Box-office blues

Posted on August 6, 2016


Thoughts on a summer season where a new ‘Star Trek’ movie or a new Spielberg movie no longer guarantees a blockbuster.

Early on in the new Star Trek movie, Captain Kirk is in an existential funk. It’s the third (or maybe fourth) year of a five-year mission, and life on the Starship Enterprise has become a bit… Buñuelian. As in The Exterminating Angel, directed by the Spanish master, there’s the sense of being stuck in a confined space. You find you’re unable to leave. You’re sick of seeing and speaking to the same people every day. To take an example closer to space, I kept thinking of the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey jogging on the walls of the spaceship, as though it were a treadmill – there is the sense that you are constantly in motion, but not really going anywhere. Kirk may not be alone in feeling this way. We summer-movie audiences, too, know what it’s like, trapped in theatres, watching sequels or remakes that offer very little that’s new. Another Ghostbusters movie. Another Independence Day. Another Star Trek. Another dive into the oceans where we first found Nemo.

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But is this the only reason many of these films are underperforming? Reporting last weekend’s North American grosses, noted that Star Trek Beyond, the previous weekend’s No. 1 film, had fallen to second place with a worrisome 60% drop in collections. This seems incongruous with the film having an 83% rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (which means the critics really liked it), plus an A- CinemaScore (audiences liked it too). But then, how can a big, blockbustery action movie remain unaffected by the arrival of… another big, blockbustery action movie the very next weekend? I refer to the new Bourne movie, which opened big last weekend, but is sure to be hit by the arrival of… another big, blockbustery action movie that opened the following Friday. This time, it’s the much-anticipated Suicide Squad, which is gunning for the same audience demographic as Jason Bourne and Star Trek Beyond.

I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond. It’s a film whose one-liners and action set pieces leave audiences happy (it’s the feeling of going to a favourite restaurant and ordering your favourite dish without looking at the menu, because that’s exactly what you want sometimes), plus it gives critics things to chew on. Like how Gene Roddenberry’s then-radical, hippie-era vision of a racially integrated workforce is, in these MNC times, an unremarkable reality. Like how the film finds itself unexpectedly weighted with emotion, from the demise of Leonard Nimoy (the first Spock) and Anton Yelchin (the latest Chekhov). Like how it’s possible, today, to have an openly gay actor (Zachary Quinto) play a straight character (Spock, who, in this film, feels the need to reproduce and help repopulate Vulcan), while the straight John Cho plays the recently outed Sulu, seen in the company of his male partner and their daughter. When Sulu sits in the Captain’s seat, it’s a Tim Cook moment, a gay man heading a futuristic enterprise.

But I’ll also admit that all this isn’t nearly enough to stave off the feeling of familiarity. Am I happy I saw Star Trek Beyond? Most certainly. Would I have been devastated had I missed it? Probably not! And when someone whose job is to see every new release out there feels this way, maybe it’s not surprising that general audiences aren’t making a must-see of this movie. But what, then, explains the failure of Steven Spielberg’s version of Roald Dahl’s The BFG? For one, it’s completely unlike the other family-friendly films out there (Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Legend of Tarzan), so you can’t roll your eyes and go, “Not again!” And two, did I mention Steven Spielberg? Like his E.T., this film is about the unlikely friendship between a human (a little orphan named Sophie) and an otherworldly creature (the titular Big Friendly Giant) – only this time, the former ends up in the latter’s world. Would it have helped if the marketing team had stressed on the parallels to that still-beloved film, released the same year as Dahl’s book (1982)?

But watching The BFG, I felt no amount of hype could have helped. Save for a glorious stretch where Sophie and the BFG visit the Queen of England, the film plays like any other summer movie – big on special effects, small on a genuine sense of wonder. What does it say when a master visualiser like Spielberg cannot give us a decent set piece around Sophie and the BFG “catching” dreams that flit around like rainbow-coloured fireflies? In the hands of the Spielberg of the 1980s, this sequence would have been a showstopper – but then the director’s finest films, these days, aren’t the sunny entertainments-for-all-ages we once associated with him (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Adventures of Tintin), but the dark-toned adult fare like Bridge of Spies and Lincoln. How things change! Decades ago, when Spielberg tried to show he could make “grown-up” movies (Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple), critics said he was still too much the wide-eyed innocent who couldn’t understand that these Oscar-baiting films needed a different sensibility from the whiz-bang summer blockbusters he was such a specialist at. Now, it’s possibly the opposite.

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