This Hollywood film made mainly in the UK by novice director Rupert Sanders was Kristen Stewart’s second blockbuster lead following the Twilight films (and released between Nos 4 and 5 in that franchise). Neither an outright critical or audience ‘winner’ as such, the film still made nearly $400 million worldwide and was claimed as a major box office hit by its producers and Universal. It cost an estimated $170 million – which by my rule of thumb (a film needs to recoup around three times the production budget to move towards a profit for the producers) means its success was qualified. The questions that interest me are 1) how important was the casting and performance of Kristen Stewart as a factor in audience responses and 2) what are our expectations of narratives created on this scale and with these generic references. The relevant genres here are fantasy, action, war – but surprisingly little of ‘romance’. The source is the Snow White story but here taken back to the original Brothers Grimm story rather than Disney. The worldwide box office suggests that similar stories exist/appeal in non-European cultures (the film did well in East and South East Asia).
The obvious recent franchises which the film relates to are the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy worlds. I suspect that these are more ‘coherent’ fictional worlds – but I have very little knowledge of them so I’m happy to be corrected. Snow White has a certain kind of coherence of locations since many scenes were shot in the more rugged parts of the UK. The two main fantasy locations are the ‘Dark Forest’ and the ‘Fairy Kingdom’. Where the former appears as a generic devastated world full of clever CGI trickery, the latter reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with several almost identical images – most strikingly in the case of the white hart. Miyazaki himself may have borrowed ideas from Western literature but it is the mode of presentation that seems so familiar here. (Guillermo del Toro’s fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth also pop up.) The castle, the focus for the film’s finale, is built on rocks pushing into the sea and though it is a CGI creation it is reminiscent of several such castles in parts of the UK or Northern Europe. I was also reminded of the battle at the end of El Cid (1961). Inside the castle the ‘mirror on the wall’ to which the Evil Queen addresses her famous question “Who is the fairest of them all?” appears to have learned a trick or two from Terminator 2 as it morphs into a molten metal figure. The strangest image for me was that of the Chinese fishing nets in the village of women. I have no idea what this was supposed to summon up but it took me back to Kerala in South India. If none of these intertextual references resonate with audiences perhaps the film’s setting will not seem disjointed – but of course they were leapt on by critics eager to suggest the ersatz qualities of the film.
The casting of a blockbuster like this is crucially important. Budgets of this size imply either a film dominated by cutting-edge technology or an international cast with recognisable stars. The script for the latter must enable some form of consistent performance across the variegated group of actors. Snow White falls somewhere between the two big budget models. The CGI is important, but so are the cast. Since at least the 1930s these kinds of large scale action pictures with historical/fantasy settings have tended towards the casting of British theatre-trained actors or other Anglophone actors with similar training. In 1938 the Australian Errol Flynn crossed swords with the South African Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (with RADA-trained Claude Rains as King John). The current crop of superhero franchises is awash with the modern equivalents of these ‘Imperial actors’ – Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston etc. It isn’t surprising then that Snow White features the South African Charlize Theron and current action hero Australian Chris Hemsworth in two of the three leading roles. Theron is completely at home as the Evil Queen Ravenna. Hemsworth uses an accent I wasn’t able to fathom (he comes across as Mel Gibson channelling Sean Bean) but he too knows what he is doing. How then does Kristen Stewart fit in?
I’ve checked out all Ms Stewart’s roles since 2007 (i.e. her ‘adult’ roles) and she seems to have been cast solely in contemporary or ‘near contemporary’ roles (On the Road is set in the late 1940s). Besides the Twilight series there is only a minor role in Doug Liman’s Jumper which relates to fantasy and the main characters in Twilight relate, I think, to contemporary American teens. Snow White marks a break into a different kind of fantasy, dominated as I’ve suggested by a different acting style. Overall, I think Stewart makes the leap effectively but I do think her vocal delivery is a problem. It isn’t the accent as such, which I didn’t really notice, but the diction and projection. I realised that I had watched several of the other films with subtitles in order to catch her dialogue. On this occasion too there were moments when I couldn’t follow her dialogue. She tends to shorten sentences, to ‘swallow’ the ends of words etc. It’s a naturalistic mode and fits the portrayal of young people in contemporary America but in this kind of film, alongside not just the leads but also the band of renowned British/Irish character actors playing the (eight!) dwarves, it creates a disjuncture. My memory suggests that in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart begins to change her approach – but I must watch that film again. Partly I think it’s just a case of of playing a wider variety of roles. It is interesting though just how many young actors come out of Australia capable of appearing in American and British films with no problems and performing alongside both theatre-trained Brits and Americans. Kristen Stewart has an Australian mother – perhaps she can tap into home advice?
