Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

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Gravity (2D) (2013)

★★★

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US); November 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been lauded with praise from audiences and critics alike since its recent big screen release, being labelled groundbreaking, pioneering cinema. Emphatically described as immersive and emotive. Even breathtaking. Perhaps so much so that no space-set extravaganza will ever be the same again, purely because space on film in the future has a Gravity-esque brass ring to aspire to.

This abundance of praise, however, has been attributed primarily to Gravity in its 3D format (heck, even Mark Kermode thoroughly enjoyed this version). The jury is therefore still out on Gravity in its classic, run-of-the-mill 2D version. Does the trend-setting cinematography and floaty camera work succeed at all in two-dimensions? Is the film as engrossing and all-encompassing without the plethora of protruding debris and George Clooney-ness?

Quite simply, the answer to these questions is no. Not a resounding no, but a no nonetheless. And this flares up a number of issues, the most significant being whether or not Gravity in 3D is, more-so than any other three-dimensional film to date, essentially a theme park thrill ride in a cinema. Perhaps even — put in the plainest of terms — a gimmick. This is not necessarily a negative — film critic Danny Leigh on BBC’s Film 2013 mentioned that the film which Gravity reminded him most of was the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (known in the UK as Train Pulling into a Station).

First shown in 1895, the film is a short 50-second piece depicting a steam train’s arrival at a bustling station. The first of its kind, the oncoming train apparently startled audience members and sent them fleeing in fear of the vehicle. The Lumière Brothers, themselves pioneers in the art of filmmaking, perceived cinema and the cinematic experience as a physical one, where audience members would be totally entranced and involved in what they were seeing. This was the birth of cinema and back then cinema was an out-of-body experience.

Fast-forward over a century and, by all accounts, this wholly enveloping feeling has returned as Gravity in 3D. But the same cannot be said for Gravity in 2D. The film sees Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone on her first space shuttle mission, partnering spacewalk veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney) on his final mission (you can see where this one is going). After hearing news of a Russian satellite accident, the pair are bombarded with the resultant debris and metal, leaving them separated, low on oxygen and in desperate need of a safe return to Earth — to gravity.

Gravity (2D) looks stunning. The intricately manoeuvring astro-camera delicately shifts around the blackness, almost giving off the sense that the viewer is up there with the mission team (it probably does relay this sensation entirely, in 3D). The screen displays the magnificence of planet Earth in its fullest form and the film, as a purely flat visual output, looks simply awesome. So awesome that the philosophical Kowalski comments on the “beauty” a number of times.

Bullock is good as Dr. Stone, a woman who has recently lost her child and finds solace in the emptiness of space — an emptiness that no doubt has engulfed her for what feels like millennia, and that has left her devoid of any genuine happiness or enthusiasm for life. George Clooney does George Clooney very well, bursting with unbridled charisma and charm. The pair, and Bullock in particular, do genuinely come across as actors who have gone hell-for-leather and to ensure that there is a completely organic impression emitted from their space-set performances, an organic understanding that the film itself does incredibly well to generate (a generation likely far greater in 3D) as it was obviously unable to shoot on location.

Here is where Gravity (2D) returns from cloud nine to the bleak pavements of earth: the narrative is nothing more than just alright. Much of the film sees the astronauts glide around space for a period of time before colliding with a number of space stations and shuttles as they search for a route back to Earth. The novelty of watching these small, inconsequential beings wander at times aimlessly around the dark beyond wears off fairly early on, and unfortunately the dialogue is too commonplace and puffy to keep the audience attentive. There are bountiful amounts of clichés (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) and a number of deep-rooted conversations about existence and life (foetal position alert) recycled from sci-fi B-movies. The film is self-aware of this, and it would seem that the 3D version of Gravity does not need to worry about plot because the entrenching nature of proceedings means viewers are too busy being wowed by that new, exciting feeling of immersion in space alongside the characters.

Here lies the fundamental dispute that the 2D versus 3D debate boils down to: Gravity (2D) is a visually wonderful, but narratively generic drama about people in space trying to return home, whereas Gravity (3D) is a revolutionary experience in watching and becoming part of a film — it is pure cinema, the essence of what the Lumière Brothers envisioned all those years ago.

There is a moment towards the end of Gravity (2D) where the camera pans above a number of objects travelling very rapidly over the Earth. Even in two-dimensions this is a spine-tingling moment, and it evokes a final 15 minutes that is tense, goosebump-inducing and quite simply brilliant. These final moments probably equate to every moment in Gravity (3D). If that truly is the case, Alfonso Cuarón has done something pretty special indeed. The director has vehemently pushed for the film to be seen in all its three-dimensional glory, on the biggest screen, and it seems that is exactly how it should be seen.

I’m off to the IMAX.

Gravity (Out November 7th, 2013)

He’s been there once and he enjoyed it so much that he has decided to return. That is right, George Clooney is back on the big screen this autumn — in space. Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris starring Clooney, Gravity is a brand new script written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, his first film in seven years.

Set in space, Gravity follows the progress of astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) — a veteran serving his last mission — and medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — a rookie on her first Space Shuttle outing. The film is set for release on October 4th in the Unites States, therefore we do not know much about the plot at the time of writing other that what is shown in the recently unveiled teaser trailer (below): whilst carrying out a spacewalk — activities conducted by an astronaut outside his/her spacecraft — Kowalsky and Stone’s shuttle explodes leaving both space inhabitants stranded.

There have been countless films creates depicting helpless individuals trapped in space — either on a planet or in a shuttle. Recently, Apollo 18 graced our screens: a fictional portrayal of events after the cancelled Apollo 18 mission. Before that, Duncan Jones’ impeccable debut film Moon starring Sam Rockwell carried the mystique and tension of the stuck in space scenario. Going even further back, Event Horizon, Silent Running and Alien are all examples that the stranded in space genre — although still intriguing — is not a new one.

“Ten across, four letters, ‘to unveil one’s buttocks’ — any ideas?”

However, the commonality between all of the aforementioned films with which Gravity does not appear to share is that the helpless characters were trapped in a spaceship or on a planet, whereas Cuarón has delivered Clooney and Bullock to us suspended and floating in space. All signs point towards this being the case for the vast majority of the motion picture, which is something I personally have not seen before.

The trailer offers very little in the way of plot development, but a whole lot in regards to visuals, which are simply stunning. This should not come as a surprise to those who have seen Cuarón’s last outing in the director’s chair, Children of Men, which encapsulated and illustrated a dystopian Earth both effortlessly and beautifully. He was also the mastermind behind the highly regarded third act in the Harry Potter film franchise: Prisoner of Azkaban.

Alfonso Cuaron
“This is so heavy, stupid gravity!”

With a similar budget to Children of Men (Children of Men came in at around $76 million and Gravity has hit the $80 million mark) and with two very accomplished and impressive actors at the helm (albeit after a number of cast changes — Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman were once the leading candidates), Gravity has the potential to blow audiences away. Having originally been scheduled for a 2012 release and been pushed back a year to 2013, I think it is about time the Gravity shuttle was grounded so that we can all witness Alfonso Cuarón at work once again.