24 June 2016

Aliens, Slavery, and Big Ol' Meanie Shark Help Us Close Out June

Every Friday this Summer we've been discussing the cultural, critical, and commercial merits of the big blockbuster wide-release films dropping each week. This season has been stunning for both its plethora of releases as well as how little anyone seems to care about them. Week in and week out there have been a lot of titles dropped, some more intriguing than others, but it's almost as if nothing has gotten a fair shake.

Of course, the real point is that audiences seem to be going for movies that they want to see. It's not a sequel or prequel thing. Captain America: CIVIL WAR (2016) and Finding Dory (2016) have had phenomenal openings, and in the case of the latter, which just came out last week, is assured to have a healthy run at the box office. It wasn't a secret that no one cared about Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016). Anyone could have told you that was a terrible idea.

So now we're on to the Final Weekend of June - even though June 24th feels like there's a lot of month left. There are three big releases hitting the multiplex today with a couple of smaller ones that are even more interesting. In descending order we have Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), The Shallows (2016), and Free State of Jones (2016). Clawing around down there we also have releases of Nicholas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon (2016), at a mild 1000 theaters, and Swiss Army Man (2016), which looked like one of the most original films of the year, at way more limited theaters than that. Why don't more people want to see a magical dead farting Harry Potter? We could talk about these all day, but this is blockbuster territory, baby! Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man both almost assuredly have some spots on year-end lists (although reviews for Demon so far aren't as ecstatic as I might have thought they'd be), so they'll get their time. It's always about the Indie Films! They can't get enough attention. Let's back up and talk about those big releases in reverse order, starting with Free State of Jones.

This is a really interesting flick, all in its release position, subject matter, timeliness, and content. Regardless if his negative reasoning is founded or not, Snoop Dogg did have a point when he remarked that there are too many slave movies hanging around recently. This kind of started with Django Unchained (2012), continued with 12 Years a Slave (2013), sidetracked with the Roots revival, sees Free State of Jones this week and in the fall, the high profile The Birth of a Nation (2016) which looks to replicated 12 Years' Oscar nabs.
Alright alright alright

I don't really think we can have too many slavery movies in the same way we can't have too many Westerns, or any other genre, but they do seem to be blurring together somewhat. You can't help but wonder if the commercial, critical, and financial success of Django and 12 Years has more to do with this than a desire to tell an important American narrative. Slavery in particular is also not as cavalier as a Western. Western's don't feature the most brutal subjugation of another race of people in our history (wait a minute...shit. The West sucked), or at least not part of its genre trappings. We're not here to debate whether or not that's a jingoistic choice (see: The Lone Ranger [2013]), but the centering upon brutality is something that's somewhat inherent to slave movies, which makes their repeated release exhausting, while they're difficult to ignore without slipping into calls of racism.

Free State of Jones might actually buck that brutality trend. It doesn't seem so much a film about the horrors of slavery than it is about the unlikely rising up of a town against a county they find unfit to hold them. There's a little more hope here than this territory typically treads.

Of course, this slavery movie featuring Matthew McConaughey feels a little like The Last Nigga On Earth starring Tom Hanks. Django and 12 Years were not only great platforms for black actors but also told inherently black stories. Even though there's a lot of white dudes controlling shit in Django I remarked when I first saw it that by the end it seeks to tell a tale of black redemption, revenge, and heroism that's we rarely see in cinema. Of course, there's all kind of racism in the other direction, including a long history of calling McConaughey's character Newt Knight (his actual name) a race traitor and deserter. Mississippi is fucked up.

Django was obviously notable due to both its novelty, style, and directorial pedigree attached. 12 Years a Slave was another excellent film crafted by a great director that has now almost created the slaver movie template that offered the genre as a viable Awards candidate. Free State of Jones seems interesting, but lacks either hook, and ends up feeling more repetitive than innovative. McConaughey, who's still riding the McConaissance surely had a lot to do with this film getting made and released, although it seems like a strange role to take for a guy who could make any film he wanted. Maybe not - that White Saviour role has to be appealing to anyone. That this would be released in the middle of Summer is also bizarre, frankly. What kids are going to line up for Free State of Jones after Graduation? I think this could crash and burn, and depending on how good The Birth of a Nation really is (I would be a little shocked if it won Best Picture so soon after 12 Years a Slave stole its fire), this could end up being that middle slavery movie that we all forget about. Or we just remember it as "ohhh yeah - the McConaughey one."

