A few days before Memorial Day, a disturbing trend is already emerging among this summer’s crop of blockbusters. It’s not just “Star Trek” that’s journeying into darkness this summer; just about every big budget tentpole released so far in 2013 has featured more than its share of inky, murky, impossible-to-follow nighttime action scenes. It’s becoming a serious problem. If these gigantic movies only exist as thrill delivery devices, and the thrills are buried beneath a sooty layer of blackness, then what exactly are paying to see?
The latest gloomy example is “Fast & Furious 6,” opening this Friday in theaters around the country. “F&F 6” reunites most of the franchise’s cast, including Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Sung Kang, and Michelle Rodriguez, with four-time director Justin Lin and four-time screenwriter Chris Morgan. It features a chase between Diesel, Walker, and a tank, an intense fistfight between Rodriguez and Carano in a London tube station, and a scene where The Rock clotheslines a guy who’s sitting on Diesel’s shoulders. Generally, it’s a fun time. And yet, “Fast & Furious 6” never quite reaches the sublime heights of its predecessor, “Fast Five.” A big reason why? The movie’s too dark. Literally.
When you think of the best moments in the history of the “Fast & Furious” franchise, you think of scenes that took place almost exclusive in daylight: the sports car sliding under the big rig in “The Fast & the Furious;” Diesel skidding past a bouncing tanker in “Fast & Furious;” Diesel and Walker evading dozens of cops while lugging an enormous vault through the streets of Rio de Janeiro in “Fast Five.” In contrast, almost all of “Fast & Furious 6″‘s car chases take place at night; Luke Evans’ Owen Shaw in a high-tech F1 racer, outrunning Diesel and Johnson on the streets of London; Diesel and Rodriguez sharing a flirtatious evening drag race; Diesel and company attempting to bring down Shaw’s cargo plane with the help of some grappling hook guns and what has to be the longest runway on the entire planet.
All of “F&F 6″‘s action highlights take place during daytime, like that tank chase that is outstandingly insane and hilarious, or the Rodriguez/Carano brawl that starts outdoors and then winds its way underground into a well-lit subway station. All of “F&F 6″‘s action lowlights are the dark ones, like Shaw vrooming through London, or our heroes chasing that plane. The modern trend towards quick cuts and chaotic choreography make action difficult to follow under ideal circumstances — at night, these scenes become utterly incoherent. In the plane scene, for example, both the heroes and the villains are driving around in nearly identical jeeps; telling one from the other, and which is where, and what they’re doing and why is almost impossible. In another beat in that same sequence, Paul Walker defeats one of Shaw’s henchwomen in that nifty F1 car, but if you put a gun to my head and asked me to explain how he did it, someone would be writing my obituary tomorrow morning.
I had a similarly frustrating experience a few weeks ago watching “Iron Man 3,” which also featured its share of spectacular daytime action sequences — like Tony Stark desperately racing to rescue a dozen people free falling from Air Force One — and at least a couple really underwhelming night battles — like the brutally anticlimactic sequence that features dozens of interchangeable Iron Man suits battling dozens of interchangeable Extremis baddies in a swirl of nonsensical explosions and laser blasts. Likewise, the aforementioned “Star Trek Into Darkness” does all its best work action-wise in broad daylight: Spock’s foot chase and fist fight with John Harrison; the Enterprise falling through the Earth’s atmosphere. The space stuff is mostly a blur.
I’m not sure what’s motivating the rise in dimly lit action scenes. Maybe filmmakers think they’re more atmospheric, or maybe the enormous quantities of special effects required to bring these sequences to life are easier to hide in shadows. But no reason is good enough to justify these unintelligible messes. Again: this is what we go to blockbusters to see. Charging people $13 to squint and struggle through your money shots is not the way to encourage repeat business.
Part of me suspects there isn’t a rise in dimly lit action scenes, and that the real problem is the projection, rather than the image. It’s entirely possible that these movies are coming off their editors’ computers perfectly illuminated. But as I outlined in another recent Criticwire post, public projection, especially at big multiplexes, is in a sad state. A movie that looks gorgeous at a studio’s private screening room can look horribly dingy at a movie theater. A few years ago, the Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr wrote a story exposing movie theaters’ practice of leaving digital projectors’ 3D lens adapters on during 2D movies, which significantly dims the image quality and brightness. I’m sure every director in Hollywood watches their movie in a screening room to see how it looks — but how many take it to some dumpy, poorly run multiplex to see how it will look to the masses?
Back in 2011, Burr said the 3D adapter problem was “widespread, affecting screenings at AMC, National Amusements, and Regal cinemas.” After I wrote my recent projection issues post, I received comments, tweets, and emails from projectionists and theater employees claiming it’s still the standard practice at many movie theaters. What’s worse, there’s almost no way for theatergoers to avoid it. Theaters generally don’t make public what films are in which auditoriums, or warn you whether your 2D movie is sharing a screen with a 3D movie (and its 3D adapter).
Even if this darkness issue is entirely the theaters’ fault, we might need filmmakers to fix it for them. If the projection isn’t going to get better — and I see no indications that it will anytime soon — then the movies will have to get brighter and lighter, with clearer action scenes. Unless we want theaters to get really dark in a more permanent way.
Have you noticed problems with movies that looked too dark lately? Tell us your stories in the comments section below.