Back to IndieWire

Style Or Substance? 20 Visually Stunning Movies That Go For Broke

Style Or Substance? 20 Visually Stunning Movies That Go For Broke

No matter what you think of Baz Luhrmann‘s “The Great Gatsby,” opening this week in ultra-luxurious 3D, one thing’s for sure – it looks pretty spectacular. Filled with lovingly crafted costumes, opulent sets, and computer generated imagery that makes ragtime New York seem like a quasi-futuristic metropolis, it is drunk on its own excess. It feels like the movie Luhrmann has been angling towards for a while and has finally achieved (thanks in part to the added dimensionality of 3D), for better or worse. It’s a giant, gilded, vulgar monstrosity that overwhelms more often than it entertains. And it got us thinking about other movies whose similarly excessive styles have either been an asset or a detriment. So put on your 3D glasses, your best pink pinstripe suit, and grab a glass of bootleg liquor, for our list of 20 visually dazzling movies. 

What we intend to do with this list, it should be noted, is describe just why these movies are so impressive visually and then argue whether or not the visuals are style, substance, or both. Clearly some movies are meant to put you in a very specific time and place with all of the embellishments that go along with that, while others, offering flash, fail to deliver substance. We intend to differentiate between the two. 

Sucker Punch” (Zack Snyder, 2011)
How Does It Dazzle? Zack Snyder is one of Hollywood’s premiere stylists, shellacking everything he’s ever done in a thick coat of music video sheen – from the fluorescent-lit grunge of his “Dawn of the Dead” remake to faithfully recreated comic book panels of “300” and “Watchmen” to the Frank Frazetta-meets-“Happy Feet” animated intricacy of “Legend of the Guardians” – but he has never been more gloriously self-indulgent than in his passion product, “Sucker Punch.” Ostensibly about a group of girls in a halfway house in what we presume to be the ’50s, who escape the drudgery and pain of their everyday life (attempted rapes, squalor, lobotomies) via a series of interconnected, increasingly complex fantasy scenarios, the movie is an orgiastic fever dream of disparate influences, like if you combined “Radio Flyer” with a vast collection of fantasy novels, Japanese comic books, and role playing video-games. The video-game thing, in particular, is apparent, since the girls are guided by Scott Glenn as a Basil Exposition-y narrative dispenser, letting them know all about the gorgeously rendered (in high-cost, but still rubbery-looking CGI) dragons, steam-punk Nazis, and robo-samurais they’re about to face. Also: there are musical numbers. The movie intermittently dazzles, but the disjointed narrative that plays more like a ramshackle collection of unrelated scenes often weighs down the fun.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is all style. Snyder tried to position “Sucker Punch” as a kind of empowering feminist triumph, which others saw as an absolute farce. Snyder, you can tell, gets off far too much on young girls in prep school uniforms wielding large guns and swords (and seems totally unaware of the phallic connotations). “Sucker Punch” is easily Snyder’s most unnervingly personal film – and also his worst.

Sin City” (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller with Quentin Tarantino, 2005) 
How Does It Dazzle? Robert Rodriguez, a restless techno-tinkerer who works almost exclusively out of his home studio in Austin, Texas, seized upon advances in computer-generated imagery and digital editing as a way to finally bring a long chased-after passion project, an adaptation of Frank Miller’s noir-y comic book “Sin City,” to full-bodied life. The results, especially at the time, were pretty staggering – Rodriguez (and Miller, who’s credited as a co-director and whose input was invaluable) was able to manipulate each frame to perfectly duplicate its comic book counterpart, down to the almost expressionistic use of light and shadow and its washed out black-and-white color palette. Quite frankly, this doesn’t always work – there are a couple of moments that just look uncomfortably cheap, and certain make-up effects and fabric look iffy – but “Sin City” was a genuine trailblazer, an experimental popcorn movie, and such wonky inconsistencies are easily forgiven. Unlike Zack Snyder’s “300,” which also lovingly recreated a Frank Miller comic book, too, the narrative of “Sin City,” featuring interlocking, increasingly violent crime stories, never slows down to admire itself for too long; the narrative unerringly chugs forward. Like a bullet fired from a gun. Or a severed head tossed down a hallway.
Style, Substance, Or Both? The style is the substance in “Sin City.” If the movie had been shot traditionally, in black-and-white 35 mm or something, then it would probably seem like a limp pastiche. Without the digital trickery that Rodriguez, Miller, and his collaborators concocted, it wouldn’t have the same impact. What will be interesting is to see where the upcoming “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” goes, since it kind of seems like the ceiling for this “look” has already been achieved (and maintained) by the original.

