4YE’s 2017 Year In Review: Cinema 2017: Spectacle Versus Story – Is Bigger Really Better?

Credit Universal Studios

We’ve all got used to seeing those big budget blockbusters, star- and effects-laden feasts for the eyes and ears filling the cinema screen with light and excitement.

Those are the films usually seen by people who might go to see one or two films a year, and the studio payoff is usually worth the expense. Not always, though. Warner Brothers’ DC blockbuster Justice League cost over $300m (the numbers), but has taken only $230m in the US so far. Although its worldwide gross looks set to break through $650m, this is disappointing in a world where 2.5 times the cost is barely break-even.

Given the runaway success of Wonder Woman just a few months earlier, $850m worldwide gross against a $150m cost (the numbers), its stable mate’s lack of equal success might have been baffling to Warner. Wonder Woman was a much better film and appealed to a wider audience – nicely illustrating that there is plenty of room for a well-handled female superhero movie.

However, all this leads to the point.

Studios do their best to build up anticipation for films, promoting them as the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, trying to make each a new cultural phenomenon. But sometimes this can backfire because the film simply can’t live up to the expectation. A film might be built up only to fall through when word of mouth hits the street. A good but less hyped film might find that repeat viewers and word-of-mouth drive the box office.

Spectacular effects might pull in casual cinemagoers, but a good film needs box-office staying power, and a good story can help carry that. Justice League, although not as bad as some reviews have had it, is fragmented, too busy and lacks coherence. Its 40% Rotten Tomatoes rating illustrates fan disappointment. If you put all your Superheroes in one film, they need something better than the now-ubiquitous Baddie Steals Artifact That Opens A Portal For His Invading Space Army. That’s been done. Better.

In fact, the studio is rumoured to be so disappointed by Justice League‘s performance that some quarters are speculating on the future of the DC Extended Universe. The films just don’t seem to be able to generate the excitement caused by rivals Marvel.

Which brings me to my four favourite films of 2017 – and yes, two of them do happen to be effects-spectaculars.

Thor: Ragnarok pretty much goes without saying – my anticipation rating was definitely at the top for this one. Its reported $180m (The numbers) budget will be dwarfed by the gross, reported to be well over $800m and still running. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating is an impressive (but not surprising) 92%.

The threads of the multi-strand story mesh well, the characters work and there is no dead air – it’s all on-screen.  

The film had way more humour than some of the Marvel franchise’s other offerings, but it was handled well by director Taika Waititi. The film played off brothers Thor and Loki well, and brought in (a now speaking) Hulk as a character in his own right rather than as just Banner’s alter ego. The Planet Hulk elements were a brilliant addition to the story, written by Eric Pearson. The film was easily the best of the Thor trilogy, and slotted in nicely with last year’s Doctor Strange as well as setting up the upcoming Infinity War.

My second big budget fave was Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve). I know I’m a bit against the tide on this, which has turned out to be something of a Marmite movie, but I loved it. The film was set firmly in the Blade Runner universe of the original, so we see ads for (in our world) defunct firms like Pan Am and Atari. We see the world outside the cramped and oppressive cityscape of the original (let’s just forget the awful tacked-on ending of the original Blade Runner cinema cut with outtakes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining featuring a car driving through lush forest). The outside world is not a pretty place. There are no lush forests. There is only dust and desolation, poisonous air, scavenging gangs and slave orphan children sorting scrap.

Blade Runner 2049 saw Ryan Gosling as Officer K. A despised replicant himself, charged with hunting down the last of the old replicants-without-expiration-dates. His drab life is lightened up for him by Joi, a digital ‘wife’, whom he loves and who seems to love him. His world is changed forever when he goes to ‘retire’ mealworm farmer replicant Sapper Morton (beautifully played by Dave Bautista).

The film was panned by some who said it was misogynistic, but this is the point. It is a world where a replicant prostitute or a digital companion is just another piece of merchandise. The replicant menace has been replaced with product, and even in a dystopian post apocalyptic future, sex still sells. But the film has moments of great emotion and great beauty. Both Gosling and Harrison Ford, reprising his Blade Runner role as Rick Deckard, now a man in hiding to protect a world-changing secret, play their characters with great depth. The play between the two is moving, their growing respect for each other tinged with poignancy as K begins to suspect that Deckard might in fact be his father.

The story between the two is punctuated by the linked story of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) a disturbed and disturbing mad genius trying to make replicants with the ability to reproduce.

Blade Runner 2049 was also panned for being slow – but that seems to be a common complaint about anything that doesn’t have a cut every five seconds. The attention span of the new audience just doesn’t seem to be up to thinking about things, sadly. It’s not actually slow. I found the 2h 44m went by really quickly. There is a lot to take in, there. The soundtrack batters or lifts you along, not music but soundscape, scary, uplifting, and interesting, almost a character in itself. The end was incredibly moving, and I would have no hesitation in recommending the film to anyone who longs for a story to go with their digital effects.

Blade Runner 2049 will not be the moneymaker the studio hoped it would be – although the original was something of a cult thing with a slowly growing audience, so maybe this will follow suit. It cost a reported $185m (The numbers) and has so far taken only around $270m worldwide. It does have an 87% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which shows that at least someone else appreciated it.

