically because of that, the movies have limited appeal and even smaller box office grosses.  And you wonder why the Academy Awards has a problem with popularity.  Oscar Bait movies are not all bad; some are even great and deserving of their honors.  But, when they are bad, they become infuriatingly so, because their very pandering nature exposes the cynicism behind their creation and the greedy intentions of their producers.  And, depending on the type of story and issue that the movie is tackling, it can become downright offensive.

A couple years back, I made a top ten list of failed Oscar Bait movies, and what ended up topping my list was Micahel Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  My criteria for the list called for the top movie to be the one that crashed hardest in it’s attempts to win an Oscar, and Heaven’s Gate is notorious for being an Oscar Bait movie that bankrupted it’s studio (United Artists) and destroyed it’s director’s reputation.  But, here’s the thing, Heaven’s Gate is not a terrible movie.  In fact, it’s gone through a critical reevalution in the last few years thanks to a stellar restoration and a Criterion Collection release, helping to soften it’s notorious reputation.  If you want to look at the worst ever Oscar Bait movie, you only need to look at my #2 on that same list; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  The Stephen Daldry directed feature is pretty much the textbook example of a bad Oscar Bait movie.  It’s pandering, it’s obnoxiously self-indulgent, it’s enormously shallow and insincere, and worst of all, exploitative.  And yet, somehow, it managed to do what Heaven’s Gate could not; get a Best Picture nomination.  I guess that doesn’t make it a failed Oscar Bait movie, because it at least got itself a place at the table, but really, at what cost?  Extremely Loud is personally my most hated of Oscar baiting movies, which are the ones that use it’s very important subject matter to do nothing other than gain the attention of Oscar voters.  And here’s the more insidious thing about it; it doesn’t just stick to one grim subject matter either.  We get the entire buffet in one movie.  We get the Holocaust, mental disorders, racism, and the Twin Tower attacks of 9/11 all in this mess of a movie.  Had they thrown a person dying from AIDS the movie would have hit an Oscar BINGO (thankfully the movie never went that far).  But what we did get presented us with probably the most grossly transparent attempt at baiting the Academy for an Oscar, and sadly the industry took a nibble before rightfully throwing this one out.

To understand why a movie like this came to be in the first place, you have to consider the period in which it was made.  The movie came to theaters just after the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a point in time after the tragedy when the industry felt it was appropriate to begin dramatizing the event on film.  Before this, only two other films had tackled the tragedy; Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both from 2006.  Both tackled the event head on, with true life stories and managed to gain varying degrees of success among critics.  But, Extremely Loud took a different approach to the event; using it as a backdrop to their own fictional story.  Many films do that of course, but there is a purpose most of the time to those that choose to set their story that way.  Titanic (1997) of course used a Romeo and Juliet style love story to place a dramatic connection for the audience in the midst of all the true events of the tragedy.  9/11 is a trickier event to tackle because of the widespread ramifications that the event had on the world at large; including becoming a hot button political issue, even today.  Extremely Loud makes the aftermath of the terror attack part of it’s own narrative, primarily with regards to the trauma that the city of New York went through.  Some movies could tackle that kind of narrative effectively, without ever having to resort to recreating the event itself.  Spike Lee managed to to that effectively in his film 25th Hour (2002), which was made a mere year after the attack, and told the story of the people still feeling the pain of loss.  The way that worked is because the movie was about the longer lasting effects of trauma on people, and how that creates problems down the road itself.  Extremely Loud on the other hand not only wants to use the 9/11 terror attacks as a factor in it’s movie, but it even seems to expose old wounds that many had hoped would be healed with time.