House of Flying Daggers” (2004)
How Does It Dazzle? Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is a director, producer and writer, but first and foremost, he’s a former cinematographer and it shows. His films, like “Hero” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” are utterly stunning, ravishing pieces of work with colors that pinwheel around with resplendent awe. His 2004 wuxia film “House Of The Flying Daggers,” for reference, is like Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” on steroids with a much more expressive and romantic bent. Scenes are often color-coded, ensconced in layers of sumptuous greens, lavish reds, magnificent blues, and striking lavender and white hues. You’ve perhaps never met a director more obsessed with color and slow motion in this movie about a romantic police captain who breaks a beautiful member of a rebel group out of prison to help her rejoin her clan. “House of Flying Daggers” is something out of an elegant ancient Chinese painting brought to life.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is the rub, isn’t it? As gorgeous and visually arresting as ‘Flying Daggers’ is, it can at times feel like a series of fight-scene tableaus ornately styled and dressed for whatever location the director believes will look the most haunting. Honestly, most of the film works despite it superficial nature, but arguably, (slightly) less style-obsessed pictures like “Hero” (though that’s relative) are more successful Zhang Yimou movies. Ironically, the filmmaker has toned it down somewhat in recent years, with “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop” and “The Flowers of War,” slightly dialing back the visual-fireworks-on-11-at-all-times mien, but neither are particularly great.

The Matrix” (The Wachowskis, 1999)
How Does It Dazzle? Before “The Matrix,” The Wachowkis were a couple of dudes from Chicago known primarily for a pricey spec script (“Assassins“) and a tiny independent thriller about lesbian criminals (“Bound“). After “The Matrix,” they were officially The Shit. There are a number of eye-popping moments contained within “The Matrix” – their dazzling “bullet time” technology, which would capture fractionally slow-motion sequences with 360-degree cameras, the vast robotic world both gooey and grungy, the way that a helicopter crashed into a building and then “rippled” outwards; these weren’t just amazing moments, they were things that people had never seen before. Of course, the Wachowskis drew on a number of influences – among them, the “cyberpunk” novels of William Gibson, Japanese anime (particularly “Ghost in the Shell“), Grant Morrison‘s “Invisibles” comic book, John Woo action movies and dusty old kung fu flicks. The fact that they were able to combine these references, applying a visual aesthetic informed largely by the underground world of S&M culture and developed throughout “Bound,” is nothing short of staggering – and that it translated so well to mainstream audiences is almost miraculous. From the very first moment, you realized that, even though you had no idea what you were watching, it was something of a pop art masterpiece.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. “The Matrix” is about an artificial world created by robotic intelligence, fully realized by a pair of dudes who had total mastery of their craft, esoteric personal taste and an unwillingness to simply churn out something they’d seen before. (Keep in mind this was released weeks before the supposedly groundbreaking new “Star Wars” prequel; which one made the greater cultural mark?)

