06 February 2015

Hello Jupiter Ascending, or Why Do Blockbusters Fail?

I am always impressed by a few directors who get to keep on making movies. Tim Burton tends to churn out more crap than gold these days, but they're at least fairly successful and moderately well-liked by their intended mass audience. M. Night Shyamalan is one who had one to many absolute failures (critically, financially, and culturally) to keep his auteur vision going, but he even seems to be failing enough as a journeyman blockbuster director for people to stop giving him work. Then there's the Wachowskis.

The Wachowski Siblings, Andy and Lana, seem to have this mysterious carte blanche in Hollywood after The Matrix Trilogy. Sure it was a pretty significant movie event with each one of those three big aspects pumping hard (critical/commercial/cultural), but when do we stop believing in a director's ability to give us a good movie again? I actually don't have much of a problem with Speed Racer (2008), although it seems to be universally derided. The plot is incomprehensible, but the production design is amazing and it's also fabulously well-cast. Needless to say, though, I'm in the minority.

They followed that bomb up with Cloud Atlas (2012), which is also fine in its own right. It just cost $102 million to make, which is absurd for a big dense film with multiple timelines and plots. It always felt more like a passionate personal thinking project than anything that anyone would actually enjoy. This combined with Speed Racer and the latter disappointing Matrix sequels, which exchanged indecipherable philosophical quandaries for earned resolutions (then discarded all that while Neo fought Smith like Dragon Ball Z), and you've got a pretty lackluster string of what was once a pretty awesome post-Bound (1996) career going.
He's a space wolf!

That brings us to Jupiter Ascending (2015). I'd like to point out that even though the marketing effort for this thing has been pretty strong, in my head I called it Jupiter Rising so often I had to double-check the title to make sure I was right when titling this post. Jupiter Ascending is just really clunky, and apparently really on-the-nose, given that Mila Kunis' character has the awkward and not-prophetic-at-all name of Jupiter. Whatever. The movie looks kind of cool, even if it also seems really dumb and silly, and I like enough of what a lot of the Wachowskis have done (even if no one else really does) to give it a shot. But we're not here to discuss whether or not I'm going to see this film.

We're here to discuss if everyone else and their neighbor is. They're not. Why?

On the surface this seems like a total win. You've possibly got an Academy Award-winning actor playing the villain (Eddie Redmayne - who is no where near any of the marketing [probably to not hurt his Oscar chances...]), two likable leads who are peaking right now in Kunis and C-Tates, directors who have competently handled complex big screen genre material before (regardless of their inability to communicate mainstream ideas, they can handle the hell out of action sequences), and a plot that beckons towards a classic hero's journey in an original sci-fi opus. This should be the next AVABAR (2009), right? I am compelled by the question of why it's not. Why does this look stupid when AVABAR didn't? And AVABAR was an extremely stupid movie after the fact, but how come it looked so cool going into it (and parlayed that into $700 million)?

Last year I was writing this article about how ridiculous and pathetic March 2014 was, and I got talking about how Noah (2014), despite containing some interesting subject material and a possibly experimentally dark direction for a blockbuster to take, will get no audience at all almost solely on the basis of its inaccessible source material. There was another recent film that I am always fuddled by, that found itself in a similar position, which was Gore Verblinksi's The Lone Ranger (2013). To add to this discussion, I also want to talk about The Rock's Hercules (2014), which was by all means a pretty fun and thrilling film that just bombed to hell. Why?

I think it's interesting how critics tend to groupthink and then pile on films like these early, which tends to set the tone for how a film is talked about. None of these are exceptionally poorly constructed, at least not to the extent that the three-piece slaughterhouse of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) were, and those were all pretty successful films financially. I would solidly argue that Hercules is a better film in every possible way than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which came out around the same time. It has a more artfully constructed tone, a better understanding of its own themes, a cognizant plot, more compelling characters, and more charismatic performances by its leads. If critics are picking movies to jump on, how come they jump on The Lone Ranger but not The Amazing Spider-Man 2?
Also you can't have a Hercules movie that debunks the
Hercules myth. No one thinks that Hercules actually existed.
I hope.

Perhaps it's just because the big difference between the films I've listed as successful Summer 2014 films (and thank goodness, most of the actually successful films last year were pretty damn good as well) is that franchise tag. There's something to be expected for dumb loud flashy action films that are intended for the 13-year old boy in all of us that just wants to see shit smashed together. Noah was insistently more darker and thought-provoking, although it was still filled with scenes that made no sense. Perhaps there's a key there, that when a movie takes itself as serious as Noah, it shouldn't have scenes of Ham saving a chick in the city and bringing her back only to have her trampled and killed because of Noah with no repercussion to any character moments later. Sorry, SPOILER, but seriously, if you see it coming and have hope that a likable character will do something that makes sense, you're mistaken. When movies that purport to take themselves as serious art pieces trip up, it's amplified much more than when Transformers makes piss and fart jokes with robots.

Critics aren't that useful, though, right? Something like only 50% of moviegoers go frequently, and presumably some percentage of those people would be the real cinephiles who are hunting down online news and critical opinions. Again, this critical consensus isn't that influential directly, but it helps set the narrative. When enough influential critics get on board against a movie, and this is sometimes years before a film comes out - so it's more the entertainment news reporters, but when enough of them lambaste a film's early, troubled production it becomes difficult for any smaller critic or reporter following up or transmitting the news to form a divergent opinion, lest they be ostracised by the critical community. Infrequent moviegoers, while they may not be researching a film themselves, probably have a friend who is, and they can see that off comment on Facebook that embeds itself as a negative opinion. Therefore this narrative is formed before something even comes out. Battleship (2012) is a solid example of this. Its subject matter was deemed far too stupid and unwatchable before it came out, even though it's no worse than any Transformers movie.

