The 10 biggest problems with modern day cinema

Odd List Simon Brew 10 Aug 2011 - 16:51

Jittery camera work. Inaudible dialogue. Spoiler-filled trailers. Here are our top 10 biggest complaints about cinema in the present day...

For some, mainstream cinema’s entering some kind of terminal phase of creativity. That our multiplexes are packed with sequels, reboots and remakes is sometimes pointed out as evidence that filmmakers have finally running out of ideas.

This isn’t something we agree with at Den of Geek. The last few years have seen the release of some of the finest superhero movies ever made. Inception proved that, with enough influence in Hollywood, a mainstream filmmaker can still make an original big-budget movie within the studio system. And at the other end of the financial scale, films such as Moon and Monsters show just how far a little money can go when placed in the right hands.

At the same time, modern day cinema is beset with its own peculiar problems. Digital technology may make film making more accessible to ordinary people, but it still has its downside. Multiplexes may make queueing up for endless hours to watch the latest blockbuster less common than before, but they’re not always a good thing, either.

Here, we provide a run-down of our ten biggest problems with cinema in the 21st century (we've left 3D out as a separate point, as its pretty implicit to lots of what we're talking about)...

1. Inaudible dialogue

Let’s start with something that puts an immediate firewall between the audience and what’s happening on the screen: the fact that the plague of inaudible dialogue is refusing to go away. Too often, thanks to the loudness of explosions all around, bad sound mixing, or a refusal to re-record dialogue in the case of certain directors, it’s impossible to hear what characters are saying on the screen.

Sometimes, this doesn’t matter. A line thrown away in the middle of an action sequence is rarely pivotal. However, at times, a lost line really, really does make a difference. In some cases, an entire character’s performance, though, can be heard to decipher. We talked about this last year, where we cited the likes of Ken Watanabe’s lines in Inception, which we were tempted to try and enhance by the use of a good ear trumpet. And you can find other examples within our feature on inaudible dialogue, right here.

It’s inexcusable, though. Given the technical tools at the hands of film makers, and the fact that most cinemas have the kind of projection and audio system that would have made the picture houses of the mid-70s weep (for an assortment of reasons), it’s surely not an over-the-top demand to suggest that a modern day film should be easily detectable by the human ear.

2. The multiplex

Mark Kermode has an incoming book - The Good, The Bad & The Multiplex -  on the problem he has with modern movies, in which he devotes a hefty page count to multiplex cinemas, and the deterioration of the art of projection.

He’s bang on the money with some of his points about the multiplex, too.

The multiplex is reflective of the state of modern day television, in that there are hundreds of channels, that still offer surprisingly little to watch. The whole idea, in an ideal world, of one building having ten, twenty or even thirty screens devoted to film is that it can host a broad selection of programming. But that isn’t the case. Instead, cinema chains use this to ride on the back of Hollywood’s desire to get films making their money in a couple of weeks. Thus, it’s easy to find five screenings of Harry Potter, at staggered times to get as many people in as quickly as possible. Try and find a nice bit of counter-programming, though, and you’re increasingly out of luck.

The multiplex is a production line. It’s designed to get you in, sell stuff, get you to watch the film, and get you out again. It seems odd that a picture house could come across quite as coldly as many multiplexes do, but there’s very little feeling of love for movies that comes out of the places. In fact, going further, we might be at a point where – for an abundance of reasons – the multiplex has become the worst place on Earth to watch a new movie. Interested in your thoughts on that one...

3. This.

4. Too many toys for film makers to play with

The barriers to entry for making a low budget film are fewer than ever before. Digital film making has made decent standard production quality available to many, and that has to be a good thing. The more people are willing to pick up a camera, try things, play with editing software and engage with the technicalities of film making, the better.

And, further up the chain, never has the toolkit for film makers been so well stocked. Things that were impossible to put on a screen once upon a time are now simple with the use of a computer. Skyline, for example, is not a great film (there's an understatement), but it’s fused with some impressive alien invasion special effects work (and a hilarious ending) that was done for around $20m all in.

The problem, though, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park, is that people are so keen on the could, they don’t stop to think about the should.

