I’m going to start this post on a positive note. Just so you won’t think I’ve entirely gone off to live in the Land of Curmudgeondom forever.
I recently saw Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner, and written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (of Hell or High Water fame). This murder mystery, set on a Wyoming Indian reservation in the bleak midwinter, was the best movie I’ve seen all year. It was a candidate for the best movie I’d seen in several years. It had everything a film of that genre is supposed to have—a unique setting, memorable characters, suspense, heart, depth. And it had something that is increasingly hard to find in modern films—clearly defined good guys and bad guys. And an ending that made sense.
Wonder Woman, out earlier this year, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, was an entirely different kind of film, but it, too, was clear about its heroine(s) and villain(s). Diana may have been flawed and uncertain, but she was no unredeemed on-again, off-again good/bad anti-hero with situational ethics. She saw the path of righteousness and took it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love me some film noir, with tough Sam Slade types who are willing to break a few rules to do good. But lately it seems all we see on the screen are characters who have lost their way. They are so wrapped up in themselves they can’t see right from wrong, violence that serves to protect others from pure brutality. The writers and filmmakers that create these characters seldom recognize or care about the real-world impact such unrelenting killing and maiming would have on their “heroes” or, increasingly, “heroines”. Just as they create scenes of unrealistic violence (as a martial artist, I know no one can take that many blows to the head or knees and stay upright), they create people of unrealistic indifference.
A good example is Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron and directed by former stuntman David Leitch. Many critics raved about this film, calling Theron the female James Bond, but from my point of view, the fight choreography and the plot came straight out of a graphic novel—and not in a good way. The extreme violence and brutality were meant to heighten Theron’s sexual appeal to the male audience—especially since much of it was accomplished with Theron’s character in spiky thigh-high leather boots. Then there was the gratuitous lesbian sex scene. I’ll agree with the “female James Bond” comparison when Daniel Craig fights the bad guys with his shirt off and takes a male lover. Oh—and treats his bruises from the fights naked in a tub of ice.
My point here is that Theron’s character is never really seen as a person who might regret what she does or change as a result of it. (Neither is 007 these days, for that matter.) Compare that with Luc Besson’s Lucy, who may be violent in defense of her identity and purpose, but with whom we can relate as a human (though she is, in fact, superhuman).
Up to now I’ve just been talking about the idea of what makes a hero vs. violence in modern films. The other big consideration, is, of course, the wow factor—special effects. These drive all the superhero films, franchise (TREK, STAR WARS, etc.) films, disaster films and so on. Fill up the screen with dazzling eye candy and the desired audience (ages 15-34) will come, the theory goes. Can’t argue with what works.
Combine this with the whole anti-hero/violence trend and you have a formula for bad science fiction of the kind we have seen all too much of on the screen: the most recent Alien films, which are little more than regurgitated old SF ideas, bad science, sickening gore and protagonists too stupid to live; the much-touted but disappointing (at best) Interstellar and Arrival; endless comic book super-stories aimed at a fanboy audience; lookalike teen protagonists in YA adventures; and franchise bones thrown to the faithful that diverge ever further from the original themes.
The worst of it? Critics don’t seem to notice. Science fiction, after all, is for kids and guys who live in their parents’ basements. Reviews are written with little historical context or knowledge of what has gone before in the industry. (Which explains the rave reviews for Dunkirk, a film which, if you didn’t know any better, might leave you with the idea a few boats rescued a couple of guys off a beach somewhere in Europe one time—and The Longest Day is June 21.)
Still, every once in a while, a filmmaker gets it right, and even today’s benighted critics recognize it. Go watch Wind River (or you can wait for Pay Per View—it doesn’t need a big screen). Or Step, a great documentary directed by Amanda Lipitz about a girl’s step dance team in inner city Baltimore (you’ll probably have to hit an indie film house for this one). Or rewatch Wonder Woman and cheer right out loud in your living room. Sometimes the good guys do win.