Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Do We Tell the Difference Between Dumb Fun and Just Plain Dumb?

Ever since the release of Jaws in 1975, summer has been the default season for blockbusters and widescreen spectacle.  This correlation has its roots in people wanting to beat the heat and bask in the cool air of the cineplex, and the idea of turn-off-your-brain entertainment has only extended and grown in recent years.  Once May hits, we all know we have a deluge of superhero films, Will Smith vehicles, and big-budget bombast for the next four months and if we're lucky, we get a movie that manages to check all the boxes of a summer blockbuster while also having something more to offer.  But what are the parameters by which we delineate between something that's dumb fun and something that's just plain dumb?  I've seen many movies that fall into either category, but let's look at four films from this season -- Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation -- the former two being examples of films that I found to be pretty fun and the latter two being torturous, joyless experiences.

Part of what classifies a movie that is dumb fun is the level of self-awareness that it has.  Pacific Rim might be the most self-aware film of the summer so far -- it's a send up to anime and 80s action movies, all while having a winking jocularity.  With the wacky scientist, ultra-macho attitude, commander who returns to the field for one last job, the tropes are all there, and the film uses them with a playfulness that allows you to just roll with how over-the-top it all is.  Fast & Furious 6 is at least halfway there -- it depicts its syrupy concept of "family" with a bizarre self-seriousness, but outside of that, the film is conscious of its status as fluff, choosing to go full-throttle and never making any pit-stops along the way.  In that sense, I guess G.I. Joe: Retaliation probably hit what it was aiming for.  It's a splashy film, a big-screen version of watching a kid crash his toys together, but the problem is that it's still kind of boring.  As for Man of Steel, who knows what it was striving to achieve.  To be fair, it certainly isn't trying to be what the other three films are, instead taking on much more gravitas.  But Zack Snyder is a lover of nauseating pulp, so surely there was supposed to be something fun about the 45 minutes of action that concluded the film.  Unfortunately it's the lowest point of the movie, taking something that conceptually works and making it monotonous, brainless, and most detrimental to its status as a dumb fun movie -- dull.

So it certainly doesn't hurt that both Fast & Furious 6 and Pacific Rim showcase some killer action setpieces.  Helmed by the likes of talented directors Justin Lin and Guillermo del Toro, respectively, both films contain action sequences with fluidity, coherency, and variation.  FF6 continues the series' expansion away from solely driving scenes, and the hand-to-hand combat is well-choreographed, while also fitting comedic moments in.  The car stuff is just as kinetic too -- I wasn't much of a fan of the series before this installment (Fast 5 was fun but not fun enough), but this film takes things to such high-octane levels that it's hard not to marvel at the technical brilliance.  Meanwhile, scope is the main point of praise for Pacific Rim.  The sheer scale of the battles between the Kaiju and the Jaegers is impressive enough, but the clarity is what really makes it satisfying, eschewing the muddled shaky-cam that rules modern action movies.  It's no surprise, then, that the only time G.I. Joe: Retaliation shows any kind of spark is in its one decent action sequence, the mountainside ninja battle, but even that one gets spoiled in the trailer.  I wrote at length about the problems in Man of Steel, its repetitive action being chief among them.  It may be thrilling for 5 minutes, but less so in the next 5 minutes, and by the time you get to about an hour of artless smashing, the film solidifies itself as a purely dumb film.

Despite the name of "dumb fun," films that fall into this category still usually have something to latch onto.  I'm not even talking about having emotional content that works, or else it would elevate the film past being any kind of "dumb," and the moments where Fast & Furious and Pacific Rim attempt to deliver anything deep are the least successful.  But Fast & Furious 6 constructs a web of characters who have an extensive history with one another, and even though I might not have been incredibly invested in their plights, it was still interesting to watch them play off of each other accordingly.  Likewise, the characters in Pacific Rim are simple archetypes, but they're really fun archetypes, and they're played by actors who know what kind of movie they're in.  There's simply nothing more delightful than watching Idris Elba or Ron Perlman tossing off cheesy lines with a winking irony.  Plus, the world of Pacific Rim is so fully realized, filled with the kind of interesting designs that are staples in Del Toro's films, and everything is so full of color, particularly a sequence in Hong Kong in the second act that's just a visual splendor.  Man of Steel flirts with having something to latch on to in its meditative middle portion, but it quickly moves away from that and into utter drabness.  The less said about G.I. Joe the better, which, save for a chiseled and glistening Dwayne Johnson, has very little to offer.

To add a fifth film to the mix, let's talk about Star Trek Into Darkness.  I gave it a review that sounded much more positive than I actually felt about the film, and some of why I'm not so hot on it is because of how much it seems to be firmly planted in the middle of these two poles that I've been talking about.  J.J. Abrams is the master of popcorn entertainment, and there are elements -- the always game cast and their terrific chemistry, the camera movements, the relentless pace -- where it flirts with being the dumb fun that the first one was.  However, it gets so tangled up in its idiotic plotting, especially in the third act, that it ultimately doesn't fly as high and stops being fun altogether.  That's not to say that Pacific Rim or Fast & Furious 6 have airtight plots either.  If you look hard enough there's a ton to pick apart in both films (like what exactly was the villain's goal in FF6?), but I think they both have far less ambition than Star Trek Into Darkness.  With its overwrought theme and half-baked 9/11 imagery, the whiffs in Star Trek are much harder to take.  Essentially, it fails the essential rule of being a dumb fun movie: don't try to be smart, and if you try, at least don't fail.

Maybe there is no concrete dividing line between dumb fun and just plain dumb.  Maybe it's all just a matter of preference, because after all, I'm sure somebody would write the exact same thing but saying that Man of Steel is the fun one and Pacific Rim is just an interminable slog.  All I know is that when I walked out of Pacific Rim, I had a feeling of glee that I don't get from many other summer films.  I'm as much of an artsy-fartsy loving film snob as there can be, but I think Pacific Rim is an example of how you may not always need a great story when you have a well-crafted film that's such a giant slab of maximalist spectacle.

1 comment:

  1. Out of the movies you just discussed, the only ones I've seen are Pacific Rim and Star Trek into Darkness. I've just never really been a fan of Fast and Furious, although I did hear pretty good things about this last one; and I've been avoiding Man of Steel after hearing all the mixed reactions to it.

    I have to say, I had higher hopes for Pacific Rim after Hideo Kojima's high praise:

    But of course, he's insane so I don't know why I thought it would reach those heights. It was certainly a lot better than anything to come out of Transformers (especially the latter two), where you could not only see what was going on, but hell Charlie Day was in that movie! That alone was amusing enough for me.

    Star Trek Into Darkness started out well enough, but devolved into a poor imitation of Wrath of Khan in the ending. I thought the best part of the movie was when they were in the ship and Khan was working together with Kirk, and Khan's inevitable betrayal, but everything from the ship crashing to the entirety of the aftermath was a piss poor ending.

    It also didn't help that they tried to do a role reversal on the EXACT scene from Wrath of Khan, down to the now infamous and ridiculous "KHANNN!" scream.

    Never was interested in G.I. Joe, so no opinion on that.