Take the original Superman movie. That was an ambitious production, that involved real ingenuity and thought to realise on the screen. The mix of effects work, model making and in-camera tricks clearly involved much forethought and planning, and as such, the end result clearly benefited. Were that film to be made now, there wouldn’t be anywhere near the level of innovation and skill required to do what they did.

In short, making the audience believe a man fly is almost too easy. And in some instances, this is resulting in sloppy work. Computers are being deployed haphazardly, just because the tools are easily available. Too often, we get the sense that a creative decision is being sacrificed for the chance to show off on a screen.

It’s the proverbial kid in the candy store, and it’s a problem. This is most obviously manifested in films bloated with tedious effects sequences, and we can all name umpteen of those in a flash.

Film makers should look to digital animation, where everything has to be planned and scrutinised so tightly before a frame is created, that firm, proper decisions have to be made early. It’s surely no coincidence that it’s animation, where a story is tried and tested many, many times during production, that’s underpinning some of the more interesting big budget movies of the past few years.

5. Spoiler-filled trailers

This is another Den of Geek bugbear we’ve written about in the past, and it’s one we’ll continue to moan about until the world’s movie marketing wizards take note. Trailers that reveal too much are becoming increasingly common - almost to the point where watching them makes us a little nervous.

A prime example is the recent promo for The Thing, the forthcoming sci-fi horror prequel starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead. A film that’s meant to be full of paranoia and doubt, the trailer manages, in the space of around 120 seconds, to reveal the identities of several cast members who are all taken over and killed by the titular entity. It shows so much of what happens, in fact, that we’d even argue that it should have come with some sort of spoiler warning stuck to the front.

With the information flowing as freely as it does around the Internet, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid having a film spoiled for us before we get a chance to see it. Our message to movie marketing types: as difficult as it may be to direct attention to the film you’re advertising, don’t be afraid to leave specific details to the audience’s imagination.

6. Shaky cameras

Used sparingly, rapid editing and a violently wobbling camera can successfully create a sense of danger and tangible realism. Paul Greengrass used the technique to startling effect in the Bourne movies, for example, and it’s hard to imagine the action scenes in those films having the same impact without a bit of camera rattling.

It really is a fine art, though, and cinema is filled with action scenes where it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on. The opening chase sequence in Quantum Of Solace is one that’s frequently cited whenever this topic comes up - the scene was shot with such nausea-inducing ferocity that it’s almost entirely impossible to tell what’s happening to who. All we know is that cars were involved, and we felt both shaken and stirred afterwards. We wrote this open letter off the back of it

It’s a problem that ties back into the film maker’s toy box argument mentioned earlier: with digital editing and smaller, lighter cameras, the technique’s not a difficult one to pull off in technical terms, but establishing a sense of narrative amid the chaos of lightning-fast cuts and jiggling cinematography is far more difficult, and takes genuine skill to get right.

7. An unwillingness to end a story

In this age of ubiquitous multimedia, making money from movies is no longer confined to the features themselves. There are now comics, TV spin-offs, videogames and merchandising to consider, and sequels, prequels and reboots are similarly important sources of revenue.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense, therefore, to leave a film’s narrative as open-ended as possible. Killing off characters unnecessarily could result in a disastrous loss in future profits, and if a mainstream movie doesn’t have the scope for at least one sequel, it probably isn’t worth making.

It’s probably quite significant that the words, The End, or the more old-fashioned ‘Fin’, seldom appear over a film’s concluding scene in modern cinema. The film will always carry on long after the credits have rolled, whether it’s in the form of a sequel, a videogame or a tie-in comic book.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this practice, and we’ve no particular axe to grind against sequels or prequels. But at the same time, the days when we could expect to sit through a two-hour film with a satisfying beginning, middle and end appear to be over. Instead, we’re becoming numbed to the idea that most films will serve as an opening act for the various sequels that will eventually follow.

Maybe this is why Inception was such a huge success for Christopher Nolan last year. At a time when most Hollywood films are little more than a two-hour trailer for lots of other stuff, along came a film that had a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. While not perfect, Inception was at least engaging and refreshingly different, and we hope that more directors will follow Nolan’s lead.

