Plastic Promises & Hollywood Happiness

It may or may not surprise you to hear that I’m considered somewhat pessimistic by my friends.

You may think that with a bleak personality such as mine I would crave the colourful delights of Disney films. You would be mistaken. Instead I find them subversive and seditious.

You may think that with an isolated existence such as mine I would crave the aspirational gloss of teen dramas like The O.C. You would be incorrect. Instead I find them offensive projections of an unrealistic ambition.

You may think that with a life like mine I would watch films simply to escape myself, to feel a fleeting fantastical happiness at the hands of a fictional circumstance. You would be wrong. I revel in the sadistic side of cinema. I want it grim. I want all the grim you’ve got.

Recently I learned through a fellow blogger that the theatrical ending of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie flick 28 Days Later is not the original ending. 

[Spoilers inbound]

Originally the film ended with Jim dying in hospital after being shot. This perfectly represents the lack of hope both globally and personally. Jim’s death represents the ultimate fate of everyone, not only in this particular situation, but in all our lives. It’s certainly a bleak climax, but if there’s ever a movie in which it’s considered contextually relevant, it’s a movie featuring cultish rape and quasi-cannibalism.

The original ending was altered after test screening groups stated it was too grim. In a movie in which death is the primary focus, a movie in which thousands perish in horrifying circumstances, it was the singular death of a protagonist that pushed them past their maximum morbidity capacity. Presumably they were hoping for a jovial finale.

Apparently my maximum morbidity capacity exceeds that of the average cinema-goer. As such I wish the ending had been left alone. To rewrite an ending, your ending, to serve the ordinary opinions of an average audience seems like a betrayal of self.

Test screening also affected the finale of I Am Legend. While the original ending didn’t mirror the ending of the novel on which the film is based, it did follow the themes and tone more closely. But because the movie was intended to be a, and indeed was a Hollywood blockbuster, it had to have a suitably victorious ending. It’s unsurprising really. I suspect Will Smith is contractually obliged to save the world in all his films.

During the climax Neville heroically cooks a grenade and goes all kamikaze on his uninvited guests. Ending both his own life and the lives of countless scourge. This couldn’t stray further from the original novel ending in which Neville realises it is he who is their scourge. The infected do not appear during the day not because they’re nocturnal, but because it is they who are afraid of him. He is the last remaining man in a world in which infection has become normality. The film makes no attempt to convey the human characteristics of the scourge that became so prevalent during the novel’s finale and instead depicts them as archetypal zombies.

In the alternate ending to the film the infected are portrayed as having retained some aspects of humanity. Neville shares an understanding moment with the alpha male, and the film concludes with no further deaths. But nothing physical and emotional victory like valorous self-sacrifice.

In reality of course, Will Smith cannot save us. He is but a mere mortal and is doomed to the same fate that awaits us all – death.

It must be hard to hope for a happy ending whilst in the midst of a post-apocalyptic scenario. Yet Hollywood relentlessly serves them up to please the mainstream cinema-going audience. Characters in post-apocalyptic films too often express an overriding sense of hope. Sure some people are naturally optimistic, the bastards. But it’s hard to believe that over months of unrelenting agony their will has not corroded.

I appreciate that we attend the cinema to be entertained, and by that token; to be happy. Escapism is a wonderful thing. But beneath the glossy sheen of Tinseltown serves a reminder. A warning of what is a very real possibility – an apocalypse.

With this in mind, we as a race should should ensure that our post-apocalyptic pals are as informed as possible by making our media as grim as we can. When all that remains is the last man, woman and child on earth, if they’re not able to employ the sickest of tactics in order to slay every cannibal, nanomorph, vampire, werewolf, xenomorph and zombie and escape unscathed, they and the final remnants of humanity will be confined to non-existence.

What good is hope? As my favourite doctor once said – hope is for sissies.

Fortunately not all post-apocalyptic films feature the plastic promise of Hollywood happiness. The Road is probably the most beautifully bleak movie ever made. Any and every molecule of hope is completely eclipsed by misery. In comparison with reality it’s actually mildly chirpy, but in comparison with the Hollywood archives it’s like the Great Depression meets Keanu Reeves.

Unsurprisingly The Road‘s box office performance was almost as dismal as it’s ambiance. Unfortunately it seems that unless your horizon sparkles with the glitter of a billion rainbows, audiences would rather stay at home and knit kittens and tickle puppies, or whatever it is happy people do.

When executed correctly the lessons imparted to us by post-apocalyptic media are plentiful. Through an amalgamation of films, literature, television and videogames a person can learn enough survival techniques to rival Bear Grylls. The Road is no exception. It’s the most authentic post-apocalyptic vision I have seen. Surely there is no lesson in cinema more depressing than a father teaching his son how to properly commit suicide.

