Spielbergian Decline: Part 1
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn was a significant let down—and an unexpected one, given it was helmed by two of the most skilled blockbuster filmmakers around—director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson. It’s certainly an improvement over the unholy fourth Indiana Jones disaster (I dare not utter its name) but lacks the heart and emotional pull consistent throughout Spielberg’s filmography. The adventure story involves a young journalist Tintin’s (Jamie Bell) search for a lost treasure, aided by the Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and pursued by the sinister pirate Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Unfortunately, the plot never constructs more than a generic framework, as its momentum is constantly abated by pointless conflict and an inability to stage meaningful action.
Spielberg-bashing critics (read: pretentious, puppy-hating nihilists who resent him for making them cry during E.T.) often accuse him of including empty action sequences that, while expertly shot, lack substance and serve only to entertain through cinematic flair. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader called Jurassic Park soulless and accused its director of audience manipulation, as it frequently implements Spielberg’s recurring reaction shots, where characters function as an audience within the narrative, demonstrating the expected spectatorial response (i.e., shots of Mary’s crying face when she is standing apart from the action, aligned with the spectator who is also watching Elliot’s farewell in E.T.). What many critics fail to acknowledge is the thematic significance of the dinosaur sequences. By aligning the audience’s emotions with the characters’ awe, we are able to empathize with Dr. Grant’s (Sam Neill) joy in witnessing the incarnation of his boyhood dreams. In that respect, each sequence of visual splendor holds meaning, and they don’t unduly occur. The terrifying scenes that follow the birth of his fantasy are often rich in characterization. Such is the case during the initial t-rex attack, where Allan must awake from his childhood dream and resist his infantilization, as the dinosaur threat forces him to assume the responsible role of an adult and surrogate father.
The camera closes in as Grant slowly turns to face us, John Williams’ masterful score swelling. Here, Spielberg’s in-film audience serves to induce us with anticipation before the money take of the awesome dinos. Sure, this device is highly manipulative, but equally immersive, and undoubtedly effective.
Unfortunately, Tintin’s action scenes lack such depth. Rather, they typically reflect the theme park aesthetics of Temple of Doom’s unnecessary mine cart chase, serving up visual thrills and little else. They attempt to perpetuate excitement through creative physicality, not unlike a trapeze act. They share the rhythm of a synchronized dance. We are continually offered a dangerous, airborne leap, followed by a skillful landing. Then the cycle repeats—an attempt to keep the audience thrilled by assailing us with a barrage of breath-holding stunts.
An early, unnecessary conflict is introduced when Snowy gives chase to a cat. This short trapeze act is well shot—utilizing a camera that sticks close to the critters, as in Ratatouille, effectively illustrating how large the world is to a nonhuman—yet the action’s purpose is solely plot-driven, as it is no more than a visually pleasing device to propel the plot forward through Snowy and the spectator’s discovery of the scroll. What’s worse, this plot transition is ironically regressive, as it introduces an unnecessary conflict involving Tintin’s frustrating ignorance of the scroll’s location (having rolled underneath his desk).
The moment where the audience is expected to hold their breath—the trapeze artist’s (cat’s) flight…
… and his unexpected landing, which elicits succinct spectatorial gratification as a result of its clever choreography, and is then followed by the cat’s subsequent leap—the initiation of another stunt.
This pattern of airborne flight and creative landing are trying on the audience, as they demand suspension of disbelief. I know, I know, it’s a cartoon. But the unlikelihood for repeated success of every performed stunt mitigates the scene’s tension. The chase through the streets of Morocco consists of an onslaught of slapstick stunts performed by the three heroes, the success of each aided by sheer luck. No more than a showcasing of the impressive CGI, this scene lacks thematic purpose.
The airborne stunt is frequently initiated by silly coincidence, like when the tank’s canon accidentally hooks Haddock’s jacket and swings him up.
Then the humorous finish, his fall broken when he tumbles into a woman’s dress.
The script—penned by a promising British triumvirate of Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish—continually implements a frustrating expedient of initiating or sustaining conflict through a good guy’s foolish mistake.
Haddock’s incessant idiocy at least fits his character: a drunken reprobate. In that regard, I can’t complain too much over his clumsy, often-funny antics, like when he blows the dam by firing the bazooka backwards, but…
…the script inflicts all the heroes with incompetence. When Sakharine is about to be captured, he escapes by outwitting Tintin and the Interpol Thompson twins (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), who evidently didn’t think it necessary to use a weapon when apprehending an armed criminal.
On the plus side, Tintin’s swordplay is excellent. The flashback battle at sea demonstrates Spielberg’s unparalleled skill at shooting an explosive action set piece. His highly-mobile camera flows smoothly, naturally capturing the large-scale conflict with superb cinematography.
A 23 second take demonstrates the director’s skill in simultaneously documenting warfare’s personal, close-up conflict while capturing the epic scope of the fight. First we are situated close to the individual crew members of the enemy ship as they hurry to bored our hero’s vessel.
Then it closes back in on our hero…
…who participates in one of the film’s numerous trapeze acts, this one containing more substance, as it evinces his dexterity when he fakes out the pirates and swings around them, slashing their mast loose and leaving their ship to drown. Here, the film peaks with truly rousing excitement on par with the action of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Both confrontations between Haddock and Sakharrine are great, as the best moments of the plot explore their rivalry. However, there’s not much to be said in the way of character development for the other players. Tintin’s resourceful over-determination makes him a very entertaining lead, but he’s rather static. The script often downshifts and idles during a few weak scenes, most notably those including detectives Thompson and Thompson, whose mildly amusing antics can’t make up for the fact that they’re essentially pointless caricatures of the comically incompetent detective. Their interrogation of the pickpocket exemplifies the plot’s regressive nature, as this three minute scene serves no purpose but to resolve a minor conflict that should have been thrown out at the drawing board: Tintin losing the scroll by having his wallet stolen.
The Thompsons torture the old man by lingering in his residence before arresting him. The joke outstays its welcome as the detectives begin to argue amidst the thief’s nervous rambling so that no one can be heard clearly. But no matter, their intelligibility wouldn’t make the dialogue any less empty.
This is not the Spielberg I grew up with. The male camaraderie of Jaws is replaced with the tedious interaction of the soulless twin sidekicks. The intense chase scenes of the Indie trilogy are replaced with chain-linked cartoonish stunts. It’s as if the filmmakers distrusted their story’s vitality and felt the need to continuously thrill by parading the CGI’s potential with maximum on screen mayhem. As capable as the technology is, Spielberg abuses it, incorporating over-the-top feats that couldn’t possibly be rendered in a live action film. I suppose I shouldn’t be too concerned with an animated film that doesn’t strictly adhere to physical realism, and I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the asinine display of Looney Tunes-esque antics that frequented his prior film, the fourth Indy debacle (oh God, that fridge. That f***ing fridge). The subpar action and story of the auteur’s latest two adventures perturbs me, as he seems uninterested in yanking us to the edge of our seat, seemingly content with letting us recline and grin at the cartoonish frivolity. The Adventures of Tintin is descent entertainment that merits no place in the Spielbergian saga. He has conquered the zenith and now has descended down to safer territory. But I still have faith that his long overdue Abraham Lincoln project will motivate him to brave the journey back up to the peak of filmmaking.
Rating: 2½ out of 5 stars