The Tree of Life” (2011)
How Does It Dazzle? All of the films of Terrence Malick are obsessed with the beauty and inner nature of life, the human spirit, and are sublime and bewitching to look at. Yet, up until recently, Malick had never used the same cinematographer. Three DPs shot “Badlands,” Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler shot the sun dappled “Days Of Heaven” and John Toll shot the shimmering ‘Thin Red Line.’ It wasn’t until 2005 that Malick found a regular DP in Emmanuel Lubezki who shot “The New World” and has lensed everyone of his films since. Lubezki also shot, “The Tree of Life,” Malick’s Palme d’Or winning spiritual paean to family, fathers, mothers, siblings and our great struggle when loved ones have passed. It’s also about the meaning of life and the creation of the universe… or something. So how does it dazzle? In two distinctive ways: through the immersive and gliding cameras (that also became a talking point in “To The Wonder”) which captures all the deeply felt confusion, pain and angst of all the main characters and then the celestial visual effects that VFX master Douglas Trumbull contributed to. Both are splendid, but the visual effects of the cosmos, space and beyond are glorious and something to behold.
Style, Substance, Or Both? Malick’s “The Tree of Life” left a lot of people scratching their heads or wanting something more. And admittedly, up until then, it’s perhaps his most uneven film, not quite blending these too universes as profoundly as he usually does. But to say “The Tree of Life” doesn’t have substance would be criminally wrongheaded. It’s style doesn’t get in its way as much as its ambition. Inside Malick’s movie is a poignant examination of our loved ones, how we can and cannot live without them. How we adore and yet resent them and how those spiritual, physical and blood ties are connected to the metaphysical nature of everything. Deeply felt, “The Tree of Life” may not be Malick’s most wholeheartedly successful movie, but it may be his most personal and as close to divinity as he’s ever come.

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? Terry Gilliam has always been one of cinema’s premiere fantasists, it’s just that often his productions are plagued by problems (as documented in the thoughtful documentary “Lost in La Mancha,” which detailed the way his “Man from La Mancha” film broke down) or hit the screen in some creatively compromised way (everything from big studio movies like “The Brother Grimm” to the muddy, borderline unwatchable indie “Tideland“). Disaster struck “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” when Heath Ledger, one of the movie’s costars, died tragically during production. But this setback actually added to the movie’s visual dazzle, which takes the form of an alternate universe opened up by the titular character (played by Christopher Plummer), a kind of traveling circus performer whose Faustian bargain has gained him access to fantastical realms. The most jaw-dropping scenario involves giant, jellyfish-type creatures who rocket through a pastel landscape. After Ledger’s death, three other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) stepped in to essay the character, which adds an even greater degree of surrealism to the already outrageous scenario. If only Gilliam had worked out a more tangible narrative to connect all of this weirdness together; instead, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” sometimes feels like a really lovely, ornate, jewel-encrusted box, with nothing inside.
Style, Substance, or Both? “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is all style, with little else going on, but even the “style” part seems tenuous – sometimes whole sequences have the feeling of an early-’90s music video or a tired screensaver. The director who once conjured forth such amazing, intricate worlds in everything from “Brazil” to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” seems slack and uninvolved. Your eyes won’t pop out of your head. In fact, they’ll barely bulge.

Speed Racer” (The Wachowskis, 2008)
How Does It Dazzle? After the critically derided “Matrix” sequels, the Wachowskis, instead of retreating into some safe, “easy” project, decided to go full throttle into madness with their candy-colored, eye-popping, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink adaptation of beloved ’60s Japanese cartoon series “Speed Racer.” They were unwilling to rest on their laurels and so attempted to do the unthinkable – the response from both critics and audiences was a befuddled “huh?” To explain: in order to appropriate the look of the anime, the Wachowskis shot each actor and element separately and then edited them together so that everything would appear “flat,” like a two-dimensional cartoon. Editorial flourishes from the cartoon like the use of giant heads, blurry backgrounds and extreme wipes were also employed. The Wachowskis pushed things even further, with multiple races happening in both present day and in flashback at the same time. Additionally, the cars would “fight” each other on the racetrack, something the Wachowskis described as “car-fu,” the results of which come across like “Wacky Racers” meets “Mario Kart” (not that that is a bad thing). “Speed Racer” was genuinely unlike anything you’d ever seen before, not that anybody cared all that much. The most amazing sequence isn’t the final race, but a cross-country road rally that takes place during the middle of the movie and features a number of atmospheres and environments; it’s truly breathtaking stuff.
Style, Substance, or Both? There’s no real defense for the overabundance of visual excess. As in the case with “The Great Gatsby,” you could have probably made an adaptation of the material that didn’t induce seizures in unknowing viewers. But, that said, what The Wachowskis did here was big, bold, and oftentimes brilliant – almost five years later and there still hasn’t been a movie that’s come close to achieving the same sustained stylization. Watching it is an absolute blast and what sabotages the movie more than its goopy visual effects are the kiddy subplots and tonal wonkiness. It seems a movie ripe for reappraisal and genuinely ahead of its time.