Here’s where we get to the most controversial aspect of the movie, and a prime example of where movies that pander to an a certain kind of audience ends up crossing the line.  In various parts of the movie, the 9/11 attacks are dramatized; not particularly outrageous in itself, except the filmmakers decided to do so with a misguided artistic flair.   The character played by Tom Hanks in the movie, Thomas Schell, is a victim of the terror attack, with the movie focused on the coping with grief that his remaining family goes through afterwards.  At several points, Thomas’ son Oskar (which is in no way another pandering move, I say in a sarcastic tone) has nightmarish flashes of imagination where he sees his father falling from the building like one of the horrifying videos of jumpers captured on that day.  These moments take this tragic aspect of the tragedy and dramatizes it in a way that feels extremely exploitative.  The scenes don’t just recreate the falling, they stylize it.  The opening credits in fact play over a cringe-inducing slow motion shot of Tom Hanks falling in mid air.  This is not the kind of thing that you use visual poetry on.  To make matters worse, there is no need in the narrative whatsoever for these moments to happen.  It just comes at you as a slap to the face reminding you of what a tragedy 9/11 was.  It’s the same kind of exploitative tactic that you see when a documentary or narrative film suddenly splices in footage of the towers collapsing, knowing the power that those terrifying images still have.  The images of 9/11 are profound in their scale of cataclysm, but to take those and offer up an artistic spin like the one in this movie almost feels like it’s intentionally wanting people to feel the pain of the events again.  It’s like the movie doesn’t care what feeling it’s audience has toward the event; it just knows that there is power in the images that we saw from that day, and it wants to use it to elevate it’s own sense of importance.

That’s where the movie especially rubs people the wrong way, with it’s emphasis on it’s own importance.  The movie wants you to follow these characters around and learn about their struggles, but here’s the problem; the struggles carry more importance that the characters themselves.  Every character is a pastiche of your typical tragic backstory individual that usually populates movies that carry some importance.  Most of the time, we accept a character or two that has a personal tragedy that motivates their existence within a narrative; but not when the entire movie is populated with them.  The book on which this movie is based, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, probably addresses each individual problem with all the characters with more nuance, since novels allow more time and introspection to establish each character’s purpose in the story (I can’t judge for certain because I haven’t read it).  The movie adaptation, done by the usually reliable Eric Roth, dispenses with subtlety and just goes for the essential hardship that defines each character; whether it’s loosing a husband on 9/11 like Oskar’s mother (played by Sandra Bullock), or having survived the Holocaust like his grandparents.  All we get out of their character development is how each personal tragedy shaped them, and this carries little resonance as there is nothing else remotely interesting about each character.  To the movie, the personal tragedies are all that matter and that makes the movie feel especially exploitative.  It’s as if the movie doesn’t want anyone to know anything more about the movie other than it touches on these important issues, because it certainly doesn’t have worthwhile characters.  If you look at other movies that tackled serious issues, they always managed to find a way to ground their narrative with a deeply relatable story.  But, when everyone has baggage, then the narrative comes across as false and unrelatable.  Not everyone in New York has a deep connection to the many plights that has befallen society; and yet Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to believe that all of these people are so easily accessible in one neighborhood.

Compare the way the movie deals with something like the Holocaust.  The worst tragedy of the 20th century is merely represented here through the presence of Oskar’s grandparents, who seem so disconnected from their past experience.  The Holocaust is merely just an extra bit of character detail here; never fully explored and yet always reinforced on us the audience.  If the movie really wanted to give more importance to how the Holocaust could fit in their narrative, they could have included a moment when one of the grandparents sits down with Oskar and helps him learn how to move beyond the pain of loss endured through such an ordeal and find positivity again.  But, no, we only get the information that both grandparents are Holocaust survivors and that this is enough to give the movie the extra weight of importance.  It doesn’t help that one of the grandparents is a mute, which is never really given a full explanation as to why.  You would assume the tragedy of the Holocaust would’ve done that, but the movie seems less interested in connecting the dots.  To be fair, Max von Sydow’s performance as Oskar’s mute grandfather is the one redeeming aspect of the movie.  The film doesn’t do a good job of explaining the real truth behind the character, but Sydow is able to communicate so much through his simple gestures and expressions, which helps to give some element of authenticity to this film that severely lacks it.  He received the movie’s only other Oscar nomination, and lost out to fellow octogenarian acting legend Christopher Plummer that year.  But, Max von Sydow’s long and storied career gave him the ability to find the humanity in this character and make him more than just a archetype, which is sadly not the case with everyone else in the movie.   If there was ever an event where the personal story mattered with regards to the characters, it would be the Holocaust where the outpouring of personal accounts in the wake of Schindler’s List (1993) made such an impact in defining that period of time in human history.  Here in this film, it’s just there to get attention, and that makes it feel very wrong and misused.

