I saw the original Star Wars when it first came out in the theater. I was 8. Years later my Dad told me that his reaction to the Imperial ship that appears in the first scene was that “it just kept going on and on.” To me, it didn’t seem like anything special. Wasn’t this how science fiction was supposed to be?
Star Wars is the first great triumph of action and visuals over story. In that way it’s truly the film that separates the movies that preceded it from the movies that followed it. This is not to say there’s nothing else to it: There’s plenty of fine acting (alongside some truly terrible acting) – some of it perhaps all the more fine because they manage to turn some pretty awful dialogue into memorable lines and scenes. For all his flaws – on ample display in the prequel films – George Lucas hits the right notes in both writing and direction: The visuals are not quite up to 2001 standards (we’d have to wait for The Empire Strikes Back for that), but they’re still impressive for the era. The pacing is just right, moving the story along to keep getting back to the action and dialogue; despite that, there’s plenty of room for the setting to breathe, perhaps only getting bogged down in the Mos Eisley sequence. The extra footage in the special edition – especially the Han/Jabba sequence – is completely superfluous and was correctly left on the cutting room floor.
I think it’s fair to take everything in the original film at face value, and indeed one of the film’s strengths is that it suggests a lot without digging into it. There’s a rebellion against the Empire which has just won its first major victory. Leia is a princess of Alderaan whose father is backing the rebellion. Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader when he was a boy. There’s no reason to believe Luke, Leia and Vader are related.
I’m never sure what to think of Lucas claiming to have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth; does it really matter? Storytelling is storytelling, and the film’s visceral impact, as far as the story goes, has more to do with the colorful characters, and the fact that Luke is so readily identifiable by the viewer as the hero. (Luke’s whininess early in the film is often mocked, but it’s essential to making him someone we feel for.
I also generally reject claims that Lucas had much of anything beyond the first film planned out ahead of time. Much like J.K. Rowling’s claims decades later of having concocted the entire Harry Potter arc up-front, it feels like after-the-fact rationalization (or mythologicization), trying to fit the tap-dancing after the property became big into a bigger framework. I think fans of these franchises are too willing to believe that the creators had a grand plan which they neatly executed. I think it’s all hogwash.
Nonetheless, Star Wars is a story of redemption, just not of Luke redeeming the sins of his father Anakin. Rather, in the first movie Obi-Wan meets the son of the man who died because he failed to train Vader appropriately, and he sees the opportunity to give Luke the ability to avenge his father and follow his dream of fighting for the rebellion. Luke is redeeming Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan even gives up his life to afford Luke this opportunity.
While Star Wars is the story of a boy becoming a man, The Empire Strikes Back is the story of that man learning that the reality behind his boyhood dreams is much darker and more serious than he’d believed. It’s an adult story with adults doing adult things (I didn’t appreciate the interplay between Han and Leia when I was 11, but it’s one of the best parts of the film to me as an adult.) It’s a much better crafted film than the first one, with fewer of the storytelling glitches that we were cheerfully overlooking the first time around. (To my mind the biggest glitch is a subtle one: The Leia/Han story thread appears to take place over a few days – maybe a couple of weeks once they get to the cloud city, while Luke seems to spend months – maybe even a year – on Dagobah being trained by Yoda.) It doesn’t quite have the thrill of the first film, and of course it ends on a down note. I vacillate between the two films and which one I like more.
Unfortunately Empire was also the start of the cracks in the franchise. The main in-story crack is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. When I first saw the film, I felt this was a stretch. But maybe they could pull it off. Maybe Obi-Wan didn’t know, that he’d been tricked or something, or maybe there was something even more sinister going on. Or maybe Vader was just lying – he’s the villain, of course he could be lying. Given the way things played out, the revelation was a short-term shock was ended up being a story disaster. They should have just gone with “Vader was lying”.
