Friday 13 April 2012

Going down: "The Cabin in the Woods", "Battleship" and "A Night to Remember" (ST 15/04/12)

The Cabin in the Woods (15) 95 mins ***
Battleship (12A) 131 mins **
A Night to Remember (PG) 123 mins

Sixteen years on from Wes Craven’s peerlessly postmodern slasher Scream, is there anything left for Hollywood to deconstruct? In the year of a Spider-Man reboot that hopes to wipe memories of its 2002 predecessor, and where John Carter can cost $250 million and lose $200 million, possibly not: everything now is rubble, cultural bric-a-brac to be sold off to whomsoever still cares to pay. Studios routinely defer to the whims of teenage fanboys, needing consumers with high disposable incomes and low attention spans – for only these viewers could summon up the enthusiasm required for some of the shonky, derivative product being cranked out.

The superior fanboy-bait The Cabin in the Woods depends upon its attention-grabbing plot chicanery: I’m not even sure if I should reveal why what sounds a standard teen horror title appears on screen over a shot of middle-aged company men chit-chatting around a vast concrete bunker. Perhaps it’s best if you make your own connections. Yes, there’s a cabin in the woods, arrived at by the usual quotient of teen-movie jocks, cheerleaders and stoners. Lying in wait for them, however, are hidden cameras, zombies, unicorns and meathooks – a pretty formidable checklist of everything one might seek from a night at the Odeon.

This bric-a-brac is laid out with some skill. Director Drew Goddard (who wrote the innovative Cloverfield) and co-writer Joss Whedon (creator of TV’s Buffy) know how to use genre as a platform for confronting real-world iniquities; it’s just their state-of-the-industry address arrives with giant CGI cobras wrapped around it. Within such coils one spots smart ideas about the exhibitionism of the Facebookistas, and about the older Caucasian males who manipulate our young for pecuniary ends. The fanboys, at least, should be content: this is a film that speaks with some sympathy about their role as dorky grist to the corporate mill.

Cooler heads may find the film less groundbreaking. Alongside Scream, Cabin owes much to another studio movie predating the target audience: Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, a ruminative – even optimistic – investigation of the ways by which individuals might escape an emergent culture of voyeurism. Over a decade later, with cameras breathing down our necks and up our skirts, Whedon and Goddard are less hopeful, and their hectic reframing of perspectives is often motivated by an informed cynicism. They want to skewer this culture, but without losing the scene which sees one cheerleader stripped and repeatedly stabbed.

As sequel proliferation suggests, even our brighter fanboys rarely know when enough is enough, and the trailer-friendly pandemonium that engulfs the film threatens to wash its better ideas away on a bloodtide of spectacle. Left behind are amusing footnotes, which may be all a dying empire can summon: a built-in, weirder Japanese version of the same premise, a surprise cameo, one last moment of human empathy before the plug gets pulled forever. As much as the filmmakers may want to demolish Hollywood’s rickety infrastructure, their Cabin is finally a neat extension, not a radical overhaul: guilty of pandering, not above exploitation, and good for a few jolts and giggles – while it lasts.

For an indication of what the mainstream has otherwise been reduced to, consider Battleship, which converts the fun game for all the family into a long, loud, increasingly monotonous Navy recruitment promo aimed squarely at impressionable boys. Its tactics are familiar. It casts cheaply – TV faces (Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard) and demographic-pleasing non-actors (popstrel Rihanna, Sports Illustrated covergirl Brooklyn Decker) – in order to blow around half the U.S. defence budget on effects, generating aliens in clanky Iron Man suits for this youthful fleet to snipe at. The model’s more Independence Day than Transformers, though its welcome – albeit vague – streak of knowing silliness comes to be drowned out by square-jawed bellowing and deafening stretches of missile-trading. It’s just functional enough to be a hit with the target audience; for everyone else, I would venture, it’s a miss.

In other naval matters, 1958’s A Night to Remember docks in cinemas once more this weekend as part of the Titanic centenary. Where James Cameron saw an eye-moistening tragedy of thwarted teenage love, our own Roy Ward Baker cuts stoically between a roster of familiar faces – Honor Blackman, David McCallum, Kenneth More as a bulwark of common decency – and tells the story of an entire empire sinking under a weight of hubris, negligence and hardened prejudice. Watch and shudder, Hollywood; watch and shudder.

The Cabin in the Woods and Battleship are in cinemas nationwide; additional thoughts on Battleship can be found here. A Night to Remember opens in selected cinemas today, and screens on BBC2 this Sunday at 3pm.

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