Friday, 10 August 2007

essay: bloody epic spectacles

Over the past week I revisited Apocalypto (Mel Gibson, 2006) and 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007), two of the more offbeat blockbuster big-hitters of the past year. Neither is in any way a perfect film, or even a very good one, and both suffer to varying degrees from crippling flaws. Nonetheless, the films are interesting for the similarities they share, and the light they cast on the development of the historical action epic as a genre.

The genre, of course, is one that lay largely dormant for a number of decades (with exceptions such as Gibson's Braveheart (1995))before exploding once again into the pop-culture consciousness with Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000). The box-office and awards success that encountered Scott's film was superceded a year later with the first of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy - not, strictly speaking, a historical epic, but its groundbreaking success cemented the idea that the clashing-swords and epic-battles formula was here to stay.

Fast-forward a few short years, however, and the formula already seemed stale and worn out. The Lord of the Rings franchise continued to be met with spectacular success, but other epics that followed, such as Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004) and Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005), failed to meet their box-office targets. More crucially, films like Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004)achieved little bar a forgettable, unremarkable mediocrity, falling far short of achieving the rousing emotions, grand themes and breathtaking spectacle expected of an epic.

Something new was needed to reinvigorate the genre, and Apocalypto and 300, in proposing an answer, create a new spin on the historical epic formula. The first element in their updated formula is a difference in timescale: whereas the plot of a traditional epic would span a number of years, or even decades, both Apocalypto and 300 only cover the events of a few days. The second element, which is linked to the first in some important ways, is a rigid, narrow, straight-ahead emphasis on the action; in both cases, there is only the barest of scene-setting, followed by what is basically an extended, sustained, feature-length action sequence. One could almost argue for these films being nothing but extended third acts: introduction and development dealt with in a few minutes, with the rest of the film being one long climax.

Naturally this has a number of consequences on the films, none necessarily positive or negative. This narrow temporal focus allows for one event to be depicted in minute detail, giving the possibility of intensity and depth over breadth and scope; it would be interesting to see an epic that takes this approach with a dramatic, rather than action-oriented, bent. The emphasis on action also grants these films the kind of headlong, breathless momentum more often associated with the action film, and in fact the line between the epic and the action film is blurred here, especially in the case of Apocalypto. An argument could be, and has been, made that these films are not epics but action films with an exotically historic backdrop, and while that doesn't have to be a bad thing, it needs to be said that, despite pretensions to the contrary, neither film has much in the way of intellectual or emotional complexity; adrenalin-fuelled entertainment is their sole raison d'etre.

The emphasis on action leads to the third element in their reconfigured epic formula: explicit, visceral violence. Both films glory in their depiction of bloody, brutal violence, and use it as a primary device in their emotive arsenal, attempting to capture a raw, physical thrill (this is not a criticism in itself, although many have used it as such). Despite this similarity, however, the films' approach to the violence is very different: in 300 it is cartoonish, glorious, heroic and "cool", in Apocalypto the intended effect is gruesome and horrifying.

The fourth, and final, element in the formula is the deployment of a rich, stylized, CGI-enhanced visual style in an attempt to recapture the spectacle of the epic, now that vast CGI armies of thousands have become somewhat passe. 300 takes this much further, but both films foreground their visuals, their CGI-created spectacles and their stylized nature.

Ultimately, neither Apocalypto nor 300 is a great film, although the former is my pick of the two. Both films come close to achieving greatness in sections - Apocalypto in the sheer, manic, wide-eyed intensity of the scenes in the Mayan city, and 300 in the opening scenes, which suggest a dark, cynical reworking of classical mythology epics such as Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963). Apocalypto, however, demonstrates an unevenness in tone, undecided whether it wants to be an actioner or something grander; by the end it degenerates into an enjoyable but forgettable chase movie. 300, meanwhile, tries but fails to sweep aside the obvious contradiction that the Spartans, supposedly figthing for "freedom", are defending a fascist, militaristic society that it is singularly difficult to root for; while its incessant heroic platitudes and unnecessary, glib narration start to grate almost immediately. They are interesting, however, when taken in conjunction as experiments with the structure and genre elements of the historical epic - experiments that have paid off decidedly well in box-office terms, but, so far, with mixed results in aesthetic terms.


