Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Michael Jackson must be so disappointed


Because the thriller is dead.

Don't believe me? Well, when's the last time you remember getting really excited for an upcoming thriller? Don't hurt your brain.

The (at least temporary) death of one of cinema's most venerable genres first occurred to me over the weekend, as I was staring absently at a billboard for The International. I'd seen a trailer, and been unimpressed by it, several months earlier. Seems like another latter day paranoia movie about righteous people getting targeted by the corporate machine. Yawn.

This movie should theoretically have a lot to offer me, if not in terms of genre, then in terms of ingredients. Clive Owen may currently hold the honor of my biggest man-crush in Hollywood, and as for your run-of-the-mill heterosexual crushes, Naomi Watts ain't bad either. But perhaps most importantly, I love the director, Tom Tykwer. Despite having a couple duds on his résumé -- if you haven't seen Heaven, don't -- this man is truly an outside-the-box thinker, who brought his highly original perspectives to Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In fact, I own both films. If he can breathe exciting new vitality into a costume drama about conjuring fragrances, why can't he save the thriller?

Yet I have no interest whatsoever in seeing The International.

Maybe I'm gun shy from all the dreck that has littered the thriller landscape these last couple years. You know, the Firewalls, the AntiTrusts, the Disturbias. It's titles like these that leave me thinking the thriller is as dead as the horror was, before Scream came along.

Still don't believe me? Well, to further illustrate my point, I've taken a gander at my handy-dandy list of 2008 movies -- not the ones I saw, but the complete list, according to their U.S. release dates. Of the over 200 movies on this list, there were only nine -- that's right, nine -- I could feel fairly certain of classifying as straight-up thrillers. (I consider The Bank Job more of a heist movie, and the political thriller is a different enough genre to take Body of Lies out of contention). Granted, I don't recognize all the titles at a glance, but even if I've missed some, that still leaves the genre pretty darn scarce. And if there are thrillers on that list whose titles I don't recognize, that makes them fringe -- the kissing cousin of "scarce."

Shall we take a look at some of these films and how they fared?

88 Minutes. I saw this on a number of worst films of the year lists, as all of Al Pacino's shark-jumping tendencies really crystallized into a movie people could stand up and boo. I did not see this film, but am content to take its detractors at their word. U.S. box office: $17 million.

Bangkok Dangerous. Does a Nicolas Cage movie really count as a thriller, or is it its own idiotic genre? I should probably call this straight-up action, more like Max Payne or The Punisher: War Zone, neither of which I'm counting here. This film was a laughingstock, released on the first eligible date after Labor Day. You either count it as a failed thriller, which supports my theory, or don't count it as a thriller at all, which also supports my theory. I win either way. Clever, eh? U.S. box office: $15 million.

Cassandra's Dream. Woody Allen's Match Point was pretty definitely a thriller, and this was filmed on the same loooong trip to England as that film and Scoop, so let's classify it as a thriller. This film has less nuance than any Woody Allen film I've ever seen, with bluntly expository dialogue and almost a total lack of action. Boo-ring. Even Ewen McGregor and Colin Farrell can't liven it up, and U.S. audiences noticed in a major way. U.S. box office: $971,000.

Eagle Eye. This definitely qualifies as the most successful thriller of 2008, having crossed the $100 million mark in the U.S. How much of that can be credited to the filmgoing public's love affair with Shia LaBeouf is uncertain. Because you didn't hear critics saying much good about it, did you? The thing I thought was funniest about this film was that its poster contains no fewer than three anguished expressions apiece for its two stars -- anguished expressions on the poster being the dead giveaway that a movie's a thriller. I've included the poster here for your reference. U.S. box office: $101 million.

Lakeview Terrace. Supposedly laughable domestic thriller in which Samuel L. Jackson does everything but yell "I'm the police! King Kong ain't got nothing on me!" Interracial couples beware. This film was seriously derided by critics, but a couple people did see it. U.S. box office: $39 million.

Passengers. I would not be surprised if this Anne Hathaway starrer were really good, because Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) is a really good director. However, this film was so under the radar that IMDB does not even show a U.S. box office take for it, after an October 24th limited release. U.S. box office: ???

