David Denby On What’s Ruining Action Movies

I’m not normally sympathetic to movie critics who inherently have it in for superhero and big-budget action movies. But David Denby, in a long piece in The New Republic, has an argument that those of us who love movies in those genres should listen to. He thinks the things that have made action movies big are also making them a lot worse:

Consider a single scene from one of the most prominent artistic fiascos of recent years, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. Forget Ben Affleck’s refusal to sleep with Kate Beckinsale the night before going off to battle; forget the rest of the frightfully noble love story. Look at the action sequences in the movie, the scenes that many critics unaccountably praised. Here’s the moment: the Japanese have arrived, dropped their load, and gone back to their carriers. Admiral Kimmel (Colm Feore), the commander of the Pacific fleet, then rides through the harbor in an open boat, surveying the disaster. We have seen Kimmel earlier: not as a major character, but as a definite presence. Before December 7, he had intimations that an attack might be coming but not enough information to form a coherent picture. He did not act, and now he feels the deepest chagrin. Dressed in Navy whites, and surrounded by junior officers also dressed in white, he passes slowly through ships torn apart and still burning, ships whose crews, in some cases, remain trapped below the waterline.

Now, the admiral’s boat trip could have yielded a passage of bitterly eloquent movie poetry. Imagine what John Ford or David Lean would have done with it! We have just seen bodies blackened by fire, the men’s skin burned off. Intentionally or not, the spotless dress whites worn by the officers become an excruciating symbol of the Navy’s complacency before the attack. The whole meaning of Bay’s movie could have been captured in that one shot if it had been built into a sustained sequence. Yet this shot, to our amazement, lasts no more than a few seconds. After cutting away, Bay and his editors return to the scene, but this time from a different angle, and that shot doesn’t last, either. Bay and his team of editors abandon their own creation, just as, earlier in the movie, they jump away from an extraordinary shot of nurses being strafed as they run across an open plaza in front of the base hospital.

People who know how these movies are made told me that the film-makers could not have held those shots any longer, because audiences would have noticed that they were digital fakes. That point (if true) should tell you that something is seriously wrong. If you cannot sustain shots at the dramatic crux of your movie, why make violent spectacle at all? It turns out that fake-looking digital film-making can actually disable spectacle when it is supposed to be set in the real world. Increasingly, the solution has been to create more and more digitized cities, houses, castles, planets. Big films have lost touch with the photographed physical reality that provided so much greater enchantment than fantasy.

I can buy that argument: two of my action sequences in recent movies are the fight between Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and the foot chase that opens Casino Royale and the final battle in The Avengers. I can’t help but compare the former to the final fight between Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. The battle between Yeoh and Zhang was extended, shot from multiple angles, with the antagonists using multiple weapons. The whole point of it was to explore the characters’ capabilities as fighters and their personalities under extreme stress, and as a result, it couldn’t look fake, and it couldn’t be assembled from extremely short shots. The latter scene, by contrast, was shot extremely close, in part because the Batsuit didn’t leave Christian Bale much in the way of mobility, and its primary quality was brutality. What was supposed to be a titanic contest of wills between very different men came down to which one of them had spent more time recently with a personal trainer.

Both the Casino Royale chase and The Avengers battle are composed of discrete moments, Casino Royale as Bond moves from construction site or construction site or room to room in the building where much of the fight takes place, and The Avengers as it switches from superhero team-up to superhero team-up. In Casino Royale, the transitions matter: Bond’s opponent flys through a vent while Bond himself busts through a wall. The Avengers, by contrast, has a lot of sequences that are shot from far away, and that last only long enough for us to see which superheroes are fighting together and who they’re going up against. It’s a way to convey a sense of scale and to get a lot of information out there, most importantly that all of these people have learned to work together, but it also has the overall effect of making the characters look a little toy-like, of glimpsing struggle as it’s happening more than actually communicating the exhaustion of the fight. The action sequences have been bigger, but the people whose lives are at stake have become increasingly small.