Most stories center around the goals of protagonists. However, some films are less about character and more about concepts. Character tends to be about primary emotional drivers or moral choices, which is right-brain. Ideas are cerebral, left-brain. As you can imagine, cerebral movies are more of an acquired taste. There are fewer of them, and they tend to underperform at the box office. This is because more people like stories because they provide an escape, a thrill, or a sense of comfort. Fewer people go to the movies in order to ponder bigger-ticket concepts.
In fact, there’s quite a large faction of people who actively bash films that try to tackle big concepts on the basis that they are too cold, boring, and pretentious to provide any engagement. Here’s a typical anti-2001 essay. The points it makes are valid, but what my “why we like” essays are meant to explain the different qualities that films have that cause people to like them. What a film lacks in one domain it may make up in others. But if you only want your films to have certain qualities and not others, you’re going to hate on films that are lacking them. That does not, however, mean the films are necessarily “bad”. It just means the films do not deliver the tailor-made experience you want. Of course, most people would like to simply clain something is “bad” than to qualify it as simply their opinion. I’m not immune from doing that too, although in the end I know many will disagree with my reviews since they have such a different perspective.
Most films act as a sort of fictionalized essay leading up to a brief conclusion about the world or human nature. Even simplistic good vs. evil stories embed the simple message of good needing to always triumph over evil. Most of these function as a moral prescription. In other words, they say, if you do X, Y, Z, like the protagonist, then you too will triumph. I covered this aspect in the earlier installment. As far as the function of story, it seems more valuable to our everyday lives to use story as a life-simulator and be given various pearls of wisdom to live by. However, there’s always that part of the back of your mind that sometimes asks even bigger existential questions that go beyond the realm of picking an individual life path. A small number of films have gathered the courage to cover live, the universe, and everything. So here are some of my thoughts on these and how they compare to one another.
Stanley Kubrick, more than any other filmmaker, seemed to want to cover cosmic territory in his films. This is also why he’s often been criticized for being a “cold” filmmaker, unconcerned with the realm of human feeling, merely with intellectual ideas. Whether he was truly emotionally stunted and misanthropic is an open debate, but if any film could best support that argument, it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The late 60s were a time of great experimentation in film. There was a desire to try new things simply because they’d never been done before, not really knowing or caring how they’d be accepted. 2001 is probably the poster-child for this ethos. At times playing out more like a documentary or a symphony with visuals added, it breaks almost all the rules, waiting until far into its running-time to introduce what seems to be the closest the film has to protagonists in Bowman and Poole. And yet these two are asked to underact to such a degree that it really does seem like nothing more than a webcam watching the business operations of astronauts.
Since every film has a point to make, while watching it, you fish around searching for the narrative hook. What is the point? The film frustrates the viewer by not grounding itself in a single protagonist. At best, it functions as an abstract symbolic/visual collage synchronized to music. It’s this sense of active frustration on the part of the audience that provides the only real dramatic tension. This is where most of the audience who can’t connect with the picture tend to tune out. They expect a conventional entrypoint into the film, and having been denied this, just throw their hands up and walk away. The film demands that you decode the mise-en-scène yourself. It does not provide any help in connecting the dots. It’s interesting to note that its sequel produced almost 20 years later, did connect the dots, but by doing so, somehow diminished the end product.
So one can think of films like these as a form of mental exercise, like playing chess. The long wind-up of the film leads to the infamous stargate sequence. Endless explanations have been offered about it, despite the official explanations given in 2010. If you want to burn off a late weekend afternoon, google explanations yourself. There are also many video essays on the topic. This is one I watched a while back that offered an explanation I hadn’t pondered before, that the monolith represents the widescreen film-frame twisted 90 degrees.
The main sense of joy that comes from a film such as this is the debates over the meaning and symbolism that can take place afterwards. The internet provides a much more fertile ground for these discussions than when old films like this first debuted, helping to keep them relevant.
This essay won’t cover every film in this genre, but one notable subgenre are films that are nothing but eavesdropping people talking about philosophy instead of showing it. My Dinner with Andre is the most famous example, but a more modern equivalent would be Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, jazzed up by its rotoscoping effect. The literal aspect of having people merely talk about these subjects places these films in a lower echelon in my book, as these operate more as spoken word essays. They are more prose vs. the poetry that can come from cinematic technique to layer-in meaning.
