Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 in Film: Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians is a movie whose protagonist and antagonist are both so phenomenally unengaging, so devoid of anything even remotely compelling, so miserably caught up in their stultifying Peter Pan desparation to be believed in that they are bordering on radically inhuman. Even Peter Pan recognized that the point of the belief is not that it is there, but how it functions as an analogue for trust and the desire to be given autonomy over one's own life at a point when your entire life and identity is structured by its denial. Rise of the Guardians blithely ignores that slippage, instead taking belief in an exclusively theological register. It is less the epilogue to The Tempest, more Pokemon crying over Ash's corpse after Mewtwo kills him.*

Jackman's Easter Bunny and Baldwin's Santa and Fisher's Tooth Fairy are all pretty flat too, expressions of one character trait that grates pretty quickly. Antagony & Ecstasy covers this pretty succinctly in the fourth paragraph of his review here (the one paragraph in the whole thing which is entirely a parenthetical), so I don't really have much to say other than what I already have. Honestly that whole review is pretty spot on, in my mind at least, and this one is very informed by it. Antagony & Ecstasy is probably the only reviewer I give a shit about at this point, largely because I think we share a lot of fundamental assumptions and I tend to totally disagree with his conclusions most of the time, which as far as I am concerned is the best thing about critical writing. Anyway, back to the movie.

The overwhelming sense I got from this movie was that it was going to ram 3D down your fucking throat and you were going to like it. Every action sequence seemed designed exclusively to fucking pop out at you. And given that I think the best 3D I saw in a movie this year was for a movie that critical consensus seems to agree should have been a direct-to-DVD sequel, it is maybe not that important that I was not especially impressed. Which isn't the whole of it really; there is something to be said about the way that the 3D in Guardians managed to come off as technical and not gaudy, especially given how in your face it was. But then, on the other hand, who cares.

I am finding that this review might cause a bit of cognitive dissonance given how negative it seems, since the way I am describing it is on grounds that I usually reserve for hyperbolic praise. Which is to say: isn't strong environmental design, especially when it flies in the face of characterization, basically exactly what the fuck I'm all about? And the answer is yes, complicatedly but no less straightforwardly. So what is the problem?

Well. It is kind of difficult to say. The movie isn't unenjoyable, and there are things about it that I think would be worth looking at more closely; I am just not sure that I have the right ideas to do so. The review is coming off a lot more negative than I anticipated, actually, although I think that has a lot to do with the fact that criticisms I am putting forward tend to be not so much points made in passing, as I think of them, as ways to condemn a movie wholesale, and reading back makes it unclear that that distinction is in place.

For the most part I think my disappointment in the movie was largely a product of two things; its focus on the technical and its use of certain framing techniques. The technical issue is, as I have said, possibly something that can be taken as a positive, with regards to the 3D at least. But because every bit of the movie seems engineered towards technical proficiency in that specific way that technique gets used to describe something artificial that "feels" natural, all of the interesting frisson is ultimately smoothed over by the movie's technical achievement. If Silent Hill: Revelation 3D had the most interesting 3D effects I saw in theaters this year, it isn't unrelated to the fact that it does seem very much like it "should" have been a direct-to-DVD project; one of the precursors to that movie, in my mind, and one of my favorite films of all time, is Pulse 3, which was in fact direct-to-DVD. And the main reason it is so amazing has to do with how the technical aspects of the movie are so hamstrung that half the movie is very clearly shot in front of a green screen, which given that the movie is premised on a post-apocalyptic world where ghosts have come out of the Internet, is actually so poetically perfect that the failure of the technical is actually to the absolute benefit of the film as a whole. I doubt anyone agrees with me though; but the point is that Guardians is a bit too sprezzatura for my tastes.

Now for the more complicated point, in that I don't quite believe I will be able to do it justice even to myself, about frames. I touched on this briefly with the allusion to Peter Pan; Antagony & Ecstasy touched on it as well with the offhand joke about jRPGs. It is more the way that the character frame (amnesiac protagonist surrounded by NPCs...) gets fitted within the narrative frame (...fights Ultimate Evil who is a symbolic reflection of himself...) which is in turn fitted into the conceptual frame (...on an epic, mythological or theological scale...) and ultimately the thematic frame (...to Save The Children, and Find Himself). In practice, though, the conceptual frame -- which is also literally the only reason anyone is interested in this movie at all -- doesn't even remotely fit with the rest. It isn't that it can't -- I already mentioned Eternal Sonata in another review, which isn't a particularly close fit but is nevertheless an instructive one -- but that it just doesn't. And it works well enough on its own, as do most of the other bits, and it even seems to fit, smoothed over as it is by the technical aspects. But there remains something about it which just doesn't ever work. And perhaps worst of all, that technical flair right where I find most interesting only serves to obscure how it doesn't work, and to make it impossible to enjoy the friction that would be there in any other movie.

A conclusion, then, I suppose. A phenomenally well done movie whose craft is the only thing keeping it from being truly interesting.

Now my charms are all overthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.


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