Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Can There Be True Consequences In Summer Blockbusters?


In my recent review of Star Trek Into Darkness, I mentioned that that the “lack of true consequences is what is the most annoying aspect of [the film]." This remark did not sit well with fellow film blogger Andrew Robinson who runs the great site gmanReviews. As his comments often do, Andrew’s response sparked something in me that could not easily fit in the regular comments section of this site.

As a result, I have opted to give my response a post of its own as to not spoil anything for those who have not yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness. While I will be mindful not to reveal key points from J.J. Abrams latest film, there may be a few spoilers for other iconic blockbusters of the past. Though I am sure most of you have already seen many of the films I will reference below, considered yourself warned nonetheless.

Before I get to my response, here is the comment from Andrew that inspired today’s discussion:

While I don't deny that this (as many other action vehicles), when you look on a wholistic view, seems to never have consequences because the good guy always wins and the bad guy dies/is captured. It's like that speech in NETWORK "Don't worry by the end of the program all will be fine", and it's hard not to have that in mind while watching movies like this. However, I think this movie does well in putting a lot of those roller coaster jumps in for us to be excited and scared for our characters as we see Spock in the volcano ready to die, Harrison & Kirk narrowly making the jump and even Spock taking on Harrison in that kind of awesome final fight scene. Even the great sequence you mention of Cumberbatch vs. Klignons... it's great.

What I'm saying here is ... I get you, but you're completely wrong. This movie isn't the heady Star Trek you knew (not sure if you were/are a fan of those things)... it's a straight up action vehicle and is to be met with those terms. If you felt this badly about Star Trek I can't imagine how you ended up liking Iron Man 3 is all I can say.


First off, I highly disagree that action vehicles never seem to have consequences because the good guy will always win. Just look at the film in which Star Trek Into Darkness is based on for proof of this. A prominent character is taken from that film in a way that highlights how even the “good guys” suffer greatly when they win. That particular film ends on both a heroic and somber note unlike most blockbusters of its era, or today for that matter. Star Trek Into Darkness tries to echo this, but does not have the stones to toy with the idea for more than twenty minutes tops. While you do not necessarily have to kill off a main character to establish consequence, a film should still create excitement and fear for the characters well-being.

Sure the scene with Spock in the volcano was nice visually, but did anyone honestly worry that they would kill him off in the opening ten minutes? Same goes for the Kirk/Harrison space jump. While cool to look at, I thought there was more tension in the scene where Bones’ arm was trapped than the space jump scene. Again, there are ways that you can make blockbusters in which the good guy wins, but the audience is still afraid that the hero may not overcome a particular obstacle.

Take the grandfather of summer blockbusters, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, for example. It is a classic man versus beast tale in which Spielberg not only keeps the audience on the edge of their seat the entire time, but is also not afraid to kill off Robert Shaw’s Quint. This allows the film to reinforce the notion that no one is safe from peril.


Establishing a good sense of danger is a key element in many of the truly memorable summer blockbusters. Speed works because you are worried that the bomb can go off at any moment. Terminator 2: Judgment Day had that pesky T-1000 who will stop at nothing, including killing John Connor’s adoptive parents, until the job was done. In Die Hard, the lives of both John McClane and his wife were in constant danger. Even The Dark Knight managed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats by presenting an unpredictable villain, The Joker, and forcing its hero into a memorable no win situation. Of course I am referring to moment when Batman is forced to choose between saving the woman he loves or the man who can help him rid Gotham of crime one and for all.

Sure you can look at Star Trek Into Darkness as nothing more than a popcorn roller coaster style ride. However, does it have the sense of thrills or dread that a fellow popcorn film Jurassic Park had? Does Spock barely hanging on a moving vehicle evoke the same fear as seeing Jurassic Park’s Dr. Grant and Tim Murphy trying to outrace a Jeep falling from a tree? I still get shivers just thinking about the Raptors figuring out how to open up the kitchen door.

By no means am I trying to knock those, and there are many, who enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness as I have no real allegiances to the franchise. I am far from a die-hard Star Trek fan, in fact my wife is the Trek buff in the household, but I have watched all of the films to date. Perhaps my knowledge of the previous films may have impacted my judgment, but at no point did I think that any of the main characters would not survive in this latest edition. Yes the action sequences, especially Harrison versus the Klingons, were “cool”, but they were nothing more than pretty images with no resonating connection.


In regards to the comment about Iron Man 3, another of this summer’s big action flicks, that film works for two reasons. The first one being that Shane Black offered a truly unique take on the villain and did not feel compelled to stick with established lore like Abrams. The second reason, and more pertinent to this discussion, is that Tony Stark spends the bulk of the film outside of his Iron Man suit. This, added to his post traumatic stress disorder, made him a more vulnerable character. Sure we expect the hero to be triumphant in the end. However, we are genuinely scared at several points that Stark might not be able to beat the Extremis soldiers while stuck in the small town without his suit.

