Robin Williams stars in the murder mystery Insomnia with Al Pacino and Hilary Swank.
Summer is the time when Hollywood rolls out its blockbusters: market-oriented, genre films that exploit a proven fad or formula for one purpose: a big profit. Attempts to please the largest possible audience make most summer films long on convention and short on substance.
Men in Black II is a perfect example. Its sole purpose is to make money off the popularity of the original movie, which it does by using the same plot (saving the earth), same jokes (talking dogs, rookie/vet relationship) and same special effects (okay, I’ll admit there were more aliens). If you want to waste twelve bucks and 88 minutes, MIB II is at least an interesting cultural study in filling time (how long can opening credits be?) and product placement (apparently aliens like Mountain Dew).
Not all genre films are as shameless as MIB II, but most summer Hollywood films will have this tendency. The Sum of All Fears, a loose adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t exploit product placement but it does capitalize on a proven formula- The Hunt for Red October, the original Jack Ryan film. Rent The Hunt on video before going to see The Sum, and you’ll have extra amusement matching scenes between the two movies (Ryan desperately trying to convince those in power; Ryan confronting the Russian leader on his ability to speak English, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, The Hunt is a good film, and The Sum is not a bad successor, but it’s still a copy trying to cash in.
This summer’s other mega spy-novel adaptation, The Bourne Identity, is about an amnesiac with some serious personal identity issues (namely, that he’s an assassin). Again, it’s not bad – the film is a stylistic thriller with an interesting concept. But compare it with Memento, another recent amnesia film. Memento is told backwards (guaranteeing a small box office draw) in order to explore questions of truth and the human conscience. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Memento’s entire budget would have only covered the catering for The Bourne Identity, but, as is usually the case, a film’s budget and its substance are inversely related.
Thankfully, there are exceptions. Memento’s Nolan released his first big-budget film with Insomnia this past May, starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hilary Swank. Detective Dormer (Pacino) becomes intimately connected with the murderer (Williams) he is pursing when he shoots his own partner dead while giving chase.
Dormer pins his partner’s death on the murderer and thus, he becomes caught in his own lie: if he catches the murderer he only exposes himself.
The title refers to Dormer’s sleepless nights, tormented by his own guilt-ridden conscience and the endless Alaskan summer light.
As in Memento, Mr. Nolan uses flashbacks to expose the viewer to a character’s conscience, in this case Det. Dormer, who longs to be free of guilt. In fact, a part of him wants his sins exposed and this eventually leads to a spontaneous confession – and absolution, of sorts – to a person he hardly knows.
Set in Nightmute, Alaska (though B.C. readers will recognize it as Squamish), the story is supported metaphorically by the juxtaposition of lush green landscapes with cold white ice fields in the small Alaskan town. We see the subtle ways sin creeps into the good-intentioned person, not unlike the glacier inching down the mountainside in the film’s last scene. Det. Dormer learns first-hand how small compromises lead us astray.
As Christians, we know the value of honest storytelling, and so the challenge is to wade through the market-driven films to find those filmmakers who are willing to sacrifice market result to tell an interesting story that gives insight into the human condition. You may not agree with them, but you can at least admire them for trying to say something. While the best places to find these film authors, or auteurs, are often national and independent cinemas, there are a few to be found, like Mr. Nolan, even in Hollywood.
Jason Goode teaches Christianity and Cinema at Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, Sask.