The Matrix trilogy exists somewhere between the realm of telling and showing, in the sense that yes, it’s a character-based story, and yes, there’s symbolism, but at key moments the film resorts to monologue. Much of this monologue is just as direct as a college paper on the subject it’s describing. However, it’s not without its charm. Beyond the red-pill blue-pill scene, the most obvious example is the iconic scene between Neo and the Architect from Reloaded.
The issue I have with this scene is dialogue like Neo saying “the problem is choice”. Declarations like this merely serve the answers up on a silver platter. The audience isn’t asked to use their brains enough. Which door will neo choose? We don’t really need The Architect narrating it moment by moment in such a meta sort of way, although one can always just perceive the scene as symbolic of the act of watching the story itself and being self-aware of it AS a story. So I’ll give most of it a pass. And yet, with time my critical opinion on the Matrix movies has steadily deteriorated. As the always-expensive Wachowski films continue to bomb, I see the flaws (or the copycatting) in The Matrix more clearly than ever. And yet it still deserves some credit for having the courage to “go there” at all, and with the budgetary backing to make it look glossy.
To me, though, it’s not the architect scene that is the most intellectually stimulating, but this monlogue from the Merovingian from Matrix Reloaded.
What makes this scene so fun is the sense of playfulness. The Merovingian’s French accent is so over the top that it’s borderline camp. Much of the Matrix pushes the envelope stylistically that it lends itself to parody and memes. So many quotable lines. So yes, it’s a speech about biology being destiny, about how we all may be automotons blindly pursuing pleasure like an addict, but it shows a woman’s reacting to chocolate rather than merely talking about it.
Purely on the basis of style alone, like bullet-time, The Matrix movies have been highly influential. That’s why it enjoys more popularity than a more cerebral experience like 2001. It’s philosophy decorated with a sugar-coating of action and visual decadence. The deeper these films embed their concepts within the frame of lower-brow genre, the better they’ve done at the box office, as it pulls in the masses.
Another film that is somewhat similar to The Matrix is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. A recurring theme in Christopher Nolan’s films are characters who are driven by an unhealthy obsession. I don’t know the guy myself, but it suggests that Nolan himself (and his brother who writes the scripts) are driven by an obsession for filmmaking, and therefore they are writing what they know. To get to the top in Hollywood usually takes an excessive or even unhealthy level of drive. The character DiCaprio plays in Inception is no different from Bale’s in The Prestige or the Batman films. Nolan films almost always feature these protagonists who have a laser-like focus and who move their way through a maze of obstacles only to realize at the end that maybe their own obsession was the biggest obstacle of all.
Most of these films try to tackle the question of what constitutes objective reality. This is a topic that is of particular interest to filmmakers as their trade is to create suspension of disbelief. The frame of the screen is a form of passive virtual reality in which you’re invited to see what the protagonist sees, but you’re just not allowed to change the outcome, unlike videogames. The central nightmare of Inception is the traumatic event of the suicide of DiCaprio’s wife. Although the film plays out as a “caper”, which is to steal a memory and manipulate an executive into a particular business design, dramatically it functions as an exorcism of guilt. The film has good setpieces, but can really only be appreciated fully when watched in whole. It would spoil the film to offer a plot summary but I do want to post an embed of the end theme from Hans Zimmer, because it’s one of my favorite pieces of film music. I could have posted clips of music from any of these films, since their music is all excellent, but this is the one track I’d want readers to hear, and for those who haven’t seen the movie, will hopefully whet your appetite.
As the storylines become more interpersonal or about the nature of identity one winds up with films like Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Groundhog Day, Solaris(pick a version), A.I., or any one of many Philip K Dick adaptations such as Blade Runner and Total Recall. Some of these films have been referenced in earlier postings and may spawn a separate dedicated review later. The purpose of this post is not to cover all these films in depth but to merely to define this class of film through a few examples and tease out why it appeals to some people.