Outside the story was the indication of how marketing and merchandising was going to disrupt the franchise. I remember the action figures being highly desirable at the time, and the Boba Fett action figure was given heavy promotion. I didn’t understand it at the time (remember, I was 11) – why should I care about this character I hadn’t even seen yet? And then he had a negligible role in the film. In hindsight, this was one of the early signs of Lucasfilm and its allies making a big cash grab. Boba Fett was a disposable character who didn’t even look very cool, but he was hyped up to make some money. This was the future of the franchise.
As far as I’m concerned, Return of the Jedi was functionally the end of the franchise. Indeed, after the opening sequence where Han is rescued – which may be the single best set-piece in the whole series – the film starts going downhill and then picks up speed. Actually the film starts off on a low point, with the creatively-bankrupt introduction of a second Death Star. Lucas was pretty clearly out of ideas, and consequently the film’s best sequence is just the payoff of the cliffhanger from the previous film. From there we have way too many made-up aliens, ridiculously complicated space battles, Ewoks (which should have been Wookees), and of course the ludicrous revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings (thus undercutting most of the dramatic tension of the protagonist’s romance). As a series of fight scenes, Jedi is decent enough, but as the capstone of a three-part story, it’s a mess.
Around that time there were rumors that Lucas was planning to do a 9-episode arc, filming the three prequel films next, and then three more films afterwards. I remember reading how old the actors would be if they continued to release a film every 3 years – by 2001, Alec Guinness would be 87 years old (in fact he died in 2000). After the disappointment of Jedi (particularly in contrast to the tremendously rewarding Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the year before), it was kind of a relief at the time to learn there would be no more Star Wars films. The term “jumping the shark” hadn’t been coined yet, but the franchise had pretty clearly done it – really, it had just barely limped to the finish line under the collective weight of its implausible backstory and increasingly-grandiose special effects. Ultimately, the series would have done better to have disposed of the shocking revelations and just focused on straightforward action and suspense.
In the early 90s, Dark Horse Comics got the license to produce Star Wars comics (the largely-forgettable Marvel Comics series having been cancelled a few years earlier). At the time Star Wars felt like an enjoyable childhood adventure film, but did anyone really care 10 years after the last film enough to buy any comic books? Apparently they did. I wondered a few years later of this was the leading edge of Lucasfilms getting Star Wars back in the public consciousness in advance of the prequel series. (Now, 20 years later, Disney owns both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm, and is pulling the license back from Dark Horse.) The “special edition” versions of the original trilogy came out not long after, with their newer-technology special effects that stripped some of the charm from the original films.
I have little to say about the prequels. I was moderately enthusiastic about The Phantom Menace, but it was godawful. I wasn’t very excited about the next two, and indeed all three are basically forgettable. They’re not even like some recent action films where there are a few good scenes worth watching if you turn in on TV at the right time – they’re just soulless and bad.
Over time, I’m less and less a fan of “franchises”. It feels like most of the DC and Marvel comic book characters are long past their sell-by date. These days Superman and Batman feel more like parodies of their original (or their most popular) incarnations. Star Wars seems no different. I often wonder what keeps its fans enthused about the franchise, but I guess I just don’t understand since I think he franchise has had negligible entertainment value since Return of the Jedi. I really have very little interest in the about-to-start-filming Episode VII. Though based on Star Trek Into Darkness, it seems likely that J.J. Abrams should be able to follow the “series of action set-pieces with limited story content” formula. I also secretly hope that Mark Hamill will speak all of his lines in the voice of The Joker.
Watching the original film, as I have been while typing this, it still stands up as an entertaining action film, with snappy dialogue and a little heart. But compared to the Star Wars franchise today, it also feels like it was made a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.
Before I saw Star Trek Into Darkness I saw someone sum up the film as “A fun film. Not a good film, but fun.” While I tried to avoid learning too much about it before seeing it, I learned things here and there, and was not encouraged by what I’d learned. Finally I saw it last weekend, and I’d say it’s certainly not a good film, but it has its fun moments. It also drags in places, and the screenplay is a complete disaster of plot, pacing and characterization. It’s certainly a big step down from 2009’s Star Trek (which has grown on me since I originally saw it).
Spoilers ahead, Captain.
Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.
The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).
Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.
While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.
