Screening Room: Magazine

The blockbusters busted

Still from Star Trek Beyond  

Early on in the latest Star Trek movie, Captain Kirk is in an existential funk. It’s the third year of a five-year mission, and life on the Starship Enterprise has become a bit... Buñuelian. As in The Exterminating Angel, directed by the Spanish master, there’s the sense of being stuck in a confined space. You’re sick of seeing the same people every day. I kept thinking of the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey jogging on the walls of the spaceship as though it were a treadmill — there is the sense that you are constantly in motion, but not really going anywhere. Kirk may not be alone in feeling this way. We summer movie audiences, too, know what it’s like to be trapped in theatres, watching sequels or remakes that offer very little that’s new. Another Ghostbusters movie. Another Independence Day. Another Star Trek.

But is this the only reason many of these films are underperforming? Boxofficemojo.com noted that Star Trek Beyond, the previous weekend’s No. 1 film, had fallen to second place with a 60 per cent drop in collections. This seems incongruous with the film having an 83 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (which means the critics really liked it), plus an A-CinemaScore (audiences liked it too).

But, how can a big, blockbustery action movie remain unaffected by the arrival of... another big, blockbustery action movie the very next weekend? I refer to the new Bourne movie, which opened big last weekend, but is sure to be hit by the arrival of.... another big, blockbustery action movie: Suicide Squad, gunning for the same audience demographic as Jason Bourne and Star Trek Beyond.

I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond. It’s one-liners and action set pieces leave audiences happy, plus it gives critics things to chew on. Like how Gene Roddenberry’s then-radical vision of a racially integrated workforce is, in these MNC times, an unremarkable reality. Like how the film finds itself unexpectedly weighted with emotion, from the demise of Leonard Nimoy (the first Spock) and Anton Yelchin (the latest Chekhov). Like how it’s possible, today, to have an openly gay actor (Zachary Quinto) play a straight character (Spock), while the straight John Cho plays the recently-outed Sulu, seen in the company of his male partner and their daughter. When Sulu sits in the captain’s seat, it’s a Tim Cook moment, a gay man heading a futuristic enterprise.

But all this isn’t nearly enough to stave off the feeling of familiarity. Am I happy I saw Star Trek Beyond? Most certainly. Would I have been devastated had I missed it? Probably not!

But what explains the failure of Steven Spielberg’s version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG? Like his E.T., this film is about the unlikely friendship between a human (a little orphan named Sophie) and an otherworldly creature (the titular Big Friendly Giant) — only this time, the former ends up in the latter’s world. Would it have helped if the marketing team had stressed on the parallels to that still-beloved film, released the same year as Dahl’s book (1982)? Watching The BFG, I felt no amount of hype could have helped.

Save for a glorious stretch where Sophie and the BFG visit the Queen of England, the film plays like any other summer movie — big on special effects, small on a sense of wonder. What does it say when a master visualiser like Spielberg cannot give us a decent set piece around Sophie and the BFG “catching” dreams that flit around like rainbow-coloured fireflies?

In the hands of the Spielberg of the 1980s, this sequence would have been a showstopper — but the director’s finest films, these days, aren’t the sunny entertainments-for-all-ages we once associated with him ( Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin), but dark-toned fare like Bridge of Spies and Lincoln. Decades ago, when Spielberg tried to show he could make “grown-up” movies ( Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple), critics said he was still too much the wide-eyed innocent. Now, it’s possibly the opposite.

Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 5:02:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/The-blockbusters-busted/article14553192.ece

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