Back in February, I wrote about the difference in the public reception of two films, one attempting to do something original and creative, Cloud Atlas, the other the latest installment in an endless franchise, Skyfall. The two films, which I hadn’t then seen, provided the hook for a polemic about how franchises are killing creative filmmaking.
I have now seen both films and can testify that their respective fates perfectly symbolize much that is currently wrong with mainstream American cinema, both on the part of filmmakers and audiences.
Cloud Atlas is the most interesting and ambitious failure of a film I have seen in a long time. I don’t mean just commercial failure, though it was that, but rather artistic and creative failure. What makes it interesting and worthwhile is that it aimed higher and tried harder than almost anything else released to cinemas in the last year (yes, it came out in the US in late 2012, but didn’t make it to UK cinemas until 2013). The one film that aimed higher still and succeeded, Mr. Nobody, was actually made in 2009 and struggled to finally get a very limited US release this year (which nobody noticed, but I wrote about it here). Mr. Nobody should win next year’s Best Picture Oscar and generally sweep the awards. It won’t be nominated for a thing.
That Cloud Atlas failed artistically is almost beside the point. It sought to do something fresh, bold, and stimulating, and was fascinating, absorbing, and frustrating in roughly equal measure. In the end, it didn’t quite work. It wasn’t subtle enough. Even at 170 minutes long, it didn’t have the running time to be more than a graphic novel version of a far better novel. It suffered from an unnecessary coda and made what was implicit in the book too obvious. It tried too hard to make sure the popcorn audience got it, to the detriment of finesse. But it was still better than anything Hollywood put out—yes, Cloud Atlas wasn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film. Hollywood didn’t want anything to do with it. They didn’t see a film with ideas and intelligence and a complex interwoven story as commercially viable. Not in an era dominated by formula franchise movies, whether they involve space sagas, superheroes, or super-spies.
I was fortunate enough to win a Blu-ray of Cloud Atlas from Interzone. I was planning to buy it, but it was nice to get it for free. On the other hand, I rented a Blu-ray of Skyfall. The first copy stopped playing after 27 minutes, freezing and refusing to continue or even reload. The replacement got to the 57 minute mark, then froze and stuttered and played and stopped on and off around a dozen times, before finally deciding playing the final 40 minutes of the film unimpeded. A quick search online reveals I’m far from the only person to have this problem. It seems to be something to do with Sony’s over-zealous anti-piracy measures—measures that make it a near impossible or highly frustrating experience for many legitimate customers to even play the film at all. Hardly a sensible way to treat people who want to buy your product on an expensive disc format that is already underperforming as more people opt for streaming services.
So, I finally saw Skyfall, and I found it hard to believe—after all the hype and fuss and effort that was put into this 50th anniversary release—how bad it was. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two acts, which total around 80 minutes. They had all the makings of an excellent film. But then the movie disintegrated as third act revealed not just that the story was nonsense, but that Skyfall had no story to tell, never had a story to tell, and that the first two acts were nothing more than beautifully presented smoke and mirrors disguising a great big nothing—cinema as the Great Oz. A supposedly super-intelligent villain, able to hack any computer and cause digital mayhem to spill out into the real world, but no with actual objective; hence, no story. A spy thriller—a highly plot-driven genre—with no story is a film in serious trouble. The only place Skyfall ended up going was to a shootout far inferior to both many previous Bond finales and to its own tense and spectacular opening set-piece.
The problem with making the Bond films as if they are real thrillers is that real thrillers need real stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, twists, turns, and character development. Even the silliest of the old Bond films were, in comparison to Skyfall, masterclasses in story construction. They may not have been complex, but there were driven by a strong narrative of a villain with a clear objective (usually the same one, to start WWWIII, but never mind, there was a solid reason within the fantasy of the film for all the mayhem). It’s obvious that no one making Skyfall had a clue what it was supposed to be about or where it should go or what story it should tell. How could they, when they’ve already made 22 of the these movies and there’s absolutely nothing fresh to say or do? Skyfall is what you get when you make a film not because you have a story to tell, but because the franchise demands more product.
It’s sometimes said we get the politicians we deserve, and the same can be extended to many other areas of life. If we get a cinema filled with hollow franchise films it’s because that’s what we, collectively as the audience, flock to see. It’s the fast food, know-what-you’re-getting (even if it is flavorless), lukewarm, bland, and full-of-empty-calories mentality. The tragic acceptance that what works for McDonalds can work for the creative arts.
For fast food franchises, the repetition of bland, low quality ingredients into exactly the same thing millions of times a day isn’t a problem, it’s the solution—the very basis of a highly successful business model. Their products might only be just barely palatable or nutritionally functional, but the customer knows what they are getting, and that’s the selling point. Familiarity and convenience. But that doesn’t work with art. Do we really want films that are easily digestible, instantly forgettable, barely entertaining, completely unstimulating, and as indistinguishable as one Big Mac from the next? Because so long as audiences flock to films like Skyfall and ignore films like Cloud Atlas, that’s exactly what we’ll continue to get.
Over and over again.