To me, Tomorrowland showed the promise of being one of the best movies of the summer blockbuster season. Aside from being directed and co-written by Pixar veteran Brad Bird, the trailers showed a potential for an ultra smart movie that had strong characters and a story to rival anything that Bird had written or directed in the past. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it. In my mind, the story lacked the heart and soul to make it meaningful to me as a viewer. It had some good thoughts on the nature of human existence, on our willingness to be apathetic because it’s easy, on the importance of hope for the future.
Thinking back on the movie today and being reminded of my disappointment I came to a conclusion and was reminded of a central tenet that I try to keep at the forefront of my thinking about film & creativity. While there were flaws that I found that made the experience of seeing the film less than stellar, I am reminded of what Brad Bird expertly wrote in his brilliant Pixar film Ratatouille.
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.”
The first line of this fantastic monologue sums up the ideas I was reminded of. Sitting in an audience and lambasting a film because I just don’t like it ignores the hours and days and weeks that these people put into igniting their passions and turning those passions into a film. We as a collective culture, while defending newness and passion have turned it into a cliche that doesn’t resonate when we actually sit as an audience and engage with newness.
Now, this doesn’t mean that defending the new means enjoying it. It also doesn’t mean that every film or every idea should be defended. Sometimes movies are just bad. Most summer popcorn movies fall in that category. But you don’t have to like what you see to see the value in risk, in newness.
So, was Tomorrowland a great movie? I didn’t think so, but it was a passion project, fueled by Brad Bird’s desire to promote an optimistic worldview and hope for the future. Others could easily disagree with me and I have no problem with that. But was Tomorrowland an original movie? For sure.
What Brad Bird did was take a risk with a risky idea. But he took a risk. He took a leap. And for that, he deserves credit because creative risk taking doesn’t happen all that often these days. Unless, that is, you work for Pixar.
I sat in a crowded movie theater, in the very last row, centered on the action that would be taking place on the huge, panoramic screen in front of me. There was still a good forty minutes until the film would actually start, but the place was already almost full. There was a smattering of different types of individuals filling the seats, from families looking for a night of action-packed fun, to groups of adult guys sitting together, chuckling and quite obviously single. Marvel paraphernalia was all over the entire building, including a group of 5 individuals cosplaying in the lobby in front of a huge homemade Avengers display, taking pictures with kids.
As the tape began to roll, and the official Marvel theme and logo played, about 50% of the folks in the theater started to clap and holler. The long awaited culmination of the first Avengers movie was beginning, and they couldn’t wait.
I have to begin by saying this. As good movies go, until The Winter Soldier, 2014’s Captain America sequel and the supremely original Guardians of the Galaxy the Marvel films fell in a category far below Chris Nolan’s Batman films, but significantly above The Fast & the Furious franchise. Even with last year’s additions to the canon, they still fall far below The Dark Knight trilogy, but the two from 2014 were a great step in the right direction. The Russo Brothers, who directed Winter Soldier and James Gunn, who wrote and directed GOTG began a pattern of taking Marvel’s source material and raising it to amazing new heights of character development, hard-hitting action and depth of story that hadn’t been a marker of the Marvel films in my estimation. As I sat in that theater two weeks ago, I realized that Age of Ultron built on that.
I sat, engaged for the entire two and a half hours of Ultron, watching as Joss Whedon delved deeper into some of his characters backstories than he had been able to do in the first movie, assisted in part by Iron Man 3 and Winter Soldier, and brought a sense of darkness to the villain that hadn’t permeated any of the other films.
Hear me say this, Joss Whedon did an admirable job of directing and writing this movie in many ways, but the end of the movie left me with nothing to chew on. It didn’t take a lot of thought to piece together the ideas. Whedon threw 2+2 on the screen and then gave you 4.
I didn’t have to work to enjoy it, I could just sit back and take it in. Ultron unfortunately turned out to be just another summer popcorn flick with huge budget, major box office take, tons of devoted fans, but not much depth.
I look at all of this in contrast to another crowded theater I was in.
This was a collection of predominately well dressed young people, middle aged couples, my Dad, my cousin and myself. It was November 5th, and I was sitting in a gigantic stadium style IMAX theater waiting to see the movie that I had waited for for months, from one of my favorite working directors. I was expecting something amazing from Interstellar, a project written and directed by Christopher Nolan, and I had my expectations absolutely blown away. The imagery, the story, the characters, the depth, the score. Everything was even more amazing than I had been led to believe. As the credits rolled at the end, and everyone began silently filtering out of the theater I was completely dumbfounded and literally speechless.