Next up is The Shallows, which has in the space of a week gone from something completely off my radar. I can't remember my mode of through seven weeks ago, but in my summer preview I described it as: "No one knows what this shit is. Move on." That was for a July 1st release. They might have moved it up. Or I screwed up. I can't be expected to remember such things. Obviously, I did no research (I'm not sure much more than "Blake Lively Shark Movie" was out there, which seems really lame). Then they dropped this trailer and holy shitballs on a sandwich am I hooked. Here you go:

There's only two shots you really need to sell this trailer. The first is the shot of the Shark's image in the wave as Blake is riding it. It's a perfect sinister moment where the audience is aware of danger that the protagonist doesn't know about while also being really cool. It's as threatening as it is campy. The second is that final shot of poor Blake stranded atop the rocks or coral or whatever, while the massive Shark stalks around here. Everything you need to know about the film is there. She's stuck. She needs to get past a massive, hungry shark. The tide is rising. GO! All the other trailers have been pretty good, and this film has done masterful work providing a reason to watch it in like, the two weeks that commercials have started airing.

Now, commercially, it's still a tough sell. The Shallows isn't a four-quadrant film. Massive audiences will see Independence Day, adults will probably see Free State of Jones (they've even incorporated that into their recent marketing), and kids are still doping on Finding Dory (2016). That leads a narrow gap for everyone else. Then again, if audiences get turned off of seeing the same stupid shit in Resurgence, The Shallows could be an easy fallback. It's not totally a horror film, although it's certainly billed as such. Anyone wanting to get their fix of violence before The Purge: Election Year (2016) drops could jump in on this.

If this is more like JAWS (1975), which is obviously the Shark Movie high-water mark and less like Open Water (2003), I predict good things. It runs a crisp 87 minutes, which ought to refreshingly tell a focused story with severe stakes, palpable tension, and just about everything you could want out of a giant shark movie. Resurgence is 150 minutes and supposedly stretches across a whole shitload of characters. These are suddenly weirdly opposite movies that both deal with strange creatures trying to kill poor humans.

I do enjoy the mostly daylight setting - Horror in Paradise, baby! The color seems really sharp, though, as if it's highly saturated, giving the whole picture an unnatural feel that just adds to the uneasiness. This is obviously my pic for this week and I hope it does well. With a $17 million production budget against Resurgence's purported $200 million it ought to at least make its money back.

So with that, let's move on to Resurgence, but before we do, let's rewind the clocks twenty years back to 1996. Independence Day (1996) was an event. It was THE movie to see that summer, in a way that's hardly been replicated since. For a while there it had my respect as that one mega-blockbuster sci-fi epic that always stood on its own. It had its place among the Pantheon of Immortal Box Office Titans and was secure in that fact. So, what made the original so great but the new one kind of meh? Flavorwire recently had a fantastic piece about Summer '96 including this summary that I cannot say better:

Its release date was right there in the title, a reminder with every poster, bus ad, TV spot, and gaze-at-the-skies trailer that the aliens were coming to the multiplex over Fourth of July weekend. The movie was so ubiquitous, in fact, that there almost seemed a subtextual tie to the holiday’s patriotism. This wasn’t just a movie that was available to you – it was a movie that it was your duty as an American to see. Or, as MST3K’s Mike Nelson wrote at the time of these “Big Gulp-style films,” “They’re Must-See movies. Not to see them is to risk revocation of citizenship and eventual deportation.”
All of this is critical. The release date was in the title, and the general populace knew it was coming six months ahead of time. It was a truly American film, something that families saw on vacation, one bristling with patriotism but lacking jingoism. It is epic in every possible way, and of course, it had one-liners, Jeff Goldblum coming off Jurassic Park (1993), and probably most importantly, Will Smith, who in this masterstroke made the transition from syndicated TV actor to Global Megastar in one fell swoop.

