The global dominance of culturally, spiritually dead and obscenely overblown cinema, crushing everything else underfoot, is nothing to celebrate.
So, I found myself sitting through that Warcraft movie that came out a few years back. Several questions came to me while watching it.
At what point does a film finally stop being a work of art on any level whatsoever, and simply become a product? A piece of manufactured merchandising no different from the toys it inspires, produced simply to take money off people without providing anything of worth in return? When does a film become less valid an object than a loaf of bread, which at least provides sustenance?
Warcraft might not be that exact point – I fear we’ve probably passed that stage a long time ago – but it’s where this thought first came into my mind… possibly because the film itself was so relentlessly, horribly and contemptuously awful that my mind continually wandered to different places, unable and unwilling as it was to engage with the pointless, empty, entirely shameful two hours of noise, fury, clichés and nothing of any value whatsoever unfolding on the screen.
When a young filmmaker creates a low budget genre film, like Duncan Jones’ acclaimed Moon, does he – and it’s almost always ‘he’, let’s face it – dream of graduating to bloated, emotionally blank, FX-driven and obscenely expensive franchise films? Maybe they do. It was clearly the end-game for the likes of James Cameron and Peter Jackson, but they could be exceptions. Or do they make these films hoping that the predicted box office success will free them to make more expensive, but just as personal versions of the films that they started out on, only to get trapped in grinding out increasingly anonymous crap? I wonder what Duncan Jones actually thinks of Warcraft. Perhaps he is really happy to have made this film. Perhaps he thinks it’s his finest achievement. Perhaps, deep inside, he feels a little dirty for having made it. Who knows? He might never tell us, and would we believe him if he did?
When a director that you have respect for and expectations of makes a terrible, terrible film, does that make the viewing experience worse than if you were watching something awful by a notorious or anonymous clod-hopper? How long does it take for us to shift our perceptions of a director from talented auteur to clumsy hack as they slip down the slope of dreadfulness? One film? Two? Ten? Dario Argento fans still hold out hope for a return to form, despite him consistently producing dismal rubbish for over three decades, so perhaps the early work always means everything, even when it clearly becomes more and more an anomaly in someone’s filmography. Argento at least stayed thematically true to where he started, just getting shoddier and shoddier as he went along. Surely things are different with directors who jump onto the corporate gravy train at the first opportunity, abandoning everything that made them interesting in the first place.
Money is a great temptation, I guess. It’s easy for a filmmaker to see an insanely expensive and spiritually empty film as a way of making enough money to set them up for life. But no one is happy to simply take that money and go back to where they were before, making edgy indie movies. The problem with money is that you can never have enough – lifestyles and expectations change, and that big house suddenly doesn’t feel big enough. More notably, once they’ve had the luxury of a budget that allows them to do anything, very few directors want to go back to a world where ingenuity and imagination were needed. Even their ‘small, personal projects’ are budgeted in the tens of millions.
Who is the perceived audience for films like Warcraft? Based on an immersive computer game where the main appeal would seem to be entering another world and living as another character – interacting on a personal and visceral level that even your average Playstation game doesn’t aim for – who on earth thought that Warcraft would appeal to audiences when you strip out all that interaction and replace it with a linear story that they have no control over – one made up of cherry-picked parts from other films, books and TV shows, that might be fine in an influenced game situation but are depressingly familiar when seen in another goddamn movie?
And given that the only advantage that a film like this has over the game that it is based on is scope – the idea that audiences will watch this on an IMAX screen in 3D and be so overwhelmed by the spectacle that they forget any other requirement – why bother with a plot at all? After all, it’s based on a fighting game, right?. You could conceivably just fill the screen with wall-to-wall battles and be as successful – maybe more so if you cut the questionable performances, ludicrous sentimentality and half-baked plot lifted from a dozen other sources.
Does overwhelming spectacle make for a good film? I’m tired of people telling me I’d like a film more “if I saw it on the big screen”. Firstly because I’ve seen and hated enough crappy blockbusters on the big screen (and, indeed, enough great blockbusters on a TV screen) to know that I’m not that shallow, and secondly, because a good film should work in any format (and let’s not forget that modern TV sets and surround sound systems are a world away from tiny, mono sets of the past). If you are effectively admitting that you enjoyed a film just because of the audio-visual overkill, then you are surely admitting that it’s actually a pretty bad film, no?
Do audiences really care anymore if the CGI in a particular film is the most impressive so far? It seems to me that there are endless films, straight-to-video quickies and SyFy movies that are effectively interchangeable with films like this, the only difference being that the effects are slightly less polished (and even that is increasingly less of an issue). In the case of the TV shows, in fact, every other aspect is better anyway, and that’s why they work – were audiences watching Game of Thrones for the impressive dragons, or because it has detailed and expansive plot intrigues, fully developed characters and a shitload of nudity – all of which is missing in these movies because they need to be simple and wholesome enough to sell to every market and every age, offering little more than empty narrative and cookie-cutter characters that a child could’ve written.