8. Movies that go on for too long

As big-budget movies have continued to outgun one another in terms of audio-visual splendour, we’ve gradually seen them become increasingly bloated in the running time stakes, too. The three-hour movie was once the preserve of historical epics such as Spartacus (which is anywhere between 184 and 197 minutes long, depending on which cut you happen to be watching) or meandering weepie, Gone With The Wind (a thrombosis-inducing 226 minutes or more).

These days, even the most simplistic multiplex fodder can drag on for hours. We certainly didn’t hate the latest Transformers film, Dark Of The Moon, but we could have cheerfully chopped at least half an hour out of its interminable 157 minute duration.

Even the comedy genre, which for decades managed to make us laugh for around 90 minutes, has begun to experience the cinematic equivalent of a middle-age spread. Knocked Up sailed on past the two hour mark, as did the recent (very funny) Bridesmaids.

It’s a weird trend, and one that we’re at a loss to explain. Maybe filmmakers are trying to pack too much detail into a film, when the proper place for dozens of plot strands and characters is really TV. Perhaps movie producers think they’re giving audiences better value for money if their features plod on for hours.

Whatever the reasons, it’s refreshing to watch a summer movie like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, which tells a simple story in a brisk, entertaining fashion, and ends before the audience’s backsides go numb.

9. Too much reverence, not enough originality

The 70s and 80s saw the rise of some of the finest mainstream film makers in history - Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg are but three examples. In fact, Spielberg may well be the most influential mainstream film maker since Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s hard to imagine modern summer blockbusters without the contributions he made with such films as Jaws and Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Great though those directors are - and all three auteurs mentioned above have at least one movie on the horizon that we’re enormously excited about - we do wonder when other filmmakers will slip the leash of their influence.

It feels like a long time since we sat in a multiplex and felt surprised by a director’s individuality. The last time, in fact, may have been Fight Club, where we genuinely couldn’t believe that such a film had been granted studio funding.

Not every film has to drag cinema into some radical new epoch, of course, and some movies are wonderful precisely because they immerse us in warm, fuzzy nostalgia - the charming Super 8 is but one example. Nevertheless, we’d love to see a little more bravery and verve brought back to mainstream cinema. Back in the mid-70s, Spielberg and his contemporaries appeared to be writing a whole new movie-making rulebook.

More than thirty years on, we’re wondering if it’s about time that a new generation got on and wrote a new one.

10. The audience

And so we arrive at the last one: us. We’re not talking readers of sites such as these, who tend to care more about a film and are willing to seek out interesting things to watch. Rather, the movie-going public as a whole.

Because, even though audiences can be shaped via good marketing, and restriction of choice, ultimately the films that end up in big cinemas are the ones that people are more likely to see. Thus, the reason why a big new Transformers sequel is made, and a potentially more interesting original film isn’t, is that more of us are likely to see the former. More than that, more of us are likely to pick up the DVDs, buy the merchandise, and, ultimately, buy a ticket at the cinema.

It’s not as if film makers aren’t giving us interesting films to watch. This year alone, the likes of Source Code, Limitless, Winnie The Pooh and Senna, just off the top of our heads, have given us some varied and interesting films to watch. Each, with the exception of Winnie The Pooh, did reasonably well, too. Yet these aren’t the films that people flood, en masse, to see.

Those films would The Hangover Part II, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 and, staggeringly, the particularly woeful Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Not all of these are without merit, but conversely, you can’t help but think they’d have done similar levels of business, no matter what the quality of the end product.

Rankling about which film is doing better than another is, of course, a way to fill the Internet many times over. But it is an indicator that modern day cinema is playing to audiences unwilling to dig too deep for interesting fare to watch. You could also throw in the fact that modern cinema audiences struggle to behave when watching a film, have a general aversion to subtitles and non-English language films, and seem bred with an unquenchable thirst for sequels.

No matter how many other factors are in play, the audience has to take a sizeable chunk of the blame.

Keep the list going below with suggestions of your own...

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