I don't really think that feeling is as palpable this time around. It also helps that the original did a lot to canonize the massive alien invasion trope and served as the template for films and TV to come from Futurama to Battle: Los Angeles (2011). Resurgence could never originate that and so comes across as another follow-up rather than something that actually pushes the genre. This is of course, nothing new, and it would seem to take the Jurassic World (2015) route in long-term sequels in taking what worked from the first film, making it bigger and badder, and splicing in a lot of homage. That's clearly a good strategy for sequels: essentially remaking the first film in all but name.

I do really enjoy the fact that Resurgence seeks to craft an alternate earth history of the past twenty years and demonstrate how the alien invasion changed the world. That's actually something that hasn't quite been done before. Oblivion (2013) showed us the aftereffects of a successful alien invasion, but there hasn't been a film that shows us what happens twenty years after the humans win. It's a decently interesting hook. Jurassic World did about the same thing, but when the previous films' events were concentrated on a single island, Independence Day very much shook up the entire planet. Extrapolating everything that followed is a monumental task, and the film looks like it's handled it well.
Remember that impossibly big ship in the last one?
Well this one's even bigger! We still got nuclear bombs
 and 90s-level computer viruses, right?

There are a lot of comparisons to Jurassic World here, but one big conceit of the film was that they would never be able to surpass the original, which is simultaneously a brilliant meta-move and a somewhat depressing concession. Resurgence doesn't really seem to have that kind of acknowledgment, perhaps due to the fact that while Independence Day is a reasonably well-regarded film and surely made a ton of bank, it's never been acknowledged as a perfect blockbuster or an adored piece of our shared childhood. It's a whole lot more blowhardy and insane, although not as in-your-face as a Michael Bay aesthetic. Indeed, often in his career, Roland Emmerich is seen as this sort of Bay-Lite who specializes in global destruction. From Godzilla (1998) to The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to 2012 (2009), this is readily apparent. His schtick seems to be giant globe-spanning stories with a lot of interweaving characters. Still, he finds some heart more than Bay does in a lot of them, perhaps at the expense of a stylization of method to accompany the ridiculous on screen.

It is amazing that the Aliens always choose the Fourth of July weekend to attack. Although why is this coming out on June 24th!? I'd almost expect some people to see it next weekend naturally thinking that's when it comes out. It's tough to call what kind of cheddar this flick pulls in. When its closest comparison is Jurassic World, we're talking a ton of change. I don't think the anticipation is that high, though. And there's been rough backlash to sequels this summer. Still, it feels like more a must-see than Through the Looking Glass or X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), perhaps precisely because it's been so long since the original and even though demand has been there, no sequel movement has ever been made. The story is also reasonably communicated, and even though it's derivative ("They're invading! Again!"), there's enough cohesive world-building to sell it. If Will Smith had returned that really would have put it over the edge. It's bizarre to me that he chose Suicide Squad over this, even though hype is bigger for that, and the prospect of franchising over there is possibly more lucrative. Still, he feels more like a bit part there in a series that's bigger than him, which feels like an odd choice. Or Emmerich just axed him. Who really knows.

So far very few people have actually seen this movie, but so far the general consensus is that it matches its predecessor, in the sense that it's still a big dumb explosion-y movie (although Independence Day is surely a giant in storytelling compared to most blockbusters today). This is a huge step, though. To be as much of a cultural landmark as the original, though, it really needs to do something spectacular. I'm not sure "Bigger Death Star" really cuts it. Instead of feeling like THE event of Summer it more feels like one or two events of summer. Then again, I'd consider our only other big events of the summer being Ghostbusters (2016), Star Trek Beyond (2016), and Jason Bourne (2016), and honestly, how pumped are you for any of those? Ghosbusters will probably end up being the highlight, and with three clear weeks of sailing, Resurgence could be in for a surprisingly good time.

Obviously, I'm dismissing The BFG (2016) and Tarzan because holy shit, who cares.

That's a lot to take in this week. Again, I'm totally on #TeamShallows. What say you?

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