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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Ready to Rumble-The Return of Physicality to the Action Blockbuster

        As Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation draws to a close, espionage extraordinaire Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) finds herself not on the top of a falling high-rise, nor on the bow of an enormous spacecraft, but in a dark, dingy basement. Janik Vinter, an eastern European psychopath aptly nicknamed ‘The Bone Doctor,’ is waiting for her down in the dungeon-like setting, a handgun in tow. Faust, who’s just spent the last two hours proving that gymnastics can be just as lethal as literal firepower, makes quick work of disarming her assailant, prompting The Doc to produce a knife. The importance of this moment cannot be over-stated: not only is Vinter perhaps the first character in the history of cinema to be rewarded for bringing a knife to a gun fight, but the sequence essentially works as a statement of intent for the Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as any number of filmmakers who’ve tired of watching the world almost end at the climax of our biggest blockbusters. While many tent pole directors would still argue that bigger is always better, a growing number of helmers are making a case for the pairing down of the action/adventure flick. Summer 2015 has born witness to the burgeoning disagreement between two different camps of effects enthusiasts and mayhem makers: those who would rather zoom out, and those who would rather zoom in.

        The divide wasn't nearly so clear as recently as a decade ago, when the likes of the Lord of the Rings, Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, the Harry Potter series ruled the day at the box office. Each franchise utilized innumerable computer generated effects, and favored moments of wide-shot grandeur as a means of conveying both scope and scale. But each also possessed action that took place in close quarters, with real actors wielding tangible props at one another with dangerous intent. The first Spider-Man film culminates in an abandoned building, Tobey Maguire and Willem Defoe staring each other down, the latter's tactile glider eventually causing physical, intimate damage. For all its prologued instances of wand-waving chaos, the Harry Potter flicks always sold themselves on their character moments, a scene set in a classroom often over-shadowing what happens in the Chamber of Secrets or Gringotts Bank. The Two Towers' Battle of Helms Deep, an elongated sequence whose formal stylings remain relevant and influential to this day, gains much of its might from using keyboard creations to emphasize the severity of the situation, while utilizing actual performers to bring it home viscerally. In each example listed above, there's a push-pull: the filmmakers benefit from the eternally-exponential advances in computer generated imagery, and yet manage, with a few exceptions, to not use them as a crutch. They saved that distinction for Michael Bay.

        Transformers, a mega-budget big screen adaptation of an 80's children's toy line and accompanying TV show, was an absurd risk on the part of Paramount Studios. Unless you're counting an actor known primarily at the time as 'that guy from Even Stevens,' the picture's biggest stars were Steven Spielberg (comfortably seated in his producer's chair), and Bay, already a punchline to many an avid film fan. The movie defied expectations and became the third biggest hit of the year, and it did so by pushing the pervasiveness of CGI further than we'd ever seen before in a live-action film. Now that Transformers has spawned two sequels, grossed billions of dollars, and forced most every critic and snob to throw their hands up in exasperation, it's easy to forget how revelatory that first entry really was. Hollywood had spent the first several years of the CGI boom practicing restraint and judiciousness. Bay had no time for either, and the repercussions of his wholesale commitments to digital wonderment can be witnessed on at least one screen of just about every multiplex in America. But the tide might be turning.

        If you'd have told me sometime near the end of April that The Avengers: Age of Ultron would fail to capture this summer's box office crown, I would have laughed in your face. The sequel to 2012's runaway success The Avengers, Ultron seemed poised to break all of its forbearer's records with even more city-leveling destruction, and artificial apocalypse-baiting. Instead, it was bested at every turn by June's Jurassic World, and while the reasons for the upset range from nostalgia, to scheduling, to the now-undeniable star power of Chris Pratt, I personally can't help but assign some blame to the physical disconnect that's coming to define the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When Ultron's titular baddie lifts the entire fictitious city of Sokovia into the air, you feel like you could too; the metropolis appears to weigh about as much as a marshmallow. And while Earth's Mightiest Hero's are witnessed saving the lives of several individual citizens, the film's necessity to keep zooming out in order to make sense of the action robs the sequence of any real tension. There's no argument to be made that Jurassic World leans less heavily of CGI than the latest Avengers joint, but it makes a point of keeping the danger in close proximity. With the exception of a maniacal scene in which a pack of loosed pterodactyls wreak havoc on the park's helpless customers, peril is only experienced by a handful of people at a time, with the hungry animals always a little too close for comfort. Ultron wanted to end humanity through an onslaught of earth-quakes and tidal waves; the Indominous Rex was just kind of hungry, and might accidentally do some damage to the exterior of the nearby Starbucks.

        People responded to comparative simplicity of Jurassic World's conclusion, as well as the vicinity of the danger. Ultron opened to $191 million over the course of its first three days of release, a figure that now represents 41.9% of its current total gross. World made more money out of the gate (a record $208 million), and yet that staggering number is only responsible for 33% of the movie's cumulative take, a number that will undoubtably shrink even further when the film finally stops making money. This would seem like an outlier if it weren't for all the other Summer 2015 offerings that reiterate the theory. Dwayne Johnson's end-times adventure San Andreas opened a whole tier above Mad Max: Fury Road ($54 and $45, respectively), but now they're virtually tied, owing to the fact that Andreas' opening salvo amounts to 36% of its haul, while Mad Max's makes up less than 30%. Despite all the digital wizardry on display in its ads, Terminator: Genisys was a dud on arrival, making it the exact opposite of the white-knuckled Rogue Nation, which sold itself on the merit of its practical effects, and managed to rake in a whopping $55 at the tail end of July. Word is spreading that Hollywood has finally returned to financing blockbusters that are made with more than the pressing of buttons and the clicking of mouses, and audiences are responding by opening their wallets.

        Tinseltown is a reactionary place, and the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, and (to a lesser extent) Jurassic World bode well for those who'd prefer to have their action scaled back a bit, but it's not as though the aforementioned films came out of nowhere. They were each lavishly budgeted, and studio heads don't exactly go around pulling out their check books for every movie they think would be kind of cool to see. Thank the movie gods, then, for the resurgence of the Fast & Furious movies, at once both the least likely and most important billion-dollar saga of the moment. The original, titled The Fast & the Furious, was a success upon its 2001 release, spawning a pair of sequels that each possessed less of the initial cast than the previous entry. They brought the whole gang back together for 2009's Fast and Furious, which opened to a then-staggering $71 million on its way to becoming the highest grossing entry in the franchise. At the time, it seemed like the return of stars Vin Diesel and Paul Walker was the primary reason for the monetary spike, but hindsight offers an interesting alternate explanation. Having recently borne witness to Transformers, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and the putrid, fake-looking Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, audiences were eager to watch real cars crash, and not be force-fed yet another skyscraper crumbling to the ground. The fact that each subsequent entry since Fast and Furious has made more than its predecessor only solidifies the point.

       Those anticipating the whole-sale death of the massively-scaled action blockbuster would be wise to not hold their breath. The comic-book adaptation phase, now over a decade into its run of global domination, doesn't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, and even if American audiences are tiring of the Transformers series, the rest of the planet is just getting started (the fourth film, Age of Extinction, is the second highest grossing film in the history of China). Rampant CGI and cataclysmic destruction are here to stay, but after nearly a decade of monopolizing the months of May, June, July, and August, they finally have competition in the marketplace. Our alternative option is still just trickling in, only a handful available in any given year, but their numbers are seeing a steady annual increase, as are their grosses. Physicality is returning to blockbuster season, so put down your doomsday devices and glowing blue macguffins, and be sure to pack a knife. Who knows; it might just come in handy.

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