More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:
Last weekend we watched the two Iron Man films that came out. They’re both enjoyable films, with the first one being the better of the two, and the second maybe a couple of ticks above The Avengers.
Iron Man (2008) benefits greatly from having a simple (and focused) character-driven story: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a billionaire playboy who inherited a weapons manufacturing company from his father, Howard. Orphaned as a boy, he’s raised by his father’s friend Obadiah Stane (a nearly-unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) who runs the company until he’s old enough to take it over. But as a man – despite being a genius – Tony is more interested in being a playboy until he’s captured by rebels in Afghanistan with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. Only quick thinking by fellow captured scientist Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves him, and their pair construct a power source to sit in his chest to keep the shrapnel away from killing him. The power supply also happens to be able to power a suit of armor, and after escaping captivity, Tony refines the armor into a suit that can fly and shoot energy beams, thus becoming Iron Man.
Although Tony is in his 30s (or 40s) when the movie starts, the story is basically about him growing up and taking responsibility for himself and his company. Horrified by what his company’s weapons are used for, he pulls it out of the weapons business and refocuses it on other areas. He struggles with Stane for control of the company as well. He also comes to learn that he has friends who care about him and who can help him, if he reciprocates their loyalty and deals with them as adults rather than as children who aren’t as smart as him.
This is one of the things I like about the better superhero films of the past decade: They’ve moved beyond being about the superpowers and what you can do with them and are rooted in the challenges that the characters face. While the characters are larger-than-life, their challenges are relatable: Both Batman and Iron Man deal with alienation and guilt, while Captain America deals with the conflict of duty vs. love. While the adventure story is of course de rigueur in these films, weaving it and the character drama together is what makes a good film of this sort.
Iron Man 2 (2010) is an enjoyable action film, but is much less interesting than its predecessor. The government is pressing Stark to turn over the “Iron Man weapon” to it, which he resists, claiming it’s not a weapon. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, playing a thanklessly goofy role), wants to supplant Stark as a supplier to the government. And a Russian scientist, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), has adapted Stark’s technology and tries to kill him as revenge for the perceived slight Tony’s father perpetrated on Vanko’s father. This story is basically divorced from the character drama, which involves Tony unlearning many of the lessons he learned in the first film, behaving drunkenly irresponsibly as Iron Man, and being stopped by his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who takes another set of armor and then delivers it to the government. Tony also alienates his friends Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (played by the directory, Jon Favreau). Tony’s backsliding is ostensibly because the device in his chest is gradually killing him, he can’t figure out a solution, and so he gets depressed. SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) kicks him in the ass with a video of Tony’s father Howard, but the resolution of these threads all feels slipshod, and utterly divorced from the climactic battle (which itself seems haphazardly staged).
The film might have done better to avoid Tony’s backsliding (though I appreciates that it didn’t fall into the too-often-used-in-the-comics plot device of making him an alcoholic) and instead focused on the father/son relationships which are explored somewhat in Tony’s case, but only superficially in Vanko’s case. The best parts of the film involve Howard Stark – cleverly portrayed in flashback sequences as being a Walt Disney type figure – and Tony’s reactions to the footage he’s shown. But seeing him shut out his friends felt like a betrayal of the first film’s triumphs; it would have been better had Tony brought Pepper and Happy into the fold rather than withdrawing into himself, even if the ultimate solution came from his father.
Though the action sequences are fun, ultimately the film can’t lift itself above the level of an action movie, though it does try.
In both films, though, it’s easy to see why Robert Downey Jr.’s career has lifted off as a result: He plays Tony as a rather manic genius prone to a variety of mood swings, and he pulls it off quite well.
Iron Man 3 is slated for 2013 release, and hopefully it will move the characters forward rather than treading over the same ground a third time.
If you, like me, don’t understand what all the fuss is over Joss Whedon, then be assured that his summer blockbuster film The Avengers (2012) will do nothing at all to enlighten you. It’s near the top end of summer action films, with plenty of action and witty dialogue, but no more than that. “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing, really, but it means that it doesn’t challenge the current gold standard of superhero films, held by Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (both of which are more Christopher Nolan films than superhero films), and last year’s Captain America. While it’s better than, say, Independence Day, it’s a close relative of that film. If nothing else, this will guarantee it a lengthy run on commercial cable TV stations (as if its monstrous revenue this month wouldn’t do that).
