Film Digressions

The worries over the Blade Runner “Flop”, Or: Why did you expect Hard Sci-Fi to Sell? by Ismael Santos

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Well, Blade Runner 2049 happened, and surprise surprise, it “flopped.” By this term, the industry means that the budget, both on the film and the advertising, was not recuperated to make a profit.

In other terms, it did what the original Blade Runner accomplished over thirty years ago: shake up the film industry, and be something to salivate over in terms of critique and interpretation, but end up under-performing at the box office.

Maybe it’s just the cynic in me, who doesn’t think great movies really get celebrated on a regular basis-that, eventually, great films will be celebrated way after the fact. I’ve been proven wrong  before, as in the case of Best Picture of 2017 at the Oscar’s.

I remember that night well, thinking Moonlight would never win, and the milquetoast (for me) La La Land would win Best Picture. I skipped seeing the\ show entirely, only to get a random text from a friend saying “Did you see what just happened? Moonlight won!”

I couldn’t believe it, and I was so happy to be proven wrong (plus, seeing a crew of Miami actors, producers, writer-director coming on stage, and showing the world that a different kind of story could be beautiful, and not relegated to some underground scene.)

Blade Runner 2049 is not that case, in the sense of an untold story from a marginalized community-it is a sequel about what it means to be both human and alive, and the two are not mutually exclusive concepts. I have a feeling that, as much as this film has lost in terms of profit, it will gain tremendously at the Oscar’s. It’s a film designed to win awards, due to visuals, screenplay, directing, and so on. It’s a film made to question things. By and large, it should never have happened. But, it has, and now we mu st reckon with it, namely the question of why it didn’t make bank. The answer seems obvious, on some level: it’s not a film made to cater to mainstream taste, to Marvel and DC aesthetic Blockbusters. It’s different.

By all this, I mean Blade Runner 2049 (which is a fun title to write out every time, honest),  is a hard Science Fiction film, where the action is in the thoughts, ideas, and philosophical underpinnings of the main character and his interactions with the world around him.

This does not make it easy to sell the film as a “must-see”, because how many people have close to three hours to devote to a film that demands so much? In a world like ours, inundated with so much information and tragedy, sometimes you just want to head into a nice, air-conditioned movie theater (with a ten dollar popcorn bucket and an Icee that your brain immediately regrets feeling), and just diving into whatever technical wonder is happening at the moment, to be immediately forgotten on exiting the building, as if some spell had been broken by the time the credits started rolling.

That’s a simplistic sense of what may be happening regarding films like Blade Runner 2049, but I do not believe it is a complete one: other  Sci-Fi films have come and gone, and yet made their mark. From films like Looper and Edge of Tomorrow, to Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex-Machina, Science Fiction films not succeeding anymore because of their “tough concepts” or “unusual filmmaking” do not fly so easily now.

So, what is it with Blade Runner 2049? Was it destined to follow the footsteps of the original, to be appreciated way after the fact?

It’s a tough thing to analyze, let alone imagine: a beloved movie gets a sequel that some say is even better than the original, but both films flop. Maybe it’s the setting of the films, in this dystopian future Earth (not too far from ours, literally in the time specified, 2019 in the original, 2049 now); or the senseless tragedies that spark up seemingly every day; the threat of nuclear war on the horizon, and the way our world is moving away from the easily familiar; maybe it’s all of that.

Or, something harder to touch at, on a more individual basis, and not so easily collectivized: people are tired of being reminded of the hopelessness of the “human condition.” No matter how great a film, how introspective or soul-searching it may be, there’s just an exhaustion that a movie-goer may be up to the gills with “look at this film right before award season, BECAUSE IT MATTERS SO MUCH TO THE HUMAN CONDITION AND MAKES US BETTER THAN WHAT WE ALREADY ARE.” So, with this sense of exhaustion, from a film already super-niche, as a sequel to a film that’s nigh on completely incomprehensible without repeat viewings and interpretation, why would any audience want to sit through three hours of that?

Hard Science Fiction that asks grueling questions of its audience will never be an easy thing to sell, even with the hottest actors, the best writers, and proven directors (which is where I see Dennis Villenueve’s upcoming Dune falling into this same place)

Which is a shame, because I feel, thanks to Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Agent K, this sequel is more impactful, and more human, than the original. Time will tell if people look back fondly on the film, and if the money needed to make this one (and possibly others) will not keep on diminishing.

Some of the best comic book films (credit vixenvarsity.com)

Some of the best comic book films (credit vixenvarsity.com)

A word about comic books: Great Films vs. Good Comic Book Adaptations by Ismael Santos

It’s odd now, to sit here and write out this kind of story, this kind of article or review-of-sorts: if someone had told me, thirteen years ago, while waiting in the silent AMC movie theater at Sunset for the very first Spider-Man film, that comic book films would not only be huge successes and bundles of fun, but also end up becoming great films, in and of themselves, I would have stared vacantly at the person, and thrown away that ridiculous, absurd idea from my kid head.

