Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pirates 3 and Summer Blockbuster Season

Summer blockbuster season has for as long as I can remember been the time of mega-action, complex special effects and limited plotlines. Now I know I can be a harsh critic and I tend to prefer movies that make me think, but in the past I have genuinely looked forward to the summer season. There’s nothing quite like sitting back in your allocated seat and marvelling at the constant stream of eye candy.

From Back to the Future 3 to Spiderman, summertime represents style over content and long may it continue.

That was until the last couple of years. The competition in Hollywood is now so fierce that studios have opted to go for ‘bigger’ movies year on year. The problem with this is how to outdo what has gone before. Summer blockbusters aren’t going to win Oscars for the acting or screenwriting categories so the general view is to just up the threat levels, increase the amount of action and throw in extra layers of complexity.

Unfortunately, summer blockbusters are notoriously hit and miss. The problems are too many to list here but suffice to say the fact that there are more than ever before doesn’t help.

With this in mind I went into the crammed showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End expecting the worst. The news that the film was going to weigh in at 2 hours and 40 minutes did not sit well with me. As I’ve argued before, for a movie to stretch well past the 2 hour mark it needs to have more than just fun special effects and great action scenes. It needs to have an epic storyline. Blockbusters rarely have these and after the travesty of Pirates 2 I was right to feel concerned.

And then the movie started.

Pirates 3 brings together the many plotlines left open from the previous movie and rather than mangle them together to form a Spiderman 3 shaped mess, it actually flows along really well. Despite the many convoluted stories left hanging in the previous film the director successfully manages to produce a classic film of 3 acts. In the beginning the group must tie up the loose ends and rescue Jack from Davy Jones’ Locker. Act 2 slows the pace down enough to allow our heroes time to choose their allegiances. More importantly it gives the director a chance to build a story that, while simplistic in nature, is both epic and tragic. Of course it wouldn’t be a summer blockbuster without the de facto climactic battle to end all battles to make up a final act. And boy is it yo-ho-me-hearties fun.

For me, the success of Pirates 3 has less to do with it returning to the roots of what makes summer blockbusters good and more to do with it actually nailing how to make a modern, complex popcorn movie.

Merging extra layers of plot into a big budget action movie is difficult. I say this because until now I can’t ever recall seeing it working. Spiderman 3 is a great example of a failure to understand how to increase the complexity of a movie while maintaining its popcorn cinema credentials. The first two Spideys were very well done; firmly in the blockbuster mould but with enough plot and depth to keep more than just a 12 year old entertained. However, in an effort to be ‘bigger’ than its predecessors, Spidey 3 became a mess; a hotchpotch of convoluted plotlines and missed chances. I’m not going to do a review of the movie, but for a good breakdown of the problems, check out George’s blog.

The same can be said of the second outing of Pirates of the Caribbean. Some might argue that it is a problem of hype, but movies like this create their own hype so it’s hard to be sympathetic. The marketing now is 24/7 (thankyou Star Wars) and while it has had the desired effect of increasing the number of bums on seats, for me the quality has been ever-decreasing. The directors of these movies are inevitably charged with trying to make longer and more complex movies while adhering to the principle that their craft must entertain the pre-pubescent kiddies. The result is more and more likely to be a Spiderman 3 or a Pirates 2. But every once in a while everything comes together and just works.

Pirates 3 is a great example of this. Whereas the middle part of the trilogy (why must everything be a trilogy?) felt like a movie in which the writers had come up with 3 or 4 great set pieces and then tried to write a story around it, the third film has a central plot that ties all the characters together. All of the other sub-plots are handled in their own time and without forcing the movie off on some wild-goose chase. Love stories like the one between Davy Jones and Tia are woven nicely into a central plot about fighting for the freedom to roam the seas.

The performances from the central characters are strong. I was particularly impressed with Orlando Bloom, who finally seemed to step out of the shadow of Lord of the Rings. Naturally Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were on top form. Even Keira Knightley failed to dampen my enjoyment. If I have one criticism of the cast it would be of the total waste of the talent that is Chow Yun-Fat. I mean, this guy is one of the coolest men on the planet and the writers give him about 3 scenes. Gutting!

Also, while I was very impressed with the handling of the many plot threads I did still have issues with the central theme. Fight for freedom movies are great but I couldn’t shake the feeling that having a bunch of pirates standing for freedom was a bit rich really. I mean don’t get me wrong, the villain is perfectly cast as the truly evil East India Trading Company. You won’t ever get me defending their actions, but to have pirates held up as heroes was akin to saying you prefer Blair to Bush because he has less nuclear weapons. It’s all shades of dark grey!

Anyway, I’m digressing and forgetting that this is popcorn cinema, and you’d be right to pull me to one side and say… “er Nige, it was a movie about pirates fighting sea monsters, lighten up!”.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End is a very good piece of cinema. While not on par with the first film, it is strong on merit. It manages something extremely rare in the movie business and actually makes a very simple premise last for well over 2 and a half hours without compromising on quality or forgetting it’s central story. If only we could re-edit Pirates 2 then the franchise would make a half-decent trilogy.

So there we go. Reading back through this blog it’s clear that I have the capacity to write a summer blockbuster. My prose is convoluted, my central theme goes missing for long periods and I’ve kind of left it open for a sequel.

Taxi to Hollywood please!

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