Monday, September 9, 2013

The Sameness of Violence

Maybe it's because I'm getting older.  It's hard to say.  But three times this summer, I've had the same reaction to a movie, and it's wearing on me.  I've generally enjoyed all things sci fi, and so I'd been looking forward to taking a swing at three of this summer's blockbusters in particular.

The first: Star Trek.  I'd really enjoyed J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise.  The casting was pitch perfect, the feeling both respectful of Roddenberry's world and taking it in new and productive directions.  

The second: Elysium.  Neill Blomkamp's District Nine was a breath of fresh air when it hit theaters a few years back.  Hard-edged and vigorously rooted in South African political culture, it was a fascinating variant on usual alien-invasion fare.  That, and it had a clear social conscience, mirroring the dark echoes of apartheid.  Elysium promised to be more of the same, casting light on the tremendous chasm between the wealthy few and the struggling masses on our planet.

The third: The World's End.  I've enjoyed Simon Pegg in just about everything he's been in.  Shaun of the Dead was a mischievous treat, and a far richer movie than the entertaining but more shallow Zombieland.  So Simon Pegg plus alien/robot invasion seemed to equal entertainment gold.

None of them really worked as I'd hoped.  

Star Trek was dialed up way too high, and what was meant to be an homage to Wrath of Khan ended up feeling cheap, manipulative, and predictable.  If we know you're not actually going to kill of that franchise-central character, and we can tell exactly how you're going to bring that character back because you've telegraphed it to us?  That death scene just ain't gonna mean anything, JJ, no matter how many Vulcans sloppily and incongruously weep.  Elysium started strong...Blomkamp is brilliant at establishing a sense of place...but descended into emotionally manipulative and shallow bathos.   The World's End was absurd and illogical, but it was a comedy, so I cut it a little slack.  The character dynamics were interesting, and complex psychological themes bubbled around under the surface.  Must be a British thing.

But what made all of them less watchable than I'd hoped was the violence.   All had the now omnipresent hyperkinetic, visually jarring style to conveying bone-crunching conflict.  It's ALL-CAPS exciting, visceral, and kinesthetically ferocious, or so it's supposed to be.

It's such a relentless part of moviegoing these days.  Running! Punching! Exploding! Action!  It's meant to stir our monkey-brain, kicking in deep fight-or-flight excitement.

But there's a dank sameness to it.  The uniform palette of cinematically rendered violence makes every movie into every other movie.  As the World's End dove into one action sequence after another, for example, the psychological complexity of the characters was washed out, and the narrative was obscured.  Too many moments were just, well, every other film.  Zachary Quinto could be going all half-Vulcan-loco on cybernetic Matt Damon, who could be firing an accelerator rifle at a Blank.  None of it matters.

And the feeling I was feeling during those moments was not excitement.  It was boredom.  It was tedious, because there is no pleasure to be found sitting through the same scene over and over and over again in every film we see.

It's a bit like the news, I suppose.