How Popular Cinema Could Be Popular Again
Cinema was always called the populist medium. Generations of young audiences grew up with Bambi and Batman, Tarzan and Terminator, then went on to the world of Marvel superheroes, cheerfully unaware that these stories stemmed from comics dating back to the 1960s. Hollywood is going through one of its periodic growing pains. Its domestic revenue is shrinking, its international profits are growing. China is about to overtake it in output, and the action film is being rethought.
I realised this when I put together two news items recently; the first about Martin Scorsese complaining that superhero action films are destroying cinema, the second that Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in on a Bond film to spruce up some of the dialogue.
In a time when online trailers are dropped to great fanfare, only to be picked apart by viewers until the film is actually recut to their tastes, the populist medium of film is becoming just that. Fan service is the term given to films that deliberately feed their audiences what they want, but now the fans want to shape the films themselves.
TV shows are regularly revived or altered according to viewer demands. Movies are going the same way because when you’re spending a figure just south of 200 million you need to get it right.
Remember disaster movies? ‘Earthquake’ arrived in ribcage-rattling Sensurround, ‘Towering Inferno’ required two studios to combine, such was its budget and star power (Paul Newman! Steve McQueen! Fred ASTAIRE!) And even disaster novels abounded, the best being Richard Doyle’s ‘Deluge’, about the flooding of London, an all too real possibility.
CGI made anything possible so studios went into overload – why show one building falling down when you could show a thousand? Believability vanished as our heroes became superhuman. Effects are universally available, allowing British director Gareth Edwards to write, direct and act as cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects artist on his first film, ‘Monsters’, an SF film with an interesting message about borders and migrants which also featured crowd-pleasing effects. What if the future of the action film lay in that direction?
Two Norwegian films, ‘The Wave’ and ‘The Quake’, made by John Andreas Andersen, took up the challenge. Aimed at a mainstream action audience, they made mincemeat of most Hollywood product not by overloading us with even more ludicrous stunts, but by giving us less and investing more in interesting characters. Based on the idea that because of its unique geography Norway experiences more small tremors than anywhere else in the world, it showed the build-up and aftermath of a disaster.
Although the two films contain plenty of action they present characters in extremis in ways we’ve not seen before. In one scene a couple seem on their way to surviving a quake when the wife goes into shock, and simply cannot follow the instructions that will get her to safety. By portraying human behaviour in a realistic fashion everything else becomes realistic. Stress and trauma are factored into action sequences. Damage has consequences, and the films are memorable.
Will Hollywood heed the message, or will they carry on blowing up LA and recutting ‘Cats’ to match Twitter demands?