Okay, to be brief about it: Action film, witty dialog, minimal characterization, nonsensical plot.
The plot is that the Asgardian demigod Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who as my girlfriend points out rather resembles Tim Lincecum) has allied himself with an alien race the Chitauri in order to procure for them the Tesseract (from the Captain America film, and known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube). He will use the Tesseract to allow them to invade Earth, and after they have the thing then he will be left to rule it, as a sort of vengeance against his brother, Thor (Chris Helmsworth).
He shows up and enslaves several humans, including the agent Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and escapes, leaving Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of the global peace agency SHIELD, to assemble a team of extraordinary people to oppose him. These include Captain America (Chris Evans), still adjusting to the 21st century after 75 years in suspended animation, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and his alter-ego the Hulk. While Loki’s minions assemble a device to precipitate the alien invasion, Loki is captured and works on manipulating the team while in captivity.
The story pretends to be smarter than it is, with a vague notion of punch and counterpunch between Loki and Fury, and Banner, Stark and Cap all suspecting that Fury’s people are using the tesseract for less than noble means. But the plot is really just pretext for a lot of fighting (sometimes among the heroes, sometimes between heroes and villains), and if you think about it much at all, you realize it’s basically people running around without really accomplishing anything (and without anywhere near the panache of Doctor Who, which frequently employed the same approach back in the day).
The film has its good points. Chris Evans has enough weight to pull off being a leader among the rest of the cast, and Downey and Ruffalo are both quite good, especially when they’re appearing together. (I haven’t seen any of the Hulk or Iron Man films that predate this, but I don’t feel like I missed anything crucial.) The actions and special effects are both top-notch, as one expects from a top-tier summer blockbuster. The humor has its hits (the Hulk confronting Loki) and misses (a couple of jokes at Captain America’s expense, as well as Agent Coulson [Clark Gregg]); I suspect Whedon’s sense of humor is a big part of why people like his stuff, but I don’t think it’s any better than other near-the-top summer blockbuster films. Indeed, it often felt like Whedon was basically trying to write a James Bond film. Not a bad thing (I like most of the James Bond films), but nothing special.
You definitely don’t want to think about the mechanics of the plot, which basically involve a lot of stupidity on both sides: Fury being too clever by half in trying to assemble the team while keeping secrets from them, Loki keeping the heroes well appraised of his plan when he could have done nearly everything in secret (I guess one of the rules of the game is that gods never learn from their mistakes), bringing the Hulk onto the SHIELD helicarrier at all (there’s no particular reason anything they were doing needed to be done from a mobile base), and the heroes trying to shut down the Tesseract at the end (why not, I don’t know, cut the power?). And of course, in finest Star Trek: The Next Generation form, the bad guys have a single point of failure. (For a better story with a similar alien-invasion plot, check out Babylon 5: Thirdspace. It’s by no means perfect, but plotwise and thematically it’s steps up from this.)
I think the biggest frustration about the film for me was actually Scarlett Johansson, who I’m not a fan of. The Black Widow has some fairly meaty material here, but I don’t think Johansson really sells it. I wonder what someone like Cate Blanchett would have done in the role. (I think both Johansson and Renner really underplay their roles.)
I went into the film figuring if it was a film about Captain America managing to pull the team together against all odds, then it would be a good film, but if it was Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr being amusing then it wouldn’t. And weirdly, it was both. And neither. It didn’t have the heart or weight of Captain America, but you still root for the heroes putting aside their differences to get the job done, even though it’s all staged very haphazardly.
I never saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I did see episodes of Firefly (awful) and Dollhouse (dull), so after The Avengers I still don’t get what the fuss is about Joss Whedon. But I enjoy an action film from time to time, and after the success of this one I imagine we’ll get several sequels in the future. Honestly I’m more looking forward to the next Captain America film.