Fast-forward thirteen years later, and I can honestly state how pleasantly surprised, and happy I am for the way things have gone: To have seen all of these films, by comparison to the mistakes and horrible sequels of yesteryear, even including The Fantastic Four Series, has all been a blast. To have seen The Dark Knight twice in movie theaters, the first Iron Man film back in 2008, to see to continually see these great films come out again and again, with even more on the way, is such a joy.

Before I delve into the difference between a great comic book film and a great film, it is imperative to set down two key ideas to remind yourself of throughout this article: 1) Not all comic book films are to be considered bad from conception, and 2) Great films can be made from great comic books.

There have been a great many comic book film bombs: time for a brief rundown; the extra artsy “Hulk” by Ang Lee, which delved into interesting areas for main character Bruce Banner, but ultimately failed to provide any semblance of life or energy crackling onto the big screen; “Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton starring(and rewriting) the film itself, which was serviceable, but so forgettable that you and I will most likely forget about it by the time this sentence ends; “Fantastic Four” and “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”, godawful films, and the only good about those two were the foreshadowing of the breakthrough star-to-come-around-via-Captain-America in Chris Evans; “X-Men: The Last Stand”, which was so mediocre and rushed-through, removing any dramatic pathos from a great storyline with great performances, directed by Brett Ratner, that the franchise of X-Men would take years to recover from; “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, which is one of those films that would be perfect for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode/riff; “Ghostrider 1 and Ghostrider 2”: the best things to come from that are more manic Nicholas Cage jokes, and quite possibly the best run of Ghostrider comics going today, involving a new Latino character named “Robbie Reyes”-all because the Ghostrider films fell on their faces, repeatedly so; “Batman & Robin”-so horrible, just a joke of a movie, that fails as both film and as representation of a comic book franchise/character; the horrid “Catwoman” film; and “Superman Returns”, as a boring slog that saps the energy out of all passerby.

Now then, with all the bad out, it’s time to focus on what makes good comic book films: ideally, the perfect balance between representing an established comic book character, and the ability to translate all of that into making a good film, one that takes advantage of said medium. Call it a cross-pollination, call it a mix of creative license combining with artistic license: somewhere between that idea, lies the good comic book film. A solid, respectable endeavor: with this in mind, I think of a few films, in particular, that adhere to this idea.

From the original “Batman” by Tim Burton, who captured a great character with great performances put to film, while also betraying said main character due to the director not liking to read comic books in the first place, it’s a tricky thing, this perfect balance-of-sorts. Thankfully, we’re far gone from the very odd, although auteur-minded, version of “Batman Returns”, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will, barring a few missteps(Iron Man 2 and 3) and a few “by-the-numbers” style of filmmaking(Thor 1 and Thor 2: The Dark World) , this is a cinematic franchise that knows how to deliver quality goods. “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” are key to this analysis, for one reason: they are great comic book films, but not great films, as a whole.

By this, I mean they understand the balance between respecting and representing their comic book ways, and finding a way to translate that onto the big screen/visual medium summer spectacular. “The Avengers” manages to find this, by setting up the scenario for these heroes to even meet, let alone team-up, in the first place. The great opening scene of close to six minutes or so, perfect way to introduce the villain and his powers/the big threat of the film, is soon followed by the obligatory character introductions, and scenario set-up.

What I like the most about this film, in particular as a comic book film, is how, even with great action scenes and a big bad invasion of Earth coming to town, there are still moments throughout the film of this team of superheroes just acting like real human beings-it’s a great way that Joss Whedon both directs and writes this franchise: treating the superhero as no different than a human being, with problems and deep scars from their respective pasts. Where it falters, of course, is the rushed-through plot developments, along with the big bad “Loki” being not much of a threatening villain, and the alien invasion petering out into faceless goons.

This is a common problem for a great many comic book films, and this is also where “Age of Ultron” falters. From the get-go, the rush job and the little tie-in foreshadowing’s rob the movie of any real urgency, which is a real shame: the movie rushes through the plot and the villain Ultron, that the great performances and dramatic moments end up lacking pathos and are easily forgotten, except for the introduction of the character The Vision(if nothing else, should be considered THE DEFINING FILM MOMENT for this franchise so far.) As these good comic book films show, it is some great entertainment. But, ultimately, how do you separate yourself from the herd of giant summer comic book blockbusters into making something, not so much transcending in nature, but awe-inspiring in form, content, effect, and value?

You can go about it in many ways, but the best known examples that I can use here, for analysis’s sake, are “The Dark Knight”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

An eclectic selection, three of them being Marvel films, for a reason: while the Nolan-Batman trilogy is stupendous, the one ultimately fantastic film, all-defining and a standout to this day, is in fact “The Dark Knight.” Whereas, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe still being relatively new, with many of its licenses and characters, has been able to consistently allow film makers to direct and play around with the endless assortment of characters and teams.

Now, to start up with two relatively new films that surprised many are “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Whereas it’s been ages, seventeen years in fact, since the first X-Men film came about, it’s only now that they’ve really created something great, as a film and as a representation of the ideal of the comics.

