What do you do for an encore?

Posted on June 11, 2016


Thoughts on ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ and sequel fatigue.


upiter Ascending, the sci-fi mega-flop from 2015, left me with quasi-philosophical thoughts. Had it actually been a good movie, these thoughts would have come from inside it, from what it’s about, from how it’s been made – but these were outside thoughts. I kept thinking about the directors, the Wachowski siblings, and how they keep trying to one-up their most successful film, The Matrix. It wasn’t just a financial success, which would have only made the studio happy. It was one of those blue-moon movies that redefines a genre, which means it made the audiences happy, and it also made cinephiles happy by generating reams of discussion. You cannot plan this. It just happens. And after it happens, you sit back stunned, wondering if anything you do henceforth will ever be this good, this significant, this defining, this loved.

This problem afflicts only a particular kind of filmmaker. A Martin Scorsese, for instance, will never face this problem because he didn’t come out of nowhere and change the rules of filmmaking. He keeps making movies, and some of them work and some of them don’t, and some of the films that work go on to get awards at Cannes and the Oscars. This level of success isn’t easy by any means, but it’s something one can sustain. It’s the supernova level of success that’s difficult to process. There’s one big bang and you open up a never-seen-before universe – what do you now do for an encore?

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Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland wasn’t quite The Matrix in terms of quality or critical reception, but in its own way it was a supernova film. It opened up Lewis Carroll’s universe and brought in over a billion dollars worldwide. Or take Snow White. You open up the Brothers Grimm universe and make Snow White and the Huntsman. Again, money pours in. But what next? More of the same? It happened with the Wachowskis too. The Matrix sequels, despite some great scenes and visual ideas, were disjointed, overstuffed, and we sensed the filmmakers struggle with making something bigger, better, and yet, something not too different, something that would satisfy fans of the original. But at least they worked at the box office. This year, we have had The Huntsman: Winter’s War. We now have Alice Through the Looking Glass. The former bombed. The latter, which just opened, looks like a flop too.

I didn’t particularly like Alice Through the Looking Glass, but I didn’t mind it either. The film begins with the Cheshire Cat’s grin morphing into a crescent moon – a lovely lark of an image. We proceed to a beautifully conceptualised action stretch on sea, with a ship risking reefs and shallow waters in order to escape pirates. And I enjoyed the puns. When Humpty Dumpty falls again, someone quips, “He’s a mere shell of a man.” But the film never answers the question: So what are you showing me that I haven’t seen before? The time-travel plot is from the Back to the Future films. Alice’s breakneck adventures are like the ones Indiana Jones found himself in. Even the Hatter’s childhood trauma is just a reminder of the Hollywood law that everyone on screen must have issues involving fathers and mothers. The most egregious visual may be the one in which several smaller machines combine into one giant robot. It’s the height of desperation when you need an image from Transformers to sell a Lewis Carroll story.

Looking Glass fails because we have too many entertainment options these days, and we’d rather not watch something whose only selling point is that it has a few good lines, a few good visual effects. More importantly, we’ve already seen a very similar story, in Alice in Wonderland – there’s no new bottle that says “Watch Me.” Maybe bringing in a few Avengers characters would have helped. I’m not joking. The superhero genre is the only one people don’t seem to tire of watching, and the only one that does not make them complain about the sameness – though even in that universe, there are mutants. X-Men: Apocalypse has received bad reviews. Box-office prospects don’t look too great either.

I was quite entertained by the film, which has solid dramatic stakes and a lot of wittily staged action, with another sterling set piece for the mutant named Quicksilver. And yet, at the end of the day, there’s no big bang. There’s no universe being opened up. It’s just another sequel. I’ve lost count of the number of X-Men movies, and how many times can we see Magneto doing things with iron – even if one of these things is a really, really cool execution? The mutants’ powers seem the same, and so the special effects and the visuals seem the same. Why didn’t we feel the same sense of fatigue with the first set of Star Wars films, or the Indiana Jones series? Because computer-generated special effects were still a rarity, and going to one of these films was something special: they were even called “event films.” Today, every film is an event film. The wonder is gone. Is there anyone who’s really interested in Independence Day: Resurgence?

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