Are we really still at the stage where we have to come up with an unconvincing plot fudge to explain why the male Orcs are all giant, muscle-bound monsters but the lead female Orc is slim, human-shaped, good looking and for a chunk of the film dressed in skimpy rags (but not too skimpy, of course) and chains, just in order to get a bit of eye-candy in the film for teenage boys to ogle at? How cynically horrible is a film that is so disregarding of the need to actually tell a coherent story or entertain an audience that it will spend the last fifteen minutes or so setting up the next episode that it smugly expects to come rather than even bother with a satisfactory ending? How dreadful is it that movies now continually act as though they are a TV series, priming you for the next instalment – because God knows, telling a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end is clearly too much to ask from a film running for up to three hours. Bad enough when you have to wait a couple of years for the next part; but when one of these films bombs, the handful of people involved in the narrative are left swivelling because that next instalment will never come.
These films are empty, cynical, bloated and bombastic spectacles that cost obscene amounts of money – because apparently, CGI has become much more expensive than actually creating physical objects, even though we were repeatedly once told how it would be the opposite – and are the lowest point of filmmaking, hyped as somehow being important and significant yet actually interchangeable and empty. When films like John Carter and Gods of Egypt bomb and are given terrible reviews while Marvel movies and Star Wars films rake in fortunes, I scratch my head because there is literally no difference between them. Everything looks the same in these films – the CGI monsters, the CGI sets, the muscled heroes with gravelly voices, the token characters designed to upset neanderthal traditionalists or help sell to other markets, the comic relief characters. They are all the same artless production line fodder with the same stories and characters and visual style, nothing but shamefully expensive advertisements for toys and games and whatever else can be sold on the back of them, ground out by journeymen directors who do exactly as they are told.
When people scoff at low budget films from the past while praising these cookie-cutter efforts awash with meaningless spectacle and no heart or soul, I wonder what people actually want from movies. Clearly, it’s not unique films made by mad, bad individualists whose work you can recognise immediately. It’s not the work of artists of any sort, in fact – simply assembly line content made to order. The more these films cost, the more excited the audience gets – look at how thrilled people get when James Cameron yet again sets a record for the amount of money spent on making shit, rather than being disgusted by the sheer waste of it all. The more it costs, the better people seem to think it must be – a peculiar way of thinking about anything, quite frankly. Audiences apparently just want a continual series of insanely costly and unadventurous films that are so anonymous and identical that everyone gets wildly excited if a director includes even a moment of humour or even a hint of originality. “Look”, they cry, “James Gunn and Taika Waititi are bringing their individual style to this movie” – a claim that is telling in its acknowledgement that these films are simply factory fodder and a moment of desperation to pretend that the movies have any artistic status or creative input from the director when we know that nothing – not a damn second – passes in those films without Disney’s approval.
It’s cinema that determinedly sets out not to challenge or confuse – like any factory-produced product, it’s all the same bland content, guaranteed not to upset or confuse, and dripping in insincerity. Elements will be tweaked to reflect current concerns and tastes – the movies will become increasingly Woke as long as the producers think that there is money in that market. But make no mistake – if the tide changes, diversity will be dropped like a hot potato, just as studios now fall over themselves to appease the Chinese authorities. No one is being ‘representative’ because they believe in it – these are films that have no agenda beyond making a lot of money for the studios (or, increasingly, one studio – hello Disney) involved, and they’ll jump from Woke pronouncements to kowtowing to oppressive dictatorships without blinking – no one ever seriously pulls them up on it or boycotts their product, after all, and any threats to do so collapse the moment the film is released. Everything is a token gesture all round – both the producers and the audience are playing a game where public opinion and social consciences matter, when everyone knows that it is all about greed, and the stars of these films would drop their principles in a heartbeat in the money and the exposure was right. “I won’t do fur… unless the money’s good”, as is the fashion industry refrain. The cast and crew might make paid appearances at ComicCon and the like, expressing their great love for the unwashed, but let’s not be fooled – they see the audience as nothing but a cash point. They are not beloved fans – they are peasants tugging at the forelocks of their masters. Give them your money and know your place.
The producers know that they can get away with anything because they know the compliant audience will turn up regardless. Genre film fans, in particular, like to complain about Hollywood having no new ideas – it’s all remakes, sequels, pointless adaptations and so on. And yet when those remakes, sequels, computer game adaptations or whatever are released, they are the audience that dutifully turns out in huge numbers, excitedly posting every trailer, every still, every casting rumour while completely ignoring the smaller, often inventive indie genre films that have minimal theatrical releases or – more often – go straight to streaming services because cinema screens are completely taken up with the major films, the release overkill demanding that half the screens of a multiplex are devoted to the same damn film and even arthouse cinemas have to give over space for weeks to the latest Bond movie while smaller films – the films that these cinemas supposedly exist to support – go unshown. That’s why this is more than simply a matter of taste and personal pleasures. Those pleasures are slowly crushing everything else, reducing the outlets for other movies to be seen in and discovered – indeed, reducing their opportunities to even be made as the corporate machine gobbles up studio after studio and everything becomes about empty, populist PG-13 spectacle. The fans of these colossal films see themselves as outsiders but they love being fed dead, cynical and depressingly corporate product more than anyone and are often openly dismissive of anything else, especially if it’s ‘cheap’. What’s that about?
In an ideal world, there would be room for everything – even empty-calorie fast-food cinema like this. But increasingly, everything else is being crushed underfoot, with less and less choice and more and more conformity – and we are cheering it on.
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