A delicate balancing act must be struck in films like this, to try to get the audience to think while trying not to lose sight of character moments and drama. That’s why the most successful films in this niche find a way to do both simultaneously. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was criticizes for being a poor man’s imitation of 2001. It’s an even better example to use than 2001, though, when trying to figure out why a film is liked or disliked. In 2001, nobody knew who Poole or Bowman were. We’re not given much of a reason to care when they are introduced, but the fact remains that they were blank slates. Not the case with ST:TMP, where there had been 79 episodes of live-action and 22 animated. Gene Roddenberry pushed for keeping the original cast intact when Paramount wanted to pass the torch to newcomers, but when the time came to write a script, he viewed the “big idea” as more important than reestablishing a sentimental connection between the crew and between the crew and the audience. Robert Wise’s lack of history with the franchise also conspired to fashion more of a travelogue of the future and a love-letter to the ship than to the Enterprise’s veteran crew. So while the reintroduction of the ship was celebrated, its presentation of a largely cold and emotionally detached crew frustrated long-term fans. Whatever intellectual insights were offered up in the form of V’Ger were not appreciated as well as they could have been due to the dashed expectations of the crew’s characterization.
Nevertheless, in retrospect, there’s a way to reconcile these issues within the context of the plot itself. The script went through many revisions. I have a very lengthy book that goes into this with excruciating detail. I haven’t devoted the time to get through it all, but one can sense an emerging humanistic message that perhaps was not there in the initial drafts.
The character of V’Ger can be seen as a thought experiment, that is, what the life of someone would be if they simply dedicated him or herself to the pursuit of knowledge. Would that be enough? This calls into question Spock’s quest to purge himself of his human-half, which he sees as merely a niusance. The answer comes to Spock through a mind-meld with V’Ger, after which his mind is so blown by the answer that he temporarily removes his mask of emotional restraint.
To me, this scene below is the single best Spock moment, and one of the most poignant Trek moments in the franchise, buried within a film that most people walk away from saying they dislike.
What I like about this scene is that although it’s exposition, it’s avoiding using the word it really wants to convey, which is love. Spock holds Kirk’s hand in bromance, but he doesn’t say the word. It deftly avoids the trap of “on the nose” by showing rather than just telling. The love Spock is talking about here is platonic love (despite insistence of Kirk/Spock shippers). It then saves up romantic love for Decker and Ilia, as their union of biological with mechanical acts to usher in the birth of “a new life-form”. This takes place under the backdrop of one of the most powerful film cues ever written. This is one of the “uplift” moments that I deliberately omitted in an earlier post so I could include it here.
There were many who derided this ending as a schmaltzy deus ex machina, and it’s something that was rammed into the script last minute as it didn’t have a decent ending, as shocking as it may seem. But as jaded as the people who worked on the film may have been afterwards (including Nimoy, who supposedly was responsible for coming up with some of the best script fixes), these patches go a long way to making the film memorable.
After watching a film, you only remember the scenes that make the biggest impression. This often helps smooth over the rough spots in retrospect. To counterbalance dull moments in 2001 like them eating crustless sandwiches in the moon shuttle you have cool things like the banging of the bones or the stargate sequence. There’s just too many pointless car-chases and fight scenes in the Matrix but then there are some neat philosophical monologues. And for the long reaction shots of the bridge crew in TMP, there’s the spock scene and the ending.
Out of all the films showcased, Inception is the best total movie experience as far as keeping your interest across the entire runtime. But there’s something that makes me want to defend the redeeming value of ST:TMP. There’s a difference between exploring the nature of perception and the nature of infinity. That’s why I have to make sure I see Interstellar and see how that one compares to the rest.
Story, in the distant past, was intertwined with myth, with religion. The shaman was responsible for explaining everything. This early oral tradition covered all angles. Human beings search for meaning, a sense of what’s morally right and wrong, and ultimately a code to live by. These kinds of films appeal to those who are asking the biggest kinds of questions, not just how best to achieve earthly goals of career or romance. If I were a more religious person I might insert religious movies here, such as The Ten Commandments or The Passion of the Christ. But this genre of films is less concerned with moral questions than it is with existential ones. Since the ultimate question is really unknowable, these kinds of films either leave things mysteriously open-ended (as with 2001) or tack on a comforting message (such as the all you need is love vibe of ST:TMP). But for the most part, the films strive to leave you with things to keep pondering rather than to simply hand down an easily-digestable answer as religious films do. That is how I divide philosophy from religion. Philosophy is an unsolvable rubik’s cube. Religion is a series of self-contained answers that people latch onto. In the middle is a fuzzy area since no real humans ever achieve Kolinahr.