Tron: Legacy” (Joseph Kosinski, 2010)
How Does It Dazzle? The original “Tron,” released nearly thirty years before the sequel/reboot/spin-off/whats-it, was hugely influential on a visual level – its sleek, neon-lined designs and chilly computer-world aesthetic would be mimicked and poorly replicated for years to come. But the movie itself was kind of forgotten, a slow and plodding adventure that couldn’t hope to eclipse (or even match) its processed visual majesty. “Tron: Legacy” is similar in that it’s both visually awe-inspiring and, on a narrative level, wholly inert. Joseph Kosinski is an architect and protégé of David Fincher‘s, whose cleanly composed lines and set-pieces are pretty phenomenal; he imagines the computer landscape as being rougher and bleaker, with everything (including rain jackets and banisters) with neon-lit piping. After a while, things become more abstract, and the sleek dreaminess of the images starts to mesmerize to the point of hypnosis. That’s when “Tron: Legacy” becomes less a movie than a $200 million video art installation (amplified amiably by the pulsating Daft Punk soundtrack that’s so prog-rock arty that you can practically picture the smoke from the fog machine swirling around your ankles). We also really love Jeff Bridges‘ apartment.
Style, Substance, or Both? This is all style. If the creative team had put as much emphasis into making the script even slightly coherent as they had into making sure the light cycle chase was as dynamic as it ended up being, then it would be an entirely different story. As it stands, “Tron: Legacy” is all sizzle, no steak. Still, if this thing was projected on the wall of a museum or art gallery, it would rightfully be applauded for being an anti-narrative, something in which the images don’t tell a story as much as they actively defy one. 

Sunshine” (2007)
How Does It Dazzle? Danny Boyle’s restless nature makes for hopped-up, kinetic picture with a style and energy that’s often criticized for resembling a music video. It’s not a completely invalid criticism, but Boyle’s predilections mostly hew closer to the rhythms of music, editing and capturing a visceral moment rather than putting a premium on capturing beautiful images. There are exceptions throughout his career obviously, but the most obvious one is his 2007 science-fiction thriller, “Sunshine,” which is set 50 years from now and follows a team of scientists and astronauts who are sent to re-ignite the dying sun. So with the brightest star in the galaxy at the epicenter of this story, you can guess that the movie — tellingly not shot by Boyle’s regular, more low-tech DP Anthony Dod Mantle (instead it’s Alwin H. Küchler who shot “Code 46,” and “Movern Callar”) — looks utterly radiant and breathtaking.
Style, Substance, Or Both? This is up for debate in some circles, but visually, the film is completely apropos. It’s not Boyle’s favorite of his films because he had a tough time making it, and where its quality is concerned, many feel the movie is compromised by its silly third act that gets a little less “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more “Event Horizon” or some Hollywood space thriller. We won’t argue that point so much, but the celestial look of “Sunshine” is never gratuitous and fits the material like a glove. The utterly incandescent glow of the movie is luminous and to be honest, its shining brilliance may have blinded you from some of the film’s problems as that first experience in the theater was perhaps the dictionary definition of “dazzling.”

