With my son Jack in town last week, I hit the theater to see three action movies in a row. Not my usual pattern of film selection but, hey, you can’t take a tween dude to see art-house niche flicks jammed with casually transgressive sex, dry social commentary, and/or confusing cinematography.
Plus, yeah … I do like action flicks, too. After all, you don’t hand in your Y chromosome when you get your first full-time job.
In the interest of this website’s basic premise, let me offer mini-critiques of these three films as story-telling. WARNING: Some of the commentary below could be considered spoiler-ish.
The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – The latest reboot of this ironic tale of human demise impressed me first in its expertly updated premise. In the original story, presented to a Cold War audience living under constant threat of nuclear war, humans “blew it all up.” Damn them, God damn them all to hell.
With nuclear war a back-burner danger in the 21st century, audiences are more fearful of worldwide plagues and greedy über-capitalists. Appropriately, the agent of both the apes’ rise and humanity’s fall is a viral agent engineered by a pharmaceutical company.
But, more impressive than this is the development of the film’s main character, a genetically modified chimpanzee named Caesar. The story of Caesar’s coming-of-age and moral victory beats anything the first series (or the campy Tim Burton reboot) had to offer.
Cowboys and Aliens – Don’t get me wrong, this is not a half-bad bit of science fiction, and an easily sabotaged premise is instead carried through quite handsomely by the talents of Harrison, Craig, and Wilde.
But, somewhere halfway through, I began to wonder: Had someone working on this script also been working on HBO’s Game Of Thrones adaptation of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series?
First up, we have a beautiful, more-than-human female lead walking unharmed from a funeral pyre, to the surprise of a horse-riding clan. We also have a cruel antagonist with a special bond to the female lead (in Thrones they are both Targaryens, in C&A they’re both aliens) done in ironically by his own greed in the form of molten gold. We also have a father with a shady military past whose heir is a violent bully, and who expresses a desire to name another as his heir.
And, in place of the dead Lyanna Stark haunting the story, we have Lonergon’s dead wife. The chain of parallels cannot possibly be coincidental, and are far more obvious than many others I’ve seen. (cough Rango cough At World’s End cough!)
Captain America – The antique feel of the movie was a refreshing departure from most comic book flicks, but the design crew should have dialed back the electronic lighting a bit, because it really undercut the 1940s vibe.
Sure, I understand that grooving the retropunk requires some anachronistic technology, but it also requires staying grounded in the punked out retro era. The overwhelming ubiquity of lighting in the film’s HYDRA facilities and devices seemed more 1990s than Nazi Germany. I know this sounds like a purely visual criticism, but what’s visual in film translates to description in literature, and both media stumble over the same pitfalls of inauthenticity.
The creative mind might be king of his fictional world, but suspended disbelief is that king’s Damocles sword. Beware too much anachronism unless you’re creating an entirely new fictional world. (And, even then, beware.)
Other than that, the skinny-kid-makes-good storyline was satisfying at a basic level, but there was really little else to the characters to make us much care about them. The most interesting character was killed off disappointingly early as a motivational device, and from that point the story stumbled forward on sentimental WW2 cliché and testosterone.
And, although I still brandish my Y chromosome, testosterone is still not enough to drive a story.