Are We Seeing the Summer of the Auteur?
As Baby Driver and Okja dominate the summer movie conversation, and Dunkirk nears, is the future only branded blockbusters?
As has been written about quite a bit lately, the summer of 2017 has not been kind to the box office. Other than a few overperforming gems like Wonder Woman, the past few months have seen a whole lot of blockbusters stumble or disappoint. We’ve previously explored the irony of this, because the late winter and early spring of 2017 saw that time of year’s best run at movie theaters in over a decade.
And if you squint, like a Baby Driver anti-hero about to put the pedal to the metal, it may be occurring right now too. For while the top industry financial story over the long weekend is that Despicable Me 3 (like Transformers: The Last Knight before it) is playing below the studio’s expectations—Universal projected $85 million as the floor for the film’s three-day opening, and it’s now estimated to have only grossed $75.4 million in that timeframe—this weekend also saw a pretty fun joyride in the shape of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver.
Indeed, with only a budget of $34 million, Wright’s high octane, heist-thriller has already put $21 million into its domestic tank. When all is said and done, it should make a pleasing profit for its studio, particularly if the ecstatic word of mouth holds, and it’s good to boot. Actually, more than to boot; the quality of Baby Driver is the point. With a greater degree of showmanship than any film in the last six months, Baby Driver feels like a director making an announcement: I’m here; this is how much fun I can make movies for you; and isn’t it nice when your popcorn doesn’t taste like cardboard?
While Baby Driver is not Edgar Wright’s first great movie—it’s not even his third after making modern day classics like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World—it is nonetheless his first film that feels tailor-made for a bigger audience. Wright of course has a loyal and intensely cult like following due to his ability to write and direct films bursting with immense talent and craftsmanship that reward audiences who are cinematically literate (or video game and anime literate in Scott Pilgrim’s case), devouring his intertextual visual and aural feasts like it’s Easter Sunday, and the movie god has risen. Hallelujah! However, there has been a certain threshold of pre-existing knowledge for enjoying these kind of pictures.
Perhaps that is why Wright, an unabashed visionary with a distinct cinematic voice entrenched in the language of whip pans and jump cut editing, never quite fit in at Marvel Studios. As a recurring line throughout Baby Driver, it is easy to imagine he thought on more than one occasion, “You don’t belong in this world.” Apparently the feeling was mutual since he and Marvel parted ways over creative differences—namely he would have made Ant-Man too much of an Edgar Wright film and less of a Marvel (and Disney) product. This is becoming more common in the modern studio system which is currently hiring writers rooms for franchises that can have a film out every year (and that worked out great for The Mummy and Transformers 5), and which have seen other recent clashes between studio branding and filmmaking style, such as the ugly breakup between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller on the untitled Han Solo movie.
As the studios push farther into serialized and television-esque storytelling, as well as theme park spectacle, many of these tentpoles are becoming more homogenous. Stylish filmmakers like Wright may not seem to belong in those worlds… but they should. Which brings us back to Baby Driver, a thrilling movie stuffed with excitement, wit, entertainment, and other adjectives associated with big budget blockbuster, action-comedies… but it is also intense, surprising, and dramatically satisfying. It also feels wholly made by a singular director.
Universities will likely always debate the merits of “auteur theory,” or the concept that a director can impart a signature all his own on the filmmaking process, but visually and narratively there is little doubt when you’re watching Tarantino or Nolan, Kubrick or Spielberg, Ford or Hitchcock. And the same is true for Edgar Wright whose Baby Driver is the most commercial movie he’s ever made—it’s even a heist movie like his abandoned Ant-Man. But unlike the Ant-Man that Marvel eventually produced, Baby Driver is fueled by creative ingenuity and visceral uniqueness that lingers in the mind.