The question I have for fans of Star Trek Into Darkness is this: which character(s) did you truly fear for at any point? Uhura? Bones? Scotty? Chekov? Sulu? Carol Marcus? When a key scene happens in the last act, was your first thought “the dead animal” or was it “oh my gosh, might they actually get rid of…?” Chances are good it was “the dead animal” as Abrams makes a point to remove any remote sense of dread you may have that things will not be fine in the end. Without a sense of tension or consequence, there is little that makes Star Trek Into Darkness interesting my opinion. Considering the political commentary that the film makes, and the pedigree behind the lens, it is hard for me to simply call Star Trek Into Darkness a mindless summer action film. It is a film that wants to achieve more than that, albeit by reducing the overall stakes in the process.

11 comments:

  1. SO ....

    First let me say how honoured that my antagonism can inspire this many words... YAY!!!!

    So to business of continuing my thread of antagonism (let's have some fun here).

    Let's take your examples of JAWS and JURASSIC PARK. My first question is when last did you see these films? Does it make a difference that it's the first film in what would be a franchise? When you watch JAWS 2 are you less frightened for Schneider's character? Are we scared for Goldblum in JP2? Is it the sequel that sets up a world where we know who's the expendable characters and who isn't?

    In STAR TREK (2009) in the first minutes we are witness to Kirk's dad being merced (yes I'm going to start using TUMP wordings) all in the sake of setting up these characters and at the same time when Nemoy Spock appears we discover his existence in the initial world that's redone via this time travel usage. Does this mean that STAR TREK 2009 (being first in a franchise) is more liberal with it's characters? In a franchise which is built on keeping all crew alive and not failing at their task at hand where we have them gunning out of a worm hole/black hole (I'm not a time scientist people) is it then bad to ask for the franchise to start murdering their characters left and right?

    I will however give you that throughout I didn't quite think they would die. Esp when we have that later scene where Abrams kills a character for the sake of a very kitchy fan nostalgia moment (that I would never take away or even feel they could do this story without having)... my brain immediately went with all the building blocks that Abrams left me ("I can save her" + Bones playing with science == this is gonna be ok) but that's not unusual for films like this.

    Look at even Iron Man 3???

    ############# SPOILERS FOR IRON MAN 3 #########
    When the final battle sequence is happening and all those stories and themes of revenge as well as PTSD is coming to a head and we see Pepper drop to her death did you think it was over? Did you feel that she died? No the A + B of what the film gave us before added up to "It's gonna be okay" but everything along the way was as awesome and fun enough for us to allow it to work and just throw our hands up/fist pump as suit #50 of Tony's (which also adds the level of danger down as he's able to fight after having each suit destroyed) make the battle even more intricate.


    ####### END SPOILERS FOR IRON MAN 3 ##########

    So I guess what I'm saying is that sure if you want to look at the end rather than the experience you're right. But I don't think that's the correct way to enjoy/look at these films. When watching DREDD do you look at the blodd filled hallways at the end of the scene or the action during?

    Or maybe I'm just too much enjoying to agree? I dunno.

    Nice stuff though.

    PS. Uhura being mad at Spock was too fun...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The ending is only one part of the problem I had with Star Trek Into Darkness. Granted most blockbusters keep their best stuff for the end, but my qualms with the film started well before the final act. I have not seen Dredd yet but I did watch The Raid…which I hear is similar from a story standpoint. Filled with wall to wall action, The Raid is more about the journey than it is about the final goal. In that film you are constantly wondering how the main character will make it out the building. Even if you look at Star Trek Into Darkness as a straight action film, you still need to have a remote interest in the character motivations to make the action thrilling. A good example of this is Minority Report. While some had issues with the film, there was not denying that the spiders sequence in Minority Report had many concerned for Cruise’s character halfway through the film.

      You do raise an interesting point about the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness is a sequel and thus it plays by a different set of rules. In general most sequels expand on a world were certain rules are already established. I understand that it is more beneficial financially to ensure that the principle cast of any franchise lives to fight another day. However, does not mean that sequels are inherently unable to create a sense fear for the characters safety? While Jaws 2 and JP2 are admittedly weaker films in comparison to the original, they still had a genuine sense of danger. More so JP2 than Jaws 2 mind you…but you get the point. Sure you assume Jeff Goldblum will survive JP2 but Spielberg still places him, and the rest of the cast, in reasonable peril throughout.

      There have been plenty of blockbuster sequels (e.g. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, X2: X-men United, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Back to the Future II & III, every Harry Potter film, etc) that still manage to make you fear for the main character’s life, even for a split second, despite knowing deep down that “everything will be alright.” Take Toy Story 3 for example, we know that there is no way Disney will kill off Woody and the crew because they are merchandising juggernauts. However, the sequence involving Lostso and the incinerator is heart-bounding. Keep in mind it is a Disney film, yet it still manages to evoke much excitement and fear out of the viewer.

