THE BATMOGUL AND THE ABYSS
From The Economist, 08.26.1989
Mr Jack Nicholson must be cackling all the way to the bank. There can be little doubt that the many records broken in the film world this summer includes that of the most remunerated movie star. Mr Nicholson’s fee for playing Batman’s twistedly-comic nemesis, the Joker, is said to have been a run-of-the-mill $ 6m. However, his percentage of the film’s profits–and his cut on the take from ubiquitous peripheral merchandising–could push his final haul up towards ten times his original fee. That would add up to well over $1m for every minute of screen time; great pay for scenery-chewing.
Batman, directed by Mr Tim Burton is the most financially successful film in the most successful summer in Hollywood’s history. It is only Mr Burton’s third film: Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice were also successful. His rise is the most impressive since that of Mr George Lucas, whose second film, American Graffiti, was a great success, and whose third film was Star Wars.
Like Mr Lucas, Mr Burton is a fantasist, though of a different sort. His films hit a tone which, if Hollywood holds true to its herd instincts, could soon be inflated into a genre: “phantasmacomedy” (a possible contender for the most-ludicrous-portmanteau-word record). They share a vein of childish delight in the outlandish, often expressed through a striking use of mechanical effects which allow a joyful artifice sophisticated computer animation cannot match.
It is not a mood unique to Mr Burton. Its most notable proponent is Mr Terry Gilliam, the one-time Monty Python animator. His brilliant, dystopian Brazil exerted a visible influence on the Gotham City sets that Mr Burton and his designer Mr Anton Furst concocted to give Batman its atmosphere. Following the failure of Baron Munchausen, which contained gorgeous moments but did very little with them, Mr Gilliam now seems set to follow in Mr Burton’s footsteps; he is working on a film of Watchmen, a complex and critically acclaimed comic, with a script by the unlikely sounding Mr Sam Hamm, who was in part responsible for the Batman screenplay. The outcome should be intriguing–though it may not be phantasmacomical–and will certainly not be as hypable as a black bat on a gold oval has proven.
While Mr Burton has made his reputation from a cultural icon, the rest of Hollywood has been earning the wages of repetition. The third Indiana Jones film, which is saved from tedium by the presence of Mr Sean Connery, is Batman’s nearest rival at the box office, at $183m. Ghostbusters II has proved disappointing. It was hard pressed to earn more than $100m–a fair whack, but not as much as was hoped. The original Ghostbusters was the biggest-grossing comedy ever; its sequel is neck-and-neck with Honey I Shrunk the Kids, a film whose title says it all. The worst disappointment was the James Bond film, which did atrociously in America. It may make up for that, at least in part, in the rest of the world. Between the lot of them, these films had pushed America’s total 1989 box office over $3 billion by early August.
One studio, Fox, owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, has made remarkably little of that money, a sorry state of affairs it hoped to rectify with one big film. The Abyss, directed by Mr James Cameron, cost Fox over $60m, mostly because it was filmed in the flooded hulk of an unfinished nuclear power plant. This film is similar in style to Mr Cameron’s previous two science-fiction films, The Terminator and the entertaining Aliens. The futures he evokes are grim, workaday places, where technology dominates but does not steal the scene. However, the techniques that worked so well in adventure films are not capable of sustaining this more ambitious project.
The Abyss is a long film, which upsets cinema scheduling, with a central love story, which upsets thrill-seeking audiences. There are friendly aliens reminiscent of those in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, Mr Cameron is frequently reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg, especially in the pace of his camerawork. Mr Cameron’s The Terminator captures almost exactly the menace of Mr Spielberg’s early masterpiece Duel, with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing the role of the unstoppable threat. (Mr Spielberg used a 20-ton truck.) But unfortunately for Fox The Abyss is unlikely to be a Spielbergian blockbuster.So what next? Batman II, Ghostbusters III and so on seem almost foregone conclusions. Mr Cameron may be reined in to make better films on smaller budgets. Or he and Mr Burton could collaborate on something. After all, Mr Lucas and Mr Spielberg collaborated to make the tremendously enjoyable Raiders of the Lost Ark–and Indiana Jones has now ridden off into the sunset. Maybe their successors could come up with something as amusing for the 1990s.