Selling The Dark Knight

You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.

Show me a person who isn’t excited to see Batman take on the new Joker and I’ll show you a liar. Not since that mysterious teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode One was screened prior to the film Meet Joe Black has there been this much built up hype and universal excitement for a film. Not only has The Dark Knight already garnered a number of favorable reviews, not to mention talk of Ledger’s possible Oscar Nod for a super hero film that isn’t in the technical category but it’s safe to say that sequel is in line to break the record for largest opening weekend in movie history. In other words, good, bad or just mediocre, Batman is going to open big.
While much of this anticipation could be the result of the film itself–after all who doesn’t want to see what Christopher Nolan and gang have in store for round two of this brilliantly resurrected franchise–most of the buzz surrounding The Dark Knight is the product of one of the most unique and fascinating marketing campaigns for a film, ever. The film’s now inevitable success will be a testament to the powers of what a keen promotion plan can do for a film and may just pave the way for the future of blockbuster hype building.
To be fair a film like The Dark KnightStar Wars, or most of the other blockbuster giants of the past decade generally do not require clever marketing. The word of mouth and notoriety alone is enough to reel in moviegoers. In the case of The Dark Knight, the film’s predecessor Batman Begins, which primarily introduced Batman’s story, left viewers with a hell of a cliffhanger for chapter two with that glimpse of Joker’s calling card. What the minds behind The Dark Knight decided to do was hype up the vision of the film’s villain instead of the film itself. Placing more emphasis on The Joker and less on Batman himself is clever because it enables Nolan to surprise viewers with what Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman character has up his sleeve.
This campaign started as far back when the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker was announced. Speculation of who would play the sinister clown had already been swirling around the internet geek-o-sphere and the announcement of Ledger was not only baffling to most but also created a level of mystery behind what he would do with the character. While the casting of Ledger was supposedly based solely on his supposed knock out audition, and the intense level of serious method, it was also a smart move in terms of playing up the film’s shroud of mystery.
Months passed then came the viral marketing, or use of popular mediums for the masses, primarily the internet. The release of the Joker’s menacing mug shot, complete with ghastly cheek-to-cheek scars and clown makeup that would give Tim Curry’s IT character nightmares, was just what was needed to silence any qualms with the casting of Ledger. The bait was set.
What came next is what makes the marketing behind this film so unique. Rather than merely leak trailers and footage to the usual outlets–MySpace, Youtube, Aint it cool news. Etc.–the savvy PR minds created an intricate series of puzzles and reality based games for fans to dive into, all rooted around the Joker and his “Why So Serious?” tagline. premiered featuring everything from global interactive scavenger hunts and word puzzles to hints about the film’s other major character, Harvey Dent. The clues all led to tasty little teasers about the film including film stills of the joker and his masked gang, promotional posters and even an eventual secret screening of the film’s first six minutes shown at select IMAX theaters all over the country (the same opening sequence was then shown prior to select Imax screenings of Will Smith’s film I Am Legend).
ImageWhen the first official trailer hit the web and theaters in December of last year giving wide audiences the first actual scenes with the Joker, hardcore fans and casual moviegoers alike were officially hooked. Then they made us wait. And wait some more.
Unlike other big budget success stories this year like Iron Manor the new Indiana Jones, both of which were shot and released in a short window of time and didn’t focus a lot of attention on marketing, Nolan and gang decided to hold back the film’s release thus creating even more widespread anticipation. Even before anyone had seen the film there was already a healthy level of legitimate suspense. Few films are able to pull off a stunt like this and after the handful of positive reviews chances are the suspense will pay off.
The final level of clever marketing came in the past month with Comcast, the now popular digital cable provider, giving users an entire free-to-view section dedicated to the film featuring behind the scene documentaries about the production and Chicago backdrop, all three trailers and one alternate never before seen trailer, and most curiously a series of scripted fake news reports from the fictional Gotham Tonight news program. Each ten minute fictional talk show featured interviews and reports that present viewers background information about various characters in the film including Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). Rumors even sparked that the main anchor Mike Engel (played by Sixteen Candles alum Anthony Michael Hall) may become a character of importance in future Batmaninstallments.
Earlier this summer Six Flags Great America and Six Flags Great Adventures theme parks opened separate Dark Knight roller coasters. There was even a direct to DVD animated film series (in similar vein to the Animatrix series) from various acclaimed international animators who each directed a short dedicated to filling the storyline void between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

