Saturday, January 26, 2013

Coming This Year, Part I: Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness, the sequel to the 2009 big-screen reboot of the half century-old Star Trek franchise, is of course one of the major events of the upcoming year in genre film as far as fans are concerned.

I remember enjoying the 2009 movie as a big, loud, flashy summer blockbuster, brisk and slick and spectacular and full of grandly operatic dramatics and viscerally exciting action. And the central twist, which had this story branching off in another timeline from Star Trek as we knew it before, was clever and well-executed. However, I also remember feeling that it dispensed with almost everything that made Star Trek, Star Trek.

I have already mentioned the film's refusal to provide even a nod to the humanism and utopianism of the originals, or their intellectual aspiration - and also conceded that there may be no going back to it. The movie even destroyed significant pieces of the Star Trek universe outright, Vulcan not surviving the film's first half. One result was that the use of the characters at the core of the original series became the main link to the franchise, without which the film would have been a generic space opera with a well-known brand name slapped on.

However, this was an intrinsically problematic approach. The original cast, whatever the limitations of the material it had, or the performances it gave, occupied their roles for three decades - in Leonard Nimoy's case, from 1964's pilot "The Menagerie," to 1994's Star Trek: Generations. This means that we watched the cast assume these roles in their youth or middle age, and continue in them into old age, along with their characters, Bones becoming Admiral McCoy, Spock Ambassador Spock in their appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation's two-parter "Unification" - trajectories without any parallel in screen history. Naturally actor and character became closely identified down to their quirks, like William Shatner's theatrical delivery of his lines (so notoriously susceptible to parody), which I can't help but feel is the only way anyone playing James T. Kirk can or should speak.

Such images are not easily displaced within a mere two hours of screen time - even with ideal writing and casting, something the writing and casting of the film was not. Hiram Lee, a reviewer clearly well-acquainted with the original series, and with some apparent affection for it, wrote of the "charm and camaraderie" that the original cast managed, something in short supply here - the script at times going in the extreme opposite direction in an attempt to be "edgy" (which I suppose the shallow regard as being almost as good as "dark and gritty").

As you might guess, the rude, crude Uhura annoyed me. Her reply to a barroom pickup attempt by a young, pre-Academy Kirk with a bestiality joke (which is also a rather ugly insult to rural people) should have been beneath her - and it was unfortunate, since I suspect that with better material Zoe Saldana might have fared reasonably well. I am less convinced that the forgettable Chris Pine would have done the same, but his less than witty rejoinder didn't help matters, and on the whole he ended up being much more convincing as trouble-making idiot than galactic hero in the making.1

Of course, not every detail was so poorly thought out. I rather liked the way they worked Sulu's fencing into the action, for instance - but at the end I saw John Cho and still thought of Harold Lee rather than the senior helmsman of the Enterprise, while Simon Pegg was an implausible Scotty. Anton Yelchin's Pavel Chekov and Karl Urban's Doctor McCoy made little impression on me, though I suppose they had little chance to do so (and Urban, at least, seemed to have some potential).

Ultimately, the only one who really managed was Zachary Quinto in the role of Spock. Without denying Quinto the credit due him for that, his success was also a matter of the greater material he had to work with - the character's famous idiosyncracies (the Vulcan demeanor, Spock's divided human-Vulcan nature), the fuller use the film made of his backstory (like the alienation he experienced as the product of a mixed-marriage), and of course, the appearance by Leonard Nimoy as an older/original timeline version of that character, acknowledging Quinto's Spock as a younger/alternate timeline version of himself.

Will the second film change all that for viewers with reservations like mine? The increasing familiarity with the newer actors in these roles will have its effect, but probably not a very big one. Just as movie-watchers still remember previous James Bonds and Supermen, so will confirmed old Star Trek fans continue to remember the original incranations of Kirk, Spock and the rest, as well as the elements of the series' universe and style that have been completely tossed overboard, for a long time to come, and compare them favorably with the newer material. As the treatment of Spock's character in the first film demonstrated, the filmmakers were not unmindful of that audience, but reboots are about winning over new fans (less attached to the older version of the series, if attached to it at all) rather than pleasing old ones, while the strongly favorable response to the 2009 movie all but insures a scaled-up version of what it offered. Naturally, the current trailer promises an even bigger, louder, flashier summer blockbuster, at least as brisk and slick and spectacular and full of even more grandly operatic dramatics and action - and not necessarily anything more.

1. Like the film's product placements (remember the Nokia carphone?), the crudity is a reminder of the series' loss of its sense of the utopian (or even of the twenty-third century as a different place) - with that exchange an interesting contrast with that between Kirk and Spock on a San Francisco bus in Star Trek IV regarding the prominence of "colorful metaphors" in the speech of twentieth century Earthlings.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Decline of the Sex-Themed Blockbuster

Yes, you read that right. The old adage has it that sex sells, and the conventional wisdom holds that pop culture is becoming markedly more sexual all the time. Yet, the film industry has become more reticent about that particular approach to selling its product. Sex has certainly not vanished from movies, but its place within them has changed, especially where the kinds of films that top the box office are concerned.

Certainly major theatrical releases prominently featuring a strongly sexual theme for any purpose but comedy are rather less commonplace than they used to be. Back in 1987 Fatal Attraction was the second-highest grossing film at the American box office, earning an astonishing $156 million (over $300 million in 2012 terms), and more than matched that overseas. Even then it was an outlier, but it was not entirely alone in achieving such success. Basic Instinct was the ninth biggest hit of 1992, Indecent Proposal the sixth biggest movie of 1993.1 At the time of its release, each was a genuine pop cultural moment.

