TCS Daily


Technology Is Ruining Movies

By James Pinkerton - November 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Why don't we just admit it: the last two "Matrix" movies, like the last two "Star Wars" movies, have been stinkers. These observations are more than just movie criticism -- although there will be some of that in the piece that follows, a lot of that, in fact.

 

But in addition, two larger lessons emerge from these smelly sequels-to-sequels, like goats' heads bobbing out of a gnarly stew. First, absolute power corrupts absolutely. To be sure, that's a familiar lesson from politics, but studios must pay heed, too. As for the second lesson, it might seem counterintuitive to TechCentralStationeers, but let it be said: too much technology spoils the cine-broth.

 

Star Bores

 

Let's think back to 1999, when the "Phantom Menace" was released. Indeed, the laborious title -- "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace" -- provided an early clue that this fourth movie in the series was going to be trapped within the folds and folderol of its own legend.

 

"Phantom" was the first "Star Wars" installment in 16 years, and while it was the fourth in the series, it was billed as the first in the story-line as a whole. It was a prequel, as they say. In the run-up to the film's release, fans of the "Star Wars" saga glossed over the inherent problem of prequels, which is that audiences already know how the show ends, and so while there may be curiosity to be slaked, there's little drama. (Anyone remember the clunker, "Butch and Sundance: The Early Years," which wheezed onto the silver screen in 1979, a decade after the megahit "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"?)

 

OK, so prequels are inherently dubious, but when it came to "Star Wars," we all figured, hey, creator-director-producer George Lucas is a genius; he's the premier mythmaker of our time, he's channeling Joseph Campbell, he's got all those Industrial Light & Magic people working for him, and those SFX-ers can do anything.

 

All that presumptive optimism, of course, was punctured when the actual movie appeared. Remember all that talking? All that plot-exposition-ing? Lucas was so anxious to keep up with his own legend-pretensions that he filled his film with speechifying by various queens, senators, supreme chancellors, and trade federationeers, all of which wordiness seemed more suitable for C-SPAN than the local cineplex.

 

And who can forget -- no matter how hard they might try -- Jar Jar Binks? In "Phantom" we learned that Lucas had a racial-determinist streak; in addition to Jar Jar's being a cross between an incompetent Stepin Fetchit and a wacked-out Rastaman, all the evil characters in the film had Asian or Middle Eastern looks and accents. Most disturbing of all, we learned that membership in the Jedi Knights was not reckoned by meritocratic virtue -- in the way, for example, that the young King Arthur proved himself by pulling the sword from the stone -- but rather by the presence of "midi-chlorians" in the blood. In other words, the Jedi were a kind of master-race.

 

Lucas made other blunders, too. Remember that allegedly climactic battle scene in "Phantom," when the good robots fought the bad robots? Or have you forgotten it already, because it's hard to care about machines fighting machines? As H.G. Wells, who knew something about sci-fi, once observed, you can put a familiar person in a strange situation, or you can put strange person in a familiar situation, but you can't put strange into strange -- because nobody will relate, nobody will care.

 

Which of course, became the story of "Phantom." Everyone was excited to see it, everyone went to see it - once -- and it made a quick googol of money.

 

But then, reality bit. Word of mouth was terrible, and audiences realized that they didn't want to go see it again and again, as they had with the films of the first trilogy from the 70s and 80s. In the years that followed, Lucas spent considerable time defending "Phantom"; he even called reporters to his Skywalker Ranch in Northern California and showed them the results of a survey he had commissioned which "proved" that film viewers liked Jar Jar. They really did. Honest.

 

What happened to Lucas, of course, is what would happen to all of us if we made a couple billion dollars and then bought our own Xanadu where we listen to the chorused praise of our lackeys and the swelling strains of our own self-importance. The next installment, "Attack of the Clones," released in 2002, was no better, although Jar Jar was kicked upstairs; he went from being a major flunky character in "Phantom" to a minor character -- but a Senator -- in "Clones."

 

Lucas has obviously lost touch with his fans and with story-telling basics, even as he keeps in close contact with his own ego. And if he's more comfortable working on special effects and on machines fighting machines, then, by the power of the Force, everyone else should be, too. OK, fine, George, now all you have to do is clone an audience for the last installment, due out in 2005.

 

Matrix Redux

 

The story of the rise and fall of the "Matrix" movies is similar -- a tale of excess individual hubris followed by wretched technological excess. And although, there's just one George Lucas, there are two Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, and hence twice as much ego to engorge.

 

The first film, released in 1999, was a revelation. It wove together vital threads of the contemporary culture; Keanu Reeves played a computer geek, the kind of fellow we all know -- maybe when we look in the mirror -- who is smart but isolated, more trusting of friends he meets online than of colleagues in the next cubicle over.