Watchmen” (Zack Snyder, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? The fact that there was a “Watchmen” at all is something sort of astounding, especially considering the heavyweights throughout the years who unsuccessfully mounted adaptations (among them: Terry Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky). That it was as slavishly faithful to the source material as Snyder’s version was, is almost beyond belief. Snyder lovingly recreates entire pages from the comic book (look no further than the opening sequence that shows the murder of former superhero The Comedian), with each panel serving as inspiration for a super-slow-motion moment in the feature film (the director’s cut would eclipse the 3 hour mark, an even-more-extended version that included an animated version of the “Black Freighter” subplot, was even longer). Snyder included it all (the eternal-Nixon eighties setting, the owl ship, the glowing blue scientist Dr. Manhattan) adding only slight flourishes (an abundance of Snyder-approved ultra-violence) and alterations (the giant squid monster isn’t included and, honestly, almost cripples the entire third act). If there’s one thing that Snyder understood, without a doubt, it’s how “Watchmen” should look. What remained elusive was how it should feel and resonate. It’s like a child reading a thematically complex comic and simply being astounded by the visuals without thinking about what it actually meant.
Style, Substance, or Both? “Watchmen” is a really amazing looking movie and we’ve watched it over and over again for that simple reason (the history of Dr. Manhattan scene is one of our favorites ever – love the Phillip Glass musical cue), but it never ceases to frustrate. It’s style without substance… and it nags. Why keep the eighties setting if you do so little with it? Was the “Dr. Strangelove“-esque war room really necessary? What’s with the bad actors wearing historical characters make-up? And how long would the movie be if there weren’t as many slow-motion shots? These are just a few of the questions that come up while watching “Watchmen,” which will undoubtedly go down in the history of film as one of the most gorgeous missed opportunities ever.

Moulin Rouge!” (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
How Does It Dazzle? Baz Luhrmann originally made his mark with this rococo conclusion to his nonstop “Red Curtain” trilogy (which began with “Strictly Ballroom” and continued with “Romeo + Juliet“), a series of movies so excessive that you thought they might spill off the screen and into the audience. With “Moulin Rouge!” he took everything he was developing with the previous films and pushed it to the brink, with more costumes and gags and melodrama than than several seasons of “Masterpiece Theatre,” encased in an editorial style so schizophrenic that it would make the rapid-fire style of early MTV seem positively laidback by comparison. Adding to the sense of overkill is the fact that, while the movie is a period piece, Luhrmann decided to score it using songs (and bits of songs) familiar to contemporary audiences, in a kind of “mash up” approach that would predate the actual coining of that phrase by a good five years or so. Everything is more in “Moulin Rouge!,” whether you like it or not, brimming over with embroidered additives and visual splendor (the color red has rarely been used as effectively). At the time, “Moulin Rouge!’s” boldness seemed almost revolutionary. Watching it today, it still kind of does.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Like the best of these movies, the style and the substance are so intertwined that pulling one apart would cause the whole thing to collapse. For “Moulin Rouge!,” without its style, it could have easily fallen into the category of limp soap opera. With its lavishness, though, it’s something new, something bold, and something different.

Transformers” (Michael Bay, 2007)
How Does It Dazzle? Michael Bay had always been someone who could make even the grimmest of subject matters (like, say, the bombing of “Pearl Harbor“) sparkle like a Coca-Cola commercial, but with “Transformers,” based on the beloved action figure/cartoon/comic book series, he kicked things into overdrive, creating a world so bustling with visual activity that you could actually watch a car transform into a giant robot and not only believe that it was happening, but you could count the individual car parts as they were being reconfigured into robot parts. The depth and degree that he used visual effects was something even the most hardened lover of animation had to realize was a pretty incredible feat. Things like the first time Optimus Prime transforms or the way that a scorpion-like bad robot leaps out of the desert sand, are genuine moments of awe and wonder, worthy of Steven Spielberg‘s executive producer credit. And this kind of techno-mechanical mastery is never more apparent than in the climactic battle sequence that happens at the end of the movie and takes place on the mostly deserted streets of downtown Los Angeles (compared to the level of mayhem that the subsequent movies produced, it seems kind of quaint now). There’s a kind of crazed inventiveness that the sequels, for all of their heightened antic energy, can never eclipse (or even match).
Style, Substance or Both? Probably both. Sure, it is a movie based on a series of action figures. And while the series did devolve into a series of bloated, hyper-violent set pieces, the first film at least managed to merge the concept with something close to heartfelt – the feeling of attachment to your very first car. It’s probably the most identifiably human movie in Bay’s oeuvre in addition to being his most visually dazzling.