The change came in the mid-1990s. Demi Moore had another, comparable hit in 1994 with Disclosure – but her sex-laden version of The Scarlet Letter was a big-budget flop in 1995, just like the next two movies scripted by Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, Jade, and the NC-17-rated Showgirls (which not just featured an Eszterhas script, but was also helmed by Instinct's director Paul Verhoeven). In 1996 Moore had another flop with Striptease, while the sequel to 9 1/2 Weeks bypassed theaters on its way to cable and video. In 1999 Eyes Wide Shut, despite its high-profile July release, the cachet of its being the last film of the legendary Stanley Kubrick, and the reliable draws the stars were held to be, earned a mere $55 million, leaving it only the 42nd highest-grosser at the American box office that year.

The data gathered in Box Office Mojo's list of the highest-grossing "erotic thrillers" tells the story in a relatively systematic way. Even though the list is unadjusted for inflation, so that it favors later movies by a significant margin, only six of its top twenty were released after 1995, and only four after 2000. The highest-grossing of these was 2009's Obsessed, which made the number four position with a mere $68 million, a figure which made it only the 48th highest-grossing film of the year (while, given its PG-13 rating, the term "erotic" seems applied rather loosely in its case).

What happened here? One part of the story is the intensification of the culture wars, and the identity politics of which they are a part. The rhetorical guns are all on hair-triggers, and while it often seems as if anything can set them off, the fact remains that in these times there is still nothing to evoke paranoia, or exercise the capacity for taking offense (real or pretended) to its outermost limits, like sex. The moralist (in that word's narrowest, most conventional sense) sees in every failure to condemn the least little twinge of it the end of civilization. The postmodern preoccupied with power relations does not see anything else in depictions of sex, sexuality as such quickly disappearing from view within thickets of misused and abused academic jargon. Members of every demographic complain that depictions of their group are not more frequent or more favorable, or their preferences are not more openly, frequently or favorably presented. The result is an awful mess.

Such things were certainly prominent in the reactions to Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure. Of course, they profited by the fact, but the point is that there was risk here, risk which has continued to rise since then, making it seem safest for films to have as little to do with sex as possible, especially with exploding budgets continually raising the stakes. (I still think Rainier Wolfcastle put it best: "The film is just me in front of a brick wall for an hour and a half. It cost eighty million dollars.")

But at least as important is the fact that sex, and stories which center on sex, are something smaller-scale productions can do with the same facility as the big studio-financed movies. In contrast with action scenes, big budgets and big screens are not generally thought to enhance the viewing experience.

The reason that sex remained big in feature film as late as the early 1990s was the prevailing fact of the movie industry's history since the proliferation of television: its struggle to hold its own against the smaller-scale industries serving other, cheaper, more convenient forms of audiovisual media, which it carried on by offering moviegoers content television could not. In the day of small black and white screens, the Movies offered Technicolor and Cinemascope. At a time when a reference to the facts of life so mild as the mention of pregnancy was forbidden on TV, sexual stories and sexual scenes were another.

That once tight censorship eroded, of course, due to technology as much as culture. By the mid-1990s cable, video and the Internet offered everything that mainstream film offered in terms of subject matter or its presentation, not just more conveniently, but privately. ("Wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more.") One result was that by the time Basic Instinct 2 came out the erotic thriller genre, like the B-grade action movie, had migrated almost completely to these other media, as perhaps that franchise should have, to go by its box office receipts.2 Such depictions of sex on the big screen as get much attention lately (especially when the content is intended to evoke anything but a guffaw) tend to be small, independent productions with low budgets and limited audiences, especially in their theatrical runs – small because, contrary to that familiar adage, what they offer is not in itself enough to sell more tickets.

1. Basic Instinct earned $353 million ($579 million in today's terms), and Indecent Proposal $267 million ($425 million in 2012 dollars).
2. The $70 million movie grossed $39 million worldwide – after inflation, less than a tenth of the original's income. Its performance was particularly poor in the U.S., where it pulled in $3 million in its first three days, putting it in 10th place that weekend.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Skyfall and the Trend in Spy Movies: Which Way Will They Go?

Skyfall is now a billion-dollar hit, and in all likelihood just a few days away from being the highest-grossing Bond film of all time in inflation-adjusted terms.

When a movie makes this kind of money, trend-chasing Hollywood studios invariably follow its lead. This has not only been the case with movies like the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings trilogies, but even the oft-maligned Transformers movies, which implausibly inspired a wave of movies based on toys from the '80s (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Battleship).

Yet, it is far from clear what exactly studios would attempt to capitalize on, given the different ways in which the film is being read. Some see Skyfall as having completed the reboot's dispensing with everything that made the Bond movies distinctive (like historians Tim Stanley and Andrew Ross), while others see it as completing the (re)creation of the character as audiences have known him since the 1960s. (More than any piece I have read in the press, I recommend Freivolk's comment here as a concise encapsulation of this argument.)

If it is the first impression one walks away with, then the film simply seems a continuation of the trend begun with The Bourne Identity a decade ago toward grounded espionage adventure revolving around backstabbing bureaucrats. The second suggests new life in the idea of the Bond-style spy, something Hollywood has treated as fit only for broad parody the last decade, less True Lies or XXX (which combined parody with action) than Get Smart or Cars 2 (which played the concept purely for laughs).

The voices which claim continuity rather than change seem to me the more numerous, but somehow I'm having a hard time picturing a new crop of gadget-packing ladies' men making their way to the big screen anytime soon.

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