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2013: The Year Prestige Cinema Reinvented Action Filmmaking

A quick glance at the box-office returns for 2013 confirms that this year, like pretty much every year since, oh, 1980, action was king: all but three of the top ten films could be considered, by at least some loose definition, action movies. (All but two of them are sequels or prequels, but that’s another, even more depressing conversation.) This year at the multiplex, we were treated to superheroes destroying cities in Man of Steel, zombies destroying cities in World War Z, aliens destroying cities in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and robot suits destroying, well, a pier in Iron Man 3. All that computer-generated carnage doesn’t create much in the way of human stakes or emotional resonance; you may have a rooting interest in the hero, but there’s never much doubt they’re going to come out on top, and by the end of the summer, action movie fatigue had set in. But, presumably through coincidence and/or parallel thinking, three films this fall took a decidedly different approach, and in doing so, turned the so-called “action movie” on its head.

The three films in question — Gravity, All Is Lost, and Captain Phillips — are situated at an odd intersection in the Venn Diagram of mainstream filmmaking: they have narrative elements typical of the action movie (the lone hero, the insurmountable obstruction, a journey of momentary victories and agonizing setbacks, etc.), but their high-caliber casts, critically acclaimed directors, and fall release dates tag them as Oscar-baiting prestige pictures. What’s fascinating about these peculiar unions is that, in joining such diametrically opposed motion picture “types,” they manage to strip away what is dopily insulting in the former, and predictably dry in the latter.

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The only one of the trio to make that year-end top ten is Gravity, a film whose commercial success is mostly attributable to the “wow” factor it shares with its top ten brethren: groundbreaking special effects, stunning visuals and sound, IMAX 3D bells and whistles. Were the picture merely comprised of those elements, it may well have grossed exactly as much as it did — but there’s much more to Gravity than that. It is, first and foremost, a story of survival. Alfonso Cuarón’s filmmaking has the whiff of the future, but he’s a decidedly old-fashioned storyteller; it’s an adventure yarn, a me-against-the-elements tale in the tradition of Jack London.

But it also recalls Melville’s Moby Dick, a battle against a seemingly insurmountable foe that is ultimately about more than the struggle at hand. Were Gravity the work of some generic action director, the backstory of Dr. Ryan Stone would either get skipped altogether or play out in painfully clunky expositional flashbacks. Cuarón reveals her story slowly, organically, as makes sense within the crisis at hand—and then lets it inform that crisis. Because we know what she’s been through, we can both understand the inclination to give up and the deliberate, powerful choice not to.

That choice is, at its essence, the central decision of human existence; it’s what Hamlet’s going on about in drama’s most oft-quoted and parodied soliloquy. But it’s a choice rarely broached in action cinema, where our protagonists, be they superheroes or mere mortals, charge into danger with nary a moment’s hesitation. Yet Cuarón allows Dr. Stone to make that choice, to fully weigh its implications, which makes her decision all the more powerful, and his film’s conclusion infinitely more cathartic.

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J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is about the same choice. Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist (simply dubbed “Our Man” in the film’s credits) has a less explicit backstory that Dr. Stone; what little we know about him is pieced together from a brief letter to his family (heard in the opening voice-over) and, most importantly, his actions. There is but a single word of dialogue in the film — and if you’ve managed to not have it spoiled, I’ll preserve the surprise (but it’s the perfect word). The character’s identity and development are instead defined by the lengths to which he’ll go to survive a seemingly impossible situation.

Gravity sets our protagonist adrift in space; All Is Lost strands him in the middle of the Indian Ocean on a slowly sinking ship, a hole punctured in its body by a drifting cargo container. Our Man is, it seems, up to the task; he’s a competent sailor and a gifted improviser, working up ingenious, MacGyver-ish fixes, and greeting each new complication with a blink and a determined nod.

But boy, this guy can’t catch a break. And when his trial by sea has reached its nadir, when it seems he’s finally hit one obstacle that he can’t think and act his way out of, the choice of whether or not to surrender is — as it is with Dr. Stone — poignant, powerful, and affecting. The reality of his story’s eventual resolution has been discussed at length online (I’ll steer clear of the specifics here, again to shield those who haven’t seen the film), but suffice it to say that in both pictures, the powerful influence of their protagonists’ fantasies and wishful thinking, of the mind’s ability to create external forces with internal consequences, are all of a piece with the closeness we’ve attained to the figures at their center.

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There is, at least, no ambiguity about the outcome of Captain Phillips, since director Paul Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray had a true story to work from. But this is one of those films, like Zero Dark Thirty or Apollo 13, where our knowledge of the outcome affects the picture’s suspense and tension not one whiff — thanks both to the immediacy of Greengrass’ direction and the credibility of Tom Hanks’ performance in the title role.

His sketchy Bah-ston accent aside, Hanks is utterly (and valuably) believable. He is our portal into the story, our avatar, and since he spends most of the movie with people screaming at him and guns pointed in his face, our already ingrained sympathy toward the actor (and thus, the character) is heightened. Phillips’ struggle for survival is not a one-on-one battle with the elements, like Stone’s and Our Man’s; his life is in the hands of not just the choppy sea, but the pirates that terrorize it.

Yet his approach is the same. He calls upon his skills, improvising minute-to-minute solutions, working scenarios through as best he can, calling upon reason, logic, and his own vulnerability. A film like Captain Phillips exists in an entirely different reality than an action-movie counterpart like Under Siege, where the brave protagonist procures a machine gun early on and picks off bad guys one by one. Phillips doesn’t have that option — and even if he did, he doesn’t seem to have that capacity for violence. And it’s easy to forget, if you watch too many movies, that most normal people don’t.

This point is made most eloquently in Captain Phillips’ closing sequence, which remains, for this viewer, one of the most wrenching in recent movie memory. Maybe this is a mild spoiler, but the description conveys nothing of the scenes’ power: When the well-armed military pulls the trigger on Phillips’ kidnappers, ending his ordeal in a split second’s bloodshed, there is a long moment when our protagonist is alone, blindfolded, unaware of what’s happened, and fucking terrified. He gasps for air, he fears for his life, and (in at least some small way) he fears for his captors. Greengrass’ camera holds on Phillips, keeping him on screen as he realizes what has happened, that he is alive, that they are dead, and that he is spattered with their blood.

Most movies wouldn’t give us that moment, because it violates the simplistic, rah-rah, good-vs.-evil ethos of modern action moviemaking. And they sure wouldn’t give us the scene that follows, where Phillips is taken in to the ship’s infirmary and examined, and, in shock, he breaks down in tears.

But that’s the scene that most action movies, even the good ones, are missing. Captain Phillips, Dr. Stone, and Our Man are neither the gun-slinging robots nor the impenetrable, untouchable, indestructible heroes that too much of modern cinema idolizes. They’re people, recognizable and relatable, and though their struggles may be extraordinary, they respond to them as we might. And these three films, traditional “action movies” or no, inject into the genre what was missing as those computer-generated buildings full of computer-generated people collapsed across multiplexes all summer: a much-needed dose of humanity.

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