Oz the Great and Powerful” (Sam Raimi, 2013)
How Does It Dazzle? Sam Raimi, coming off of his original “Spider-Man” movies (which weren’t exactly boring-looking), tackled the world of L. Frank Baum‘s Oz, with 21st century technology and a visual palette borrowed from Tim Burton‘s “Alice in Wonderland” (the two share a production designer and, of course, studio) but pushing things into much more extreme, overgrown territories. He makes the imaginary world of Oz denser, more textured, and more dangerous than it was in the original “Wizard of Oz,” creating a lush fantasy world that seems easy to get lost in. Raimi basically took a class in 3D photography and it shows onscreen – there are some moments that are immersive in ways that few 3D movies actually are. Other directors would have been overwhelmed and perhaps swallowed up by the abundance of technological derring-do, but Raimi equips himself admirably – there’s an appreciated lightness to the movie and that buoyancy is all Raimi and his winking references to the original film are welcome and witty. You can, apparently, teach an old dog new tricks.
Style, Substance, or Both? With ‘Oz,’ it’s both, since for the first time ever you’re truly able to go on the journey of someone who is walking into a fantasy world with all sorts of craziness jutting out at them. (Until, of course, the eventual Disney theme park attraction.) Raimi is singularly committed to capturing that experience and he does so wonderfully. You can practically feel the yellow brick road under your feet.

The Cell” (Tarsem, 2000)
How Does It Dazzle? Like many of the movies on this list, “The Cell” takes place in an alternate dimension – in this case the dream world of a serial killer, who has another victim locked up. So a psychologist and FBI agent decide to descend into his subconscious to see if they can figure out where he’s hidden his latest victim. Commercial director Tarsem uses a whole host of influences (everything from Metallica music videos to horror movies to French cartoons to Damien Hirst pieces) to achieve a disorienting sense of unease and dread, occasionally making things too glacial and beautiful to actually be horrifying. Still, there are a number of unforgettable sequences in “The Cell” and it was an aesthetic that Tarsem continued, in his incredibly wonderful fantasy period drama “The Fall,” to his back-to-back mainstream movies “Immortals” (which has about 15 minutes of sheer brilliance and some of the best 3D ever) and “Mirror Mirror” (Bollywood-inspired and infinitely more enjoyable than the self-serious “Snow White and the Huntsman“). At the very least, “The Cell” is the most distinct son-of-“Silence of the Lambs” thrillers, one that takes adventurous visual and narrative chances while still hedging closely to the conventions of the genre.
Style, Substance, or Both? Total style. The first time we saw “The Cell” we wanted to rip one of the seats out of the theater and hurl it at the screen. In time we’ve mellowed and come to appreciate the orgiastic, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that Tarsem employs and admit, begrudgingly, that, for the most part, it works. It’s just that it’s also incredibly hollow and for all of it striking visual curlicues, it doesn’t mean much of anything. Tarsem’s grasp on long form narrative, even after “The Cell,” remains rickety and uneasy.

Fantasia” (Various, 1940)
How Does It Dazzle? After only two completed animated features, Walt Disney embarked on something that even today would be considered wildly ambitious: a 2 hour + collection of short films set to pieces of classical music, brought to life theatrically with the use of “Fantasound,” a cutting-edge sound system that predated more sophisticated surround sound technologies (it was the first commercial film exhibited in stereophonic sound). The animation was beautiful and experimental – from the luscious bounce of the “Dance of the Hours” segment to the apocalyptic gloom of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment – it was the result of a collection of animators, at the top of their game, already deconstructing the format they had just invented, led by a man whose restless imagination would go on to inspire whole generations. A sequel (which was something that Walt toyed with and even did preliminary planning for), “Fantasia 2000,” was released 60 years later, under the supervision of Walt’s nephew, and while that film certainly has moments of wonder, for sheer, eye-popping spectacle (not to mention newness), the original is still the best. And not just because “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is one of the best uses of the Mickey Mouse character in the history of the Walt Disney company.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. “Fantasia” was clearly a stylistic experiment, one that, without some heavyweight visuals, would have been laughed off movie screens (something that threatened to happen anyway – decades went by before this thing ever turned a profit). It was a way of introducing classical music to children that might not have otherwise been exposed, and the changing nature of each piece of music meant that each segment could be wildly different stylistically. Still, some claim that the movie is still too “arty” for a Disney animated feature. They’re right. In a good way.

