Finding the Icons of Modern Myth

It's the end of the world...

It’s the end of the world…

Depending on the interpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, 21st December 2012 is allegedly either the end of the world or the herald of a significant change and rebirth into something new and, it is to be hoped, better. In 2009, Roland Emmerich’s eponymous film of the year of destruction horrified audiences, not so much through the terrible fate of the population as mutated neutrinos overheated the Earth’s core but with how awful the film was. Elsewhere, Special Agent Fox Mulder has known since at least 2002 that the final stage of the plan for the recolonisation of Earth by the alien virus Purity was to be set in motion on that date.

Yet in this age of multiplexes showing the same blockbusters in 2D, 3D and IMAX while less commercial ventures are sidelined, simultaneous theatrical/disc/download releases and new distribution avenues such as the online premiere of Battlestar Galactica Blood and Chrome and Bryan Singer’s H+ prior to broadcast or disc release, where is the uniqueness that will make any of these projects outstanding, that will mark them as the ones to watch rather than the weak ones of an increasingly generic herd?

The winning team

The winning team

With a worldwide gross of $1.5 billion, the biggest film of 2012 so far is The Avengers, followed by The Dark Knight Rises with just over $1 billion, but both these featured established characters with long histories, one the conclusion of an acclaimed trilogy, the other the beneficiary of a marketing strategy directly tying together no less than four previous films, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America – The First Avenger. While undoubtedly a success, the question remains whether in thirty years the audiences of 2032 will look back at The Avengers in the same way as we now look back on The Empire Strikes Back. To phrase it another way, where are the modern icons?

Earlier this year, we were prepared to celebrate the return of Ridley Scott to science fiction where he had previously created two films regarded as not only defining works of the genre but masterpieces of cinema. Unfortunately, instead of another Alien or Blade Runner, even the most enthusiastic and generous of critics could not deny that Prometheus was a deeply and fundamentally flawed film.

Worse was that many of those flaws were not only easily identifiable, even with a modest knowledge of film structure and language, but that those flaws could have been highlighted and addressed during early pre-production, but their preservation through the script revisions, storyboarding, set design, shooting, editing and post production process, right through preview screenings and release, demonstrates the illness at the core of modern studio films – production by committee.

Consider the difference between a small yacht and an ocean liner, both of which are heading towards an obstacle. The yacht can be steered by a single person, who sees the danger, immediately makes a decision and takes corrective action. An ocean liner has many levels of hierarchy and command structures, and most of all, it has momentum; to change direction is not a snap decision, so it is crucial that the right decisions are made before departure, because the longer the journey progresses, the harder it will be to divert in any significant way.

A work of flawed genius

A work of flawed genius

The modern studio production costs tens millions of dollars, much of it invested without possibility of recovery before any actual footage has been shot: securing acting talent, scouting locations, designing and creating sets, props and costumes, creating special effects designs, and all too often, or perhaps too infrequently, hiring script doctors to address the notes that the various levels of producers and investors make so each can see their wishes reflected in the final product, the end result not being a vision with a clear voice but the minutes of a committee meeting. An icon is defined by its uniqueness; a town council meeting is frequently of no interest even to those who were obliged to attend.

Perhaps it is unfair to single out Prometheus in this way, for certainly there are other films who have committed more hideous cinematic crimes even within this last year, and for all the disappointment of Prometheus it was visually stunning, ambitious, provoked great discussion within and without fandom, and in Michael Fassbender’s David gave another great character to the science fiction pantheon (the point that all of Ridley Scott’s science fiction work features androids in key roles can be debated elsewhere).

A work of flawed mediocrity

A work of flawed mediocrity

It is not a new concept for films to be regarded as vehicles to promote whomever is in favour with the studio because their names are recognisable and will act as a draw to a particular audience demographic, regardless of whether they are right for the role, with the actual film in service to its headline stars rather than the more logical reverse. A recent example of this was The Woman in Black, a mediocre film in which the painfully miscast Daniel Radcliffe was unable to carry the role convincingly, although the support of his Harry Potter fanbase boosted takings to a wholly undeserved $127 million globally.

