On television, a “bottle episode” is one that producers of a series shoot on existing sets with core cast and crew members in order to flesh out (or in many cases just finish) a season without spending a lot of money. Although this phenomenon has existed for decades – including iconic installments of Seinfeld like “The Chinese Restaurant” or further back, Star Trek: The Original Series’ “The Tholian Web” – it’s one I was actually unaware of until more recently. But as films with bigger and bigger budgets have seemed to adopt this business model in an attempt to control costs, it has become harder and harder to ignore the obvious limitations that the “bottle episode” approach places on their scope, and eventually, their emotional impact.
The first time I really noticed the effects of “bottle episode” writing and producing on a big movie was on Iron Man 2. Marvel announced a release date for the film before they had a script, cast and crew in place, and the production was hurried to say the very least. But the most disappointing part of the film for yours truly (albeit not without serious competition) was the choice to have the film both open and close at the Stark Expo: the producers spent tons of money building the stage and exteriors around the Expo, and then decided to use that one location multiple times in order to maximize their investment. The end result, however, was a film that failed to take on a greater scope than its predecessor – especially given the promising overtones of an international consortium of adversaries for ol’ shellhead – and which ultimately never created a convincing sense of spectacle, no matter how entertaining it otherwise may have been.
Unfortunately, it’s this model which has since become standard fare among many “big” movies. In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Thor, the film’s big showdown with Devastator, an automaton engineered to cause as much carnage as possible, takes place in a small one-horse New Mexico town that has been completely evacuated, giving the title character almost literally no one to protect, and virtually eliminating any meaningful dramatic stakes if, Odin-forbid, Thor didn’t prevail. And last week’s Green Lantern ostensibly comes down to a battle to save earth that takes place almost on the face of the sun itself, and yet the most important third-act showdown took place between only three human characters, in a hangar, while the world-destroying monster Parallax hung outside like a fifth-year senior skipping class to smoke behind the boys’ locker room. Not to mention, Parallax’s attack on the nearby city only seems to happen from each end of a major thoroughfare rather than, say, the heavens from whence Parallax actually descended.
Having looked at the storyboards for that final sequence on the set of Green Lantern, I admit was particularly hopeful that Martin Campbell and his talented collaborators would pull off the story’s literally galactic finale and create something truly sweeping. But looking back at the blockbusters that entertained me as a child, neither Campbell’s film nor almost any other movie made in the past several years seemed to capture that epic scope, or maybe just communicate it to the audience. And I don’t think it’s a matter of audiences being more aware of the machinations of special effects, or oversaturated by films that feature similar sorts of spectacle. Movies now simply do not have the same sense of wonder that they did ten or twenty years ago. In fact, it’s precisely this idea of a larger world – as a marketing concept if not necessarily in execution – that propelled J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 to the Number One spot at the box office.
Ironically, I don’t think that Super 8 counts as epic either, primarily because it never actually captures a genuine sense of awe or wonder in the way that Spielberg and Abrams’ other predecessors did (the alien is revealed piecemeal, and then unassumingly via 8mm footage), but mostly because it never synthesizes the mundane details of the main character’s life with a world that presents mysteries beyond his comprehension. But where are the real Raiders of the Lost Arks, the Star Wars, The Neverending Storys, those films that take us from one place to another to another as a component of creating a larger universe, and don’t seem constantly conscious of the fact that the production’s bank account is dwindling every time the characters stop to catch their breath and check out the local color.
Raiders is in my opinion the standard-bearer for the kind of sweeping filmmaking I feel is absent today (and no, Crystal Skull didn’t recapture any of that energy). It’s not “just” shots of Indiana Jones standing in profile at magic hour as men frantically dig around him; it’s not “just” protracted vehicle chases that cover vast distances and send pursuers flying off mountaintops that are seen in wide shots. It’s the very idea that the Nazis would attack a freighter in the middle of the ocean, and we actually get to see Indy from afar as he swims to a real (or at least convincing scale-model) submarine. Or that the final scene takes place in a location that feels like some actual sacred ground, a place where, sure, one of the guys who gets electrocuted looks like his eyeballs are made of light bulbs, but there are spaces beyond the ends of the sets that we could reasonably believe are real. (And, it should be noted, we believe are real not because the matte paintings are perfect, but because Spielberg created the sense of a larger world we can invest in.)
