May the formula be with you

Posted on December 24, 2016

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As ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ demonstrates – and ‘Rogue One’ doesn’t – clichés aren’t a problem as long as the film adds up to more.

Two questions kept running through my mind as I numbly sat through Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Is it possible, anymore, to make a Star Wars movie that truly surprises us? Or is this galactic pile of clichés intentional, a deliberate attempt to make a movie experience a McDonald’s meal? (In other words: May the formula be with you. You don’t hear anyone complaining that the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese they had today tasted the same last week, do you?) George Lucas’s films were about characters – a farm boy who becomes the unlikely saviour of a galaxy far, far away; a good man who loved his wife so much that he lost his goodness in trying to save her. The characters in these new films are so generic, with so little that’s individual and unique, that all we register are the events around them. And these events are the same: another episode about using an older imperial craft; another rebel-base planet being blown up to demonstrate the power of the Death Star.

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Take another long-running series. In the James Bond adventures, the villains are different, the locations are different, the stunts are different. In the new Star Wars movies, every villain is affiliated to the Empire and they all look the same, do the same things. In outer space, every location looks the same. (At least the Lucas films gave us gorgeous geographies, from the lava streams of Mustafar to the desert wastes of Tatooine to the silvery, wave-lashed world of Kamino). And the stunts? Dogfights and light-sabre battles – each the same as the next. The Bond action scenes, in comparison, contain everything from crocodiles to invisible cars to motorcycle leaps over whirring chopper blades. The Bond films try to make the same movie differently. The post-Lucas Star Wars instalments are content being the same film. It’s only towards the end that Rogue One acquires a smidgen of personality and emotional resonance, and even this goes back to the first Star Wars movie we ever saw. If they’re going to keep releasing one of these every year, should we stop anticipating them with a new hope?

Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, is another giant vat of sameness, but the film is more than the sum of its clichés. At the beginning, we see headless corpses of soldiers set on fire, and we hear a voice reciting a passage from the Bible: “They will soar on wings like eagles…” It suggests ascendance, transcendence. This contradiction between hellish image and heavenly word is the conflict that drives the film, which tells the story of a devout Christian who volunteers to serve in the army, but without picking up a rifle. He wants to be a medic. “While everybody else is taking life, I’m going to be saving it.” This kernel of idiosyncrasy is enough to revivify the surrounding war-movie clichés, or at least help us ignore them. The film is as comforting, as invigorating as a Commando comic – which is very different from a McDonald’s meal. You know the general shape of things to come, but the specifics still have it in them to surprise.

Given the bloody nature of the battle scenes (decomposing bodies being chewed up by rats, a legless torso used as a shield), it’s easy to bring about a Saving Private Ryan comparison, but while Spielberg’s film began with carnage, showing us the kind of world in which our heroes have to carry out their mission, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t step into war zone for almost an hour. Gibson spends time letting us know his hero (Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield with the reluctant heroism that was the cornerstone of his Spider-Man). So we see Doss, his alcoholic father, his long-suffering mother, his brother, his dew-fresh girlfriend, and when he joins the army, we see his comrades, his stentorian superiors. None of these characters – taken individually – is exactly new, but together, they accomplish what the opening stretch of Saving Private Ryan did: they build a world around the protagonist, a world that’s specific to this war movie, a world that makes it slightly different from other war movies.

The Star Wars films, on the other hand, don’t bother with world-building because they assume we already know this world – but that’s like saying we know what a soldier is like, what the army is like, and so a war film can plunge us straight into battle. It’s perhaps a stretch comparing a billion-dollar franchise targeted at general audiences with a standalone adult action-drama with philosophical and theological undertones (can you serve in an army unit, which is the epitome of collective action, and still do your own thing? Would you rather listen to a silent god over the soldiers screaming around you?), but I’m just talking about clichés, about how a film can have all the must-haves of a genre and still come off like a fairly unique piece of work. To apply the principles of Hacksaw Ridge to Rogue One, what if someone from the rebel side was conflicted about killing, or if someone from the Empire wrestled with decisions about deploying the Death Star? You can still have your action-packed global blockbuster. A little human heart is all I’m asking for.

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2016 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Screening Room