Dark City” (Alex Proyas, 1998)
How Does It Dazzle? Making Tim Burton‘s appropriation of German expressionism seem quaint by comparison, “Dark City” is a big, brooding sci-fi mystery about a man who awakens to a world where daylight never comes. This world is lorded over by ethereal beings known as Strangers who have psychokinetic powers and the ability to literally reshape existence as they see fit. This man must untangle his past and try to save the future. Also, there are a series of unexplained murders that he might be responsible for. On a sheer visual level it’s hard not to goggle at “Dark City,” especially when buildings are popping up out of the ground or the Strangers are silently gliding down hallways. The visuals owe a huge debt to film noirs of the forties and the German expressionism that influenced those films; it’s one of those sci-fi fantasies where it’s simultaneously both futuristic but also classically old school.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both, but leaning towards style over substance. On first viewing, at least, “Dark City” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and this is after some heavyweights worked on the script (including David S. Goyer and Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs), but its layers and nuances eventually expose themselves (especially if you watch the “director’s cut” version, which basically deletes some “Blade Runner“-esque narration and establishes the world with more clarity). Still, the pleasures of “Dark City” exist, first and foremost, on a visual level, something even its biggest supporters (like Roger Ebert, who named it the best film of 1998) would be quick to admit. It’s a visual feast and if you want to read more into it, then good for you.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)
How Does It Dazzle? Taking an agreeably antique approach to the source material (Coppola said that he didn’t want to use any technology that wasn’t around during the Bela Lugosi version of “Dracula“), Coppola and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus create a gonzo free-for-all of a horror epic, full of sweeping romance and bloodthirsty monsters. The opening prologue of ‘Dracula,’ which recounts the life of Vlad Dracula features, amongst other things, a battle sequence represented primarily by using shadow-puppet-like cut-outs, rear projection, and good old fashioned buckets of blood, which spew, ooze, and fountain out of a giant cross. It’s this histrionic tone, both story-wise and visually, that’s carried through much of the movie – the way that Dracula’s shadows act independently of his body, his ability to turn into both a wolf and bat, and, in a particularly giddy moment, when young Jonathan Harker is traveling to Transylvania, Dracula appears as a giant, godlike figure watching his train traverse the countryside (wonderfully done with optical compositing). When describing “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” the phrase “over-the-top” just doesn’t quite cut it. (Supposedly when describing the look of the film, Coppola created an animated short that used sequences from Jean Cocteau’sBeauty and the Beast” alongside paintings by Gustav Klimt.)
Style, Substance, or Both? Ultimately: both. The sheer luxuriousness and romanticism of many of the images in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” actually lends the movie some emotional weight. What could have been just a straight horror movie, or worse yet, a cheesy gothic romance, is made stranger and more powerful by the images Coppola concocts. It’s not perfect, but the unique stylization never takes away from the narrative, it always adds to it, flowery embroidery for a story we all know well.

The Fountain” (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
How Does It Dazzle? When Darren Aronofsky first attempted his ambitious sci-fi tale that involved three timelines and heady notions about reincarnation and eternal life, it starred Brad Pitt and carried a budget of nearly $70 million. When Pitt bowed out right before production began, the film was shuttered and Aronosfky originally released his screenplay in comic book form, thinking a feature would never happen. The feature did eventually happen, of course, but with a much smaller budget ($35 million), a condensed script, and an entirely new cast. Still, even a micro-sized “Fountain” is mightily impressive. Not only is the section set in the deep future something that you’ve never seen before (instead of a spaceship, our hero travels in a terrarium-like bubble), but the way that Aronofsky mingles and merges the images is astounding – things like a wedding ring becoming the space bubble becoming the pattern on the floor of a hospital cancer ward. You can tell this is the kind of stuff that Aronofsky would have brought to his doomed adaptation of “Watchmen” (and we would have been all the better for it). Images and sequences last and linger in your memory long after you’re done watching.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Aronofsky is so good at putting these images together that the movie, which could have been clumsy and unfathomable, becomes surprisingly relatable and emotionally resonant. Images that could have been merely beautiful, when overlapping with other images, become profound. And the whole thing has an inventive wittiness to it that prevents it from ever being burdened by the weight of its ideas. It’s mercifully snappy.

