Thursday, July 25, 2013

Entering the Age of the Cinematic Universe

When we stop and look at our current age of entertainment and pop culture, we have to ask ourselves, "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?" A recent interview with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas featured the two pioneers of the Hollywood blockbuster hailing the impending implosion of the system they helped create. And when hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on movies that barely turn around a tenth of that, we have to wonder if they might be on to something.
When you look at the very first blockbuster successes in the late 70s - Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, Star Trek, and even a kids film like The Muppet Movie - Hollywood quickly learned that sequels make money. Even if the sequels diminish in quality, audiences will still flock to the theaters in droves to see them. Prequels work the same way, they soon discovered, and soon blockbusters soon became franchises. Franchises included comic books, novels, toys, technical manuals, and video games that pertained to the main subject of the franchise. And for decades, the franchise has been king moneymaker in Hollywood. It's gotten so that original material is going the way of the dodo, and even when it does surface in recent films like Pacific Rim, it cannot make enough money to sustain its large budget.
And then in 2008, Marvel Studios did something unique; they made individual movies that stood alone, each their own successful franchise, and then linked them together to create (pardon the unavoidable pun) a super-franchise. They called it the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With all its franchises clearly connected now in 2012's The Avengers, Marvel can revive forgotten franchises like 1969's Guardians of the Galaxy and people will go see the film merely on the basis that it is part of the bigger universe.
So where are we going? I think we are on the verge of a new age of these cinematic universes. At the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con, DC has revealed their own cinematic universe where Superman and Batman will both be featured in one film. Lucasfilm (like Marvel, now owned by Disney), hopes to eventually make two or even three Star Wars films a year - and these new films can take place in different eras, and feature different characters, but they will still be contained within the ever-expanding canopy of the Star Wars Universe.

George Lucas got it right in 1977. With Star Wars, he didn't just make a movie, and he didn't just create a trilogy or a franchise. He gave birth to a universe, populated with an infinite amount of nooks and crannies to be explored. You could look into just about any corner and find almost anything happening, from an alien cantina brawl to the rise and fall of galactic republics and empires. This is why it caught the world's imaginations in the first place, and why it is poised to be one of the next decade's best cinematic universes. And any studio wanting to succeed in this next decade will not only have to create a successful film, but a successful universe if they want to compete.

This is where Hollywood is heading. An era of cinematic universes. Tentpole four-quadrant blockbuster movies will make more and more money. Little movies will never be able to make 500 million dollars, so big Hollywood studios will cease to make them. I believe that original storytelling will live on in independent and overseas markets. Indie filmmakers continue to find and fulfill niche markets from the art house to hipster nostalgia to low-budget horror. And studios like the BBC, Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and even Sherwood Baptist Church have continued to seek out original stories that appeal to audiences small or broad.

Maybe, like Lucas and Spielberg predict, it will all come crashing down some day. Or maybe Hollywood will learn to adapt again. It's done so many times in the past century. Maybe, like the fine arts, cinema will reach a point in which it is barely recognizable from its classical origins. But artists will always find ways to express the truth and beauty they see around them, and companies will always find ways of making more money. Its these two basic facts about the way we work as humans that has taken the form of film making to this point, and will push it ever further into the future.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why it is good to make monsters punchable: The simple merits of Pacific Rim

“Fairytales don't tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
~ G. K. Chesterton

Like Mexican-born director of "Pacific Rim" Guillermo Del Toro, I enjoy the strange stories of H.P. Lovecraft. No one else quite captures the thrill and immensity of monsters and otherworldly beings like he does. Many of them are so frighteningly incomprehensible to the humans of the stories that they defy imagination itself. Del Toro is by now well-known for designing unique and frightening monsters for his movies - clearly his imagination was piqued by Lovecraft at a formative age. And yet unlike the protagonists in Lovecraft, Del Toro's characters are known to react to impossible odds, creatures from other dimensions, and impossibly gargantuan monstrosities... by punching them in the face. We find ourselves able to enjoy them because they react in a way that we all wish we could; fearlessly. Guillermo Del Toro has said in interviews that Pacific Rim is influenced not only by monsters from old Godzilla movies and anime, but also by the delight he derives from watching Mexican luchadores duke it out in a ring. This film's main conceit may be silly, but it's also awesome.

But back to punching monsters. Many summer blockbusters can be fun to watch just by delivering sheer spectacle, like transforming robots or characters with super-strengths. And Pacific Rim is no exception. But Pacific Rim at its core presents a form of fairy-tale morality by showing you certain things that you really want to punch, and then giving you the cathartic release of punching them for you. The city-crushing creatures in this movie are punched, thrown, and bodyslammed into oblivion by the 'jaegers', giant humaniod mechanical vehicles driven by two humans. And when I above mention morality, that means it even cares enough to ensure that you know that civilians are protected from the collateral damage by frenzied evacuations - not a luxury all other blockbusters this year will give you.

The Kaiju (Japanese term for huge monsters) are separated into classes based on size and dangerousness. Similarly, the actual Kaiju themselves are only one class of monsters that this film tells us need to be punched. Even though Pacific Rim allows you to cheer for humans defeating monsters, it's not just being blindly optimistic or humanistic. It knows that some humans are very punchable too, particularly when they bullheadedly impede the greater good of mankind. From a slimy black-market dealer to a jaeger pilot who acts very disrespectfully to Mako (the female lead in the film), these characters reflect fairy tale archetypes like the troll under the bridge or the false hero. In each case, like in fairy tales, we get a moral foil to these more despicable characters who is willing to stand up for what is clearly morally right. These archetypes could easily feel dull and cliche, but they are handled well, and each character is grounded and detailed and relatable. We all know deep down that punching monsters is the right thing to do. And sometimes a last ditch effort is good if it's an effort in the right direction.

And then there are inner monsters; the class 5 Kaiju within us. The film starts with the human race already united against the kaiju, so it just automatically considers the monster of racial segregation and jingoism to have already been punched. Each character has some form of inner demon to fight, whether its painful loss or desire for vengeance. But like the actual monsters of the story, none of the characters sit and dwell on their problems like emo teenagers. They learn from their mistakes, pick themselves up, and give another shot at doing something they know is right - no matter how insurmountable the foe. And that's something we don't get to see very often at the movies these days.