      If anything, sequels are allowed even more freedom in regards to creating consequences for the characters. Star Trek 2009 was all about building the crew dynamics and the timelines in which they exist in. However, what are the stakes in this latest film? At what point, outside of the Bones scene do you think “how are they going to get out of this?” The problem is the film sets up certain traits that it never follows through with. It is great that they can have Harrison take out an entire Klingon team, but why have him spend most of his time later on trying to outrun Spock? The fight scene would have worked better, from a tension standpoint, if Kirk had faced Harrison instead, especially since we see Harrison beat Kirk twice in the film.

      Again, I understand that franchises, and sequels in general, need to have a happy outcome. You are right in pointing out the Pepper Potts scene at the end of Iron Man 3. Not for a second did I considered that she was dead. However, I was concerned for her when she was originally captured and when they started pumping her with Extremis. Regardless of whether you liked Iron Man 3 overall, there was enough moments of peril throughout that made that film resonate. It has been a few days since I saw Star Trek Into Darkness and several of the action sequences are already fading from my memory.

      Delete
    2. "P.S. Uhura being mad at Spock was too fun..."

      Finally something we can agree on! LOL. I did smile a lot during that scene.

      Delete
  2. I haven't seen the film yet but I'm really interested in the issue you brought up. After I see it I'm gonna head back here and take sides!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would definitely be interested in your thoughts on the film, and the overall blockbuster discussions in general.

      Delete
  3. Courtney, I think you're forgetting an important factor when you talk about the nu-Trek movies in this way: unlike Jaws or Jurassic Park, JJ Abrams is working with pre-established characters that are and have been huge cash cows for decades. He can play around with them as much as he likes, and he can even pretend to kill them, but at the end of the day, he has to put the toys back in the box the way he found them because Paramount wants them that way. It's not unlike writing a Marvel or DC superhero comic book: no matter what you do to them, nothing will stick for long because these characters need to make money, and that won't happen if you change them too much.

    That said, I agree with you. Just because a movie is a "straight up action vehicle" doesn't mean we should settle for actions without consequences, especially these days when action movies all carry the burden of being potential franchises anyway. However, once a movie becomes a franchise, I suspect there's greater pressure on the part of the filmmakers to not change the characters too much, because the studios expect these characters to make more money.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The odd thing about the pre-established characters argument for nu-Star Trek is that people forget that old-Trek had to deal with the exact same issues. Yet old-Trek was not afraid to shake things up. I would even say that old-Trek had far more to lose considering how established the television show and merchandise was at that point. Regardless, they had no problem bumping off a beloved character...even if it was only for the remainder of a film. X2 did the same thing with Jean Grey, and Fast and Furious did it with Letty. Granted all these examples ultimately helped to set up other sequels in their respected franchises, but the stakes were raised nonetheless.

      Comic books are unique in the sense that no one (including the minor characters) ever really dies. However, comics are willing to flirt with the idea peril constantly. They will even remove a character for a year if need be. Both Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers were gone for a year and two years respectively by comic standards. To fill the void both Dick Grayson and James "Bucky" Barnes (aka Winter Soldier) took over the roles of Batman and Captain America admirably. This allowed the writers to provide fresh takes on iconic characters. Of course films could never do this, you saw the uproar when Donald Glover was merely rumored to be in the running for the Spider-man reboot, but this does not mean that it is not still possible to for film characters to flirt with actual danger.

      Delete
  4. I agree about the lack of consequences in INTO DARKNESS, but I feel they apply just as much to IRON MAN 3, if not more. Both films even use a similar means of

    SPOILERS
    having a character "cheat" death in the final act through some medical marvel.
    /SPOILERS

    In both films, I don't feel any sense of loss or sacrifice. Victory seems to come at a small price and characters make it through the aftermath of their decisions intact and little worse for the wear.

    I get why they do it, if you want to keep these franchises going, you want to keep the fan favorites alive and not upset the status quo too much. However, I think that's cowardly, lazy storytelling. And it's a trend that's becoming more and more common in Hollywood's big blockbusters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree that the “medical marvel” is played out but it seems to be standard now in the sci-fi and comic book films that dominate the summer. I guess I just wish these reboots were a little more daring. Setting up Harrison as a deadly villain and then having a scene that plays like a comic book team-up does little to sustain tension. It as if the writers forgot that you can pay homage to the past while still creating something exciting and fresh.

      Delete
  5. Okay I can agree with you on the ending/Kirk consequences. I didn't really think for a second anything bad was actually going to happen but it didn't really hinder my overall enjoyment. I just wished they had taken a slightly different approach and/or shortened the scene a bit and removed some of the emphasis.

    Other than that though, I actually was scared for various character's lives on more than one occasion. I thought the movie did well with balancing the character's fate. It should also be noted that the only thing I know about Star Trek is what I've seen from the Abrams films.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In many ways you are the perfect target audience for this film. I think going in only knowing Abrams version of the universe is the best way to view Star Trek Into Darkness. I admit that my prior knowledge of the pre-Abrams films did impact my overall enjoyment of this one.

      Delete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.