Of course, it would be unrealistic to ignore the economic realities of modern moviemaking, where studios have to juggle superstar salaries and the demands of location shooting and the increasing costs of general production logistics, as a reason for them to try and reduce the number of locations, or use a couple of them multiple times rather than using multiple locations once. And suffice it to say movies shouldn’t be big and sweeping just for big and sweeping’s sake: if you’re making Super 8, for example, it doesn’t require a cast of thousands, A-list leading men and an operatic scope that chronicles the population and culture of an alien race it isn’t necessary for us to see. But surely there’s a middle ground that the artists and accountants can find between themselves to give the films both a creative integrity and commercial viability?
Interestingly, it’s actually one of the most cost-effective filmmakers of the last decade who I think can and should serve as a case study for limited funds not limiting his creativity: Kerry Conran, who developed Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow literally in his living room before securing a development deal through Paramount Pictures. Although the film failed to recuperate its $70 million budget, Conran’s DIY approach was reflective not only of his sincere passion for the project, but his forward-thinking approach to getting his vision on the screen which has since been employed by just about every big-budget filmmaker in Hollywood – and therefore presumably can be utilized again at a significantly lower cost. Of course, not everyone liked Sky Captain, but it does have the boundless, brisk energy of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it features some of the most breathtaking and unique images in recent movie history. (Seeing the film for the first time at a press screening at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, I still count among my favorite moviegoing experiences the moment I watched the clouds part to reveal that flying aircraft carrier, an image that was made for the widescreen theatrical experience.)
Meanwhile, depressing as it may be for some people for me to point out, the only person working steadily today who really has managed to consistently create that kind of scale is ... wait for it ... Michael Bay. Love him or hate him, there’s no director more interested – and quite frankly more capable – of working on that gigantic canvas than him; the IMAX sequences in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen featured some of the best action of 2009, and early clips of the paratroopers racing through the skies of Chicago in the upcoming Transformers: The Dark of the Moon promise action choreography (not to mention photography) on a scale that no one has matched in years. And the reason he’s so good at it is not because he’s the best filmmaker working in mainstream movies – he isn’t. (I want to make it absolutely clear that is not what I’m arguing.) It’s because when you look at his films, it’s obvious that he refuses to tell a story that is smaller than it needs to be, and commits himself to executing it in as massive and exciting a way as possible.
Sure, Bay’s films often feature more plot holes than an origin story for swiss cheese. But in all of his films, there are sequences that feel huge, exciting, or sweeping, that don’t strand a character in a random location in order to save a few bucks, and most importantly, don’t make the audience wish the filmmakers had gone here or done that. Bay leaves everything out there on the screen, for better or for worse. And most of his colleagues are too content to leave it in the boardroom.
It’s probably a little bit sad that I could do a more thorough deconstruction of why the scope of a Martin Campbell film doesn’t work, than why the sweep of one by Bay somehow does. That said, without the benefit of Green Lantern production details, budgetary numbers, or other kinds of background information, it is of course tough to tell whether it was in fact a lack of money, a script that didn’t have enough specificity, or the director’s prerogative that produced a scene where an omnipotent force attacks a city that feels more like a “boo” moment in a haunted-house movie.
But any time I’m aware of the budget of a movie by virtue of the money it’s clear the movie isn’t spending, that’s a bad thing. And even if Transformers are one of the only things that can transport me away from my normal life for a few hours, if I’m in the mood for a true thrill ride, I’d rather watch them than almost anything else. Because the way things are going, it feels more like we’re being constantly reminded how much we have to pay for our ticket, when the reason we go to see big movies is because they introduce a new, unfamiliar, or at least exciting world, and let us feel like we’re going along for the ride.