And I should clarify at some point, that I don't think these are necessarily good movies, but I just don't see them as any worse than other blockbusters who gain much more money. Actually I do think some of them are much better. But why are these narratives chosen? If you look at my list of "Competently-made-yet-universally-hated" Blockbusters (Jupiter Rising Ascending, Noah, The Lone Ranger, Hercules, and Battleship), I think the inherent problem in each is the source material. There's just no one out there who gave a shit about the story of Noah's Flood, or The Lone Ranger and Tonto, the "untold true story" of Hercules, or a two-hour advertisement for the U.S. Navy. It's that groan factor. You hear "Hey, they're making a big-budget epic about Noah's Ark!" "Awww maannnn. That sounds dumb." That's my gut reaction, to be honest. And I keep using Transformers, just because it's easiest - but why, when we hear "Hey, they're making a big-budget epic about Robots that are also Trucks!" is our reaction "Oooohh maaann!!"

Maybe it's just intrinsic. Enough people either saw the cartoon show to get a vague idea of the personalities and mythology involved while it was cheesy enough that we could easily picture a live-action treatment being exciting and awesome. This blinds our thought process to the fact that the film itself is still wretched, but that's not even important anymore. It's flashy enough to get a long life on television and home streaming and has just the right level of plot skimming that it's not even important to clue into. It's also generally a lot more cheery and digestible.

That's also a factor in each of these films. Noah, The Lone Ranger, and Hercules in particular had a maudlin air about them, even if the latter two were able to splice in some decent character humour that's virtually lost in a sea of self-seriousness. The same can almost be said for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but most Transformers tend to be decidedly cheery, or at least mask their pain in sex and chrome.
Also Johnny Depp fatigue doomed this movie.

I have actually thought about The Lone Ranger a lot, because on the surface that movie had everything going for it, but you never felt like you bought in. It had an extreme level of commercialisation with every plug and tie-in possible (who out there bought The Lone Ranger LEGOs expecting it to be like Harry Potter or Star Wars?). It was trying so hard to position itself as THE film of Summer 2013 but it just never had a shot.

Again, maybe this was intrinsic. It had early accusations of racism, fairly true accusations of anti-Americanism, bland what's his face...Armie Hammer, variances in tone, and a complex subtext that frankly, refuted all of this, but was tough for an average filmgoer to comprehend. It also simply came out smack in the middle of a very long summer where every single weekend there was a film trying to loudly proclaim it was the end-all finale of ALL EPIC BLOCKBUSTERS EVER. Things became more noise than diversified voices, and all the commercialisation wasn't clever or a fun reminder like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) bobble-heads. It was an irritant.

If we're contrasting with Guardians, it's also because that seemed to be a movie that "got it" while The Lone Ranger appeared like another line in a long, reviled copycat Hollywood system, even though to be honest, structurally The Lone Ranger is far more innovative and its subtext is far more subversive. But that's another good question - what does it take to take charge of a nation's culture for a few weeks?

Hey 2013, what film was your Summer film anyway? Man of Steel? How do you judge what the fan community wants? Was it Pacific Rim? But the critics and even the regular public rejected that one. Was The Lone Ranger not geeky enough? It was certainly no lesser of a film than Man of Steel, in many ways it was far superior. For some reason the appeal of seeing Superman on screen in a serious adult treatment or seeing giant robots clobber giant monsters has a far better initial sound than the idea of seeing The Lone Ranger. Even with the William Tell Overture! It's bullshit. Sorry this got so sidetracked about me liking The Lone Ranger. No one talks about this film anymore, or Noah or Battleship. They're without conversation. They won't appear on T-shirts thirty years from now.

Let's get back to that question - are they not nerdy enough? Is there something intrinsic to these films that fails to inspire a devoted fanbase that will keep it alive through conversation and references for years to come? Maybe it is that seriousness. Then again, our benchmark, Transformers: Age of Extinction isn't influencing any nerds. Quick, name Stanley Tucci's company. Or character. Or any line he says that isn't this. Any reader of this blog understands that I'm constantly concerned about our lack of culturally significant original films.

I wish this movie was as good as "Four Five Seconds."
Which brings me all the way back to Jupiter Ascending. Why did you title your movie so stupidly, Wachowskis. All you needed to hear is "Wachowski" and "Jupiter Ascending" and you could predict this film's fate. It's so sad. By all regards, this film is bonkers insane, and as one of those entertainment journalists (is that what I am? I'm only comfortable with that in really REALLY loose terms), maybe I'm to blame in part for its incoming failure by automatically looping it in with Noah and Battleship as total failures. It just looks so damn stupid. If you break down what I said up there a bit more, Mila and Chan are only successful in comedies, the directors have abused their fans' trust for far too long, and the one good thing about franchise filmmaking is that you already have some understanding of character going in, so when Robert Downey, Jr. smirks, you know why. It's engrossing. Who the hell knows what any of these people in Jupiter Going Up are doing or why we should care. It's all sound and fury signifying nothing.

So maybe I'll be totally wrong. Jupiter Ascending becomes the highest grossing movie of the year and wins seventeen Oscars next year. No. That won't happen.

But will you see it this weekend? If not, stream The Lone Ranger.

1 comment:

  1. There are actually more reports that Jupiter Rising Cost $175 million, which is getting into super-ridiculous territory (http://variety.com/2015/film/news/spongebob-movie-box-office-jupiter-ascending-seventh-son-1201423635/)


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