 

Then, like Alice in the Lewis Carroll novels, he goes through the looking glass. He takes the red pill, and the next thing he knows he's in an alternate reality that's one part acid trip, one part video game, and one part Philip K. Dick. And then, of course, in ways that were not too dissimilar to Dick's mentally deconstructed writings/ravings, there were things that were left vague and ambiguous; what was Simulacra and Simulation, the dense book by French post-modernist Jean Baudrillard, doing in the film? That was enough by itself to start up a hundred college-dorm bull sessions. The film didn't make a lot of sense, but while watching it, you knew that you were seeing something, even if you weren't understanding it; "The Matrix," like the first "Star Wars," was the sort of film people saw more than once. Asked how many hidden messages were in their film, the Wachowskis -- the two often spoke as one, very Neo of them -- answered back, Delphically, "More than you'll ever know." OK, so we gotta see it again; that was the thinking four years ago.

 

And, of course, the movie was just cool. The outfits, the sunglasses, the kung fu, the shiny bullets rippling through the air -- all had a huge effect on subsequent fashion, on filmmaking, also on the streets where we live. Keanu Reeves, in particular, has always had a kind of bisexual appeal; his outfit, long in black, was basically a priest's cassock -- that is, pre-Vatican 2 attire. And that was a winner, because it was hermaphroditic, appealing to both genders. It was feminine and dress-like, but of course, Reeves/Neo was fully strapped and loaded. Thus the film seemed dangerous and subversive, which is something of a trick if it's being released by a studio as big as Warner Bros.

 

So the film made a bazillion dollars. At which point, it's reasonable to speculate, the Wachowski brothers became George Lucas-ified. Why listen to anyone, when they had each other and a joint vision that was demonstrably high-gloss and high-gross at the same time?

 

With visions of absolute power dancing in their heads, they released "The Matrix Reloaded" in May -- and it sailed off a critical cliff. As with "Phantom Menace," they had a huge buildup, years of anticipation, and fawning pre-premier cover stories. And as with "Phantom," it took awhile for everyone to realize that this emperor, too, had no clothes. Not only were all the sunglass-wearing and kung-fu-ing not as fresh as they had been four years earlier, but the new material made the new movie worse. Remember that weird subplot about Zion, the underground place in which people seemed mostly to have sex, except when they were preparing to fight the machines? Remember Cornel West, the radical-rapper academic and all-around pseudo-intellectual? For the Wachowskis, dropping West into the movie was like Tim Robbins' casting Gore Vidal in his 1992 Republican-bashing movie, "Bob Roberts"; that is, if one couldn't figure out the ideological orientation of the film from the script, then one could get the hint from the high-profile cameo-ing leftist.

 

Somewhere during that second movie it began to dawn on audiences that all the intellectual teasing of the first movie was just that -- a big tease, with no payoff after that. During the monologue with "The Architect," played by one Helmut Bakaitis as an inscrutable Occidental of some kind, I could only think of Dennis Hopper, the loopy actor. In films such as "Easy Rider" and "Apocalypse Now" -- or even the TV commercials for Broadwing, the data and Internet provider -- he would launch into riffs that seemed plausible at first listen. But then it would dawn on the listener that the talk was just hippy-dippy b.s. That was the point, of course, in "Easy Rider" and "Apocalypse Now," although not, one presumes, in the Broadwing ads. Similarly, the Wachowskis didn't intend for the Architect to descend into Hopper-esque incomprehensibility, although that's what happened.

 

But if abstruse non-sequitur-filled dialogue meant a lot to the Wachowskis, so did absurd special effects. Don't get me wrong: I like a computer-generated images. But by now, thanks to computers, it's possible for a filmmaker to depict anything, and make it look, well, real. So now the challenge is to make people care about what's being depicted. And such caring requires a sense of scale and proportion. That is, one can show the Big Bang of the universe, or the Big Whimper, for that matter, but if it's just a bunch of constellations and gas clouds or whatever, then the viewer might as well be looking inside a kaleidoscope. What's needed, to make the depiction entertaining to human beings is another human -- or at least a mammal -- in the scene somewhere. Man is the measure of all things, said Protagoras, and so narrative-conscious filmmakers need a damsel in distress, or at least a cute puppy in trouble. If there's no danger, then there's no drama. Essential to suspense and adrenalin-rush is the feeling that bad things could happen to those we identify with; somebody, or something, needs to be rescued. Enter jut-jawed hero, the Seventh Cavalry, the Bush Doctrine, or what have you.

 

The Wachowskis forgot all these fundamentals of storytelling in the second "Matrix." Remember that fight between Neo and the 100 or so Agent Smiths? It was neat for awhile, but then, when Neo got tired of beating them all up, he simply flew away, like Superman. So much for any sense of Neo's limitations, any sense that he was in actual danger. Like "Phantom Menace," "Matrix Reloaded" made money, because it surfed a tidal wave of publicity on its way into theaters. But like "Phantom," once audiences saw it for themselves, the buzz turned bad.

