Anyone who knows me (in any capacity) knows that I adore watching films. While science fiction will always have a special place in my heart, if offered, I will watch just about anything — silent, noir, superhero, buddy cop, etc. As I’ve grown more attentive to the construction of films — that is to say, lighting, mise-en-scène, soundscaping, etc. –, I’ve noticed a slightly disturbing trend: my favorite aspects (and what I would argue are the most important aspects of film) are being sidelined. As everything in our lives moves faster and becomes more in-your-face, plot and character development are being either rushed or skipped over entirely in favor of fast action sequences, stunning (or obnoxious) shots with over-the-top special effects, and, of course, expensive soundtracks. While I don’t want to down play the importance of choreography, cinematography, or soundscaping and design (in fact, I wanted to be a foley artist at one point in my life), nor do I wish to mourn a long-gone age of film, I do want to point out the disturbing trend: big-budget films — that is to say, top billed, IMAX, summer blockbusters — are increasingly turning into two hour music videos.
I recently had the opportunity to see David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde (2017). While the film, following the exploits of an MI6 operative attempting to apprehend a killer, expose a double agent, and engage in all our favorite 007-style escapades all while being smack-dab in the middle of Berlin during the final days of the Cold War, ought to have been rich in story and character development — indeed, a Goldfinger of 2017 –, Atomic Blonde seemed more like an oversaturated, more expensive, ’80s version of John Wick (2014). Does that mean I didn’t have a good time? Of course not. Does that mean there weren’t nuggets of gold in the film? Of course not. Does that mean that I wouldn’t recommend the film? Of course not. What it does mean, however, is that the intricacies of what ought to have been a thrilling film about espionage and counter-espionage were left to filled out by the good folks at Wikipedia.
More importantly, however, is that Atomic Blonde does not exist in a vacuum; rather it is symptomatic of a larger problem in Hollywood. Allow me to step back. Every film that is made tries to do at least one thing. Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam (1982), otherwise know as Turkish Star Wars tried to, and successfully did, flaunt copyright laws to provide a Turkish audience with a bizarre action film; 12 Angry Men (1957) tried to provide viewers with a tense, extremely dialogue driven ‘did-he-do-it?’ look into the U.S. court system; Alien (1979) tried to problematize gender politics (okay, we won’t go there) in a horror film; Ex Machina (2015) tried to take hard sci-fi to the limit and examination the implications of various outcomes of hard AI and the Turing Test; I could go on. When films try to do one or two things, they generally succeed because everything is focused on whatever thing(s) is/are attempting to be done. When films try to do too many things — that is to say, be a superhero movie with amazing special effects that tells a deep backstory while being filled with jokes and hit songs –, they generally fail. In film, more is not necessarily better, and while Atomic Blonde managed not to fail (it sure came close), its attempt to do too much is a symptom of the disease that has plagued more recent failures such as Suicide Squad (2016) with its over-the-top special effects and “monster soundtrack.”
To further the analysis of more not being better, let us examine, briefly, the other 2017 summer blockbuster alongside Atomic Blonde: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017). Although it had many of the same features as Atomic Blonde — namely a lack of detailed story, over-the-top action scenes, and a soundtrack of titanic proportions –, why was Baby Driver exponentially better than Atomic Blonde? Both were similar insofar as they lacked traditionally ‘crucial’ elements of a film while having more ‘superfluous’ elements. Baby Driver intentionally lacked the things Atomic Blonde accidentally lacked. More specifically, Baby Driver didn’t have a detailed plot with twists and turns because that’s not what it was aiming for. Baby Driver didn’t have much character development not because Edgar Wright is inept — far from it! the Cornetto Trilogy proves that –, rather it lacked character development because that’s not what the film cared about. Baby Driver shoved aside more traditional aspects of film making in favor of intentionally trying to make an extended music video, and that’s what made it great. The film had one goal: be a simple heist film that played with sound by expanding upon Wright’s 2002 music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song.” Atomic Blonde, on the other hand, had too many goals. Leitch wanted to make a female 007 film with a detailed and objectively interesting plot set in a politically tumultuous time with great aesthetics and a soundtrack jam packed with songs from the era. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, goals in film making are zero-sum and after a point, increased attention to one aspect comes at the expense of another. In the case of Atomic Blonde, the focus on the aesthetic experience (that’s including the visuals and soundtrack) came at the expense of plot and character development. As Leitch focused more and more on making the film ‘look and sound the part,’ the important aspects of a spy film, namely the story, suffered. Indeed, Atomic Blonde watched like a giant music video filled with songs from the ’80s being played on an old CRT in a seedy, 24 hour Jolly Pirate Donuts at 3am.
The logical question we must ask is “why are films becoming more and more like extended music videos?” The short answer is that I do not know for sure. The long entails a few hypotheses woven together. Indeed, it seems as if, as life moves faster and our attention spans decrease, we need constant stimulation. What’s more, modernity’s fetish for destruction — a product of a certain form of psychic repression — likely plays a role in our desire for loud, fast paced movie scenes. Additionally, in a world of digital downloads, streaming services, and digital piracy, big film companies are trying to recoup their loses by attracting as many people to see a film on the silver screen as they possibly can. The only way to do this, short of reviving a franchise (which Hollywood has not been hesitant to do) however, is not only to make a film for the audience, but also to make a film that is designed to attract a large swath of people. While certainly not intrinsically a bad thing, this model of appealing to everyone can be disastrous insofar as nuance in a film is lost for the sake of marketability. While I do not mean to sound pedantic — indeed, different movie goers have different tastes –, creating a homogenizing model for films wherein they must necessarily appeal to what I am slightly hesitant to call the lowest common denominator creates a bland, formless film-model. The alternative approach is to make films for the sake of the films themselves; for the artistic work as such. While doing this will necessarily isolate some viewers and make the film off-putting to others, the net-result, even if it doesn’t gross as much as Avatar (2009), is a film that is not only remembered for ages, but is overall a better movie. Indeed, I shudder to think of what Alien would look like were it made not for the story written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, but for the goal of making an absurd amount of money. Worse still, if Ex Machina was made not to explore the implications of hard AI, but to capitalize on the public’s fear of rogue-AI, I think the film would have been a disaster.
In other words, films that are made for the sake of the film and not for the sake of money or the audience are, generally, better than their big-budget counterparts. Niche films that explore just a few areas, be they visuals, story telling, sound, etc. (and I’m not saying that story is everything, John Wick, with its visuals and fight scenes, was amazing), seem to me to be the better films that are made. Finally, all this is not to say that all films ought to follow the niche-film model and neglect attracting audiences — indeed, advocating a totalizing model such as that would lead to a different kind of homogenized, formless film –, rather all this is to say that we ought to have a diversity of films being made with directors being less scared about large companies booting them out if their film only attracts a small, but loyal, audience. Giving the directors more freedom with less fear of economic returns nets better films and more loyal fans. We don’t need another Dredd (2012) scenario where a studio shelves great source material because the film appealed to a limited, but extremely loyal audience.