Superheroes and space wars seem to be the only universally exportable commodities big studio Hollywood execs care to understand right now. Luckily, there was still much to see in and outside of the Hollywood sausage machine. You just had to keep your eyes peeled.
Not only did the franchise set-ups become more labyrinthine in their urge to spawn more sequels and spin-offs but the targets started moving too. 2016’s surprise hit being Deadpool, a—yep—superhero movie but for a more mature audience (so 16-year-old instead of 15-year-olds) that was more comfortable with fruity language, unfashionably grungy art direction and unnecessary extended violent scenes that ventured toward torture porn territory. Suicide Squad tried to ride on Deadpool’s dubious coat tails but was so caught up in ticking off the ingredients for future spin offs that it neglected to render any of the characters even vaguely well drawn, leaving it up to the main actors to trail the crap out of their on set antics in endless promotional slots.
Rouge One at least managed to come out of the melee in pretty decent shape with some relatable and well defined characters, quirky non-starry casting (it’s Star Wars, you don’t need any big names to carry that mantle) and lovingly rendered CGI that promised to push the boundaries of that particular field a little further open.
The franchise contender that attracted all the wrong sort of attention was the unfortunate Ghostbusters revamp. Unfortunate, not because of the all-female core team casting which was super promising, but because after the campaign of negativity launched at it by, what would late turn out to be highly politicised groups hell bent on derision of all sorts, the end cut just didn’t have the guts to really go for it and create the spark that would have set the film alight. Ghostbusters also proved that Hollywood still hasn’t found a place for even the most gifted SNL alumni and that maybe they shouldn’t have been so eager to escape the confines of the small screen, especially given the small screens resurgence in representation and the quality to support it in recent years.
Televisual production houses made it really hard for big screen film makers in 2016. Suddenly film makers seemed to have much less time to tell a story and the epic scale cinemas provide started to feel more burden than bonus. Film makers up to these fresh challenges to the medium managed to find pay-offs though. Arrival springs to mind here—a film that looked made for massive screens, yet had the quiet intelligence of the best indie releases—with a perfectly understated performance by Amy Adams at it’s core. Similarly, Nocturnal Animals—visceral and thrilling while you’re watching it, slightly overblown and unnecessarily weighty on reflection—benefited greatly from Adams quietly controlled portrayal of a main character unfamiliar with inner turmoil.
Another film that fits well into this quiet style of science fiction (that started a few years ago with films like Monsters and Another Earth) is Midnight Special. If you blinked you might have missed this little gem of a film about a boy with unearthly powers being protected/hunted by a pleasingly demure cast that included Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver. It’s supernatural themes offset by low key choice of locations and some tense but never over wrought performances.
Elsewhere, Nicolas Winding Refn and Ben Wheatley were creating similarly free-wheeling, idiosyncratic productions (High Rise was eventually released here in Australia in 2016) abet of a much more energetic and often quite brutal manner. The Neon Demon starts with a dubious premise—writers and directors who have gamely tackled the fashion industry in the past rarely come out unscathed (apart from the ultimate insider’s critique, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? made by William Klein in 1966)—but succeeds in becoming a curious beast of it’s very own, not so much reflecting the pit falls of a young women’s journey to becoming a model as refracting this ludicrously hyper-glamourous creation around the screen. Whilst many Hollywood productions seek to bury the director’s style under an avalanche of studio manipulations, NWR’s Neon Demon remains uncontrolled, unfettered and all the better for it.
High Rise, on the other hand had a solid grounding—based on the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name—from which Wheatley piles high an increasingly delirious tale that escalates quickly. Unique attention to detail and retention of the 1970s setting for the film means scenes get increasingly claustrophobic as events within the housing estate escalate until implausibility becomes but a blip on this massive canvas. You may be put off visiting anytime soon but you’ll be glad you dropped by.
Links & References
Neon Demon → IMDb
High Rise→ IMDb
Midnight Special → IMDb