A film should be bigger than any one person involved, save for maybe the director. Neither Roy Scheider nor Richard Dreyfuss were cast in Jaws because they were stars, nor was Sigourney Weaver in Alien because of her pre-existing fame. And it is not just the lead roles that are crucial: on Star Trek First Contact, director Jonathan Frakes hired Alice Krige as t
he Borg Queen against strong studio resistance, but he was correct in his conviction that her ability was a more important factor than the star draw of their preferred “marquee name” talent.

All were experienced performers, but none were stars, as it was crucial that the audience believed in the film, a much harder feat to achieve when watching a recognised star. With a single exception (Interview with the Vampire excluded for obvious reasons), when will a film starring Tom Cruise conclude with the violent death of his character? How can an audience believe Ethan Hunt life’s may be at risk at any moment when on assignment for the Impossible Mission Force when he is the star of not only the current film, but the next one as well.

The chosen one

The chosen one

The possibility of the death of a lead character is something Joss Whedon has held over his audience in all his works. In discussing his most famous creation Buffy Summers, he has said she was designed to be iconic, and the genuine losses she endured were one of the reasons her story went beyond casual viewing to become an integral part of the real lives of those who followed her. While her adventures never reached as wide an audience as her main competitor, with a maximum viewership of six million in America compared to eight million for the sisters of Charmed, the critical acclaim, awards and depth of feeling that smaller audience engendered is what carried Buffy the Vampire Slayer into the territory of an international phenomenon.

It was this understanding of both product and audience that Whedon brought to The Avengers, masterminding the most successful superhero film of all time both in terms of positive critical praise, usually more reserved or derisory for genre product, and the unprecedented global haul. While not a masterpiece, it was superior to the immediate competition of Men In Black 3 and Snow White and the Huntsman, generic retellings of established stories made without genuine understanding of who they were intended to appeal to.

While there will always be those to whom film is an art form, these individuals are no longer supported or endorsed by the studio where it has become a medium of instant gratification rather than lasting substance. Because it is recognised that something new will always be just around the corner, it’s okay to cut corners. Films are no longer made to be masterpieces to last for eternity, to make bold statements of the human condition, they are only there for two hours, for as long as it takes to sink a soda and devour a carton of popcorn, their releases coordinated with marketing campaigns of military efficiency, where now even trailers have teasers.

Set course for the horizon

Set course for the horizon

In August 1980, three years after initial release, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was given a full cinematic reissue with extra footage. It was regarded as an event movie, and was certainly more deserving of that term than many to which it is applied now. Can we imagine the same, even for a film as successful as the Lord of the Rings trilogy? While the additional footage was available for reinstatement, it was intended primarily for the DVD release, and that is where the market has changed. The ready availability of video in the home has made the cinema experience less significant in the lifecycle of a film, disposable even.

The ongoing conspiracy of studios to lower blockbusters to new levels of wretchedness is demonstrated by their continued willingness to give employment to both Paul W S Anderson on the Resident Evil series and Stephen Sommers, responsible for both The Mummy and the G I Joe series and who also receives special mention for the atrocity that was Van Helsing.

Another special mention is reserved for Michael Bay, inconceivably one of the most successful directors of recent times in terms of box office revenue, perhaps because his films are aimed at an audience whose attention does not expand beyond fast cars and explosions, and whose lack of cinematic education – not their fault, for the distributors and multiplexes are equally culpable – quite literally means they have more money than sense, which Bay is only too delighted to relieve them of. As we approach cinematic Armageddon, we cannot deny we were warned, by Kevin Smith of all people, in Clerks II: “Dude, the Transformers were a total slight against God, in as much as God sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross to redeem mankind and all we did to pay Him back was make terrible cartoons like the Transformers.”

alt Outgunned and outnumbered, we must use the only weapons we have. Viewers cannot influence the creative decisions of studios, but they can affect how films are received, by praising and encouraging originality, innovation and creativity, supporting films that respect their audience, and refusing to support vacuous franchise films simply “because I saw the last one,” or at least waiting until late in the cinematic run or on disc, and when a film is genuinely bad, telling everyone they know by every means possible. As Cecil B Demented exhorted, they must punish bad cinema.

It is sad and unfortunate that Stanley Kubrick, the last director who could bend a studio to his own precise and uncompromised vision, a man who held two A list performers to ransom for over a year on his final project, is gone. Robert Wise, the last great craftsman who learnt his skills editing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and approached every project with the same level of enthusiasm and professionalism, is also gone.