Oh, and there are two epilogues during the credits: The first one will mean nothing to anyone not familiar with the comics character who shows up, and the second one is not worth the wait.
We finally made it out to see Hugo (2011) on Sunday. Despite seeing it in a theater with a really crappy sound system, it was still a fun film, though not quite as enjoyable as I’d hoped. (We didn’t see it in 3D, either.)
Based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the story takes place in 1930s Paris. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy whose father (Jude Law in a brief role) was a watchmaker who also works in a museum. One day the father brings home a mechanical man which has been discarded, and he and Hugo set to repairing it. When Hugo’s father dies in a fire at the museum, Hugo is taken to live in abandoned quarters in the railway station Gare Montparnasse by his uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk who soon disappears. Hugo continues to wind the clocks in the station while eking out a living and avoiding the Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). He also steals parts to continue repairing the automaton, but is caught by a toy shop proprietor, Georges (Ben Kingsley), who takes from Hugo the notebook about the automaton that Hugo’s father had created.
In his quest to retrieve the notebook, Hugo meets Isabelle (ChloÃ« Grace Moretz), the godchild of Georges and his wife (Helen McCrory), also an orphan. The two become friends, and Hugo learns of Isabelle’s love of books (Christopher Lee plays the owner of a bookshop she frequents) and the fact that her godfather never takes her to the movies, shocking to Hugo as his father’s love of film was something he remembers keenly. The pair set out to repair the automaton, which reveals a surprise about both of their families, and long-held pain that Hugo sets out to fix.
Lavishly directed by Martin Scorsese (who I heard wanted to make a film that children could enjoy), Hugo is an interesting mix of classic and modern filmmaking. Indeed, a historical film director is a significant character in the film, and Hugo takes place in an awkward period between the silent era and the golden age of film (“talkies” and color were already around, but the great films of the late 30s were still in the future), not to mention a period between the wars, before the rise of Nazi Germany would have impacted the life of an orphan boy like Hugo. The film opens with Hugo looking out from one of his many hiding spots on the train station – an enormous and intricate set (though of course one wonders if it’s a set of CGI), followed by an extended single-shot scamper by Hugo through the bowels of the station. It’s the sort of thing whose scope and detail would have been beyond films of the 30s, but the film also has a variety of minor characters – the people who work in and frequent the station – and following the details of their lives as asides to the main story feels very much like the films of the time (or maybe just a little later).
I was a little disappointed that the story was only a little bit fantastic and not more so – I guess I was fooled by the preview scenes of a train careening through the station (inspired by an actual incident at the station). Though the automaton is a marvel by itself, just a rather low-key one. The degree of coincidence in the film is a bit much to swallow, too – that Hugo acquires the automaton, is brought to the train station, and meets Georges and Isabelle is quite a confluence of events. I guess Hugo’s speech to Isabelle about how everyone has a purpose in life is supposed to explain this, but the film doesn’t really sell it.
My dad pointed out that the film is really fixing broken lives, and that’s exactly right; all the film history stuff is just the backdrop against which the story is set. I felt that the film was a little too mechanical in portraying the characters’ breakage, though; Hugo and Georges in particular seem emotionally restrained even in scenes where I expected them to explode. (Ben Kingsley is a terrific actor but I wonder whether he plays Georges too low-key, and what, say, Christopher Lee would have done with the role.) The film does much better in the healing scenes, which I guess is to the good since it forms the climax and denouement of the story.
Overall, an enjoyable film, but not quite what I’d expected it would be, and it didn’t knock my socks off. It reminded me in some ways of The Illusionist (2006), which on the whole I’d say is the better film. But there’s a lot to like about Hugo, especially the craft that went into filming it – it’s gorgeous to look at, and feels fully-realized in its portrayal of period Paris.
A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that Alien is his “favorite movie of all time”. This was coincidental, since during our lunch conversation the other day about Stanley Kubrick, someone asked me what I thought of Blade Runner, which of course wasn’t directed by Kubrick, but by Ridley Scott, who also directed Alien.
