I wrote this in the midst of this summer’s seemingly unending cycle of effects movies. I have been to see Tom Cruise in Oblivion, Robert Downey Jr in Iron Man Three, and the new Star Trek film, Into Darkness, with Benedict Cumberbatch, apparently the new thinking woman’s crumpet, as the solidly intense centre of an indifferent acting pool. I also caught Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger, but the best by far was, for me, the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. To my mind Zack Snyder just tapped into the human element of what is, after all, a story of extra-terrestrial intelligences (God made Man), with all the messianic stuff left to inform, but not dominate, the emotional vibe.
Still unseen, but since been, are the Will Smith family in After Earth, the new X-Men spinoff, The Wolverine, and Brad Pitt fighting a zombie apocalypse in World War Z (pronounced Zee in America, of course – get it?). Even Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s third instalment in their loose comedy trilogy, The World’s End, jumps onto the Armageddon band wagon.
What these films have in common, of course, is not just a preoccupation with the end of days, with nuclear warheads chucked about like torches by John Wayne in The Alamo, but an attempt by the big studios desperately to keep us interested in what the boys in the visual effects and production design teams will come up with next.
As for arcane concerns such as performance, character arcs and subtext, well, they come in for a rough ride. Oblivion was actually not bad, but very derivative of Moon and The Book of Eli, to name but two. Still, it had a design and feel that kind of stayed with you for a while. Iron Man Three was engaging, like all of them, thanks to Downey Jr’s mercurial presence and Gwyneth Paltrow, but did we really need it, save to make up the magic number? And then Star Trek was partly a repeat of Skyfall’s vengeful insider and a post 9/11 allegory of due process, exercising the kind of conscience-searching Zero Dark Thirty was too busy to do.
What the rest of the pack will be like remains to be seen, but as we sit and marvel at ‘what they can do nowadays’, let us consider whether next year we will remember any of these films with affection, surely a much neglected virtue these days when the movies are more commonly content to send us out reeling.