Robert said...

Hmm an interesting essay.

I always found it difficult to understand the bloody battle ( and i've seen a good number- due to my parent's taste in films) films. Even great ones such as lotr parts 2 & 3 leave me cold. The thought of people just fighting and screaming has never really involved me. maybe the closest i'll ever get to enjoying a battle sequence will be the fight in Kill Bill one.
Im not a big fan of violence in films too difficult to relate to.

magnum said...

I wouldn't say Apocalypto is actually an "epic" movie, at least not in the 300 or even Braveheart style; the movie involves the story of one man as he tries to survive through hell itself... in that respect, it's more similar to Predator than anything else. Also, its highlight definately came in the middle, with the amazing, hallucinatory even, section in the city - which had very little action outside the dizzying blur of imagary, from jade toothed nobility to the ritual violence. Also I don't agree with it being CG enchanced... outside from the city scape, there's very little aesthetic stylisation that wasn't result of 'real world' work.

As for 300, that was a case of the gravy not even being tasty enough to cover up for the small portion of not to good meat, if the contrived culinary metaphor can make any sense at all.

Daniel Vella said...

In fact I mentioned that Apocalypto blurs the line somewhat - there are some elements which suggests it might be aiming to be an epic, but really it's a historical action film. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it is what it is. Its CGI use is nowhere near as extensive as 300's, but it undeniably contributes to the film's memorable midsection.

Daniel Vella said...

And to Robert - well, not all epics can be described as "bloody battle films" (though the description/summary fits 300 perfectly), simply because if done well the battles are an integral part of a more significant whole - as in LotR or, say, Kurosawa's Ran or Seven Samurai. If the characters , the world and the situation have been well-developed, then the fighting and screaming can be more than fighting and screaming.

Ultimately violence in some form or other is one of the base elements of narrative, it can be used badly but there are some brilliant films (I can think of Oldboy, Seven, Alien, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre...) whose effect is at least partly built on the visceral, physical impact of implied or explicit violence.

I'm not surprised you're not into epics though, as a general tendency you tend to shun films, books or music that's self-consciously, ponderously Big and Important, and a lot of epics are that...

Graeme K Talboys said...

It will be interesting to see what sort of scale is chosen for the Elric movie(s) now in development; whether a movie can handle both the intimate nature of the internal struggle of the protagonist as well as the vast battles in which he is involved. At least PJ showed, with LOTR, that epic scale battles can be made convincing whilst keeping sight of the stories of individuals.

300 seemed to me to be a film looking for a reason to exist (other than cashing in on the historical/epic bandwagon). As for the Mel Gibson piece... well, I won't go there.

Daniel Vella said...

I was not aware that an Elric film was in development; the Elric stories represent a very different, character-focused approach to traditional epic high fantasy, with moral, spiritual and emotional personal conflict writ large. It would be interesting to see a film version of the stories, though I fear a big-budget production, which they would have to be, could not take the risks involved in doing justice to them.

As I said in my post, neither 300 nor Apocalypto is really a very good film, though Apocalypto has enough going for it, to these eyes, to make it Gibson's most interesting film (granted, that's not saying much, but anyway).

Tellme said...

Even attempting to compare these two films is laughable. Apocalypto was such a enthralling film made with the assured touch very few directors possess.

Tellme said...

And though it was massive in scope, the amount of nuance and thoughtful detail involved in it was astounding. Sure it may be considered an epic popcorn movie, but in the same way The Shining is considered a horror movie or Stalker a science fiction movie. There is so much more to offer in Apocalypto, with Mayan dialects being used, a cast of performers that seamlessly worked with the intended authenticity of recreating a mayan cast of characters and the rich design in wardrobe and set decoration. 300 had none of these, it was a 2 hour music video and the details thrown up on the screen were almost entriely born out of artistic license rather than an attempt at authenticity.

Tellme said...

Even attempting to compare these two films is laughable. Apocalypto was such a enthralling film made with the assured touch very few directors possess.