(Brief aside: Other than those two films, the only other film I’ve seen by Scott is Gladiator. While none of those films set my world on fire, I like them better than anything by Kubrick.)
I’m not a fan of horror; I don’t really like gore, or sequences calculated to make you jump out of your seat, or squirm, or worry about the worst that’s about to happen, knowing that it almost certainly is. I much prefer Alfred Hitchcockian suspense.
Still, despite not liking the genre, I do think Alien is a fine film, maybe the best horror film ever. It has a lot going for it:
- Setting: The universe of the spaceship Nostromo feels real, with details like the alien ship the crew discovers, and the sinister corporate masters of the ship. Those bits suggest that here’s more to the universe beyond what we actually see, and in particular the alien ship stimulates our imagination to wonder where it came from. (I understand director Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus was originally going to explore the alien from the derelict ship, but I guess it’s now turned into a different film.) Even the fact that the Nostromo is a commercial ship, not a military or other government ship, makes it feel a little more real.
- Characters: The characters are pretty well-drawn, and also feel real. They’re not supermen, they’re not even soldiers, and they all have opinions and agendas (and flaws). The fine cast helps here a lot, too.
- Story: The story is smart. Presented with the killer alien creature hiding in their ship, the crew is smart about trying to deal with the problem: They come up with plans, and execute them. Since they’re not supermen, and since the alien turns out to be even more powerful than they’d thought, their plans fail. But they don’t march to their deaths through sheer stupidity.
- Threat: The alien is of course one of the most memorable movie monsters ever. Beyond its appearance, it’s creepy (acid blood!), hard to find, hard to kill, and hard to survive. It certainly feels more alien than any other monster.
I appreciate craft in films, especially when it comes to plotting and world-building, and Alien excels on both points. I would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been a horror film (much as I was sad that the great dinosaur animations in Jurassic Park were squandered on a horror film), but few films succeed so well at what they set out to do.
At lunch the other day we somehow went from talking about Pixar films to talking about those of director Stanley Kubrick. Some people love Kubrick’s films, but I don’t, having seen five and not enjoyed any of them.
Whenever I think of Kubrick, I recall my high school film class teacher (who introduced me to my favorite film, North by Northwest) who said something to the effect that Kubrick was more concerned with where his electrical wires were going than with the script or acting.
Yes, Kubrick’s films do look great, but I realized over lunch that my basic problem with them is that they feel emotionless, even downright soulless.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of this: The characters are flat and colorless. Dave Bowman is memorable only because Keir Dullea is an interesting-looking guy, and the orange spacesuits are distinctive. But the most human-seeming of the character is HAL, the computer. The film looks great, but it also feels lifeless, the direction and editing carefully constructed to make the whole film seem alien. It’s not about humanity’s encounter with the alien, it’s some weird zombie form of humanity encountering the alien, and evolving into something even more alien. The sequel film 2010 is a much warmer and more human film, and is more fun to boot. Not to say it doesn’t have plenty of flaws, but I’d much rather watch it again than its predecessor.
Full Metal Jacket, which certainly deals with powerful subject matter (the Vietnam War), felt decidedly bland when I saw it. Ironically, the IMDb summary of the film starts with the phrase “A pragmatic U.S. Marine observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War…”, where it seems to me that Kubrick does a pretty good job of dehumanizing the characters in his films anyway.
Of the Kubrick films I’ve seen, I’d say I liked The Shining the best (and I don’t really care for horror films). The sense in Kubrick’s films that we’re seeing all this happen from a distance, that the people are just little chess pieces being moved around by the plot, perhaps plays better in a horror film, where the humans are often not the ones in control. I don’t think it’s a great film, I have no desire to see it again, but I thought it worked well enough for what it is.
Overall my most charitable description of Kubrick’s films would be “well crafted”. But then, there are lots of directors who craft films well, and many who imbue their films with more humanity than Kubrick was able to. Usually I place a high value on craft in storytelling, but Kubrick’s films deploy his craft in the most superficial manner, completely failing to evoke any feeling in me as a viewer other than being impressed with the polish he brings to his settings. And that’s not nearly enough to make a great – or even good – film for me.
