From “Man of Steel” to “Star Trek Into Darkness,” incoherence in Hollywood filmmaking has attained new heights in the past few summer months, to the point where a mid-level actioner like “2 Guns” can garner appreciation simply by not leveling a city in its final reels. The center of fault seems clear—the studios and their paralyzing business models—but a recent slate of industry dealings has instead exposed confusion and frustration in all ranks.
For many of the blockbuster offenders, their narratives may have been muddled, but their financial receptions were solid. However, Disney‘s “The Lone Ranger” is not one of those films, having just reached $86 million domestic on top of its $250 million budget and critical savaging. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has already predicted a kinder reassessment of his and director Gore Verbinski‘s western by critics to come, but now the film’s stars have joined in to single out reviewers as reason for the film’s failure.
“I think the reviews were written seven to eight months before we released the film,” said its star, Johnny Depp (via Variety). “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that. I never do.” Armie Hammer also added to the discussion, saying, “This is the deal with American critics: they’ve been gunning for our movie since it was shut down the first time… They tried to do the same thing with to ‘World War Z‘, it didn’t work, the movie was successful. Instead they decided to slit the jugular of our movie.”
As much as Marc Forster likely appreciates Hammer’s comparison of “World War Z” as a critical bomb that barely squeaked out financial success, his Brad Pitt-starrer does stand out from the summer crowd in one respect: a climax that simmers rather than explodes. Writer Damon Lindelof recently took part in an excellent NY Magazine piece that details a blockbuster’s writing process, and in it, he described his third-act ‘WWZ’ rewrites by him, Drew Goddard, and Christopher McQuarrie as blessed by objectivity.
“I can honestly tell you that, I think, if Drew and I had been hired to write the first draft of ‘World War Z,’ if we had had Matthew Michael Carnahan‘s job, we would have written exactly the same movie… with the same third act. We were able to come in and say, ‘Let’s scale it down, let’s make it the intimate zombie experience’ only because they’d shot the other version and it didn’t work.”
But Lindelof notes that it was an exception to the rule, and he full admits he’s been part of the process that has delivered big, dumb spectacles to the screen, because that’s what he’s asked to do. “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world—you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there.”
“It sounds sort of hacky and defensive to say, [but it’s] almost inescapable,” he added. “It’s almost impossible to, for example, not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake. You basically work your way backward and say, ‘Well, the Avengers aren’t going to save Guam, they’ve got to save the world.’ Did ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ need to have a gigantic starship crashing into San Francisco? I’ll never know. But it sure felt like it did.”
Lindelof then goes on to outline the process of screenplay drafts, using the theoretical example of John Henry, the nineteenth-century ex-slave and locomotive aficionado. In short, the outlook is bleak—studios tethered to algorithms and writers tasked with impossible story stakes—but no matter how convoluted plot mechanics get, a more pressing problem is that of 3D. The format’s ticket sales have accounted for just 25% of the total domestic gross of Dreamworks‘ animated film “Turbo” (via FilmDrunk), marking a new low for the format and causing theater owners to sweat the losses. (31% of “Monsters University” ticket sales came from 3D, while only 34% for “World War Z”—see what’s happening here?).
Other countries still perform well with 3D, with Russia and China still chalking 80-90% of tickets up to it, but whether you receive a headache from blurry visuals and light loss or total narrative confusion, it’s very apparent that clarity is needed in both facets.