This is my third entry in the series of articles on what I call the Brave New World cinema of the 2010s, the relatively new flock of directors, pictures and artists that have radically changed what movies are about in this decade, who they are about and what they can do. To understand what I’m talking about, you’ll need to go back and read the first installment, here, and in Part II of the series, here, I gave some more representative examples. In this part, I plan to examine how we got here: how Brave New World started, and precisely which movies in the early part of the 2010s blazed the trail for what we are seeing now.
Defining a starting point of Brave New World, or looking for a “patient zero,” is difficult. What does appear to be true is that the democratization of media creation, aided greatly by technology and the Internet, began to change movies at the end of the 2000s and in the first years of the 2010s. The forerunners I’ve chosen to showcase in this article do not, in and of themselves, all qualify as Brave New World films. But they all show strong flashes of what would come to define BNW cinema, specifically, stories by (or about) people whose stories have not traditionally been told in film before; emphasis on characters rather than plot; high production values and almost epic-like scope; requires deep emotional commitment from the audience; slow and deliberate pacing (the opposite of “Michael Bay style”), and emphasizing a landscape of moral confusion. Here are some films that, I think, began to take us down that path.
Whip It (2009, Drew Barrymore, director)
While coming too early and lacking too many of the traditional characteristics of BNW cinema to really fall into the style, Drew Barrymore’s feminist reinvention of the sports movie, Whip It, definitely hacked a few trees out of the jungle where Brave New World would eventually find a path. In a small town in Texas, 17-year-old Bliss (Ellen Page), tired of being pushed to compete in beauty pageants by her mother (Marcia Gay Hardin), meets some young women who are competing in a roller derby competition, and she decides to join them. Bliss finds her new sports obsession both empowering and complicating, as it brings her closer to love with the quirky Oliver (Landon Pigg) and also causes difficulties in her family and traditional circle of friends. Punctuated by thrilling and sometimes violent roller derby action that’s shot and edited like a Mad Max film, Whip It is an inspirational sports picture but also a keen introspection on growing up in small-town 21st century America.
Whip It is a trailblazer for Brave New World because of its boldness, its emotional honesty, and its emphasis on character and moral confusion where it could have just been a roller derby picture. The focus on women and the dynamics between them brings a freshness to sports stories, which have traditionally been men’s stories. And it’s a wonderful good time. If you haven’t seen Whip It, which was only a modest success, I highly recommend it.
The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne, director)
The Descendants, which I profiled in a separate article a few years back as an example of environmental history on film, is not a Brave New World movie. It’s made by a big-name director, with big-name stars, and has all the hallmarks of a big Hollywood film. Yet its slow pacing, its introspection, focus on characters and the moral confusion in which they live are all foreshadowings of Brave New World. The Descendants also came out in 2011, which I think is the crucial year that BNW really began.
Because I already analyzed The Descendants in the article linked above I’ll only rehash the basics here. It’s the story of Matt King (George Clooney), a rich lawyer from an old-money family in Hawaii, whose wife is dying after a boating accident and who is facing raising two daughters alone. He’s also trying to sell a property on Kauai, which his family has owned since the 19th century and must be transferred due to legal technicalities. How Matt deals with his grief, his daughters and his legacy–both familial and environmental–is an almost perfect story arc in a film that’s visually stunning, expertly written, tautly directed and ultimately quite moving. The Descendants gets my vote for Alexander Payne’s best-ever film. And, like Whip It, it showed us where movies were going in the decade that was just beginning at its making.
Weekend (2011, Andrew Haigh, director)
If I absolutely had to identify a “patient zero” of Brave New World cinema, I might choose Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. If it’s not BNW, it hews as close to the line as possible without going over, and it was released in 2011, the origin year. Haigh himself, a gay man, would later direct the film 45 Years, which most definitely is Brave New World, and his second film, Weekend, like Carol, is a movie that in previous years would have been classified as a “gay film” but which comes off, and very much considers itself, an ordinary romance. Indeed, the transition for LGBT-related love stories from a niche cinema genre into mainstream romance is one of the great accomplishments of Brave New World. In the 1990s, whenever you saw a gay man in a film he was either being bullied or dying of AIDS; in the 2000s the main themes centered around acceptance and coming out; by the 2010s, filmmakers like Haigh were exploring gay relationships on their own internal terms, just the way cinema has always treated straight relationships.
Weekend doesn’t have much of a plot, but it doesn’t have to. It’s about a Nottingham man, Russell (Tom Cullen), who meets Glen (Chris New) as a late-night hookup on a Friday night. While their relationship has potential, it must necessarily be short, as Glen is moving to the U.S. in only a few days. The film explores the deep meanings that are possible even in short relationships, and how it doesn’t take much to change a person’s life, especially if he or she isn’t looking for that change. Certain elements of Weekend were echoed in the American film Moonlight, made five years later, which won Best Picture and which is definitely a paradigm example of Brave New World. They’re two very different films, but their styles, pacing and introspection are very similar. Weekend premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and has received almost universal acclaim.
Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer, director)
I confess I’m not really sure where to put Under the Skin, perhaps the century’s most groundbreaking science fiction film so far. I’m not sure it really is Brave New World cinema, but if it’s not it’s certainly close, and it’s hard to underestimate the effect the film has had, particularly visually, on subsequent media. Where films post-1999 felt compelled to ape tiresomely the slow-motion bullets and aerial acrobatics of The Matrix–a thuddingly dull and ill-conceived film–nowadays in science fiction and horror you see a lot of glassy black pools, thanks to Under the Skin. Not bad, for a film that was a financial flop.
Under the Skin is similar to BNW cinema in that its plot is pretty flimsy. Basically it’s about an alien creature of some kind (Scarlett Johanssen) who drives around Scotland in a van, picking up random men and drowning them in some sort of sinister black goo. Very little is explained and the film is shot in minimalist style, but you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s an amazing movie, unsettling right where it should be and also mesmerizing. The shocking climax is difficult to watch but the power of the film stays with you a long time. Despite dying with a whimper at the box office, Under the Skin‘s influence and fan base has grown steadily in the past five years. Its visual and narrative style I think warrants consideration when we talk about the new cinema of the 2010s–and, if nothing else, it’s a film well worth seeing, because it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
There are several other antecedents of Brave New World cinema that are worth mentioning–500 Days of Summer (2009, Marc Webb), Hanna (2011, Joe Wright) and Sound of My Voice (2011, Zal Batmanglij) jump immediately to mind–but this is a blog article, not a textbook, so I have to leave something out. Still, there’s so much food for thought in these great movies and how they’ve changed cinema.