While stunts like this might seem a bit much for a movie about a superhero the marketing campaign was fairly ingenious by giving enough hints and tastes of what’s to come to lure in the average moviegoer while also giving hardcore fans the clever puzzles and payoffs to raise their anticipation to ecstatic. The marketing behind this film went beyond the traditional advertising ploys and Happy Meal product placement of yesteryears thus making the film less of a singular entity and more of a multiple medium, fully interactive movie-going experience.
What does all this mean for films? It’s no surprise that in the magical age of CGI comic book film adaptations are the next big thing but like any other cinematic fad there are always the standout films that must raise the bar high for what audiences should expect.Batman Begins took an action franchise and turned it upside down by focusing more attention on the psychology of its characters, while also giving us a brand new, darker vision of the Batman universe that was void of the camp found in its predecessors. Consider also that The Dark Knight was innovative in being the first film out of the Hollywood canon to utilize the 60mm IMAX camera for certain scenes, a feat may also pave the way for IMAX being more than just a venue for cool nature and concert flicks.
This summer’s other big success story Iron Man followed closely by spending as much time if not more on Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character as it did on the man in the metal suit. And with hints in both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk of the eventual Avengers film, we may be in store for yet another extensive viral marketing campaign from Marvel Films. In the age where computer technology has become such a staple element of blockbusters the true auteur must go behind simply wowing audiences visually.
On the eve of its official release The Dark Knight “experience” that has been created does just that. While we’ll have to wait a couple more days to find out if the payoff was worth all the time and attention it’s safe to say that in the post Dark Knight arena, the promotion and delivery of Hollywood films will head in radically different direction.

Indy IV: Too Little, Too Late

This past weekend I, like many of you I’m sure, went to see Harrison Ford revisit his signature whip and fedora in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As someone who grew up watching the original Jones trilogy and all its glory, it’s safe to say expectations going in were high.

As a child the adventures of Indy and friends were exciting to watch and re-watch over and over again. Sure the films dealt with magic, mythology and a real-life super hero who always seemed impenetrable from bullets and lots of blows to the jaw (nobody takes a punch to the mouth like Harrison Ford). The action and stunt work was always top-notch, the films featured a welcomed sense of humor, and Spielberg and team always managed to tie in a bit of historical relevance to the storylines. While Crystal Skull had the majority of these aspects going for it, the film ultimately fell short of being anything more than just enjoyable due in large part to a laughable script, pointless and uninspiring side characters and silly CGI special effects. 

It could be said that the fourth Indy film was done too late in the game for star Harrison Ford and perhaps Spielberg himself. The last shot of Indy and friends riding off into the sunset on horseback in 1989s The Last Crusade left the Indy saga open for more adventures but also gave viewers a nice bookend to a solid trilogy of films. Flash-forward almost 20 years and we now see a weathered and more moody Jones taking on the Soviets in a race for some mysterious skulls. 

To be fair Crystal Skull is a fun summer blockbuster, possibly one of the better ones this year. It has all the popcorn thrills one could ask for and manages to provide fans with some inside jokes and pays homage (the Ark of the Covenant makes a cameo in the film’s opening warehouse scene) to the film’s predecessors. Still whereas the past Indy films garnered the luxury of being enjoyed on multiple viewings, Crystal Skull seems destined to end up as a fluffy, forgotten film in Spielberg’s repertoire joining the ranks of The Lost World and War of the Worlds. Doubtful that it will receive the same longevity as his other summer blockbusters like Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark

ImageSo what happened? Crystal Skull had the potential to be something great. It manages to answer the question about what Indy has been up to all these years. Indy seems wiser and more comfortable with the sticky situations that arise (although he still maintains his, “I don’t believe in fairy tales” mentality when it comes to key plot points). Even the plot, which seemed questionable at first, references real beliefs and historical mysteries. 

Where Crystal Skull lacks is in the basic essentials of filmmaking, which is surprising for someone as accomplished as Spielberg. For starters the dialogue is weak and lacking any substance. Gone are the memorable lines of the past films (“snakes, why it have to be snakes”); instead we are spoon fed corny jokes and one liners. Then there are the supporting players. The exciting prospect of this film was the return of Marion, Indy’s love interest/partner fromRaiders who unfortunately seems to just be along for ride and lacks any sole purpose in the plot. The same goes for the great John Hurt who appears as a rambling professor whose sole duty is to lead Indy and gang into another action sequence. 

