Thursday, May 7, 2009

Wolverine's Origins Are Surprisingly Boring

With the release of the season's first big budget movie event, summer has arrived. If the initial film's quality is indicative of what will follow, it'll be a tedious season. There's nothing wrong with X-Men Origins: Wolverine; it's just boring. After witnessing the release of approximately 10,000 superhero movies in the last five years, the genre feels tired. Or maybe formulaic and trite iterations of the genre just seem more obvious after watching some truly cool things happen to superhero movies recently.

There's not much to say about the movie itself--I got the sense that the narrative didn't matter, even while I was watching it unfold. That's a problem with prequels in general (we know, for instance, that Wolverine can't die), but this film didn't do itself any favors by failing to reveal anything interesting about any of the characters or, really, forgetting to exert any effort towards the goal of making the viewer care about the narrative or the characters.

The good thing about bad movies is that it allows movie critics to strut their stuff a little. We're lucky to be living in a time with some wonderful movie writers. So instead of spending more time thinking about this utterly forgettable film, let's read together some good writing about a film.

Like this bit, from Slate reviewer Dana Stevens:
Even by the standard of a fourth-in-a-series summer blockbuster, Wolverine, the first X-Men movie directed by Gavin Hood (Rendition), is remarkably lame. At least three of its images are clich├ęd enough to have already been parodied on The Simpsons: the hero silhouetted against the sunset as he carries his girl to safety; the aforementioned climactic showdown on top of a nuclear reactor (unfortunately, unlike Homer, no character here is wearing a muumuu); and the hero shouting "Nooooo!" over his beloved's body as the camera pulls up to the heavens.
Or how about national treasure, Roger Ebert:
At least, you hope, he [Wolverine] has an interesting vulnerability? I'm sure X-Men scholars can tell you what it is, although since he has the gift of instant healing, it's hard to pinpoint. When a man can leap from an exploding truck, cling to an attacking helicopter, slice the rotor blades, ride it to the ground, leap free and walk away (in that ancient cliche where there's a fiery explosion behind him but he doesn't seem to notice it), here's what I think: Why should I care about this guy? He feels no pain and nothing can kill him, so therefore he's essentially a story device for action sequences.
It's really worth reading Ebert's entire review; it's nice that our most famous movie reviewer is also probably the best.

While Stevens and Ebert focus on the Wolverine movie, David Foster Wallace in an article titled "F/X Porn" takes on the big-budget sequel as an idea. After a lengthy analysis of why he loved Terminator 1 and hated Terminator 2, DFW explains his theory of Special Effects Porn. Here goes:
The point is that head-clutchingly insipid stuff like this puts an ever heavier burden of importance on "T2"'s digital effects, which now must be stunning enough to distract us from the formulaic void at the story's center, which in turn means that even more money and directional attention must be lavished on the film's F/X. This sort of cycle is symptomatic of the insidious three-part loop that characterizes Special Effects Porn --

ONE: Astounding digital dinosaur / tornado / volcano / Terminator effects that consume almost all the director's creative attention and require massive financial commitment on the part of the studio;

TWO: A consequent need for guaranteed megabuck ROI [Return on Investment], which entails the formulaic elements and easy sentiment that will assure mass appeal (plus will translate easily into other languages and cultures, for those important foreign sales...);

THREE: A director -- often one who's shown great talent in earlier, less expensive films -- who is now so consumed with realizing his spectacular digital vision, and so dependent on the studio's money to bring the F/X off, that he has neither the leverage nor the energy to fight for more interesting or original plots / themes / characters.

-- and thus yields the two most important corollary formulations of the Inverse Cost and Quality Law:

(ICQL(a)) The more lavish and spectacular a movie's special effects, the shittier that movie is going to be in all non-F/X respects. For obvious supporting examples of ICQL (a), see lines 1-2 of this article and/or also "Jurassic Park," "Independent Day," "Forrest Gump," etc.

(ICQL (b)) There is no quicker or more efficient way to kill what is interesting and original about an interesting, original young director than to give that director a huge budget and lavish F/X resources. The number of supporting examples of ICQL (b) is sobering. Have a look, e.g., at the difference between Rodriguez's "El Mariachi" and his "From Dusk to Dawn," between DeBont's "Speed" and "Twister," between Gilliam's "Brazil" and "Twelve Monkeys," between Bigelow's "Near Dark" and "Strange Days." Or chart Cameron's industry rise and artistic decline from "T1" and "Aliens" through "T2" and "The Abyss" to -- dear Lord -- "True Lies." U.S. entertainment media report that Cameron's new "Titanic," currently in American release, is (once again) the most expensive and technically ambitious film of all time. Doubtless, Britons have been pricing trenchcoats and lubricants in anticipation of its arrival in the UK.
I apologize for the lengthy excerpt, but I think it's worth it.

Here's hoping that there'll be some decent movies this summer.


BL said...

thanks for ruining the ending...Wolverine lives...U suck!

JoSF said...

so here is what i think. as much as one may not like the movie its not an issue with the movie, this is the way comic books and the traditional superhero story works. its one of those things where either you like it or you don't. but i would say just accept it for what it is and enjoy the ride

Josh said...

I have to disagree with JoSF.
The world of comics is dark, complex, and multi-faceted.

Other X-men films have maintained some fidelity to those ideas, by exploring the moral quandaries in which the characters find themselves (old v. new species of humanity; the imperative to protect the weak v. the right to exercise one's full abilities), or have offered their characters as powerful metaphors for social dilemmas (in X-men two, Iceman returns home and reveals his special power, to which his mother asks: "Have you ever tried...not being a mutant?"). In this film, despite opportunities to the contrary (is there any greater conflict in literature than between brothers? hm...maybe parents and children), the director and writers failed to engage the viewer in anything other than a series of special effects, lacking any narrative. Even resolutions to conflict arrive in the way of fortuitous appearances by a savior "just in the nick of time," rather than the particular wit and ingenuity of our heroes.