Wright intentionally takes a rote and familiar movie setup, one in which a young kid (Ansel Elgort) gets caught in the world of heists, and fills it with archetypes. There’s hardass Griff (Jon Bernthal) and mad dog Batts (Jamie Foxx). There is Baby’s crafty mentor, as well as intimidating thug ring leader, Doc (Kevin Spacey); and then that good country girl who wants to get out of the city and start over, Debora (Lily James). It’s intentionally traditional so the audience will come into the tent. And then they are allowed to be wowed by a film that subverts everything about this kind of heist movie, right down to defying the two types of endings associated with it.
But more than anything, it’s all in service to a showcase of Wright’s style. He uses the movie to film some of the greatest car chases of the 21st century with plenty of homages to his old favorites like Bullit. As that movie treasured the geography of San Francisco, Wright utilizes Atlanta as his actual backdrop (as opposed to taking advantages of those tax credits and pretending it’s set somewhere else). Baby adores the southeast freeways and the sunny greenery. But it is also showing off to a larger audience all the tricks that the Wright cult previously knew so well. Consider the entire pretense of the film is to edit every scene, and almost every moment, to a meticulously chosen song likely on Wright’s multiple iPods. And, as it turns out, as much as audiences love branding, they also enjoy a movie that doesn’t look or feel like everything else.
Baby Driver’s success continues a trend that began earlier this year where medium and low budgeted movies with big ideas or an even bigger style were overperforming, such as Split, Get Out, La La Land, and Hidden Figures. It seems even in summer movies that an auteur’s touch, as with several of those aforementioned pictures, can play well as an original, standalone movie. Although as it becomes harder for medium budgeted movies in this vein to find that amount of money to be produced, we’re seeing it take new shapes in the marketplace.
Also appearing to have captured a sizable amount of cultural relevance this month is Netflix and Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja. While Netflix will never release the number of viewers its original content enjoys, the movie nevertheless appears to be the first Netflix produced original movie to be breaking into the mainstream. A proudly impossible to classify fable, Okja is both funny and terrifying, joyful and heartbreaking. It also is a multicultural oddity that combines the South Korean sensibilities of its director and its protagonist (Ahn Seo-hyun) with an American one for much of its setting and remaining cast (Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and more). It’s the type of nuanced and left-of-center crazy that only Bong could so precisely balance… and no American studio would produce for wide distribution.
Yet Netflix paid the $50 million to make Bong’s vision a reality. They were rewarded with their first film that has struck a chord in pop culture as self-professed vegans on social media are popping up overnight. While the film has not played well with cinephile traditionalists due to its Netflix distribution—it memorably got booed by French audiences at the Cannes Film Festival—audiences who sadly no longer pay to go to the movies every week are discovering it on Netflix. It’s a movie only made possible from a specific vision, and one that has something to say about the meat industry, capitalism, and how you are living your life.
Folks are responding in a way that is almost unheard of from traditional summer fare. Okja also has its own great set-pieces, including what would have also been the best car chase of the summer if Baby Driver hadn’t just also opened. Between them, however, is a realization that the idea of an auteur, or at least directors with strong and visceral storytelling techniques, have a larger role in the modern moviemaking landscape, not a lesser one.
It’s a lesson that is likely to only be reinforced when Christopher Nolan, on the strength of his storytelling reputation alone, will be able to open a movie about a World War II battle most Americans are sadly oblivious of at the height of beach season in a few weeks.
Perhaps if some of these deadly dull would-be blockbusters also had distinct personalities, audiences might not be so fatigued with their pirates, robots, and mummies. Even the boffo success of Wonder Woman feels decidedly different from the rest of the DCEU, and more in line with Patty Jenkins’ sensibilities than the committee that marketed and re-edited Suicide Squad into gibberish. In fact, Wonder Woman is quite standalone from the rest of its overarching mega-franchise, and appears like a film from a storyteller, as opposed to a product from an assembly line.
Hopefully, it will also allow Jenkins to one day do an original movie in her sensibility on a bigger budget than she could ever have in the indie world. Because I suspect if we have a few more summers like this, studios might be looking at why those smaller films are hitting at a much higher rate, and they too will want to jump in for a ride with Baby out of town.