Sunday, June 10, 2007

Everything's Epic

What has Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy done to expectations of running time for fantasy films? Expanded it. Fantasy films include superhero flicks like Batman Begins, fantasy literary adaptations like Lemmony Snicket and Harry Potter, and miscellaneous corporate regurgitations like Pirates of the Carribean. Horror remakes seem immune and remain well under two hours. The last time anyone tried a horror epic length-wise was Stanley Kubrick with The Shining in 1980.

The thinking process and lack of creativity is still evident. The logical but creatively nil position taken by producers is that a product proved successful in the past can be modified and re-sold, and this is preferable to risking financial loss on new ventures. This is terrible. Movies are the most explosive combination of art and commerce ever created, perhaps second only to recorded music, and our captains of industry are not visionaries.

The pendulum has swung from the lavish inventions of the 50s (3-D, Cinemascope, Technicolor) designed to compete with the birth of television, to the compartmentalized theater experience of chain theaters in malls in cynical reaction to the birth of VCRs, now back to the need for gimmicks and changes of content: IMAX and stadium seat design in mall theaters. Even more cynically, the studios sell commercial time on the theaters they own, thick-headedly blurring the distinction between theater and home viewing a little bit more and encouraging the latter.

Is the running time of these films a gimmick? Yes. It is mere compensation for commercials and the cell phones of strangers. Theaters are losing money and expanding running times are reflect Hollywood's desperate actions even within the franchises themselves:

Lord of the Rings (2001) - 178 min / 208 min (special extended edition)
The Two Towers (2002) - 179 min / 223 min (special extended edition)
The Return of the King (2003) - 201 min / 251 min (extended edition)

A steady increase, with even-longer special extended editions filling the shelves. As far as I can tell, this was the series that opened the floodgates. I remember leaving the theater for Lord of the Rings and being sure I'd never spent so long at a chain theater offering.

I think the appeal of bloated running lengths is particularly strong for fantasy fans, since the worlds of superheroes and elves and wizards are often comprised of nothing but back stories and meticulous details of origins. There's no room for that at 90 minutes unless you're pre-planning a trilogy. Hence the leap from X-Men (2000) with 104 min, to X2: X-Men United (2003) with 133 min. The Spider-Man trilogy has had a smaller increase over three films, from 121 minutes (2002) to 127 min / USA:135 min (DVD extended cut) (2004) to 140 min (2007). Part 3 feels it's own weight by overstuffing itself with plot threads, and I doubt they'd have been included if the producers didn't feel audiences would stand for a 2.5 hour sequel. They haven't. I imagine that film is even more tedious on an IMAX screen to anyone over 14.

The Harry Potter series, which I have zero interest in, averages about 2 hours and 50 minutes per movie through 5 films beginning in 2001 and most recently this year. The first entry of the Narnia series clocked at 2 hours 23 minutes, and the next two entries probably won't be any shorter.

The extended running times have two purposes, neither of which is the betterment of movies and the movie-going experience. The first is to simply elongate the experience so that families may make a night of the occasion, when it's obviously easier to watch movies at home. With running lengths for family-oriented fare are typically between two and three hours, it's a better timekiller. The second purpose is to flatter the fans of all this adapted material, be they teenage comic book nerds or geriatric fans of C.S. Lewis.

With more running time, more details from the book can be included. This is backwards thinking. A successful movie adaptation does not adhere to the source work as closely as possible, it transforms it into what works best as a movie. It may be the case that some adaptation require a long running time, as in Lord of the Rings, but Narnia and Harry Potter nowhere near the page length, nor the depth of detail, that necessitate an epic running time.

In the case of superhero fans, there is a perverse sense of legitimacy which emanates from a superhero flick inflicting a long running length on the general public. They first felt it with Superman(1978) at 2 hours 20 minutes, and Batman(1989) at a little over 2 hours, but this was unusual at both times. Now the new Batman is 2 hours 20 minutes and the new Superman is 2 hours and 34 minutes. You wouldn't think that extra baby fat would be noticed, but when the movie is as bad as Begins or Spider-Man 3 you really tend to notice.

Ang Lee's 2003 "The Hulk," which I haven't seen, surprised everyone by also running 2 hours and 20 minutes, bearing the question "Are we supposed to hold all superheroes at equal movie length stature?" No, and every Marvel film starring the lower strata of popular characters (The Punisher, Daredevil, Fantastic Four) has either been aimed at 1.5 hours or has had 20-30 minutes chopped off the original cut to keep things under the 2 hour mark. The director's cuts are all available on dvd.

In another avenue of emotionally stunted adult obsession over juvenilia, the new Star Wars films began with a 2 hour 13 minute runtime in 1999 and climbed to 2 hours and 20 minutes in 2002 and 2005. The original trilogy began with a 2 hour movie, then ran slightly over 2 hours in the sequel The Empire Strikes Back and up to 2 hours 14 minutes in Return of the Jedi. The longest runtime of the originals is the shortest runtime of the new. I was enough of a sucker to see all three new entries at the theater these past few years, and felt the full length of every minute.

What are we to make of a trilogy like Pirates of the Caribbean, which shot from 2 hours and 23 minutes in 2003 to 2.5 hours in 2006 to 2 hours and 48 minutes in 2007? The first of them was enough for me, but a common complaint I've heard from viewers of the others is that the plot is incomprehensible and arbitrary. This doesn't surprise me, and points up the essential phoniness of all these "epic" lengths (the only real qualifier for parodied films in Epic Movie). The extra lengths are simply super size me extra-value meal options to leave you fuller. At no point should we presume this is added nutrition.

Genre movie scripts are already prone to being flimsy excuses for stringing one action sequence to another for 90 minutes. Genre movie scripts which must come up with 3 hours worth of quips and explosions for Johnny Depp to run through are stretched even thinner. Rings, Potter, Star Wars, Narnia and superhero movies may have extra source material details to spare, but the light weight of Pirates compared to it's running time only lays out bare naked the gratuitousness of "epic fantasy" movie-making.

The height of this often pretentious folly came from Peter Jackson himself, the man whose film trilogy made the trend possible. 2005's King Kong is the second replication of the svelte 1 hour 40 minute original from 1933 and runs a whopping THREE HOURS AND SEVEN MINUTES. Egotism and baby boomer aching for lost childhood run through all the aforementioned franchises but Pirates. Jackson caught a fit of these things and approached the remaking of his childhood favorite with the obscenely large scale system he'd laid in place with Rings.

To remake your favorite movie changing no major details except softening up the villain and spending a million dollars on every brick of production design, you've conceded two things: That you have nothing to bring to a new version of your favorite but a higher budget, and that your fandom authorizes you to improve upon the original. Did he think that directing several epic length movies that he could make another successful epic length film on any subject of his choosing? Yes, and he unwisely chose a film from an era that knew the economy of plot.

Sheesh, no wonder Quentin Tarantino felt it incumbent upon himself to release one shitty four hour movie in two halves over two years, and then remind the world he's a worse director than Robert Rodriguez by creating another waste of time for epic length. In each separate work he witlessly combines materials designed for brevity.

Inland Empire might be three hours, but that's okay. Appearing gratuitous is part of its charm. Since Lynch is self-distrubuting, his long-denied opportunity to have an epic length cut of a new film release has come true. I feel happy for him, seeing as he tried with a lost 4 hour cut of Dune, a lost half hour of additional footage for Blue Velvet, and a substatially longer and lost film festival cut of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

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