The Road is an extreme example of post-apocalyptic grimness. Even I found it harrowing, and I’m cold and dead on the inside. I commend the producers for staying true to Cormac McCarthy’s source material. The film could have easily been adapted into a more hopeful affair. Marketers could have advertised a story of persistance, love and survival. Box office figures would have been higher. Instead the film documents man losing the fight to survive and relinquishing unrealistic ambitions. This to me seems a more realistic interpretation of the impending doom which will inevitably befall us all – extinction.

Chin up. The sun’ll rise tomorrow. The weatherman said so.

MacTingz

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8 thoughts on “Plastic Promises & Hollywood Happiness

  1. As far as less-than-happy endings go, did you like Brokeback Mountain? Seriously, I loved it. The ending was full of regret. It was a sad and beautiful poem that movie. Not post-apocalyptic but your post made me think of it.

    • Brokeback Mountain is a film I’ve never seen. But I can imagine a rather macabre finale given the narrative. A favourite bleak ending of mine is the finale of A Serious Man. I highly recommend that if you haven’t seen it. It seems as if everyone and everything is in jeopardy as it ends. Though to be fair, it maintains a pretty grim tone throughout. All the more reason to love it.

      Thanks for reading Crispin.

      Mac.

  2. I agree with you on just about everything here (and thanks for the links by the way). I personally like Matheson’s novel much better than I am Legend or even the excellently dated but ‘70s chic The Omega Man – mostly because of Matheson’s depictions of the other and how hegemony creates a false perception of the familiar. It’s like the United States shortly following 9/11: we needed the other to come to terms with our own imperialism, which was the catalyst for the attacks, and by doing so we crafted a fictitious representation of an enemy so we could define and justify our own actions and fears. Matheson’s protagonists (or should I say antagonist?) is an individual symbol of this kind of act which is by no means solely relegated to post-modernity (e.g. the West post-9/11) but brilliantly relevant in the early years of the 21st century.

    As far as The Road goes, I feel it’s the most accurate depiction of humanity following the collapse of society. Everybody loves to believe we’ll understand how this ignoble experiment called civilization will end but we’re cripplingly dependent on communications for any context; The Road abolishes this form of understanding and gives nothing – a testament to McCarthy’s excellent literary prowess and his knack for understanding the intricate workings of the world we live in. It’s hubris to believe we can fully comprehend the world, believing our interactions with it comprise every single action of this little planet we inhabit. This lack of control over events in The Road is by far the most tantalizing part of the film (or book) – even our lives are dictated by exterior forces and this emphasis on the individual which is so prevalent in Western civilization disappears in The Road.

    However, I’m not sure I believe it’s an entirely bleak text. The whole “carry the fire,” metaphor (appearing in both version of the tale) is a testament to the enduring spirit of humanity. Even when faced with complete annihilation there are those who adhere to a specific set of ethics, clinging steadfast to life regardless of the hardships. I felt this was a similar theme in 28 Days Later, although it uses zombies as its catalyst, not an unknown disaster or series of disasters.

    By the way, Brokeback Mountain is an excellent film and everybody should see it, regardless of sexual preference. I still need to see A Serious Man. I just picked it up on Blu-ray the other day for $7 but haven’t even opened it yet. I think it was a case of money burning a hole in my pocket but I know I’ll get around to it once I finish my thesis defense on Thursday. This weekend is going to be a lazy weekend with a stack of DVD’s, a pile of junk food, a couple packs of cigarettes (and other goodies), and a very comfortable couch. =)

  3. Haha. That sounds like a similar weekend to my own…

    This post has been in the works since I read your posts a while back. It’s essentially an extension of my own comments on your posts. But due to videogames, television and chronic procrastination it’s taken me a while to finally finish it.

    I agree with you regarding 28 Days Later and The Road, they’re certainly not entirely bleak. But the metaphor at the heart of The Road is really the only glimmer of hope in a very bleak film. It’s certainly the most bleak film I’ve seen. Though strangely I’d love to find something even more so.

    I Am Legend is probably the worst case of ending-altering I know of. The leap from the source material is so drastic it almost undermines the entire moral of a the story.

    I think my desire for grimness is born out of the predictability of the film. We’re quickly conditioned growing up that the hero will prevail. It’s obvious that James Bond won’t die, that Superman will stop the crisis. It’s the surprise of a protagonists’ failure that I crave most. I think it makes for a great film, and a greater ending. Not in every case, but in many.

    Also I suspect it’s partly a British desire to simply see everything go tits up. Then again maybe I’m confusing the cravings of a culture with my own twisted ambitions. Surely not everyone is as sick as I am.

    As always thanks for reading. And an extra thanks for practically inspiring this post.

    Mac.

    PS. I’d love to hear your thoughts on A Serious Man once you’ve digested its darkness.

