who killed the blockbuster?

I wasn't going to blog about this, until I read the excellent post by Marc Nash about Terminator: Genisys, and the thoughtful critique by John Wiswell about the Jurassic franchise

First off: my favourite film critic of all time is Roger Ebert. I didn't always agree with his reviews, but I could usually tell from his assessment whether or not I was going to find the film worth watching. 

One thing that always perplexed me about Ebert's reviews is that he would sometimes say action sequences were "boring". If it's an action sequence, how could it be boring? I figured he had some well-deserved critic's fatigue, and wouldn't pay any notes about "boring action" much mind. 

But now I've seen Mad Max: Fury Road, and I know exactly what he meant. Practically the whole damn thing is a boring action sequence. 

No spoilers: the good guys are trying to escape from the bad guys. Okay. But there's no stakes, no suspense. Look at the characters. There's Max, who is the titular character, but not, one learns quickly, the hero. He's more like a Fifth Business, an enabler who throws in his lot with the hero because going her way is better than the alternatives. Still, he is  the titular character, so you know that, at worst, he'll die at the very end. That's if he dies at all. 

Then there's the hero, Imperator Furiosa. Even though she's nominally on the bad guy's side when she's introduced, we know she'll be a goodie once things get going. How do we know? Because her costume isn't nearly outlandish enough to be a baddie in this film, and because, unlike her War Boy colleagues/staff, she acts more or less according to current-day Western conventions. So she's not going to die until, maybe, the end as well.  

What about her goal of reaching The Green, the safe, unpolluted place she knows about? C'mon, it's a post-apocalyptic action film. Either The Green doesn't exist, or else despite all utopian appearances it's a horribly corrupt, oppressive place. So no stakes there either. 

The wives Furiosa is smuggling to The Green are virtually interchangeable. If they have names mentioned in the film, I didn't catch them. Mostly I kept them straight by hair colour, and correctly predicted (spoiler!) that one of the two blondes got killed off quickly. So she wouldn't get mixed up with the other one, you see. Meanwhile, the lone redhead was the only one with any real character arc, and stood out easily in compositions showing her with the other (identically dressed) wives on account of her hair colour.

The environmental stakes are devalued as well. Resources are supposed to be scarce, yet characters use up fuel and water like... like we are in the here and now and are supposed to be cutting down on.  A half-dozen characters give themselves a full-body shower, in the middle of the desert, after a giant sandstorm, using scarce, precious potable water for the job. Five minutes later they're worried they won't make it to The Green before the baddies catch up and re-capture them. Uh-huh.

Fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. A bored audience member will start noticing things like those showers, and then other things, and then still other things, until the weight of their boredom causes their disbelief to come crashing down to the ground. A story can be as fantastical and implausible as it likes, but it has to keep the audience interested. Otherwise, it's just a big long, boring, action sequence. 

Steven Spielberg warned in 2013 that just a few "tent pole" blockbusters failing in a single release season could cause a Hollywood "implosion". Marc, John, and I all went in to see our respective blockbusters expecting to be entertained at minimum, and came out with critiques and concerns. As I understand it, the three films we posted about were hardly failures at the box office, but I'm just not sensing the enthusiasm for them that past blockbusters have enjoyed.

The big Hollywood film that seems to be getting all the accolades this summer is Inside Out. I saw it the week before I saw Mad Max, and loved it, but now that I've seen both films, it's making me think. Inside Out has a lot of action for a film that literally takes place inside someone's brain, but somehow those homuncular cartoon characters had more at stake, and generated more suspense, than the live-action characters in Fury Road did. It feels like a shake-up is coming.