 

Matrix Revolting

 

Unfortunately for the Wachowskis, the tepid reception for the second movie did not give them time to fiddle with the third movie, because "Matrix Revolutions" was to be released just six months after "Reloaded." (Although, of course, George Lucas had three years in between "Phantom" and "Clones," and yet he still couldn't rouse himself from his self-indulgent reverie to save his saga-franchise.)

 

So now to "Matrix Revolutions." Please don't think of these comments as "spoilers," except insofar as I'm trying to spoil your risk of shelling out good money to see a really lousy movie. As for spoiling the ending, I couldn't figure out the beginning, or the middling -- so don't worry about my giving away the closer.

 

How is this a bad movie? Let me count the ways.

 

First, it's incomprehensible. It has cheap pseudo-Zen dialogue, in which characters rhyme "coincidence" and "consequence," or "impossible" and "inevitable" -- just because they can. They say things like, "Everything that has a beginning has an end," which is an insult to the intelligence of every filmgoer, who knows that in Hollywood, there's always the prospect of yet another film, if the box office looks promising.

 

Second, "Revolutions" gives Cornel West yet another chance to strut his ba-a-ad stuff. In the second movie, the "Zionists," who are mostly black, did a lot of dancing and stomping and copulating; in this third movie, they make war, not love, although the warfare consists mostly of giving each other pseudo-military orders; they say things like "The machines are attacking, sir." Or, to show that they're really acting, make that "Sir!" And then someone -- the commander, Cornel West, whoever -- says in response, something like, "I want the fore and aft guns loaded." Big chunks of these sequences, in other words, sounded as if they were lifted verbatim from miscellaneous nautical adventure movies. So there you have it: a movie trilogy that began as a meditation on computer-spawned virtual reality has morphed into an Afro-American underground adventure, in which black activists say "aye aye" to each other as they fly/sail around in hulking subterranean warships. Got that?

 

Third, the film offers dialogue that is not only tinny-familiar, but unfunny-weird. For example, Keanu Reeve is piloting his space ship -- except, of course, that it's underground -- when he is blinded in a fight. Whereupon he says to love interest Trinity, "You drive." Yet the technology shown on screen is so advanced that one wonders why humans are needed at all; it's like putting a human pilot on a guided missile -- why bother? But of course, by this time in the film, the narrative is so out of control -- so swamped by implausibility, so overwhelmed by special effects -- that there is no point in plot-explication, because the filmmakers were no longer abiding by any rules.

 

Fourth, like Lucas's later "Star Wars" movies, the Wachowskis' later "Matrixes" completely lost sight of human scale -- if they even remember what a human is. That is, the brothers must've figured that if one robot is good, then 1000 must be better. Or a million. Lost in that inflation, of course, are reference points. Moreover, in that gargantuan-izing process, a deep confusion about the role of technology emerges. On the one hand, the characters show off their skills at sword-fighting or martial arts, even as, at other times, the characters demonstrate that they can blow up an entire planet with the single push of a button. Audiences are willing to cut the characters some slack, but after a while, the feeling of "Enough already! Just blow them all away with your gizmo!" sets in.

 

And so here's the warning against too much technology. A country, or an economy, or a military, can't get too many high-tech toys, but movies can -- at least to be shown on screen. Swordplay, for example, is much more plausible in films such as "Lord of the Rings," because nobody watching it thinks that Aragorn has the option of bringing down a nuclear strike on his enemy; if he can't beat his opponent, cold steel to cold steel, he's cooked. Another film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," relied on some of the same aerobatics as "The Matrix," but once again, it was confined to low-tech fighting. It's one thing to jump out of the way of a swordsman, it's another to jump out of the way of an army of flying 'bots. And "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" shows a similar sense of proportion, fitting into its early 19th century time frame. That forthcoming Russell Crowe flick tells the story of a battle between two sailing ships, and that's it; plenty of dramatic space is allowed for such neglected narrative techniques as character development.

 

If film characters function best in a limited environment, so do film-makers. Consider the difference between Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," an intense thriller released in 1975, and "AI," an overblown would-be epic released 26 years -- and a couple billion dollars -- later. In Spielberg's career, too, one sees the damage done by bloat of ego and bloat of technology. Happily, the filmmaker showed that he could still make human-scale movies such as "Catch Me if You Can." Even "Minority Report" was a more accessible movie than "AI."

 

Wouldn't it be nice if George Lucas went back to making a fun movie, full of human beings, like the 1973 "American Graffiti"? Or if the Wachowski brothers would go back to the 1996 lesbian-noir of "Bound"? Don't get me wrong: I love science fiction. But I love the "fiction" part, as well as the "science." And good fiction requires the discipline of story telling, free from the brakeless inflation of the director's ego and the reckless celebration of technology at the expense of the story.

 

If one loses sight of characters, if one loses sight of credibility, if one loses sight of plot-logic, one gets a movie such as "Matrix Revolutions."

 

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