Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Magic of Cinema


I'm not against magic in films. A fan of science fiction and fantasy, the suspension of disbelief is a perfectly acceptable necessity for certain films, but it's also possible to get it wrong.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Red Lights, a film where Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy set out to expose phoney mediums and psychics. [SPOILER] So far so good. But in the film's final five minutes, where its central antagonist and foremost charlatan has been dealt with and successfully explained, they decided it would be good if Cillian Murphy is magic. Not proper magic. Just the ability to bend spoons when he doesn't really want to, and to blow fuses. Literally.

Like I said, I'm not against magic in films, but when the point of a film appears to have been to look for rational explanations, and even taking the whole of Red Lights into account this is still the take away message, throwing in magic takes it from a film that says something about the real world to a film about magic. In an instant, it stops being relevant. Spectacle and unpredictability have taken precedence over substance. In a second, the long-built-up investment in the film and what it's trying to say is squandered.

I write this because I just watched The Green Mile. The Green Mile looks from the outset to be a prison drama perhaps in the mould of The Shawshank Redemption, possibly with an anti death penalty message. [SPOILER] However, as with Red Lights, its decision to involve magic manages to sever its connection to the real world and smother any message it may have had. Don't get me wrong, The Green Mile is still a fantastic film. It has some of the most intense scenes I've ever seen, phenomenal performances and is engaging in spite of its length. Of course it has problems. Like so many films, including Red Lights, it doesn't know when to end, but the main problem is the magic. It would have been possible to tell a story of a remarkable, and ultimately [ANOTHER MASSIVE SPOILER] innocent inmate of death row without giving him the ability to perform miracles. I should reiterate, even with this The Green Mile is an exceptional and outstanding film, but this additional suspension of disbelief is simply unnecessary.

There are examples of a "real world" film which use the supernatural well. The Sixth Sense, for example, works well (although I think if I saw it now the ending would annoy me), as the supernatural element is the entire point of the film. But M Night Shamalamalan (do doooo do do do)  follow up Unbreakable lands on the wrong side of the portal. Just. Unbreakable has a number of problems with it as a film. It takes itself way too seriously, for one, and is much too slow and over dramatic. But the main problem is the unneccessarily far suspension of disbelief required to buy into it. In Unbreakable, Samuel L Jackson's character suffers from a disease that makes him get injured very easily. A comic book fan, this has led him to search for someone at the "opposite end of the spectrum" who hardly gets injured at all. So far, so good. He finds Bruce Willis, who is the sole survivor of a brutal train crash. As a film viewer, I can accept that there are people who get injured more or less easily. I can also accept that there may be freak values such as Willis's character that are almost invulnerable. But where the film crosses the line is by giving Willis the power to tell if people are involved in crimes, or to sense things before they happen. This is put down to heightened "instinct". Even this could be better explained. There are countless real life examples of people getting a "bad feeling" which has caused them to take action on an apparently irrational basis that has ended up saving lives. This has been put down to subconscious noticing of tiny signs that something is about to happen. It's simply anticipating what would happen based on facts about the present, as we do all the time, but at a subconscious level. Alas, Shamalamalan feels the need to demonstrate Willis's power by having him "know" the colour of a gun he hasn't seen, for example, or know things about people he couldn't have known any way other than magic. At this point the film stops being about an extraordinary human being, an anomaly, a real life superhero, and at the same time stops being relevant to the real world. This isn't quite so much of a problem as Unbreakable is a film about comic books, and while interesting, doesn't have such a clear cut take home message as Red Lights. However, its serious tone relies on a believability that is sacrificed by the involvement of apparently supernatural abilities, which means the film needs to be a whole lot more entertaining to make up for it.

There are plenty of films that involve the supernatural and continue to take themselves seriously. The Shining, for example, loses none of its potency by the involvement of possibly supernatural forces, but where I think the line should be drawn is where the film is about something non supernatural, and is set in the real world, yet chooses to use it any way.

However, it's not just the supernatural, but a suspension of belief in general that can be a problem. One of my big problems with The Shawshank Redemption (again, a brilliant film) is the ending (again, it goes on too long)[SPOILER] where the two friend meet up in, I think, Mexico. Andy's escape and Red's release in close succession are just too implausible to be believable, and throw away a lot of the investment in the gritty real life prison drama that has been built up.

I guess my problem is this: when you watch a film, you establish the tone of it fairly quickly. In a film like The Green Mile you don't expect the supernatural, so your expectations are unprepared when something inexplicable occurs making it jar with you. On the other hand a film like The Lord of the Rings, for example, is fantasy through and through, so when fantastical things keep happening this is perfectly acceptable. What filmmakers need to learn to do is establish a tone then stick to it. Often these films are much better on second or third viewings as expectations are accurately attuned, but if you need to have seen a film already to appreciate it, this is a problem with the filmmakers not with you. Just don't use the supernatural if it's not necessary, and if you have a plot hole that can only be plugged with magic, perhaps you need to have a look at the rest of the script and see where you're going wrong.

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