Film Criticism and the Action Film
Be it online or in print, it is disheartening to see that journalists and bloggers have largely failed to engage with 'action' films in a consistently serious or considered manner.
It seems a number of misapprehensions are at work here:
- That visceral and intellectual experiences are mutually exclusive
- That the visceral is somehow inferior to the intellectual
- That all action films are essentially the same
- That the more money spent on a production the less thought has gone into it.
These attitudes are clear in the language of recent reviews and discussions of blockbuster films. A quick glance reveals the same narrow, empty descriptions ('big- budget popcorn flick'), the same snide kiss-offs ('mindless entertainment') and the same backhanded compliments ('for what it is, it's perfectly effective').
An unconscious suggestion is that action films are disposable and homogeneous . Why would an action film often be described as a 'slice' of entertainment if it were not considered another hunk hewn off a vast faceless edifice, as if the action film were the brainlessly destructive monster from Cloverfield and each example of the genre the scuttling crabs that fall from its body.
By that token all French and Italian Cinema of the 1960s could be dismissed as a uniform parade of love affairs, with lust, jealousy and guilt on repeat.
Action films, films with an emphasis on the spectacular, bear as much scrutiny as any other. If something is louder it doesn't follow that it has less to say. Every film has a subtly unique fingerprint, an atmosphere, an identity all of its own and every film has seven billion versions. Good critics are open-minded and therefore they can open minds, yet many are complicit in the narrowing of the genre.*
Far too often films are not taken on their own terms. If ideas, characters and situations change organically people cry foul:
"It's not a Die Hard film"
"It's not a Terminator film"
Expectations, when it comes to franchises in particular, can be code for 'more of the same please'. I believe that the poor reception received by The Phantom Menace was partially due to the fact that it wasn't a copy of the Original Trilogy - frozen in carbonite and thawed out twenty years on. But why should it be?
Essays on action films rarely go beyond studies of the male image or tenuous political parallels. If one allows oneself to look deeper, there is much to admire in recent examples of the action blockbuster and much to excite our hearts and minds. There are so many things that set them apart not only from each other but from films of all kinds. Here are only a few observations:
This is a film replete with religious iconography whose fabric is imbibed with the conundrum of God as Man. When Superman is taken into the hospital he goes into a theatre called "Trauma 1". When the automatic doors close, we see this reversed (click to enlarge)
On the door it now reads: I AMUART. I am you are. We are made in God's image. All that he is we can be. When Lois and Richard save Superman from the ocean, the circle of saviour and saved is complete.
The Matrix Revolutions
Neo fights multiple Agent Smiths in the pouring rain while the machines swarm into Zion. When he gains victory, at the expense of his own life, the machines stop and withdraw. Peace is gained and the machines and their barbaric metallic tentacles are miraculously transformed into a wondrous and tranquil shoal, floating up into the sky.
This is one of the most poetic and elegantly succinct images of peace I have encountered in a film.
Star Trek XI
This is an age where love stories on film are rarely love stories at all. They tend to be either unbearably sleazy or weak, diluted and overly sentimental. The relationship between Uhura and Spock is portrayed as delicate, strong and profound.
Live Free or Die Hard
Shortly after one of the hacker's houses is blown apart the quasi-subliminal image of a young woman appears (left). It lasts just a couple of frames but resonates further. Is she his girlfriend? His wife? His sister?
Live Free or Die Hard is full of men who have lost women because of what they do and the dangerous paths they choose. Gabriel loses Mai. John has lost Holly and is on the brink of losing Lucy. The Warlock hides himself in his basement and barely communicates with his mother.
It is ironic that Lucy becomes interested in Matt only when he takes on the proactive, macho, violent characteristics that have already estranged her father from her mother.
Mission Impossible: 3
A quite beautifully constructed and choreographed action scene takes place half an hour in.
The team is involved in a helicopter chase and the enemy is firing missiles at them as they try to escape. The chase takes place in a wind-farm and the slow-turning blades are potentially fatal obstacles. On board one of their number is on the brink of death, and Ethan tries to save her. Meanwhile another member, Zhen falls out of the door and clings for her life.
These four dangers converge and disperse in a masterful and fully believable display of tension and emotion.
The catalyst for the narrative in Cloverfield is the budding coupling of main protagonist Rob and Beth.
The monster arrives (dropping into the ocean in the distance) on the very day they get together as a proper couple. The monster makes itself known in the city just as Rob is voicing his concerns about moving to Japan and leaving Beth. The monster's fate is decided in a hail of gunfire at the same time as Rob and Beth finally declare their love for each other.
The monster is a manifestation of Rob's growing fear. He is going to Japan and the Japanese are well-known as pioneers of the city-invading monster. This is not coincidence.
Cloverfield is a dance to the death with Rob's insecurities. This makes the final declarations not just a sweet and touching coda but an open question: Has he conquered his fears and does love conquer all?
*which in itself is merely a symptom of the persisting view that something can be objectively great (and learned critics are conveniently the best placed to pass final judgement) and that feelings ('I don't like it') should be separated from impersonal thoughts ('but it's clearly a great work').
This is chasing a ghost, a phantom objectivity. One such is the critic Mick LaSalle who states:
"...after a screening of THE NEW WORLD, I said that it's perfectly OK for viewers not to like the movie, but that it's totally not acceptable for a film critic to say it's not a good movie, because it's a masterpiece, and to say otherwise is more or less to announce yourself as obtuse"
This is a profoundly wrong-headed attempt to pin down the inherently incorporeal nature of art and catalogue it under science.