Pan’s Labyrinth” (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
How Does It Dazzle? While Guillermo del Toro is currently being fashioned as one of Hollywood’s leading big budget fantasists, his most interesting work comes from his independent output, like “The Devil’s Backbone” and the Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The film involves a young girl who, in order to escape the horror of the Spanish Civil War, dives into a fantasy world inhabited by supernatural creatures that set her on a magical quest. It’s telling that the real world is so devastating that a realm inhabited by a “Pale Man,” with eyeballs in his palms and an insatiable appetite, is more attractive. Del Toro, influenced by a number of things (including a 1953 3D B-movie shocker called “The Maze,” Goya paintings and Lewis Carroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books), gives the movie a singularly musty, earthen feel, which is in stark contrast to the overly sparkly and clean fantasy worlds of Hollywood (like “Oz the Great and Powerful”). Things are dangerous in the real world and in the fantasy world, with an emphasis on goopy, mossy textures. Audiences responded strongly to the movie the world over because it was so different and unique.
Style, Substance, or Both? Both. Without one you would not have the other. And unlike del Toro’s Hollywood output, with things like “Blade 2” or the “Hellboy” films, it doesn’t feel like he’s belaboring something unworthy of his considerable talents. This is a universe built from the ground up by del Toro and it shows. The movie wouldn’t be nearly as heartbreaking without the fantasy elements, brought to rich visual life by a master of the craft.

Avatar” (James Cameron, 2009)
How Does It Dazzle? While his dream of using completely computer generated actors didn’t get to happen, there’s no lack of pixels in James Cameron‘s hugely expensive gamble on what is essentially Pocahontas in space. It’s easy to forget that what we take for granted now — 3D and epic levels of CGI, yawn — was something of a groundbreaking, game-changer only four years ago. At that time, 3D was still viewed as somewhat of a novelty, with studios unsure if audiences would fork over extra dollars to wear glasses and a look at a dimmer screen (surprise, they did). Even more, no one was quite sure how Cameron’s ambitious digital work was going to turn out. With supercomputers and a team of 900 all working to make it right, it’s pretty safe to say “Avatar” matches Cameron’s vision. The lush world of Pandora is realistically brought to life and the mix of mo-cap, live action, animation and various other visual effects are near seamless. And yes, the 3D is integrated with some thought and skill. And earning a couple billion space dollars, everyone on the planet was taken with the movie. 
Style, Substance, Or Both? Stylish yes, and while the tremendous work on “Avatar” are an inherent part of the narrative, it’s just too bad it dresses up such a dull story. For all of the technical wonder, the actual movie feels a bit lacking, if only because it feels familiar, which should hardly be a surprise considering Cameron admitted to being inspired by “every single science fiction book” he’s read. It shows. Hopefully for the next two movies, he’ll have something truly surprising in the script to go with whatever boundary pushing technology he uses next.

Other movies with rock-em, sock-em visual panache include Luc Besson‘s candy-colored sci-fi romp “The Fifth Element;” Stephen Norrington’sBlade,” with many stylistic elements that predated “The Matrix;” the films of director Joe Wright, which beautifully culminated in last year’s “Anna Karenina;” David Fincher‘s cutting-edge “Fight Club” and stylish “Se7en“; the films of director Tony Scott, who pushed musty masculinity into areas of genuine surrealism; Ang Lee‘s “Life of Pi,” which finally gave 3D the psychedelic swirl it so desperately needed; and the works of international directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Kim Jee-Woon and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, filmmakers who aren’t content unless they’re consciously blurring the line between style and substance. — Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox