Films that changed cinema

  • Lifestyle
  • Wednesday, 01 Jan 2014

Gravity makes a swath of films seem redundant. Here are some past movies that have altered forever what we watch on the big screen.

EVERY now and then a film comes along that totally changes everything: whether it is expensive new technology or a cute talking pig, nothing can be the same again.

Gravity is the latest film that makes a whole swath of cinema look and feel redundant: its hard-won sense of documentary realism means everyone attempting to film a spacewalk or satellite explosion will have to raise their game massively.

This is by no means a definitive, historical list – you would have to go back to the Lumiere brothers for that – but we have narrowed it down to the six films that have made the biggest impact on movies in their current form and obsessions.

Batman (1989)

The game: Superhero films were traditionally camp, trashy affairs – even Superman: The Movie, the first big-budget comic book film of the modern era played it mostly for yuks. Batman, of course, had been mercilessly satirised in the counterculture 1960s via the pop art TV series starring Adam West, and comic book fans were used to being a subculture that was sneered at and looked down on.

How it changed: Batman’s comic book writers – Frank Miller and Alan Moore among them – had left campness far behind, and Tim Burton picked up where they had left off. With his background in ghoulish animation and goth-lite comedy, Burton brought an intense, design-heavy brilliance to proceedings, overhauling the genre thoroughly and treading a careful line between high-voltage visuals and savage humour. With unparalleled merchandising opportunities alongside it, Batman took off, and Hollywood is still profiting from the consequences.

What followed: Everything from X-Men to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy to Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot to Marvel’s seemingly endless conveyor belt.

Babe (1995)

The game: You want talking animals? Before Babe, that meant – basically – a cartoon. Or puppets. Your Air Buddies, your Homeward Bounds – they were either barking to command or supplied with voiceovers by standup comics. No one could take them seriously.

How it changedMad Max director George Miller spent seven years developing an adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s The Sheep-Pig. Using enormous numbers of animatronics, CGI lower-jaw movements and the like,Babe blew every previous animal movie out of the water: they were talking! All the time! Incredible. The seven Oscar nominations it got were a suitable recognition of its envelope-pushing status.

What followed: the Doctor Dolittle remake, Alvin And The ChipmunksG-Force.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The game: Since the advent of the slasher film in the late 1970s, horror films tended to be rigidly formulaic affairs – remorseless killers, screeching music, screaming teenagers. The Kevin Williamson-inspired wave of post-modern semi-spoofs in the mid-1990s – Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty – helped to loosen things up a little, but horror was locked into an aesthetic artifice that appeared unbreakable.

How it changed: Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, in trying to make a decent film to sell for cable TV, inadvertently triggered a wave of found-footage horror movies. Virtually abandoning their actors in the forest, they achieved an unprecedented level of snot-dribbling realism, which creeped out multiplex audiences to a staggering US$140mil (RM 460.7mil).

What followed: Paranormal Activity, Rec, Quarantine, Cloverfield.

Festen (1998)

The game: In the old days, no one went to the cinema to watch a video – least of all chin-stroking art cinema types, who tended to prized Bessonian lushness and painterly Jarmanisms. But by the mid-1990s the art house circuit was under siege from smart-alecks such as Quentin Tarantino on one side, and Hollywod FX behemoths on the other. Something had to give.

How it changed: Along came arch-prankster Lars von Trier – already a big noise after Breaking The Waves – and his acolytes, who came up with a “movement”, Dogme 95, espousing stripped-down technology and unvarnished naturalism. Despite its built-in irony and over-before-it-began PR, Dogme 95 did one big thing: it made digital video a viable cinematic force. Festen, a knotty family melodrama that benefited from its home-video visuals, was the forerunner: a bona fide worldwide critical and commercial success, it overnight gave artistic credibility to what had hitherto been considered – technologically speaking – the preserve of poverty-stricken film students and pornographers.

What followed: Dancer In The Dark, Ivans xtc, 28 Days Later, Star Wars Episodes I and III, Zodiac ... and then everything.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

The game: Lots of people made campaigning documentaries, but cinema didn’t pay a great deal of attention. Countries with state-funded TV – like Britain – found a place for them there, but in the US especially docs tended to shrivel and die a lonely death without the sports/music/human-interest angle.

How it changed: Michael Moore bucked the trend, releasing first Roger And Me (1989) and then Bowling For Columbine (2002) to acclaim and some success, largely because of Moore’s avuncular, engaging personality. But Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he basically blamed the Bush family for enabling Osama bin Laden’s assault on the United States, put documentaries over the top. It may not have dislodged George W Bush from the presidency, but it attracted huge audiences (taking US$119mil/RM392mil in the US alone), and lit a rocket under the entire documentary-making scene.

What followed: An Inconvenient Truth, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Religulous, Inside Job.

Avatar (2009)

The game: Spectacle was key, thought the film industry, under siege from a string of home-delivery formats from DVD to YouTube. The late 1990s was the age of CGI-burnished extravaganzas – chief among them was James Cameron’s Titanic – and the industry had been talking up 3D for some time, aware of the potential to charge more for a fancy format that couldn’t be ripped off by the Internet. But so far it had been largely confined to Imax documentaries, family-friendly animated films and the odd gimmicky genre piece. Anything bigger tended to have an opportunist conversion from 2D.

How it changed: Cameron had been working on Avatar for years, intended as a groundbreaking visual extravaganza with full CGI characters. By the time it finally hit cinemas in 2009, no one was all that impressed with CGI – but the 3D looked fantastic, and gave the whole format a massive shot in the arm. That it became the biggest grossing film of all time helped too; filmmakers embraced 3D, and audiences did too.

What followed: Alice In Wonderland, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Prometheus. – Guardian News & Media

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Films that changed cinema


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