But, the movie’s biggest problem is with the little, walking talking plot device that is Oskar.  He is where the movie focuses all the Oscar Bait formula into and creates perhaps one of the most insufferable characters to have appeared in a movie perhaps ever.  Oskar, a twelve year old boy with mental abnormalities, must learn to let go of the pain he has felt since the loss of his father on 9/11, and in the meantime, reconnect with the estranged Holocaust-surviving grandfather that he barely knows.  The movie deposits a treasure hunt for him to complete, that his father had set up before his death, and the movie uses this narrative structure to take us through the aforementioned greatest hits of every Oscar baiting subject known to man.  It doesn’t help the fact that Oskar himself is not only not very interesting, but he is also incredibly annoying.  I don’t want to blame this on the young actor, Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar, because it’s not his fault the character is terribly written and poorly conceived.  But the film rests so much on him to carry the film, and it does so by making him talk a whole lot.  The movie also fails in portraying his mental state in any meaningful way, because it never really commits to it either.  The movie heavily implies that he has Aspergers Syndrome, but it never commits to it, and in some instances, portrays his disability as a quirky aspect of his character.  Never once does the movie address the daily hardships that most people with the disorder must overcome to live a normal life, and again like everything else, just merely uses it as another element in the story to inflate it’s own sense of importance.  This is the most often exploited Oscar bait tactic for many movies, and you can fill a whole library with all the movies that failed hard in an attempt to dramatize a persons disorder.  It feels even more egregious here because it’s the mental disorder that fuels the character of Oskar, and makes him feel less genuine as a person.  You never want to tell someone like this to shut up in real life, but this movie really grinds your nerves and it pushes Oskar so heavily to the forefront.  And in doing so, it takes this movie from forgettable Oscar Bait garbage, to irredeemable and notorious Oscar Bait garbage.

I cannot stress enough how infuriating this movie is to sit through.  It’s always clear what the movie’s intentions are, and it’s cynical ploy to grab the Academy Awards attention is frankly offensive when you see the things it’s exploiting to get there.  The movie is not content to take on one issue, it wants to do all of them; perhaps banking on the odds of quantity over quality.  We get our Holocaust backstory, and the mental illness angle, and this movie carries the notorious reputation of adding the tragedy of 9/11 to the checklist of things Hollywood can exploit for awards fare.  The fact that this movie uses them is not the problematic part; it’s the fact that it uses them without care.  The Holocaust and 9/11 are just tools for this movie, completely devoid of any really exploration and just there to remind the audience of how awful the world is.  When a movie addresses an important issue, it must come with a story that transcends it’s placement in that moment and helps to personalize it for all audiences to understand it’s importance.  Schindler’s List brought many harrowing stories to the forefront, but centered it around an interesting character study of a man who saved lives by exploiting a system to his advantage.  Rain Man (1988) brought a portrayal of living with a mental disorder to life, but framed it within a story of two estranged brothers reconnecting on a road trip.  The best way that these elements can work in a movie is if the film never intends to do anything else than shed light on these important issues.  That was clearly Spielberg’s intention with Schindler’s, and he’ll tell you that the proudest outcome of that movie was seeing the floodgates open with numerous survivor’s stories after the movie came out.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t care about any of it’s issues; it’s a fabricated gift bag to the Academy hoping to get attention in the most desperate of ways.  The fact that the Academy almost fell for it is a pretty sad statement, and it shows just how easily the body can be manipulated.  Everything you hate about Oscar Bait movies can be found in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that’s what makes it one of the most insufferable and at times most offensive movies to ever get this close to Oscar glory.