I. Are We Sure Tomorrow Never Dies?
Of all the important thoughts about the movies this year that could have, should have, or honestly did occur to me, there was just one I kept coming back to: If Edge of Tomorrow can’t be a hit, then what can?
I know. A whole year comes down to the movie in which Emily Blunt has to teach Tom Cruise how to be Tom Cruise? To stop an alien invasion? It’s another apocalypse movie, another creatures-from-space movie, another movie in which Tom Cruise runs, swims, and shoots (and dies and dies) to save us. But the exoskeleton battle gear, elaborate sets, and state-of-the-art effects: You can see where all the money went. Even four or five years ago, Edge of Tomorrow would have been just another blockbuster. Now it feels rare — a one-off work of sci-fi action-comedy that mostly follows its own formula.
The hook was smart. I’m not sure most people knew the hook was there. The North American marketing was vague. I certainly went in not quite understanding the premise. It smelled of desperation. Let’s face it: Everything that Tom Cruise does now carries the stress of a star who, for any number of reasons, seems too big to fail — like if he did, he’d take an industry with him. But since he’s been failing — 2012’s Jack Reacher is one of the worst movies I’ve seen, and Oblivion, released the following year, one of the more boring — the real surprise of Tomorrow is that it really worked.
In North America, it was barely a hit. It has grossed almost $370 million worldwide on a stated budget of $178 million. Bean counters are calling it a disappointment.
Why on earth should this bother me? It’s so dumb, because, really: What do I care? I don’t work at a studio. It’s not my money at stake. (Most of the time I’m not even paying for a ticket.) It’s probable that North Americans are tired of Cruise Saves the World. But maybe we’re making a mistake in looking away. Because if we are taking Cruise for granted, the big studios probably are too. This is a business that drove Steven Soderbergh from the movies to Cinemax, where he made, with The Knick, 10 hours of television that beat every Hollywood movie I saw this year. Now, not only are midtier, so-called adult movies vanishing — the ones that Soderbergh, Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, and Mike Nichols made; serious entertainments — but your giant, non-superhero mega-movies are too.
Edge of Tomorrow is only, like, the sixth “best” thing I saw this year, but it’s the only one of my favorite movies that came entirely from Hollywood. That’s partly why I’ve been thinking about it. As my colleague Mark Harris noted a few days ago in his aptly grim industry assessment, the risk has gone out of the movies. We’re all wearing capes now.
Christopher Nolan has become the standard-bearer for the blockbuster spectacle. The anticipation for a new Nolan movie is high. People are curious. Where will he take us? How will we get there? Interstellar wasn’t a particular high point of my year (it has its moments, just not enough), but Nolan’s sense of scale can’t be denied. That’s what it takes now to get a new space opera off the ground: everything.
The lament I’m expressing could have been sounded over Transcendence, another science fiction action movie, from April, whose comedy was purely accidental. (Johnny Depp. Is. The Internet.) That movie — directed, incidentally, by Wally Pfister, who has shot seven of Nolan’s movies, including all of those Batmans — really was a dog. Its tanking made a kind of sense that Tomorrow’s didn’t. But its sputter (or the perception of one, in Tomorrow’s case) creates the sense that the days for these movies are numbered. It was never my favorite genre, but the Total Recalls of the movie world (the original Verhoeven-Schwarzenegger Total Recall, not the remake that bombed a couple of summers ago) could sneak up and surprise you. No one’s looking for Verhoeven now. They’re looking to remake him (a so-so new RoboCop came and went in the winter).
Thank god for Luc Besson.
Besson is more Verhoeven and Harlin than Nolan. The trashy shoot-’em-ups that he writes and produces can really hit the spot. When he directs, he can be ludicrous, but can’t rolling your eyes count as a valid form of exercise? Lucy arrived at the end of July and chugged along near the top of the box office for the rest of the summer. It confirmed Scarlett Johansson’s stardom, while giving her as much to do as Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, which was released last spring. She got to perform some of her best, loosest acting — for an hour at least.
Johansson plays a college kid who gets mixed up with Hong Kong gangsters and takes a smart drug that turns her into a genius killing machine. Besson isn’t bereft of ideas. He has way more than Nolan, and he can cram them into an 89-minute movie! His films can veer into stuff like junk science and racism, but you’re willing to put up with a lot of it because enough of his work is ludicrously fun. This is a movie a Hollywood studio should have been pleased to produce.
