27 June 2013

Big-Budget Action Movies Losing Their Wit

Last night I saw Man of Steel. It reminded me of Oz the Great and Powerful in that both movies are carefully made to trigger our memories of modern American myths, and in doing so both put spectacle over coherence, character, or wit.

Man of Steel does a fine job of showing us exactly what, say, a punch-out between two superpowered humanoids on a satellite would look like. Likewise, Oz the Great and Powerful swoops all over its digital locations, making them more convincing than the plot twists.

But does either of those movies have more than three quotable lines? (Check out these attempts to muster a quota of quotes.)

There’s no wit in either movie’s screenplay. Almost all their dialogue sounds like it was the first choice of tired screenwriters at the end of a long day. Most characters speak in simple, unimaginative ways, stating their emotions or desires baldly. (All the better, perhaps, for easy translations for the international market?) And the actors usually deliver that dialogue slowly, either to fill time or to ensure that no one in the audience can fall behind.

Consider Oz’s arrival in the strange fairyland:
Oz: Where...Where am I exactly?
Theodora: Where do you think you are?
Oz: I have no idea. It’s...It’s like no place I've ever seen.
Theodora: You’re in Oz.
And compare that to the hero’s lines from the parallel scene in MGM’s 1939 film:
Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more. . . . We must be over the rainbow! [Glinda arrives in her bubble.] Now I...I know we’re not in Kansas!
Okay, Dorothy’s speech includes #4 on the American Film Institute’s list of all-time best movie quotes. But those words are powerful because they’re understated and fresh. They could therefore be delivered with emotion instead of stating emotion. And the next line is actually metaphorical.

Even throwaway lines in the 1939 movie are evocative: “Now you go feed those hogs before they worry themselves into anemia!” “Of course, some people do go both ways.” “And the last to go will see the first three go before her.” Yes, sometimes the vaudeville shtick underlying that script shows through, but the words are still entertaining. It’s not just that repeated viewings have made the movie memorable. Rather, lines with verve have made it possible to view the movie over and over.

Last year’s big-budget popcorn movies showed that they don’t have to lack wit: The Avengers and Skyfall are powerful action movies with good scripts. They offer a lot to look at, but also a lot to hear besides explosions. Oz the Great and Powerful and Man of Steel offer only half that package.


Nathan said...

I never understood the "you're in Oz" line anyway. Theodora automatically assumed he was from outside the country, rather than from a different part of it?

J. L. Bell said...

For that matter, why was Theodora out hiking on the countryside?

She may have deduced Oz was from outside Oz from the way he was ignoring those bitey little CGI creatures.

I noted that the new movie, unlike previous versions of Oz, doesn't divide the land into parts. The Winkies are, as far as we can tell, simply the witches' guards. The Munchkins and Quadlings live together. Is there any explicit mention of "of the East" and "of the West"?

Nathan said...

Not that I can recall. There was really no sense of place, despite there being a map used to promote the film.