Well that’s my bigger budget faves. Two of my other favourites were the other end of the budget scale, but then again they haven’t been big grossing successes.

Lost City Of Z (dir. James Grey) was a film that should have been much longer. It comes in at just under 2 and a half hours, and while watching I thought there were bits missing. It’s possible that fear of audience attention drift might have led to trimming for time, another common occurrence. That said, what is there is wonderful. It’s the true(ish) tale of early 20th century British explorer Percy Fawcett, superbly channelled by Charlie Hunnam, who spends his life searching for a lost city in the heart of the Amazon, evidence for what he believes was once a massive, thriving and advanced civilisation. His story is said to have been the inspiration for Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World.

The film boasts an impressive cast including Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson and new Spider-Man Tom Holland. It gained much critical acclaim and a fair few award nominations.

It’s a tale of obsession, love, loss, stiff-upper-lip-ness and sheer bloody-minded tenacity in the face of a hostile, unforgiving jungle sparsely peopled with equally hostile and unforgiving tribes, and I loved every minute of it.

It’s a film that by turns is moving, exciting, scary and frustrating. It goes easy on the ick factor, which was big in both the true story and the adventures of the cast and crew apparently. It has some beautiful moments, and the ending with Percy and his son, who accompanies him on the last of the expeditions, is dreamlike and spiritual. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this, or of reading David Grann’s excellent book of the same name, I’m not giving the end away.

Lost City of Z, with its 87% Rotten Tomatoes rating, only cost around $30m, but sadly caused barely a ripple at the box office. It brought in under $20m. This is in part the problem faced by independent productions lacking big-name studios and distributors. A poor showing at the box office can be as much a product of the lack of screen-showings and publicity as anything else.

The last of my year’s favourites is another independent production.

The Death Of Stalin (dir. Armando Iannucci) is a UK production which gained a limited release in around 140 cinemas for its opening weekend, but still took the number five slot in the UK cinema charts on that weekend. In fact the limited release meant it took more per cinema showing than any other film that weekend. It also has a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score.                                 

Critically acclaimed and already collecting awards, the film tells the sordid story of the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953. The cast is an impressive one, including Steve Buscemi as soon-to-be leader Nikolai Khrushchev and Jeffrey Tambour as weak-willed interim Party Secretary Georgy Malenkov. Simon Russell Beale is Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret service, the NKVD, and Stalin’s chief executioner. The plot details the unseemly scramble (while the participants try to give the appearance of a strong and stable party) for power in the wake of Stalin’s unexpected death. As head of the secret service Beria takes the opportunity to draft in his NKVD men to take over all security, effectively sidelining the army. As Stalin lies dying at his Dacha in secret the gathered party officials try to legitimise their own claims with some nifty politicking. Beria, as head of the security forces, has spent years collecting information, including on the other members of the committee. He coerces Malenkov, Deputy Party Secretary, to take control, with the others going along with his sweeping reforms to save their own necks.

The film is actually a bleak and terrifying look at the party politics of an extremist state and the black hole left by the dictator’s sudden death. The mass executions of all witnesses at Stalin’s Dacha, and the squabbling of the would-be heads of state is just plain frightening. But at the same time this film is packed with humour, both overt and sardonic. It is so funny that at one point I genuinely cried laughing. 

The cast is superb, the screenplay riveting, and Iannucci’s directing flawless. The budget hasn’t been revealed, but whatever it is, this screen gem is a story worth every penny. Currently its total taking is around £4.5m, but it is yet to be released in US, in March 2018. Watch the trailer here.

I know there are so many more releases with budgets both large and small this year, but spectacle aside, it’s still the story that drives my enjoyment of a film. Star Wars: The Last Jedi cost over $200m and has more effects than you can shake a stick at. It’s been out less than two weeks and is already well over $550m. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 93%.

But seriously, parts of it play like they were making it up as they went along. There is a whole segment which is entirely superfluous and furthers the story not one bit. Some of the big players built up in The Force Awakens are cast aside like background artists, with us left none the wiser as to who they are or how they got where they did. It’s not like I hated it – It’s Star Wars, I have a high tolerance for it, but really.

I also know that these days studios are more likely to throw money at the franchises and the fan service and the effects-fests. But just as a note to said studios and distributors, here are the stats on two of those low-budget gems….

Both critically acclaimed films, Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele) at no 33 in the list for the year’s best box office takings (the numbers), with a worldwide cinema gross of $252m, and Split (dir. M Night Shyamalan) at no 29 (the numbers) with a worldwide cinema gross of $278m. Sounds fairly average? Well, both films have had a great reception both from critics and general audiences, with Split on a 78% Rotten Tomatoes score and Get Out on a massive 99% Rotten Tomatoes score. Both have great stories. The real surprise is that, reportedly, Split cost just under $10m. Get Out, for quite a few the stand-out film of the year, cost a reported $4.5m. That’s right. $4.5m.

The films showed profit margins of several thousand percent. Which brings us right back to the idea that regardless of the money a studio throws at a film, there is definitely room in the audience appreciation stakes for a story.

Carolyn Hucker