If there is a weakness in the film’s casting it isn’t Kristen Stewart but perhaps it is the lack of star-power in the supporting roles, specifically Ravenna’s brother Finn and ‘Prince William’, Snow White’s childhood playmate and the exiled Duke’s son. Neither actor plays their role badly but they don’t have the presence that a more distinctive figure might bring (although Sam Claflin as William is one of the lead performers in the Hunger Games franchise). On the other hand, truly distinctive performers such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane are included in the controversial decision to use CGI techniques to present character actors as dwarves. McShane could have played Ravenna’s brother and Winstone could have played William’s father.
I think a great deal of the criticism of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Snow White is prompted by her success in Twilight and critics’ (and non-fan audiences’) antipathy to that franchise. It’s worth noting the other aspects of her performance that do contribute to the film. She moves athletically and convincingly enough in the action scenes, but also looks quite regal with her exposed neck and shoulders. Best of all is her portrayal of a Snow White with grimy fingernails and a wild look after a night in the Dark Forest. (The prominent front teeth in the image above contrast with theusual bland white choppers of Hollywood leads.)
IMDb lists Stewart’s salary for the film as $9.5 million. Presumably what the film’s producers are buying is Stewart’s Twilight audience. This prompts consideration of Tom Austin’s 2002 paper, ‘Gone With the Wind Plus Fangs‘: Genre, Taste and Distinction in the Assembly, Marketing and Reception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (included in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: bfi). Austin refers to Hollywood’s ‘commercial aesthetic of aggregation’ that produces a ‘dispersible text’. He identifies Coppola’s Dracula as the first in a cycle of blockbuster classic horror tales and suggests that it is constructed so that it can be marketed in different ways – as an auteur production by Coppola, a star vehicle for any of its four stars, a reworking of a popular myth, a literary adaptation, a horror film etc. Each of these options might appeal to a different audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a slightly different kind of ‘dispersible text’. It is also part of a looser contemporary cycle, this time of reworkings of fairy tales. If Stewart brings the Twilight audience of younger women, Hemsworth also has an audience – crucially more likely to include young males. Charlize Theron may not have a specific following as such, but as Ravenna she offers another interesting role for ‘older’ women (cf with Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods). Just as important perhaps is the array of CGI effects. Director Sanders comes out of TV advertising and he has certainly been able to create striking visual sequences working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser and designer Dominic Watkins. The cycle itself might also attract audiences. The real question is how well this aggregation works. I’ve already hinted that the visual style does seem to be too obviously ‘grabbing’ ideas from earlier films – and perhaps not integrating them fully. The low critics/users ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes suggest that the sequel may have difficulty reaching the same size of audience again. Many of the pro and anti comments refer to Kristen Stewart’s performance. The prequel that has now been announced for 2016 replaces Stewart with Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt (Theron and Hemsworth remain) and changes director to Cedric Nicolas Troyan, another novice director who was visual effects director on Snow White. This looks like a gamble to me. Losing Stewart and her fan audience means a big box office hole to fill.
The box office of the prequel will give some indication of how much Kristen Stewart was a ‘star attraction’ in Snow White and the Huntsman and it will be helpful in thinking about the development of Stewart’s star image in 2012.
My second Summer blockbuster found me in a large London multiplex screen, virtually full with a second evening house audience – the early evening show was full as well. I usually sit on the front row of the main part of the stadium seating with the four rows of non-raked seats empty. With every seat taken it was a very different experience. The audience was young (15-45?) and I see now why it isn’t surprising that London takes a disproportionately large slice of the English film audience.