Indy’s new sidekick Mac, played by the wonderful British character actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast and The Departed) who is usually a scene-stealer, does little that is memorable and seems like just an afterthought of a character thrown in to the pot for the hell of it. Even Cate Blanchett who is at the top of her game currently, does little with the maniacal, sword wielding Soviet operative she embodies. What happened to the great creepy villains like the sleazy Nazi who melts in Raiders or the crazy dude from Temple of Doom who pulls people’s hearts out with his bare hands? Okay, the latter was a bit silly. 

Then there is Shia LaBeouf’s turn as Mutt Williams, the fearless little punk who also does very little for the plot and seems to be featured merely as a way to remind viewers just how old and slow Indy is. Many people despise LaBeouf and while the actor is not great he’s also not horrible. 

Harrison Ford does a good job reclaiming the Indy role and it shows that despite his current career slump he’s in the guy knows how to do action movies. Characters aside, the biggest let down of Crystal Skull is over-reliance on CGI effects, the likes of which are often too unbelievable, even for Indy world. 

Watching Crystal Skull it’s hard to not draw comparisons to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, which were highly anticipated, like Indy IV, but suffered from a focus on special effects wizardry instead of a quality story. 

The technological advancements in the special effects department have given filmmakers the ability to take audiences to places they never thought they could see on a big screen, and Spielberg is no slouch when it comes to CGIJurassic Park for example took the new radical technology and created a suspenseful and credible science fiction film. With Crystal Skull, however, very few computer-altered scenes truly stand out as amazing and only hinder the already unbelievable plot. CGItechnological is a filmmaking tool like anything else that must be used with restraint and care. Too many CGI heavy films, particularly super hero flicks, are ultimately forgotten because they merely provide more of the same mediocre effects. 

The past Indy films benefited from eye opening, old-fashioned stunt work (done by real stunt doubles, remember that!) and over the top action scenes that still managed to remain somewhat believable (I don’t know about you but I could probably out run a large boulder). With Crystal Skull the special effects seem to have been used as nothing more than an easy way to get the job done and ultimately take away from the thrills that the previous films provided viewers. 

Take for example the large fire ant nest that some unlucky Soviet soldiers stumble upon. Instead of utilizing real life nasties like the snake-infested tomb in Raiders or the unsettling insect nest in Temple of Doom Spielberg manages to lose the squirming effect that made the past films so much fun with a fairly ridiculous CGI ant farm disaster. 

Perhaps over analyzing a film that is clearly intended to be nothing more than a fun time at the movies is pointless. Spielberg even said this film is, “the sweet dessert I give those who had to chow down on the bitter herbs I used in Munich.” It could be that for generations just now getting into Indiana Jones this new adventure is candy for the eyes. May be it’s unrealistic to expect anything as good as Raiders or better since that film set the bar high for the whole summer blockbuster genre. Still the inner kid in me who grew up watching the Indy films with eyes wide open left the theater Friday night feeling disappointed–and I don’t think I was alone. Hopefully Spielberg has enough finesse and creativity left to take the upcoming film adaptation of Tintin, another piece of childhood nostalgia, to someplace magical.

The Greatest Action Film Ever Made

The other day I caught a trailer for yet another upcoming post-apocalyptic thriller called, Doomsday. For starters let me just say that this current wave of end of the world scenarios in films, books and even music, is a bit worrisome if you ask me. Is this some grim foreshadowing for what’s in store in the future or is this just the mainstream media playing into our government’s fear tactics and our doubts about the state of things? But that’s fodder for another column.


What really struck me about the Doomsday preview was how familiar it looked. The film, which is British director Neil Marshall’s follow up to the terrifying spelunking thriller The Descent (2005), appears to have taken, almost literally, the storylines from three genre classics. The plot involves a part of the U.K. (Scotland to be exact. Brits always have it in for the Scots) being quarantined off by the government after an outbreak of some undisclosed nasty virus or plague of sorts (28 Days Later), ultimately leaving thousands of people to die.