    • You’re right that the tiny fire metaphor in The Road is the only glimmer of hope in the movie but I believe it’s a powerful hope, almost foreshadowing all others. For all its bleakness and environmental atrophy the human will to survive is powerful. This doesn’t negate the majority of the film being very, very austere and depressing but it offers a small amount of comfort that humankind can transcend such harshness and survive; possibly even evolving in some fashion. I feel this is a mainstay of post-apocalyptic films: showing what contemporary humanity should avoid while, in a bizarre fashion, demonstrating the positive qualities of our ilk. Max in The Road Warrior, who eventually comes to the aid of the good guys and sheds his rough and tough loner persona for the good of others, is an excellent example of this. Here’s a man who only looks out for himself (and possibly his dog) but eventually learns humanity’s greatest asset isn’t merely individual endurance but the survival of the many. What are we but one in a continuous collective – parts equaling a whole?

      I don’t think you’re twisted for wanting to see things go “tits up” with a film, as I’m not always the biggest fan of cookie-cutter endings (although they are sometimes welcomed). I think it really depends on the film. If I’m watching something like The Blind Side I want to see the overwhelming triumph at the conclusion; if I’m watching something like The Road I desire realism, a sense of the corporeal. Asimov said, “science fiction authors foresee the inevitable,” taking from the contemporary and extrapolating on it; good science fiction does exactly this and a deviation from reality isn’t always welcome. Obviously there is always a sense of fantasy in all fiction (isn’t reality stranger than fiction sometimes?), but that doesn’t mean a retreat into the completely ludicrous is acceptable. A film like The Road is frighteningly real, deviating from the regular tropes in film and giving a horrifically believable depiction of one potential future. I like that. I feel it’s necessary for humanity to see into their own self, holding a mirror up to humanity and saying, “this is what you are, this is where you’re heading, and this is what you should contemplate.”

      I personally believe The Road is an excellent piece of post-modern fiction yearning for modernism. I read something the other day saying post-modernism doesn’t deny modernism but merely states modernist narratives are exhausted. While reading McCarthy’s book I felt this was a central theme – where the characters are clinging to a world long gone (modernism) but interacting with a new one without any rules (post-modernism). Post-modernism has always been basically a world without any singular meta-narrative, any overarching myth or story outlining a civilization’s values and trajectory – The Road is exactly that: a world where the former structure is absent and confusion is paramount. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re screwed but instead we need to transcend the formerly accepted conventions. When the child interacts with Guy Pierce at the film’s conclusion, asking him whether he’s, “carrying the fire,” and asking whether they’ll be ok, the only answer Pierce can deliver is that they are “carrying the fire,” but nothing else. I found this very telling; especially about the world we live in today – a wasteland of countless narratives which only really amount to very little when stacked side by side.

      I am very flattered my posts inspired this one and I think you’re really on to something with this post. You’re not looking at the post-apocalyptic genre as a romp but a warning. Of course I find these films and texts highly enjoyable but that’s because they offer something pertinent to the audience. A film like Blade Runner is fun because it’s visually appealing, has a great soundtrack, and a great story but its also excellent because it’s more than that. It’s a film asking what constitutes the individual and how that individual’s actions impact their environment. I think those who look at dystopic and apocalyptic texts and realize the implications of these pieces is ultimately a forward looking person, a person possessing a positive outlook about the future but who isn’t deluding themselves about what mass ignorance can and will bring. Just like The Road is ultimately a positive piece in the end, those who explore post-apocalyptic film and literature are looking for the bright moments amidst a sea of banality and hopelessness.

      By the way, I’m totally watching A Serious Man this weekend. After your brief comments on it I’m even more interested in watching it.

      Also, are you in college?

  4. I’m in university yeah. Studying Music Technology. This semester we’ve have done a lot of film analysis pertaining to sound design and score. I’m writing a report on sound design and score of The Terminator at the moment. Or rather, supposed to be… I’d include some technical observations here, as film sound design and score is a strong interest of mine, but I’d rather keep ABP for cynical observations and crass humour than have to think about work outside of university. I’m incredibly lazy.

    • The soundtrack for The Terminator is excellent and really sets the mood for the film. I like how it’s akin to John Carpenter’s compositions, relying less on orchestration than on minimalism. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen The Terminator. One of my favorite soundtracks of all time is from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, which was done with jazz luminary Don Cherry. I’d highly suggest it and feel it’s very ahead of its time.
      I’m trying to create another section for Abortions for All which features music (since its easy posting a Youtube link to a song every day) but for the life of me I can’t figure it out. I’m not that technologically savvy in comparison to my Millennial brethren.

  5. Pingback: Plastic Promises & Hollywood Happiness | SquabbleBox.co.uk – Entertainment Under Attack

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