I mention the audience because my attention wandered in this 130 minutes slog and I noticed people coming and going in the screening and the annoying use of a phone part way through. Apart from Omar, everyone in the critical fraternity seems to have liked this film but while it had some good points I wasn’t totally convinced. I should point out that I don’t remember seeing any of the previous ‘Apes’ films and I definitely didn’t see the immediate predecessor – so I’m not going to comment on the various prequels and sequels and re-boots. I’ll only note that the films all derive in some way from the French science fiction novel by Pierre Boulle. The ‘global’ flavour of this current film is down to the cast with nearly all of the leads from the UK and Australia. Why? I don’t know.
As I watched the film four debates/issues became apparent. The first was about technologies. The apes, here represented via ‘motion capture technologies’ and CGI, are convincing. These apes are recognisable as the other hominoid species (along with humans): chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and a single orangutan. This aspect of the film contributed to the plausibility of the general scenario – although I have no idea how apes would sound producing human-type ‘speech’. When one of the apes deliberately behaves in a way to make the humans think that he is still ‘primitive’ (rather than ‘developed’ by genetic experiment) this seemed a nice comment on the transformation. The aspect of the cinema technology which annoyed me was the lack of masking on the screen. The film was presented in 1.85: 1 but the screen itself was 2.35:1 and the blank strips at either side showed grey in the cinema. (Someone once corrected me saying that nobody noticed these things: well I do and it distracted me in several scenes.)
The second issue is about casting in blockbusters. It’s usually the case now that an effects-heavy film is able to dispense with A List stars. Alternatively, if the character is very well-known (i.e. Superman or other comic-book heroes) a young ‘up and coming’ star might be most suitable. Thus in this franchise film we have one genuine star in Gary Oldman as a secondary (but important) character while the key human characters are rather amorphous. By this I mean that the actors (Jason Clarke and Keri Russell) while perfectly competent are not distinctive. I didn’t recognise them but thought they looked familiar in a generic way. Certainly they are not distinctive in the manner of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, two British actors, each with a strong presence but not visible behind the CGI as the two leading ape characters. Does any of this matter? I think it does in that the narrative matches the ape family of ‘Caesar’ (Serkis) with the putative family group of Clarke, Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee (she has lost her partner and daughter but teams up with the father-son duo). Kebbell’s ape character Koba is matched (less clearly) with Oldman’s. I know Hollywood is obsessed with father-son relationships, but even putting aside the marginal female role issue, the narrative would have been more interesting with Oldman as the single man trying to get close to the apes.
Issue 3 is about the overall approach to a generic ‘post-apocalypse’ narrative. I was reminded of the Spanish film I saw earlier this year, Los últimos días (2013), with a similar premise in the aftermath of an epidemic wiping out the bulk of the human population. So we get the city festooned with creepers, trees growing in the roadways etc. and the seemingly inevitable chase down the tracks of the underground railway. In an American film there are always going to be not just weapons for survivalists but entire arsenals of weapons. My feeling was that, consciously or not, the film felt like one of those early 1970s SF films such as Soylent Green (1973) or indeed the original Apes franchise which started in 1968 and ran through into the 1970s. Like those films, this one had its serious underpinning with subtitles for much of the ape sign language. However, that seriousness began to disappear before we got to the predictable (and for me tedious) final action sequences.
And so to the film’s ideology. This isn’t clear to me. At first I thought that the film was going to be clearly pro-apist and sceptical about the humans. I was just naïve. I was disappointed with the sentimental stuff about fathers and sons and the music throughout was dreadful, signalling everything quite crudely. The film lost it for me in a short sequence where Koba seems to have taken over from Caesar and suddenly he was presented as a terrorist/dictator figure. At this point, one shot seemed to sum up the message by showing apes swarming across the ruined city with a tattered stars and stripes pointing down on a broken flagpole. Koba suddenly became the kind of leader that the US likes to defeat in the name of ‘freedom’. Note that his actions have been motivated by hate that the humans forced onto him. I won’t spoil what finally happens for those who haven’t yet seen the film, but overall I thought the ideology of this science fiction film was regressive. I thought it might have conjured up some of the adult satire of the best SF in the struggle between species but I think in the end it is just another Summer kids’ film about good guys and bad guys.
This YouTube video shows some of the remarkable motion capture transformations:
Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.
Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.
There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.
I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.
One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?