21 March 2014

The Curious Halfbusters of March 2014

I came up with the cheeky term "halfbuster" a while back while covering a March War of the Months, when I struggled to come up with a term to describe studio attempts to launch a big tentpole picture at the dawn of Spring. Ever since 300 (2007) or so, March has tended to be this little Summer Preview-kind of month, where the occasional big film breaks and scores big. There's all these big-budgeted but really weird movies that come out here, usually not four-quadrant style pics, but big fantasy world-building fare like Alice in Wonderland (2010), The Hunger Games (2012), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and almost every Zack Snyder film ever.

The current March, however, seems peculiar. At first glance you'd think we didn't even have any halfbuster at all. We do, but we just have three halfbusters so pathetic that they're on no one's radar. Quarterbusters, if you will. I'm always looking for a big film that captures national attention in a big way, and I'm even more curious when the formula fails for no discernible reason besides an arbitrarily poor buzz that gets rolling.

I'm thinking of a film like The Lone Ranger (2013). Why did The Lone Ranger fail so spectacularly in every possible way? It was a bust critically, commercially, and culturally, despite an incredible marketing effort on the part of Disney and the standard serious treatment of tenuous but recognizable material that most tentpoles receive these days. The mystique of The Lone Ranger's failure haunts me and probably deserves its own post someday, but there's another film this year that seems to fit a similar bill: Darren Aronofsky's Noah (2014).

I think the best way to judge whether or not a big blockbuster-style film will succeed or not is to test the knee-jerk reaction to its subject material receiving the huge budget epic treatment. What do you think when you hear that the Transformers would feature in a huge movie? Pretty awesome, right? You can immediately picture the clash and clang of guns and metal, and in many ways Michael Bay, though assuredly superfluous, was the perfect director to place every 12-year old boy's imagination on screen.

What about The Lone Ranger? It's tougher to picture exactly what that would look like. Same with Noah's Ark. Same with freaking Jem. It's difficult to estimate fanbases, but it's also difficult to picture what these films could be like, possibly just because although the source material is recognizable, there is some disassociation with it. In these three cases, for me personally, this disassociation is due to distances derived from living in a different time from when the source material peaked in popularity, observing the religion too casually to care, or not being the optimal gender at the time of its peak in popularity.
Noah is not entertained.

That's the major issue with Noah, the first film we'll talk about here. Does anyone care about the tale of Noah's Ark on the big screen that wasn't satisfied with Evan Almighty (2007)? I'm actually quite sure that no one cares about Evan Almighty, but it presents a really strange audience. Supposedly, according to early reviews, Noah does things like omit any utterance of the word "God" and serves more as a survivalist, environmentalist psychological thriller than a Biblical Epic. Who the hell is that audience? Me? Yes, I am interested in that, moreso than just hearing the words "Noah," "Epic," and "Movie" in the same byline. I'm not sure, however, that either casual moviegoers or religious fanatics would be pleased with the outcome. Still, it's a hell of a way to spend $125 million. Just like The Lone Ranger, though, this huge experimental blockbuster was made for no one.

There are two other halfbusters this year that are worthy of our attention. We mentioned 300 earlier in this article, and it's only natural that we see it's long-awaited sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) debut this year. The thing is, though, everything groundbreaking about 300 (in a money-making, industry-influential sense, certainly not in a cultural sense through fostering greater insight into truth or the human condition), causes its sequel to inevitably appear more like just one of its many many copycats aping its visual cues and subject matter this year rather than a worthy successor to its ideals. It's the kind of film that seems to have been created and released only in facsimile to its inspiration, an even more egregious filmmaking error than Oz the Great and Powerful's relationship to Alice in Wonderland was.

Lastly we have this strange movie coming out this weekend called Divergent (2014). I feel constantly blindsided by YA adaptation releases and I have no idea how to determine what the genuine articles are. Box Office Mojo's weekend preview does a nice job of delineating the tepid recent releases that have tried to get some of that Hunger Games and Twilight gold. 2013 saw no less than three terrible YA bombs each trying to become the next big franchise, including Beautiful Creatures, The Host, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, as well as 2014's Vampire Academy. It's possible that these were more seen as all direct rip-offs of Twilight, especially the explicit use of vampires in a handful of these.
Ugh whatever

Where does Divergent fall, though? It's clearly some kind of Hunger Games knock-off, at least in the public perception, but rather than banking on Jennifer Lawrence, who has developed the rare talent to instantly legitimize anything she touches, it's banking on Shailene "Secret Life and The Descendants" Woodley, whose name I had to Google to verify its spelling. She's a lovely actress but I'm not sure she's carrying this one.

So this year we have a hollow sequel to the original halfbuster that will most likely be remember for its ship sex scene more than anything else, an intellectual, dark, epic Biblical adaptation that doesn't really appeal to the Bible belt, and a who knows kind of YA adaptation that could just as easily be forgotten as immortalized. The important thing to take away from this March is one simple fact: we aren't getting 300, The Lone Ranger, or The Hunger Games. We're getting mock-ups of these three. And none of those three were especially good anyway. It's an old mantra that the studio system seems allergic to hear - the real key to getting a big hit isn't to copy the past, but to push forward into the future. Isn't it more worthwhile to be the movie that everyone wants to copy rather than the copycat?

Divergent premieres today, Noah next week, and the atrocious 300: Rise of an Empire is in theaters right now. At least all three are better than Jack the Giant Slayer (2013).

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