Summer is upon us and with it comes the blockbusters, the tent pole releases that studios pump hundreds of millions of dollars into in the hopes of hitting upon a zeitgeist busting superhit. So far we’ve seen some box office hits such as The Avengers and Men in Black 3 and some huge box office failures like John Carter and Battleship (will supposedly upcoming star Taylor Kitsch’s career be permanently knocked off course?). Interestingly this year has seen some of these films released earlier in Europe than the US, likely in an attempt to stem piracy. Being situated in the UK I’d be happy to see this trend continue.
I’ve managed to catch a few of these summer blockbusters and thought I’d share my thoughts. Looming large over the season has been The Avengers which seems to have been almost universally liked both by critics and audiences. Writer/director Joss Whedon has been chasing mainstream success for a number of years now having earned huge geek cred with television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it’s spin off Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. Then cementing his position with a writing stint on the X-Men comic book. Throughout all of these Whedon demonstrated a great ability to mix genre and change tone on a dime. He also experimented frequently with technique and challenged himself and his audience with the unexpected. Whedon’s experiences in film however have not lived up to the potential that the earlier endeavours suggested. His script for Alien Ressurection appears to contain some positive qualities but the film as a whole never quite works. His Firefly spin off feature film Serenity worked fairly well but failed to connect with wide audiences. His attempts to return Wonder Woman to the big screen were widely reported but never got off the ground. So I was intrigued when I heard the news that The Avengers was to be a Whedon project.
This time Whedon really hit it out of the park. He has managed to wrangle a large cast of characters, giving each a moment to shine, and he’s incorporated some witty one liners of the sort he often sprinkled through his tv series. Credit must also go to Marvel for creating a series of films for it’s heroes which have involved a multitude of film makers over the last few years while maintaining a fairly consistent level of quality and tone. Captain America is perhaps the most different to it’s peers as it embraces it’s WW2 era but also feels of a piece with the hero films proceeding it and with The Avengers. It will be interesting to see how the series continues and at what point audiences demand something with a completely new style.
Men in Black 3 has received a mixed critical reception though it appears to have done well at the box office. I recall enjoying the original’s comedy and spectacle, as well as the performances from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones who had a chemistry that worked to the films advantage. I never caught up with the sequel but I have hardly heard a positive word said about it. Given the poor opinion many have of the second film and the number of years it has taken this third entry to arrive I did not have high hopes. In hindsight that is probably a good way to go into the film as it delivers a satisfying but rather unambitious entry in the franchise. A time travel conceit allows some fun to be had with, especially as it brings Josh Brolin in to play a young Tommy Lee Jones. Brolin does a fantastic job of mimicing Jones’s characteristics and really builds on the character. Should a fourth film be made they should look for an opportunity to bring Brolin back. Fun supporting turns from Jermaine Clement and Michael Stuhlbarg (and a great cameo from Bill Hader) also add to the film. It keeps a great pace throughout, no surprise given director Barry Sonnenfeld’s view that all films should be kept under 90 minutes. In the end it’s a fun film that’s worth catching up with but not one that will last long in the memory.
Prometheus was perhaps managed to generate the most pre-release buzz this year, at least among film fans, as a number of viral videos were drip fed through the preceding months. We saw a faux TED talk featuring Guy Pearce as founder of the Weyland Yutani corporation (known to Alien fans from the earlier films in the series), an “infomercial” for the android David (androids also being a frequent featiure of the series), and teaser trailers displaying stunning visuals but little in the way of plot details. In addition were the stories of Ridley Scott’s conversion to a believer in 3D and the mixed messages regarding the films place in the alien series (is it a prequel? is it new but loosely connected?).
I was as caught up in this hype as the rest of the film world but when early reviews suggested it was not able to deliver on the promise I knew to dial back my expectations. Ultimately I feel it’s a real mixed bag of a film. Many aspects of it are brilliant (the visuals, Fassbender’s terrific performance) and I admire the efforts made to create something with bold science fiction ideas and build on the Alien series in a meaningful way. Unfortunately the nuts and bolts plotting fail to live up to the ambition. Characters behave in ridiculous ways and plot threads are poorly dealt with. Given these flaws I would characterise it as a noble failure. It’s certainly more interesting than the average summer blockbuster and for that it should be applauded.