By now the Yuletide studio releases have been screened for critics, and most have opened for the public, although not without some histrionics. In early December New Yorker critic David Denby ran a review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo too early, causing producer Scott Rudin to ban Denby from future press screenings. Rudin also delayed press screenings of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until it missed several awards deadlines. This may have been intentional: last year he was touting The Social Network, which many writers feel peaked too soon in the awards race. By holding Extremely Loud back from just about everyone, Rudin could reap publicity without having to worry about bad reviews. Now that the film's opened, he can't stop critics like Manohla Dargis from referring to its "stunning imbecility" and "kitsch" qualities.
My title is only somewhat is jest. If learning that a film like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol contains a lot of action will ruin the movie for you, then stop right now. On the other hand, it's easy to draw some generalizations about the current crop of Hollywood releases—and a little dismaying to find that the same generalizations apply almost every year.
1. Anything can explode.
I know of one talk-show host who differentiates between independent and Hollywood movies simply by explosions. In this year's crop of big-budget productions, you can say goodbye to stately Scandinavian mansions, the Strasbourg cathedral, a Paris train station, half of the Kremlin, the World Trade Center (again), most of a Moroccan port, and a wide swath of Europe. Even J. Edgar starts off with a terrorist bombing.
Early filmmakers tried to draw viewers away from competitors by throwing money at the screen. It became a mark of prestige (and profit) to construct expensive sets, drape costly costumes on extras, flaunt excess by paying too much for actors and properties.
Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille helped develop a corollary to this lure: it's even more impressive to take that expensive world you created and destroy it. To build massive sets and demolish them on screen is the fullest expression of conspicuous consumption. The history of cinema is marked by disaster epics: Intolerance, The Ten Commandments, Noah's Ark in the silent era (although the latter had sound sequences); King Kong and San Francisco in the thirties. David O. Selznick essentially torched the RKO backlot for Gone With the Wind. Monsters tore apart entire cities in the fifties: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Godzilla, etc. In Star Wars, George Lucas could destroy an entire planet. James Cameron made a fortune flooding his Titanic sets.
CGI and digital effects have changed the equation a bit. Nowadays sets aren't always ruined. Instead, post-production houses use computers to simulate explosions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Special effects carry their own prestige, at least until they filter down to Citibank ads.
2. Longer is longer.
Size matters to filmmakers. I have to admit, 132 minutes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol fly by pretty quickly (until the soggy ending), but did Steven Spielberg really need 146 minutes to tell War Horse? Or David Fincher an excruciating 158 minutes for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Movies used to be a minute long. But in order to tell a story more complicated than squirting a gardener with a hose, directors had to resort to longer movies. A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) both dragged on for 12 minutes. Theater owners began complaining about excessively long movies. After feature films took hold in the marketplace, directors used length as proof of how important their work was. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) clocked in at almost 200 minutes. Next spring film historian Kevin Brownlow will be screening a 330-minute restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927).
Most films were and are much shorter, of course. Val Lewton could produce a richly textured masterpiece like Cat People (1942) in 73 minutes. But bloated films command attention: Giant (1956), 201 minutes; Ben-Hur (1959), 203 minutes; Dances With Wolves (1990), 181 minutes—before director Kevin Costner added additional footage. Even a mainstream comedy like My Cousin Vinnie took two hours to unreel.
In 2003, Hong Kong director Andrew Lau released the taut, complex police thriller Infernal Affairs at 100 minutes. By the time director Martin Scorsese remade it in 2006 as The Departed, it had swollen to 151 minutes. (Scorsese's current Hugo lasts 126 minutes.) Terrence Malick needed only 94 minutes for Badlands, his remarkable 1973 serial killer drama. This year his The Tree of Life took 139 minutes.
3. The past is better than the present.
Of course no film can take place in the absolute present because the medium is by necessity recorded. But it's surprising how many current releases reach back to a fairly distant past: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; A Dangerous Method; Hugo; War Horse; The Artist; The Adventures of Tintin; My Week With Marilyn; J. Edgar; The Iron Lady.
The past is generally more expensive too (see comments above on "prestige"). The past in movies can be seen as a setting, like outer space or inner city or wilderness—a setting that has to be dressed with period props, costumes, special effects. For writers the past is a way to streamline narratives. Placing a story in Victorian England or World War II Britain is a sort of shortcut because viewers already know how the story ends. In fact, dealing with the past is easier on many counts: we can understand the past, explain it, investigate it, mold it, make it relevant to the present, turn it exotic as needed.
Last year half of the nominees for Best Picture were set in the past. But before I drag out this "past is better" argument too long, half the nominees back in 1943 were about the past as well. Forecast for future films: a lot of very long period pieces in which many things blow up.