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Fade to Black: Gazillion dollar baby

December 9, 2010


Next Friday, Disney’s latest mega-budget production, Tron: Legacy, opens in theaters across the country. Though it will no doubt please the Comic-Con regulars who have been fantasizing about this movie for years, with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Tron will need to appeal to a slightly wider market. So Disney did what they do best, and upped the film’s marketing and exposure with a Dec. 7 video game release and theme park installations.
Tron is just the latest in the recent trend of studios throwing around more money than the United Arab Emirates to produce epic cinematic eye candy. But despite the astonishing proportions of films like Tron, extra dollars rarely buy a movie the kind of quality and critical adoration boasted by “the classics.”
Yes, Titanic swept the Academy Awards, but that was over a decade ago. This year voters said, “never again, James Cameron,” and handed Best Picture to indie sweetheart The Hurt Locker. Since Titanic, big budget has come to mean robot explosion orgies and bizarre pirate sequels. The zillion-dollar movie is just not up to critical par.
With Tron, Disney shows no signs of going off the beaten path.  Disney handed the film to debut director Joseph Kosinski, whose portfolio was previously limited to commercials (coincidentally Michael Bay’s first gig).  The CGI-ridden trailer showcases all imagery and little plot, and although Tron garnered a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, critics agree that while it was pleasing to the senses, the conventional plotline lagged.  Similarly, Avatar was praised for its unprecedented 3D-universe, but panned for a plot stolen from Pocahontas. Not to say that awesome effects aren’t entertaining, but as they become more and more commonplace, movies cannot continue to depend solely on visual innovation for acclaim. Even Star Wars, the godfather of special effects, had enough character development to keep audiences engaged. Well, at least for the first half of its run.
Will this trend of shallow billion-dollar productions come to an end in the near future? Unless audiences stop lining up for Michael Bay features, probably not. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Critics loved both Christopher Nolan’s rejuvenation of the Batman series and his master creation, Inception. Nolan has proven that special effects can coexist with a captivating plot, gaining him major studio funding. Though Inception’s summertime Oscar buzz has quieted down a bit, the film, like fellow pricey summer hit Toy Story 3, will likely earn several nominations and a lasting legacy.  Nolan’s overwhelming success has shown studios that quality can still be found in blockbusters, and though movies like Inception are rare, well-received directors may begin stepping up to the daunting yet lucrative prospect of going big-budget.
Who will be the next Chris Nolan? It’s too early to tell. Spike Jonze, director of the critically-acclaimed Adaptation, was given massive funding for Where the Wild Things Are. The underrated Wild Things was touching and poignant, a glimmer of hope in an over-commercialized industry. Like Inception, Wild Things left its audience thinking after they’d left the theater, and the expensive effects enhanced its emotional impact. But its modest success may send Jonze back to smaller productions.
In more recent times, David O. Russell, director of I Heart Huckabees and upcoming boxing drama The Fighter, has just signed on to direct a big screen, big budget adaptation of the video game Drake’s Fortune.  It reeks of sell-out, and although there has never been a good adaptation of this sort, Russell, real life buddy to Jonze, could rewrite this up-and-coming genre.
Tron: Legacy will certainly reinforce skeptic cinephiles’ fears that mainstream Hollywood has lost all artistic credibility.  Truth is, they have all the reason to be upset.  But out of the bad will come good.  Slowly but surely, grade-A filmmakers like Nolan will rise to the challenge and money will make its way into the right hands.  In the meantime, studios need to snap out of their incessant quest for money and make something they can take pride in.  After all, money can only feed an ego while it lasts.  Win an Oscar, on the other hand, and you’re immortalized in the history books.

Show John that low-budget film you made in your younger days at jsapunor@georgetownvoice.com



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