The coincidence that both coincidences take place in 1998 (ah, the good old days) does makes it a bit weirder, but weird coincidences aren’t the point of my note or this post. The point is how audiences reacted to the films.
For this Sci-Fi Saturday, I thought I’d ramble about some SF Yin-Yang pairs that have struck me over the years.
To begin, Deep Impact was directed by Mimi Leder, who went on to direct Pay It Forward (2000). She has TV directing experience going back to 1987, and she’s been nominated for some prestigious awards, some of which she’s won.
Before Deep Impact, she directed The Peacemaker (1997), which was quite watchable, I thought. (Clooney usually is.)
Deep Impact was written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin. Rubin wrote Brainstorm (1983), Ghost (1990), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), among others. Tolkin is a novelist and filmmaker who writes his own screenplays.
The cast features Robert Duvall, Téa Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Maximilian Schell, and Morgan Freeman. Some serious acting power.
It currently has a 45% / 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
It opened stronger than Armageddon, and according to Wikipedia, has earned $349-million. Sounds pretty good, actually.
Armageddon was directed by Michael Bay, who had directed Bad Boys (1995) and The Rock (1996). The former I found fluffy harmless nonsense. I rather liked the latter (although it was also nonsensical).
Bay went on to become a hugely successful filmmaker with a long string of flashy thrill-ride hits.
Armageddon was written by Jonathan Hensleigh and (drum roll) J.J. Abrams. Hensleigh wrote the third Die Hard film, Jumanji, Con Air, The Saint, Next, and others. He’s married to Gale Anne Hurd, producer of lots of action films, especially for James Cameron. Hurd co-produced Armageddon along with Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer.
So this is a power lineup of action film folk.
The cast features Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Peter Stormare, Keith David, and Steve Buscemi. A few clinkers, but mostly a very good cast.
Now for the denouement…
It currently has a 38% / 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics didn’t really care for it much, but audiences ate dug like popcorn (which it’s nutritionally similar to).
According to Wiki, it’s grossed $553.7-million. I thought it would be higher than $200-million more.
Admittedly, comparing the movies side-by-side, the difference isn’t that stark.
But what is stark is what happened next. Leder is likely only known to film cognoscenti. (She’s only done four films since.) But Bay, and the kinds of stories he does, have become a billion-dollar segment of the film business.
The Marvel movies and the DCU movies, for example, along with all the other modern action films (the Fast & Furious franchise, the Transformer movies, etc).
Not that it started with Armageddon. By 1998 all three Star Wars movies had been out for years, and there had been four Aliens films. The ninth Star Trek film came out in 1998.
But I think it’s when action films started getting stupid.
Micheal Bay and J.J. Abrams are key figures in an ethic of storytelling that’s big on action and low on logic, plot, character, nuance, depth, or other distractions.
Audiences seem to have expressed a preference for stories they experience sensually but not especially intellectually. (The fade of long-form blogging reflects this trend.)
As one example: the recent Sherlock Holmes movies (with Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes). These are framed as action films.
Which I think is disgraceful. Holmes, although capable of the physical, was all about the intellectual. Why does everything have to be a big-screen action film? Aren’t there enough of those already? (I used to have so much regard for Guy Ritchie, which, come to think of it, ties into the latter part of this post.)
Besides Armageddon vs Deep Impact there’s an example that affects me more deeply:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of The Simpsons, but Futurama was awesome. The Simpsons is still on the air, while Futurama struggled for the four regular seasons it got and struggled mightily, over a period of years, to turn out six more.
You might think, in Anno Stella Bella, that a show like Futurama would be a bigger hit. Isn’t everyone gaga for sci-fi now? There’s a whole cable channel…
But no. It was just a bit too smart and required a bit too much SF background for many to fully enjoy.
The Simpsons has a smart background, often consisting of mathematical or physics jokes, but it also has Homer and Bart Simpson (and the rest), who are more universally accessible. Probably why the show is still on.
I’m sad Futurama (and Deep Impact) didn’t make a deeper impact.
I enjoy a good action film as much as anyone, but I want more than just visual thrills. That got old long ago for me. I need, if not something to keep me in the story, at least not so much illogical bullshit that I’m constantly forced out of the story.
They’re the leaders of a group that includes Robert Heinlein, Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and Kevin Smith. There are other SF writers, James P. Hogan, Frank Herbert, Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, a few others. Frank Miller, the comic book writer/artist is in the group, too.
If you’re familiar enough with these storytellers you may have twigged to where I’m headed with this. In a word: disappointment.
Membership belongs to those who made a huge impact on some segment of storytelling. In many cases they created classics remembered as high points others only aspire to. And then they did something else.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, Firefly, Clerks, Dune. Heinlein wrote defining science fiction, Niven gave us Known Space, Ringworld, and Moties. Frank Miller gave us Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which largely defined the modern form of comics (he also gave us Sin City, a tour-de-force in graphic novel chiaroscuro).
These guys are landscape-shaping giants.
I saw Star Wars the night it opened. It was like plugging into a high voltage socket. A game-changer. The two that followed were pretty good — certainly as good, if not much better, than anything else at the time.
But then Lucas made those other three “Star Wars” movies…
Of which comedian Brian Posehn once said, “It’s like waking up to discover that your favorite uncle has snuck into your bedroom and put his penis on your face.” It’s a sense of violation from an unexpected and beloved direction.
Peter Jackson was god for a while. He delivered a vision of Tolkien’s Trilogy that seemed very close to what most of us had imagined from the books. Rather than utterly spoiling our imagination, he seemed to enhance it.
I didn’t know him in his earlier horror-thriller phase, I met him with The Frighteners (1996), which starred Michael J. Fox, and which I really enjoyed. It’s one of many unsuccessful films that I think are real gems. (Johnny Dangerously heads that list. It’s a great film.)
But then Jackson made those other three Hobbit movies…
I’m not the first to observe there might be an adequate telling of The Hobbit in editing all three movies down to one 90-minute film. As it stands, watching is an ordeal.
For many SF fans, Robert Heinlein divides into early-Heinlein and late-Heinlein (although the exact dividing line can vary a bit).
But late-Heinlein is embarrassing and makes one cringe.
I think Zack Snyder completely blew the doors of Watchmen. I was as impressed with his vision as I was with Jackson’s LotR. Another enhancement of the original. But then there’s Sucker Punch and some of his DC work.
Joss Whedon is a demi-god to many for Firefly (to others for Buffy), and he doesn’t really belong on this list. It’s more a Futurama thing with Firefly, which tragically only got one season. I loved The Cabin in the Woods, and I thought Justice League was okay.
So, Joss, you’re excused; sorry about that!
Kevin Smith is another borderline case. His early Jay and Silent Bob films are classic among filmmakers, but Jersey Girl… ouch. I tried to watch Cop Out; couldn’t finish (a rare Ugh! rating). But Chasing Amy is excellent, and Dogma is a favorite of mine.
There are the Wachowski sisters, who (were brothers when they) made The Matrix, their third film, another cinema landmark. Since then, I haven’t been impressed. (Their first two films, Assassins and Bound are favorites of mine.)
It occurs to me that Bruce Willis and Sandra Bullock are actor versions of this. They’ve been in some really outstanding films (Die Hard, Speed) and in some real turkeys (other Die Hard movies, Speed 2).
But these are rare, and even giants are allowed to stumble occasionally. The inverse of up being the only place to go when you’re way down, is that when you’re in the stratosphere it’s fly or fall.
Most of us would be so lucky as to make a contribution to the landscape such as these have.
But Lucas and Jackson (and Heinlein),… that was disappointing.
Stay stratospheric, my friends!