Imagine this scenario: the government comes to you with a plea for assistance. They’re putting together a time capsule for the people of the future, and they want to include a movie — the most emblematic example of filmmaking circa the 2010s. After they assure you that this has nothing to do with impending Mayan apocalypses or Roland Emmerich disaster movies, you agree to the task.
But what to pick? I’ll tell you my nominee, which I just watched for the first (and, I assume, only) time last weekend:
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”
“SHAGS” — as it shall henceforth be known, at least in this piece — is, without a doubt, the epitome of contemporary Hollywood cinema. It is everything good and bad (mostly bad) that the film industry does in one very handsome and very stupid package. Stick it in the time capsule: if the people of the future are curious about our movies, “SHAGS” will tell them everything they need to know, including:
-Our Penchant For Remakes. And For Sequels: “SHAGS” is the latest version, cinematically speaking, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s enduringly popular private detective. The first installment, directed by Guy Ritchie, was inspired by several Doyle stories, including “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The second, also by Ritchie, was inspired by the $525 million the first film made worldwide (P.S., the second made even more).
-Having No Use For Intelligence, Except As It Benefits Action: On the one hand, Sherlock Holmes is a perfect subject for a movie circa the 2010s, because he has great brand recognition, and everything in movies circa 2010 is about brand recognition (see above). On the other hand, he’s a horrible subject for a movie circa the 2010s because his defining characteristic is his intellect, and we live in an age in which Hollywood’s defining characteristic is a sort of intentional brainlessness. Naturally, the film is less a mystery than a connect-the-dots chase movie, and Ritchie’s Holmes, played with undeniable flair by Robert Downey Jr., is as much an investigator as a pugilist, who uses his brain primarily as a means to succeed in fist fights. The climactic confrontation with Holmes’ arch-enemy Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) boils down to an imagined battle in which the two men each conceive of different ways to out-box the other in oh-so-cool, oh-so-modern, oh-so-ready-to-look-dated-in-five years speed ramping. Two geniuses “imagination fighting” each other. In modern cinema, this is what qualifies as “thinking.”
-An Almost Pathological Obsession With Violence Coupled With An Almost Pathological Fear of Its Consequences: Imagination fighting is a fitting metaphor for most of the action in “Sherlock Holmes,” even the stuff that “really” happens — since so much of it is stripped of any hint of blood, gore, pain, or larger repercussions. One notable example is a scene in which Moriarty tortures Holmes for information by impaling him on a meathook, which is so obliquely and confusingly shot, presumably out of rating concerns, that it takes several minutes to even grasp what’s happening. Characters do die, but almost always off-screen, and with little confirming evidence that they have, in fact, passed on, probably so they can still be brought back for future sequels under extenuating circumstances.
-The General Lack of Interesting Characters For Women: Forget the Bechdel Test — “SHAGS” doesn’t even pass the good ol’ fashioned smell test in regards to its portrayal of women. Rachel McAdams, Holmes’ feisty female foil from the first Ritchie film is — SPOILER ALERT — eliminated from the story after the cold open. She’s replaced with a mysterious gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace), who is only “mysterious” insofar as her reasons for following Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) through the narrative are totally baffling. Essentially she’s searching for her brother, who works for Moriarty, but really she sticks around just so the film can pretend it isn’t one giant boys club. “SHAGS” makes a few vague overtures to Holmes’ rivalry with Watson’s fiance and his general lack of interest in the opposite sex, and that could play as sly acknowledgement of its misuse of its female cast if it felt even the least bit self-aware. But it doesn’t, so it doesn’t.
-How Incredibly Cool We Can Make Dumb Shit Look: Having said all of that, and having generally hated all of that while I was watching it, I can’t deny that Ritchie and his team of craftsmen have made something that looks absolutely gorgeous. “SHAGS” includes a sequence where Holmes, Watson, and Simza run through the woods to evade Moriarty’s men, who are firing at them with guns and tank cannons. Bullets whiz by our heroes; the camera zooms in and out to catch their flight as they pierce through their waistcoats. Mortars smash into trees and fill the air with thousands of pieces of wooden shrapnel: again, the camera, nimble as a dancer, seems everywhere all at once. With so little interest in the characters and so little understanding of what they’re doing or where they’re going, the whole sequence means absolutely nothing. But it looks amazing.
And that, I suspect, will be our generation’s movies’ true legacy. We came, we saw, we blew stuff up, we only vaguely remembered doing it a few hours later. All the more reason to put “SHAGS” in our time capsule: if we don’t, human civilization may eventually forget it ever existed.
That’s my pick — what would you put in a time capsule to epitomize the modern movie landscape?