When Brett Ratner recently went after Rotten Tomatoes, he said the art of film criticism had disappeared and that low Tomatometer scores are keeping “middle America” from seeing blockbusters like “Superman V Batman.” There’s an idea at the root of Ratner’s argument that we keep seeing: When film publications, critics, and cinephiles take digs at modern Hollywood action filmmaking, it is seen in highbrow vs. lowbrow terms.
The truth is serious movie lovers still love a well-choreographed action scene, and recent examples such as “Logan,” “Fury Road,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “Baby Driver” have not gone unappreciated.
But here’s the harsh truth: Most Hollywood franchises aren’t just bad; their action scenes are boring.
We live in an age where the photorealistic advances in computer-generated effects and lighting design, motion capture, green screen, stunt coordination, and military-like devices that move the camera are rapid and mind-blowing. The technology being used today on a film that will hit theaters in the summer of 2018 is far more advanced than what we saw in theaters last summer.
I will never forget going to a private screening of a great mid-’90s action film hosted by the director, who is still one of Hollywood’s biggest names behind the camera. After the screening, the director confessed that the film felt dated to him — everything felt slower, less explosive, and he couldn’t help comparing it to how he filmed the action scenes in more recent efforts. I remember thinking how ironic that was, because for most of us, that mid-’90s film represented his best work.
The history of Hollywood and technological advances is fairly simple. When sound, color, widescreen, 3D, and visual effects were first introduced, studios focused on projects that showcased the newest big-screen attraction. Rather quickly, the spectacle wears off and those technological advances simply became another tool that becomes fully integrated into storytelling. That trajectory is certainly what was happening in the ’90s and early ’00s, with VFX and action/sci-fi filmmaking. Then there was a shift.
Hollywood is now making fewer films and spending far more money on action franchises. In part, what Hollywood is selling to the international market is a bigger spectacle that will outdo last year’s model. The irony is that heavy hitters like Marvel have moved away from relying on great action directors to deliver this spectacle. They’re increasingly pulling from the TV arena, or from a pool of directors whose key strength is character development. These directors’ jobs is to help manage the story and character arcs, which are simply chapters in an enormous tome that will be unraveling into the next decade.
These directors are not experienced in action, but that’s no accident. The studio relies on a handful of the very best stunt coordinators and VFX specialists to deliver bigger and better action. This is in part made possible through pre-visualisation software, where every millisecond, every effect, every movement, every angle, every cut is predetermined into what looks like a computer game version of the final film that’s made before the first day of production.
And here’s a dirty little secret: The director isn’t really needed. As action set pieces are filmed in multiple locations, a great deal of it is filmed using highly skilled second-unit crews, sans director and cast.
Pre-vis software isn’t the problem. In fact, this storyboarding-on-steroids approach is ideal for keeping all departments on the same page, leading to greater efficiency and financial savings. The problem is they’re not used to deliver a director’s vision; instead, they guarantee that the action is bigger and better, on budget, and on time. As Brian De Palma has pointed out, when everything is previsualized, you end up with cliché.
While that stuff looks amazing in a trailer, there’s a reason most trailers only last a minute or two: the action itself is an assault on the viewers’ senses. Spatial orientation has became a rarity, and pacing only comes in the form of cutaways to exposition that reminds the viewer of the context/plot — basically, that there are living, breathing humans somewhere in this mechanical ballet.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As the rapturous response to Wright’s “Baby Driver” at its SXSW premiere proved, action scenes when done right are like well-choreographed musical numbers. They are the culmination of dramatic tension, the elevation from reality into mayhem that’s tied to the goals and emotions of the characters. When critics call for action to be “grounded,” it’s usually not a demand for realism, but rather a prioritizing of something that, until recently, was the basis of all Hollywood filmmaking: subjectivity, or a strong point of view. We’re on the edge of our seats because the stakes are so high.
That type of action scene in the hands of a skilled action director is one of the simplest, purest forms of cinema. It applies a range of visceral filmmaking techniques to put the viewer in that driver seat with the protagonist. It’s about the biggest thrills, not the biggest explosions.
Ironically, the greatest battle scene of the last two years was not on the big screen with superheroes, but on HBO, with director Miguel Sapochnik’s ”Battle of the Bastards” episode of “Game of Thrones.” The action and effects were big, but that’s not what made it work so well. The underlying tension of the scene was John Snow not heeding his sister Sansa’s insight to her sadistic former captor Ramsay Bolton. The battle scene became a filmmaking masterclass in the use of space, as Sapochnik expertly lured Snow (and the audience) into a sense of victory — only to become enclosed by Ramsay’s trap. Just as space disappears and we lose our grounding in a speedily edited slaughter, Sansa shows up with reinforcements to open the trap. It’s an epic triumph: She has conquered her past, and is now seen as a leader to be taken seriously.
The action, the pace, the story, and the direction are all one unified force. Our involvement is not based on the effects and size of the scene, which were impressive for television, but by doing what Hollywood has always done best — storytelling through physical action.
There are a number of smart people – including those at Marvel, the Hollywood studios and a filmmaker-turned-international film financier like Brett Ratner himself – who understand the realities of the ever-changing international film market, which is now driving a huge and growing piece of the film industry’s bottom line. Ratner’s right when he says that “people don’t realize what goes into making a movie like [Batman V Superman],” which got panned by critics, was a disappointment in domestic box office, but made $900 million worldwide. There are reasons for a movie like this to exist that have nothing to do with its quality.
But we do know what bad filmmaking looks like. And when great action filmmakers take charge, audiences —critics on Rotten Tomatoes among them — are sure to take note.