But above all of this, Interstellar was a smart movie. It’s a movie that puts every inch of your brain to work, makes you think, and leaves you with the deep set impression that you have witnessed a masterpiece. It explores themes of space exploration and scientific endeavors that have been lost in our society. But the most significant theme it explored is the depth of human relationships. It teaches us that “love is the one thing we’re capable of perceiving that transcends time and space,” and Nolan explores this idea to the max, in a way that will leave you both sobbing and reeling from the sheer genius with which it is written and executed. It’s a mental and emotional workout that is worth every second.
From the picture I’ve painted, I think it’s fair to say that I think Interstellar is a far better movie. But, why say all of this?
The core theme of Age of Ultron was… wait, was there a core theme? Maybe ‘be a hero’ and don’t create artificial intelligence because it will become sentient and kill you? Who knows.
The core theme of Interstellar? Explore. Go beyond the realm of the known into the realm of the unknown to find new things and humanity will be better for it. Love transcends everything that we know, all of our reality. A human emotion is the thing that in many ways unifies all of us. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (see what I did there?) to see that Interstellar is in a completely separate category from Marvel’s admittedly fun films. Yet, when you look at the box office reports, which are the industries’ barometer for success, the entire US take of Nolan’s masterpiece was almost ten-million dollars less than Ultron’s opening weekend. Either way, it’s easy to pull the theme from Interstellar’s story because it actually has one to begin with.
Personally, I don’t look at box office numbers as a gauge for the success of a film. In my book, that’s directly related to the story and the film’s execution. But in this case, box office take is a dismal gauge for our society.
I say all of this because I believe that smart movies are a result of smart people, and are nominally successful because you have some smart people that care. Dumb movies are usually a result of studio heads that want to feed a beast and appeal to dumb audiences.
So, when a culture decides that it’s going to stop thinking, you get a steady stream of movies that make money, but generally aren’t good movies. Toby Ziegler, a character from Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant show The West Wing said “there is a connection between the progress of society and the progress of the arts.”
Movies like Ultron are a success because of people who don’t care to have to think. They’re dumbed down, fast-paced flicks that hold your attention because they are essentially scene after scene of quick witted dialogue followed by big battles where everyone destroys a major metropolitan city, and big explosions make everyone ooh and ahh. Audiences that flock to these movies and give studios two-hundred million dollars in one weekend want everything spelled out for them in black and white so that they can be entertained, have a laugh and then go home and not care. In the end, smart, intelligent movies won’t typically be the summer blockbusters that pull in billions for studios. Christopher Nolan will remain successful, because he’s smart enough to know that making good movies is more important than having the #1 spot on opening weekend. Unfortunately, filmmakers like Chris Nolan will rarely have the #1 spot, because there are enough dumb people to keep him in the #2 spot behind franchise based popcorn flicks. Right now, that’s just the way it goes. Maybe one day it will change, but it will take a collection of people that actually like to think and want to be challenged with new ideas. As a society, we need to learn from the messages of Interstellar. When we explore the unknown, when we dive wholeheartedly into the meaningful, we’ll learn- we’ll gain knowledge that we’ve never had before. And a little bit of knowledge will go a long way towards making us a better society.
“Imagine a person who comes in here tonight and argues ‘no air exists’ but continues to breathe air while he argues. Now intellectually, atheists continue to breathe – they continue to use reason and draw scientific conclusions (which assumes an orderly universe), to make moral judgments (which assumes absolute values) – but the atheistic view of things would in theory make such ‘breathing’ impossible. They are breathing God’s air all the time they are arguing against him.”
Welcome. This is my blog, a home on the internet for me to outline my thoughts. As you can see, I plan to blog about things, the things that are important to me. Film, politics, life & culture. Four essential pieces of my life.
But more fundamentally, my hope is that this blog is always focused on one thing, the thing that is the umbrella of the other four. Truth. I’m a Christian, and the Christian faith is about truth. Truth is what sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world. It’s an interesting thing, because truth defines reality, and since God’s truth is true, that means that we live in God’s reality. So, I suppose what I’m saying is I hope that this blog is always dedicated to presenting God’s reality in every aspect of what I write.