Flash forward twenty something years later and a group of soldiers, led by what appears to be a highly attractive female scientist who also knows how to kick ass (where have we seen this premise before?) are sent back to the abandoned cities in search of a cure (I Am Legend treaded these waters). Upon doing so they find a population of survivors who have built up a lawless and wild civilization for themselves that may or may not involve cannibalism (Escape From New York and/or The Hills Have Eyes). Finally towards the end of the trailer we are treated to a barrage of high-speed car chases, motorcycles, creepy punk like villains peppered with elaborate tattoos and crazy hair, and a mohawk sporting underground leader of sorts who says, “We’re gonna catch ‘em, cook ‘em, and eat ‘em!”


Now while I mentioned a number of obvious films that the makers of Doomsday are either paying homage to or have blatantly ripped off I’ve left the most obvious and best predecessor for last. George Miller’s, The Road Warrior, a follow up to his post-apocalyptic classic, Mad Max, may be one of the best action films ever made. I take that back. It’s hands down the greatest action movie ever made because quite frankly nothing had been made like it before its release and since then nothing has even come close to besting it. Let me explain.


The Road Warrior works as a solid action film because of its purity. For those not familiar with the film or the Mad Max trilogy that it is a part of, these were the films that launched the career of Mel Gibson, then still a young, yet to be ‘Passioned’ Australian actor. The film was made on a small budget of four million Aussie dollars that was stretched and stretched but still looks as unique and innovative now as it did then.


The stunts were all performed without the aid of special effects or safety laws and restrictions (many stunt men were injured during the film’s now legendary production) and hold up even today in the age of computers as some of the greatest ever filmed. People leap from moving cars, motorcycles fly in the air, and a massive tanker truck wrecks everything in its warpath, to give you a taste of the film’s action glory.


The film featured no name actors. In fact casting for the project may or may not have included gathering up a group of Australian bikers, body builders and Judas Priest fans that were chosen not for their acting abilities but rather the prospects of saving money on makeup and costumes. Finally the premise deals with an undisclosed crash of industry and the economy and leaves Australia as a large highway of savages searching for the only currency of any worth, fuel.


Gibson’s Max is a cold “shell of a man,” as one character describes him, who drives the empty roads and wastelands in search of nothing in particular, save the occasional high-speed chase and shootout with bad dudes on motorcycles who carry wrist crossbows. There is also a lethal feral child who carries a sharpened steel boom-a-rang, a jittery fellow with a one-man helicopter and a pet snake, a psychotic seven foot tall rival gang leader wonderfully named Lord Humungous who wears a leather thong and a hockey mask (film was made a year before Jason from the Friday the 13th series donned his) and of course a slew of suped up muscle cars, bikes and dune buggies, all of which either get crashed or blown up. Director and screenwriter George Miller should also get credit for one hell of an imagination.


The film’s 15 minutes plus, no-holds-barred climax is one of the finest showcases of finger biting action and stunt work ever seen on film, also joining the ranks of The French ConnectionRonin, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and the always classic Bullitt as one of the best car chase scenes in cinema history. Above all, despite a minimalist script and plot, the film’s apocalyptic storyline involving a ruthless dependence on fuel to survive is as believable now as it was in 1981 when the film was released. The messages in this film–vengeance, survival of the fittest, remorse, and justice–are subtle but also present.


The upcoming Doomsday is hardly the first time a film has lifted cues from The Road Warrior. Kevin Costner’s legendary bomb of a film, Waterworld, was almost a direct adaptation of the film only set on the ocean with jet skis in lieu of motorcycles and a quest for dirt rather than fuel (seriously, remember how ridiculous Waterworld was?). Even Tupac Shakur seemed to have been a fan as seen in the futuristic, primitive gang music video for his song, “California Love.” And in many ways The Road Warrior itself borrows themes from other chapters in cinema history, particularly Western film iconography and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, also an extremely influential film.


The Road Warrior is a film that embodies a style of filmmaking that has since become out of fashion amidst modern technological advances in special effects. Now while the film doesn’t have the same smooth, glossy feel of say a modern, action heavy film likeThe Bourne Ultimatum, there is something comforting about Warrior’s low-budget, yet realistic look.


It’s safe to say that a film like this could never be made again in the same way since labor laws and safety regulations would end its production from the get go, which is also what makes it a bit of a time capsule film circa a time when guys could go out in the desert with a crew of funky characters, cool cars, lots of explosives and make a compelling action flick. While I’ll most likely seeDoomsday when it’s released and any other film in the same vein as The Road Warrior that is destined to come out in the future I’m confident that nothing will ever come close to besting what still remains one hell of a wild cinematic ride.