Of those that we have left, the great maverick William Friedkin who shocked studios, censors and audiences in different ways with The Exorcist and Cruising is reduced to making low budget adaptations of stage plays as the challenging work he broke through with will no longer be supported by studios. Steven Speilberg has lost his voice, his later work veering between Academy targeted work such as Munich, War Horse and Lincoln and such soulless crowd pleasers as War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull whose by-the-numbers antics are a betrayal of the genuine individuality and spectacle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Don't place your faith in false idols

Don’t place your faith in false idols

Conversely, Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors who, even when criticised, the detractors are voicing concerns on levels that many films would be honoured to possess in the first place, and the success of The Prestige and Inception alongside the global achievement of his Dark Knight trilogy proves that he is not limited by brand recognition. Unlike James Cameron, whose obsession with pushing technical achievement and insistence on scripting his own films has been at the expense of engaging storytelling or adequate performance, Nolan has collaborators, not least of them his younger brother Jonathan, who shares scripting duties.

Still important, though neither has ventured into genre recently, are David Fincher and Paul Verhoeven, though of late Verhoeven’s work has returned to his continental origin. Robocop and Starship Troopers are both classic films of their times, endlessly entertaining and technically inventive satires on consumerism and the military, and Alien 3 is, like Blade Runner on original release, a potential masterpiece cruelly hobbled by studio interference. Should it come to fruition unlike his long posited Rendezvous With Rama, Fincher‘s anticipated steampunk interpretation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might be the definitive telling of that oft adapted novel. While erratic in the quality of their output, both are at least innovators willing to break rules and challenge expectations, more so than Quentin Tarantino, who if he were actually half as hip and cool as he believes wouldn’t have to shout so loudly to prove it.

The standard by which others are measured

The standard by which others are measured

The most recent earthquake to hit California was the shock news that George Lucas had sold his most famous offspring to Disney, an announcement that generated debate and accusation far beyond the content of the actual statement, most of it based on supposition and argued with little reason. When the flames have died down, those who consider the evidence may concede that new Star Wars brand manager Kathleen Kennedy should prove a more certain hand on the rudder of that ship; the briefest perusal of her resume offers Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Gremlins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Goonies and more recently Munich, War Horse and Lincoln as just a few highlights from amongst her more than seventy produced films, perhaps one of the most enviable track records in Hollywood history.

But the rebirth of Star Wars is not our only hope. Not only is there another, there are in in fact several. Relative newcomers showing promise are Rian Johnson, who moved into genre with Looper and Colin Trevorrow whose Safety Not Guaranteed is due for release in Britain at the end of the year, and who is a rumoured possibility for the new Star Wars film. It would be ironic if, like Christopher Nolan with Batman and Zach Snyder with his forthcoming Superman relaunch Man of Steel, both characters originating in the 1930s, Trevorrow was to find success with a story that began, perhaps not quite such a long time ago or in a galaxy far, far away, but which will be on the cusp of its fortieth anniversary when the next instalment is released.

Proof that icons can be reinvented

Proof that icons can be reinvented

With only the romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer to his name to supplement his extensive music video output, Marc Webb was a surprising choice for The Amazing Spider-Man, yet made a better film than any of Sam Raimi’s three efforts despite the studio dictated handicap of retelling the origin story, and the third Iron Man film sees the return of Shane Black to the director’s chair, reuniting him with his accomplice Robert Downey Jr with whom he collaborated on the criminally overlooked gem Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Almost simultaneously, J J Abrams will invite us on a Star Trek Into Darkness, four years after he reminded us that more than danger wrapped in darkness and silence, the final frontier was also excitement. That Abrams is working with the established characters from the 1960s rather than moving forwards within the universe, as the later Star Trek television shows opted, indicates that he recognises that those are the Starfleet officers who have remained within the public consciousness through two generations.

It would seem that prolonged exposure is a factor, and were there any candidates from the past fifteen years for future celebration and remembrance, they have come from television rather than cinema: Buffy Summers, Malcolm Reynolds, Kara Thrace, Tyrion Lannister, and undeniably the regenerated Doctor, the very definition of a timeless character. While they may be reinvented, like the mythology and archetypes that have informed so many of our modern stories, our icons hail from the past. While it may be sad that we no longer live in an age of heroes, perhaps that means that we are now living in the future.

Special thanks to Adam Dworak for the initial idea, suggestions and input

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