In Hollywood, Besson is an independent whose movies the studios market and release (for many years, the old French studio Gaumont backed him). Now, even Besson has had to go on a diet. Back when he was making The Fifth Element and his antifactual Joan of Arc epic, The Messenger, he, too, was at tomorrow’s edge, working with big budgets and a grander scale than Lucy. But after The Messenger disappointed, Besson retreated into writing and producing scuzzy action-comedies and Liam Neeson thrillers.
It looked as if we’d get another Fifth Element space odyssey, this time from Andy and Lana Wachowski, called Jupiter Ascending, with Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum. But Warner Bros. moved the film, which was supposed to be released the week before Lucy, to February of next year. The studio does not appear to have done this because dumpy February is the new July. Your heart goes out to Warner Bros. The studio also happens to be the home of Edge of Tomorrow, and it actually is, in its way, taking risks, still spending shitloads of money on original screenplays and evidently hard-to-market films based on unproven material. (Tomorrow is based on the Japanese novella All You Need Is Kill.) This is the company that let the Wachowskis have the stroke-inducing Speed Racer and their misunderstood passion project, Cloud Atlas. Maybe having Batman, Superman, and Batman v Superman permits the studio to be loyal, even to a fault.
I love Edge of Tomorrow maybe more than Warner Bros. does. I would have tried to exploit the sense of happy surprise a lot of us had leaving the theater. I also would have turned that tagline — “Live. Die. Repeat.” — into the title immediately. Meanwhile, Cruise isn’t taking any more chances. He’s shooting a fifth Mission: Impossible. Live, die, repeat, indeed.
II. The Gilded Wasteland
So, if the middle is gone from both so-called adult movies and from action movies in Hollywood, where’d it go? Just looking over titles of some of the best American films this year — Whiplash, Love Is Strange, Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice, Dear White People, Night Moves, Land Ho!, Birdman — I’d say toward the margins. Not the old margins of independent filmmaking, the boonies where the likes of Spike Lee, Gregg Araki, and Todd Haynes toiled, but something like independent sprawl, where the movies (at least some of them) feel Hollywood-adjacent. There’s a slew of other films — Paul Haggis’s atrocious Third Person, Tommy Lee Jones’s underseen The Homesman — that feel as if they would have come from inside Hollywood years ago. I don’t care for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, but it’s also a Hollywood movie that originated somewhere else. The same is true of Chris Rock’s Top Five.
Why does this matter? I would say because I think some entertainment people might look at Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and feel that that movie is trying to speak seriously to an adult audience — the same with Ridley Scott’s execrable Exodus: Gods and Kings. Unlike most of the movies on that list above, these two movies had marketing budgets big enough to make you think whatever the respective studio wanted. They’re ambitious yet tired and narrow. Scott’s movie isn’t even entertaining. I’d guess that had Whiplash received even half the same push, it would have been an enormous hit. It’s basically a high-energy cat-and-mouse thriller between two musicians, which is the most left-field thing about it. The people who’ve seen this movie love it. So would the people who don’t know it exists.
The studio that acquired Whiplash, Sony Pictures Classics, has a number of other titles on my list. It has the best taste in the acquisition and distribution business. What it does with some of these movies, though, borders on criminal negligence. Despite what I think of it, Foxcatcher should be more of a hit, too. Land Ho!, in which two old guys party in Iceland, had “summer sleeper” written all over it. Love Is Strange, about two aging Manhattan men who marry but aren’t able to live together, never even seemed to find the gay audience that is hungering for a sophisticated treatment of one of the moment’s sweeping social issues. Maybe their modest box office hauls satisfy some business model that doesn’t include video on demand. But, to speak the company’s own language, it feels like money’s usually being left on the table.
David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a Hollywood production, was such a resonant hit because it was (mostly) serious and people knew it was there. The movie gave you something to fight about, something to feel — whether that was revulsion, confusion, exhilaration, or the urge to turn around and see it again. It’s the first movie since Fatal Attraction to tap into some societal wonder about marital transgression. Fincher is an even slicker director than Adrian Lyne, and the movie is far sicker. That sickness, unleashed by a plot twist that broke the boundaries of a crime thriller, got at some primal desire to see revenge, insanity, or both.
Boyhood, I think, gets at some very human desire to see people. I’m torn about whether I love Richard Linklater’s movie, but I do like it quite a lot. Those who do love it find themselves moved by more than the “12 Years in the Making” headline. Unlike Whiplash or Birdman or Selma, Boyhood feels like it was just pulled out of the earth this morning. It has an emotional transparency that, on two or three occasions, turns the movie screen into a mirror. If Hollywood flips for this movie — and the Olympic floor exercise already appears to be under way — it will do so, in part, for its foreignness. Whatever “independent” means — financial freedom, artistic liberty — then it’s here, embodied by a director who’s been moving between the mainstream and its margins for 20 years. The term “maverick” gets misused a lot, but from the standpoint of how to survive within and without an industry, it seems as tailored for Linklater as it did for Robert Altman, a director who cleverly inveighed against the system that funded him. Today, it might take him 12 years just to find a hand to bite.
