Chemistry is a funny thing. In one respect, it is supremely predictable; mix this chemical with that one, and you will get this result/reaction. But in others, it is amazingly unpredictable. Take for example, three films released over the past month: X-Men: Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, and Terminator: Salvation. Each are special effects filled genre films, essentially sequels, attempting to cash-in on the built-in fanbase and name recognition, released in the prime summer blockbuster season. Each, in its own way, is a mix of certain chemicals. Yet the results have been far far different for each. Let us look closer, shall we?
X-Men: Origins: Wolverine
This is what could be considered the 4th film in the X-Men franchise. As such, it has the weight of expectation behind it that it will fit in with the rest of the films. It is a prequel, in fact, so it should, by all means, set-up the preceding three films. It stars Hugh Jackman, a popular actor, as Wolverine, the (arguably) most popular X-Man, in what was his breakout role. Yet it fails, on some level, to really capture what made the first 2 films (the third is mediocre at best) so great. It is flat, placid, almost rote in its movements. The special effects are laughably bad at times, and while the actors (especially Jackman and Liev Shreiber as Sabreto- excuse me, “Creed”) do their college try best, the script is far from good. In all fact, it is full of plot holes and continuity errors, not just with the other films, but with ITSELF. It seems, from all appearances, to be the quick cash-grab sequel that many pegged it to be when it was announced (and that Fox as a studio has been known for in recent years, especially with genre franchises). All the elements are there: good actors, up and coming director (Gavin Hood), a lauded screenwriter (David Benioff), and a beloved central character, but they add up to much less than the sum of its parts. The chemicals never mix, and it sits there, inert.
Also a “fourth” movie, this film bears the burden of not only its predecessors’ successes, but of that of its ostensible star, Christian Bale, the erstwhile Batman of the recent Christopher Nolan films. His very presence is both a boon to the film (in terms of the “star power” he brings) and a detriment (in that he carries a certain expectation with him). The problem, as this article/editorial from Chud.com shows, is that his part was not meant to be what it ultimately ended up as. One can argue back and forth as to whether this compromised the film or not, but as the final film shows, it certainly did not make it great. It has a multitude of action sequences, yes, all varied and exciting, a spectacle to the utmost. And that is what is likely the best part of the film, as the rest of its parts never quite come together to make a satisfying whole. It is, to quote, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” The script seems glued together from disparate pieces, and its cracks show at times. The actors are nothing really to sneeze at either, as they’re all either just rote action cyphers, or “tormented character X.” Bale, especially, seems to basically be in Batman mode still. (He desperately needs to play a role where he can have FUN again. Like Patrick Bateman. Something crazy to get him out of “dour, driven tortured man of action” mode.) The various pieces of the movie are there for it to be something interesting and different, a continuation of what made T-2 great (we’re ignoring the third one), but it fails to bring them together. Its chemicals fail to react with each other, and it fizzles.
This film bears the greatest burden of the three, as it has had the most predecessors, and the most riding on it. It’s not just a continuation of a franchise (which it is), nor is it just a reboot (which it is as well); it had to simultaneously please a very loud and skeptical fandom and attract a new audience which looked at the “brand” as something old and stale, and maybe past its prime. Add to that the glamour and mystery that its director, super-producer and writer JJ Abrams, brings to every project he’s involved with. The fact that it succeeds is almost beside the point now. The uphill climb it faced before even a single foot of film had been shot was insane. Of the three films discussed, this one definitely had the closest scrutiny. Its success, both monetarily (which, no mistake, all three of these films made money; how much will be discussed shortly) and dramatically/critically, is the most impressive story of the early summer movie season. And much of that, if not all of it, can be attributed to two things: JJ Abrams, and the cast. Because, make no mistake, the script is not great. There are many plot-holes, and many areas which bear the mark of being maybe one draft away from being fixed. The writers strike affected this film, probably more than the other two, in a very palpable way. But, and this is a large “but”, the casting saves it. Every person in every major role has such a sense of fun and life to them, that any plot holes and inconsistencies are easily overlooked. WITHOUT recalling or deriding the actors who played their various roles before. The unique nature of the film (not quite a reboot, but not a direct prequel) made it possible for the actors (with special notice to Chris Pine as Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock) to take what elements they wanted from their predecessors and then add their own unique spark. Much like Abrams, in both his directorial duties and in a design sense, ventured away from the past films, but still added touches which acknowledged them. The chemicals mixed, and they reacted, and they made something newer and better.
Like I said, these are all unpredictable things. And make no mistake, all three were monetarily successful films. This time of year, it’s very hard for a big franchise film to NOT make money. But only Star`Trek surpassed expectations. Wolverine and Terminator both had large opening weekends, then crashed hard, losing (in the case of Wolverine) up to almost 70% off its box office total in its second week. Star Trek made more than 30% more than expected in its first weekend, then stayed near the top for the next 2 weeks, ending up (as of this writing) with $232 million in domestic box office. (Wolverine has made $176 million, and Terminator has made $115 million.) It, along with UP and The Hangover, is the big winner of the summer so far in terms of money made.
Film is literally made of chemicals: a piece of film consists of a light-sensitive emulsion applied to a tough, transparent base, sometimes attached to anti-halation backing or “rem-jet” layer. The emulsion is comprised of silver halide grains suspended in a gelatin colloid; in the case of color film, there are three layers of silver halide, which are mixed with color couplers and interlayers that filter specific light spectra. These end up creating yellow, cyan, and magenta layers in the negative after development. Movies themselves, though, are a chemistry crapshoot. No one can predict why any one film will catch on with audiences and another won’t. Remember: the expectation before release was that Titanic was going to be a huge flop; billions of billions of dollars later. . . It all comes down to luck and timing and the chemistry of filmmaker and audience meeting in a felicitous circumstance. All one can do is make your choices, step forward, and boldly go.