Here is a dystopian future for the mutants of the world, and for humanity, as technological giants known as Sentinels have herded up everyone into prison camps and/or killed most of the heroes. From there, a last ditch effort to save the world, and change the course of time, is made through time travel consciousness, and so on: more than anything else to consider, it’s how this film manages to crackle with energy, to make all of this work, in the first place. Bryan Singer has come back to the franchise with full force, and a script that enhances the performances of the actors, and does not miss a single beat. Expertly edited, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy carry this film to great heights of drama, as two friends stuck working together to some end, with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the ultimate soldier, now has to become the ultimate mediator of the group. From the get-go of the film, to its closing sequence, it’s a comic book film that becomes great when it lets its actors rule the roost, and does not solely depend on CGI antics.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is something I still remember experiencing to this day: late night screening, with only my friend sitting next to me as another soul in the movie theater, and never really having taken the time to learn about this new set of characters/team-up, and being astounded by this film. Just gob smacked, and happily so: this is a film that not only gets superheroes right, but gets film making, and the basic joys that the classic Indiana Jones films bring to the screen, as well. Directed, and written, by James Gunn, the same film maker who made the Rainn Wilson/Ellen Page-centered “Super”, a criminally underrated satire on the whole concept of superheroes and sidekicks, James Gunn instantly understands how to create a new world via film, and to get the audience to buy into that, as well. Chris Pratt’s breakout role, along with one of the few standalone Marvel Cinematic Universe films, this film is kinetic put to film reel. By this, I mean that no other kind of superhero team-up film, not even “The Avengers”, captures the origin story of how a ragtag group of mercenaries/freelancers come together to save the universe. Every performance, every line works, and who doesn’t love Rocket Raccoon? As a comedy, and a drama, and an action film, everything works to the hilt in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is an odd duck in the Marvel franchise, maybe even more so than “Guardians of the Galaxy”: a film about espionage, government transparency, ethics, and all with great action and fight scenes. A film that allows itself time to develop, and does not rush around for needless action or CGI non-sequiturs. As in any great film, great writing combines and is enhanced by great performances from the main players. Finally, Chris Evans gets to shine as the man-out-of-time super soldier Captain America, Scarlett Johansson is given material to work with as “Black Widow”, a top spy and fighter who is trying to make up for all of the blood and chaos she caused in her spy career, and Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury is always a joy to watch, but in this film, he shines as a man of duty and of secrets, but kept out of the loop, for once. With most of these films, of any spy film, really, the heroes need to be opposed by a great villain or a force of evil, the struggle makes the film, and this one is no different.

Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce may be just a footnote in the Marvel Cinematic Universe gallery of characters, but my god is he fantastic in this film. He brings such an understanding of his character, and of his character’s motivations, that he instantly brings a level of realism unheard of, and unseen, since this film. Sebastian Stan as “The Winter Soldier” brings a Terminator-style performance, with just enough humanity underneath the assassin’s surface to complicate things even more, and add another layer of interest and intrigue. The introduction of new character Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, portrayed by Anthony Mackie, helps add yet another layer of relationships and reality to an already great film Whereas the first Captain America film was middle-of-the-road fare, every scene works so well in this film. I cannot say enough good things about this film, but it’s well-merited, especially first-time directors Anthony and Peter Russo.

Now, for the big one, the one that, upon rewatching it recently, am still awestruck by it: Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” I was a little over fourteen years old when I first saw this film in theaters, and from the Michael Mann-style opening sequence of bank robbery and introduction of The Joker, I fell in love with it. Whereas I feel, in other Christopher Nolan films, his style and methodology is too paced-out and almost surgeon-like, with the “Batman” trilogy, and specifically “The Dark Knight”, Nolan’s style shines far brighter with an already handy-made symbol of the crime fighting vigilante fighting for his city. To single out performances at this point is almost secondary, as everyone brings it in this film, specifically Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Gary Oldman, and the phenomenal Heath Ledger. The triumvirate of Batman(Bale), Harvey Dent (Eckhart), and Gordon (Oldman) are the perfect trio of performances, acting off each other and building up the relationships between these three characters, who want to bring justice to Gotham City. This film, with a running time of two hours and thirty minutes, is a perfect crime caper, an action film, a detective film, an existential film, and a superhero film: this is why the film is so critically acclaimed, after all. It cannot be pigeonholed because its very strengths and performances, editing and musical score, refuse any pigeonholing.

Heath Ledger as the Joker is the quintessential villain, and the great performance to watch over and over again: he captures the chaos of the character in ways that I have never seen before. He’s the agent of chaos that brings the question to the forefront of the film: how do you stop/deal with a man who just wants to watch the world burn? He burns the heart out of Gotham City. Christopher Nolan wonderfully lets the characters tell the story, and not the other way around: the script and the camera imbue the actors and the setting with such a life, duly recorded and given a purpose to the big screen, that it all comes together into the perfect Batman film, and a great film, no doubt.

So, what is the difference between a good comic book film and a great film, in general? To say the least, I offer this: a good comic book film rushes around and gives a good bit of entertainment, and represents the characters well, while a great film lets the characters breathe, and tightens its scope until every sequence speaks for itself, even when it could be a comic book-centered film scope.

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