Tell No One. This is the thriller I wanted to see in 2008. A French film with some supposedly excellent twists. Yet I was never aware of it playing at any theaters near me. Though it did quite well in France, its U.S. results were much more modest. U.S. box office: $6 million.

Untraceable. Yet another "serial killer taunts FBI agent" movie, starring Diane Lane. It did okay at the box office, but that would seem to depend more on having little competition when it was released last January. No one said anything good about it. U.S. box office: $29 million.

Vantage Point. A decent cast boosted this "differing perspectives" thriller to a pretty good box office. But again, no one I respect had a nice thing to say about this movie. And it's yet another film on this list that I did not see. If you're counting, the only one I did see was Cassandra's Dream. And I try to see a good cross section of what's out there, if I have half a mind to. U.S. box office: $72 million.

Proof? Hardly. Signs of a trend? Hell yeah.

And it doesn't seem likely that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon. I'm not expecting some 21st century Hitchcock to come out of the woodwork. But then again, who would have thought one terrifying phone call to Drew Barrymore -- which has now become a parody mainstay -- would revive the whole horror genre?

As for The International ... well, if I have to give someone the benefit of the doubt, maybe it should be Tom Tykwer.

Or maybe I'll just wait to see what my fellow critics have to say about it first ...


Don Handsome said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Handsome said...

Technology killed the Thriller.

I'm no troglodyte, but I believe that besides Horror (if I see another haunted website movie, I'm going to spit up), no genre has suffered more at the hands of technology than the Thriller. I guess this is ironic because it seems like techno-wizardry could be a very cool tool in thrillers...but I believe that far too many films over-rely on super-technology instead of story. Classic thrillers had nothing more than old fashioned phones and analog pistols to tell their stories of intrigue and double-crosses etc and they did this just fine. I’m not saying that modern film makers should try to top the old school, but I am saying that right now very few modern film makers are able to do so. The main problem is that very few modern thrillers care to dwell on story but instead try to tap into a no-longer existent cultural fear of technology. Film producers need to stop pandering to misinterpreted cultural obsession with technology and start focusing on thrilling again.

To drive this point home, of the films that I saw from your list of 2008 Thrillers (four of them), three overuse technology in probably impossible ways. Eagle Eye (spoiler?) has evil super-computers, Untraceable has murders by website hits, and Vantage Point has a mess of impossible video-tricks that seem to contradict each other. But none of them has a coherent story. Only Tell No One has a good and fully realized where technology exists as a tool by the characters instead of character itself.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Don...I don't think that's the case. Look at TV. A show like 24 is the case study for a technological thriller.

I think that right now, thrillers are lazy. Throw a big name above the title and they're sure to come, right? Wrong.

I think the pendulum will swing back eventually. Somebody will make a really good, really classy thriller and it'll be like the horror revival all over again.

Vancetastic said...

Actually, I tend to agree with Don. I wouldn't necessarily classify 24 as a thriller, anyway -- I would argue that a thriller can't exist on TV, because its world has to have the confined limits of a two-hour running time. I guess you could say that a show like The X-Files was a thriller, but of course, that was only one of several of its incarnations. Even if you do classify 24 as a thriller, I'd argue that the technology is the worst part of the show. All the "send it to my screen" stuff makes it seem like they can do anything, everything, with just a push of a button in two seconds, and that actually contributes to the lazy-script syndrome you're talking about, Daddy.

Technology in movies almost always sucks, no matter what the genre. As Don and I have discussed, that was one of the things that was so good about The Departed. It was one of the first movies to really recognize the everpresent existence of cell phones in our world, AND use them smartly.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Why wouldn't you call 24 a thriller? I think if you're putting Disturbia and Vantage Point on the thriller list, you can put 24 up there.

Regardless, you backed up my point. Theatrical thrillers are lazy. There are clever ways to use technology, see ENEMY OF THE STATE, but it's harder to get around technology or embrace it.

Vancetastic said...

I guess if TV thrillers exist, 24 is one. I'm just not so sure that it's a useful genre designation for a television show.

One of my favorite uses of technology in movies is in a movie I totally shouldn't like: Deja Vu with Denzel Washington. That movie is a lot more fun than it should be. I watched that as part of a double feature of movies that were much better than I thought on my plane ride to Australia, Rocky Balboa being the other.