Captain America: The First Avenger might be the perfect superhero movie (so far, anyway): It’s exciting, fun, has a hero who’s heroic but not perfect, and makes you feel for the characters. And it honors its source material rather than belittling it as many superhero films these days seem to (taking the source material seriously is a big reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are the best superhero films of the new century so far).
I get tired of movies always showing the character’s origin (previews in the theater showed the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it will show Spidey’s origin again; really?), but Cap’s story is very well done here, and showing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – the prototypical 90-pound comic book weakling – and his determination to join the army to fight in World War II, his friendship with the much more physically-able James “Bucky” Barnes Sebastian Stan), and his recruitment by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to be the test subject for the super-soldier program are an essential part of humanizing Cap. Despite his frail physique, Steve never backs down from a fight, but when Erskine asks him whether he wants to go kill some Nazis, Steve’s character is summed up when he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies.”
One could do all sorts of between-the-lines reading about the jingoistic heroism of the film, but that would miss the point that it’s a World War II film named Captain America, and bringing 21st-century cynicism into it would miss the point of the film (I’m sure we’ll get plenty of that in next year’s Avengers movie). Instead, this is about a good, flawed man fighting the good fight for his friends and his country. Even the somewhat-painful scene of Cap being used as a showman to sell war bonds ultimately pays off when he has the opportunity to show his stuff and becomes the army’s secret weapon against Hitler’s mysticism-loving scientist, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
While it won’t win any awards, the acting is surprisingly good for a superhero film. Chris Evans played the fun-loving Human Torch in the two unremarkable Fantastic Four films, but he’s a completely different character here. (If anything, I wish they’d processed his voice early in the film since its deepness and richness seems incongruous coming from his body when it’s been CGI’ed into Steve’s pre-treatment physique.) Weaving chews the necessary scenery as the Skull (though Toby Jones as his lead scientist, Arnim Zola, overshadows him at times with his Peter Lorre-esque performance), as does Tommy Lee Jones as the general overseeing Cap’s special forces unit. Hayley Atwell as Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter isn’t exactly the weak link, but she’s not given a lot to do – Dominic Cooper’s role as Howard Stark (father of the future Iron Man, I presume) is smaller, but he frequently upstages her.
The film looks good, too, a little grimy in the European war scenes, with flat colors in many of the New York street scenes, and bright colors at the World’s Fair and during Cap’s tour selling war bonds. The CGI in the action scenes looks fluid, although it still underscores how unnatural superhero fighting is, and what an accomplishment it was for Jack Kirby, et. al., to make it look natural in those old comic books. And the film neatly sidesteps one of my big gripes about superhero films, that they’re always contriving ways for the heroes to lose their masks so the stars can show off their real faces; the extensive focus on Steve makes it feel natural for Evans to appear as himself, but there are plenty of scenes with Cap as Cap.
The weakest part of the film is the Red Skull’s plot. He finds the Cosmic Cube (which in the comics allows a person’s wishes to become reality, but here is simply an Ã¼ber-energy source) and plans to use it to rule the world. He harnesses the power to create energy weapons, and plans to destroy yhe capitals of the major world powers, but since his men are unable to take on the U.S. Army even with their weapons, it’s not really clear how he plans to actually take control of the world, much less maintain control. The story would have made more sense if he were simply causing mayhem to further the conquests of Nazi Germany (in the comics, the Skull is an ardent Nazi and had the utmost respect for Hitler), but oh well. At least it’s a pretext for some lively action scenes.
Cap’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, but the film ends without really exploring the depths of that tragedy. Presumably the plan is for the Avengers film to work through some of that, but I doubt they’ll really do it justice given the larger cast and the (presumed) need to fit some adventure story in there. (I think Avengers could be a fun film, too, but I think it’ll be easy for the story to get away from the writers and director if they’re not careful.) However, what we do see here is pretty effective.
Overall, Captain America is a really fun ride, only dragging in a few places, but otherwise engaging, action-packed, and even touching. Why can’t they all be like this?