Sunday, July 11, 2010

Action Film Making 101

Action movies (especially creature flicks) are about creating tension and then releasing it through the course of an action sequence. If you look at any of the great creature action flicks from the 70's, 80's, and even the 90's you're likely to see at most  a 60/40 distribution between "action" and "non-action" sequences and perhaps as low as 30/70. A movie like James Cameron's "Aliens" spends the entire first act building towards the doomed mission to the atmosphere processing plant and then makes us wait another while before the next action sequence with Ripley and Newt evading the face hugger. The original Predator makes us watch Arnold prepare his trap for the eponymous alien near the end of the film for what seems like an almost excruciating amount of time, but that tension is relived in the prolonged action sequence that results.

This is what so many of the post-Matrix film makers don't seem to get, so wowed by camera and fx choreography are they that they fill their films with pointless action. At best this type of action film making becomes exhausting for the audience due to lack of rests, at worst it's boring due to lack of tension. The sad part is that for all of the Matrix's fancy camera and fx work, it displays a classic understanding of tension building and release, but some people can't seem to look beyond the obvious in-your-face elements and it seems these are the people getting most of the action scripts in Hollywood these days. These modern action films have all the tension of a Home Run Derby. Yeah it's nice to see a guy hit a home run in the majors; as a display of athleticism it's an impressive feat. When that's all that's happening though, when that is in fact all that is on display, you can't expect it to be very exciting. And that's what happens in so many action films these days. There is a whole crop of film makers pulling off camera moves and fx sequences like tricks at a skate park, but I personally don't watch films for the fx, I'm after a fuller experience.

I recently saw the latest installment in the Predator franchise. Predators suffers from a "works on paper, but not on the screen" premise and has far too many characters for any one to develop, but it doesn't substitute camera and fx choreography for old fashioned in-your-face action. While I can't say it was perfectly executed, the director obviously understands the language of action film making, even if he doesn't speak it fluently. So while I can't praise it as the resurrection of a franchise, it does make me forget about those lame AvP movies, a perfect example of flash over substance film making.

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