Rise of the machines

Should the digitally-enhanced sword be mightier than the pen in the creation of good cinema? Claire Munro considers…

For a film to be successful, it is necessary that it has an indefinable ingredient, like Coca-Cola, which will make it appealing to a large cross section of people looking to be entertained.
While the film industry, in particular Hollywood, has searched for this key ingredient to butter its bagels, the ever-advancing power of digital and graphics technology available to filmmakers has given movie moguls something of an opt-out clause.

Rather than enrapturing audiences, which undoubtedly takes thought and skill, filmmakers have discovered that audiences can be blunder bussed into submission by a succession of dazzling visual effects packaged by pretty faces, without a more than functional attitude being taken to elements as plot.

This recent trend has grown more and more prominent, and is particularly evident in sequels.

Terminator 3, one of the most expensive films ever made, opts for giddying set pieces and a jokey script in favour of its predecessors’ thought-provoking premise and plot development.

The sequel to Charlie’s Angels - Full Throttle - was a blur of epileptic fit-inducing sequences held together by "gags" that wouldn’t have made it onto the back of a cereal packet.

The starkest example of good screen writing losing out to computer-aided set design came in the squandered opportunity of the recent Star Wars prequels.

The original films possessed that elusive celluloid je ne sais quoi in abundance, partly because contemporary technology didn’t allow creator George Lucas’ vision to be fully realised on screen, so therefore it was necessary to evoke atmosphere using charismatic actors such as Sir Alec Guinness and an epic and captivating storyline.

By contrast, the bizarre and yet trivial plots of the recent films have bemused even the most committed Star Wars fans, yet both have been big money spinners.

The power of advance marketing in today’s media and advertising-saturated world is indeed a force to be reckoned with but there are signs that a blockbuster has to deploy something more than eye-popping special effects and a lantern-jawed star to achieve lasting success.

The best popular literature marries modern and time-honoured story-telling virtues with big screen success: witness Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

Critics and fans alike kept such well-written fare as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Bridget Jones’ Dairy or even Spiderman in the film charts for interminable weeks.

Though critical death does not utterly condemn a film to box office disaster, there was no saving the comic book conversion, Daredevil.

Moreover, the recent comparative poor performances of The Hulk and Tomb Raider at the US box office demonstrate that mainstream audiences still respond when care is taken to develop characters and storylines properly.

Tomb Raider II: Cradle of Life took just £13.8 million over its opening weekend, less than half what the original film earned when it debuted in June 2001.

The infinitely superior offbeat alternatives, such as the recent Igby Goes Down or Goodbye Lenin simply don’t play on enough screens to reach the majority of cinemagoers.

The monopoly of the big distributors sees to that.

While many expensive, 2-dimensional films drop quickly out of the film charts, they still hog the media publicity machine.

In the immortal words of Paul Weller, is the public merely getting what the public wants?