III. Both Members of This Club
During a month in which a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee enumerated and elucidated the CIA’s torture program during the George W. Bush years, Universal is hoping that you’ll want to spend Christmas watching an American bombardier tortured by the Japanese in Unbroken. Abuse has coursed through the movies in 2014. In Get on Up, James Brown walks out of the camera frame, beats his wife, then reenters it. There’s the symbiosis in Whiplash between the demoralizing instructor and his cocksure student; there’s the staged domestic violence of Gone Girl. Selma reimagines a bellicose, racist Alabama police force. In Foxcatcher and Snowpiercer, the wealthy exploit and torture the less privileged. Even The Other Woman climaxes when the movie’s philandering cad, who’d already been given estrogen (among other pranks), breaks and bloodies his nose after walking into a glass door and shattering it, while the film’s trio of women, who conspired to set him up, watch in amusement.
This month also dropped a cache of leaked studio emails. They belonged to Sony Pictures and were made public as part of an apparent retaliation for the company’s plans to release The Interview, a comedy in which the CIA takes out the current North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. The threat invokes 9/11 and promises destruction on December 25, the day the film was scheduled to be released before Sony decided to pull it from all theaters, meaning that a fictional assassination begets threats of actual terrorism, and the leaked emails are part of the prelude. Under the circumstances, to sift through the leaks can feel unclean. But the contents of some of the emails have made the news, and, as much as the provenance compels you to avert your eyes, what’s exposed is worth looking at directly. Some of what’s contained makes you wonder how any movies wind up getting made.
Much of the attention has focused on emails between Sony’s president, Amy Pascal, and the producer Scott Rudin, in which they exchange abusive tirades. But what stands out is a moment of camaraderie they share over Pascal’s annoyance with having to attend a donor breakfast thrown by the studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and featuring President Obama. The back-and-forth begins in an exasperated kind of innocence. “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?” says Pascal. “Would he like to finance some movies,” says Rudin. “I doubt it,” says Pascal. From there, it’s on to jolly speculation about which movies the president would be into. The short list includes 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Ride Along. “I bet he likes Kevin Hart,” Rudin jokes.
I shouldn’t know this. As Pascal noted in an apology, it was a private conversation — a joking one, too. Yet even in jest, these two very powerful people, one with peerlessly strong, varied taste — did you like an American art-house movie this year? Rudin’s name is probably on it — had a conversation that crystallized a stark reality for black people at the movies. Slavery or Kevin Hart. These are poles that also help explain the relative absence of gays and every other nonwhite race at the movies. Most so-called minority groups don’t have even a pole in the industry. But at the core of Pascal and Rudin’s joshing exchange was that the two choices — servitude or big-mouthed comedy — are the movie industry’s, not the audience’s. The studios, probably using some algorithm, choose what to give us, and we vote, with money, on the choices. But the choices feel rigged for the mockery that Pascal and Rudin make.
There’s nothing wrong in admiring 12 Years a Slave (Pascal and Rudin’s industry showered it with major awards) and loving Kevin Hart (millions do; he’s now in everything, including films by Sony). But it’s possible that the black president of the United States might also have liked Argo or American Hustle or Neighbors, too. He recently revealed to People that his favorite movie of 2014 is Boyhood, making him at least as predictable (and as human) as end-of-year list-makers.
The problem is, if the president, like most people, did want to see himself at the movies, he would be stuck, because the movie industry — clubby, myopic, creatively craven — has a hard time seeing him first. Part of Pascal and Rudin’s exchange hinged on the conflation of a serious work of art (12 Years a Slave) with its opposite (Ride Along). These are — along with Django Unchained, The Butler, and Think Like a Man Too — Black Movies. But the cynicism of suggesting them as a single entertainment bloc to the president allows for the possibility that even two intelligent, well-connected (political) operators see the man — the president of the United States — as a stereotype.
In that People interview, the president and first lady mention incidents in which they’ve been mistaken for wait staff or Target employees (the latter happened to Michelle Obama — after 2008). Part of me thinks it might happen less if popular culture had spent the last 30 years making other depictions of black life happen more. You come away from Rudin and Pascal’s comedy session understanding the movie business worse and also better. No wonder so many films, including Rudin’s, begin beyond Hollywood, and so many artists, like Linklater, seem wary of it. Superheroes are easy. People are hard.