Before the internet outrage machine begins and I get mauled as viciously as Leonardo did for daring to speak ill of The Revenant, I’d like to first state that I liked the movie. Like all films, it has its flaws, but I was entertained.
Its visuals are brilliant and immersive (the fight scenes at the opening and closing of the movie are highlights) and the acting is of a solid quality.
But I came away feeling cold, not from watching images of snowy places for two and a half hours, but from feeling I should have connected to it more.
Plus there was something else that pricked at me; a feeling or inkling that I had somehow seen that film before.
And then, finally, it came to me: Joe Carnahan’s 2011 movie The Grey.
Regarding The Grey
The parallels are undeniable; there has been death in the main characters’ life leading him to be in his current situation (the death of his wife, which haunts him) set in a landscape with a decidedly nippy breeze, surviving on their wits alone and facing attacks from vicious animals and questioning the strength of the human spirit, death and whether there is a higher power or not.
Heavy stuff, Doc.
The acclaim that The Revenant is getting is immense, and it looks set to do extremely well at the upcoming Academy Awards.
Leonardo DiCaprio will most likely get the Best Actor plaudit that everyone has been making memes about... but, and I’m playing devils’ advocate here... is it all deserved?
For most of the film, Leo is a shuffling silent, grunting and groaning Terminator, which indeed, he does ever so well. The pain he is being put through is portrayed through his movements, and it is evident without him having to say anything.
But if we go back to The Grey, would you say that Liam Neeson is less of an actor for having the ability to talk in this scene here?
Watch it, and tell me that the hopelessness that engulfs his character Ottway isn’t clear to see.
For me, it’s a brilliant performance.
Making a Masterpiece
So is it the makeup of the film then that determines the plaudits? It is certainly a factor. As we have been made oh so aware, The Revenant was made painstakingly in hard locations and settings.
The attack scenes are extremely well put together, the bear attack scene is gut wrenching, and the surrounding scenery does convey the isolation and harshness of the conditions that face DiCaprio’s Glass.
But that is not to sniff at The Grey’s landscapes, which, though more restrained, give a similar feel. Do we not believe that Neeson’s character is out in the snow any less than we do DiCaprio’s? And does the knowledge of these conditions honestly make us like or respect the movie more than if we didn’t know?
The Grey is generally classed as a thriller, and succeeds as such because of the harrowing wolf attacks, but there are skillful dramatic moments in it. Vice versa, The Revenant is a western epic, but it also has its own action packed moments.
Art is about the emotional connection that we have to pieces.
Which is the better film?
That’s a matter of opinion obviously, though many would say The Revenant because of its visual accomplishments.
And indeed the Academy seems to think so as well; it’s picked up nominations for numerous awards.
Even though it was speculated by several sites and pundits that Neeson could have got a nomination for Best Actor, ultimately The Grey received none.
The whole point of the Academy Awards it to reward outstanding films and performances, and in so doing it obviously creates a distinction between winners and losers. It is a competition after all.
But could we argue that the Academy, and Hollywood as a whole, power the Awards into a game of self promotion and prestige in relation to its more popular output?
Is The Revenant more culturally valuable than The Grey?
Iñárritu vs superheroes
Naturally these accusations have been made before, but in recent years this trend has become a bit more pronounced; the director of The Revenant is Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who last year won the awards, amongst others, for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Telling the story of an actor (Michael Keaton) who once played a superhero (the titular Birdman), he attempts to escape this “troubling” past by throwing himself into the production of a play.
Some critics of the movie took to the forums to point out the elitist subtext: that more traditional dramas and theatrical movies are more important, and preferred than popular entertainment such as superheroes.
Again, as everyone knows, superheroes are extremely popular at the moment and most of the big movies lined up for the next few years are adaptations of these larger-than-life characters.
So were these critics reading into the film too much?
Perhaps not, since Iñárritu said jokingly in an interview that comic book movies were a “cultural genocide,” and fellow director Dan Gilroy of Nightcrawler fame similarly complained about the current trend (both forgetting that nine of the cast nominees had been in these types of movies).
The term “Oscar bait” has been used to describe films that have been specifically made to collect nominations; it definitely feels disingenuous to say that The Revenant or Birdman are these types of films, because they are solid in their own right.
Yet their coincidental release in Oscar season and the recurring hints that they are more important than Hollywood’s regular output could be seen as cultural elitism.
Would they have been received so readily at the Oscars if they had been released at some other point in the year?
It’s hard to say.
A Game of Trends
This gearing of certain films towards Oscar glory is fairly widespread. The films which receive nominations are mostly released in the months surrounding Oscar season rather than being recognised on their own terms throughout the year.
And it’s seemingly not only studios that are playing the game, but actors as well.
Extremely talented as he is, Eddie Redymane has appeared in five live action films since 2011 and out of those six, four have received prominent nominations in some form (My Week with Marilyn in 2011, Les Miserables in 2012, The Theory of Everything in 2014 and The Danish Girl in 2015.)
Out of these four movies, he has received two nominations for Best Actor, and again in two of these he has worked with director Tom Hooper, who has produced three films since 2009, all of which have been favourites at the Oscars.
(Again, playing devil’s advocate.) Are these instances above consistently great shows of talent? Or are they playing to the crowd?
It’s often asked whether these films would have done as well, financially speaking, without their nominations. Tom Hooper’s award winning film The Kings Speech has been noted for getting a huge boost to its profits after the nominees were announced.
Has it all become a self-serving and perpetuating cycle?
It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t seem to have always been the way that marginal films are brought forth with accolades on their minds.
The Oscars and Popular Movies
For example, the classic action adventure movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for Best Picture in 1982, with nary a contemporary issue in sight.
Indeed, the hard hitting themes are what seem to drive the interests of the Academy. The internet is rife with the criticism that the Oscars focus on biopic movies, period dramas, themes of persecution and roles with disabilities amongst others.
Movies which are deemed as “popular entertainment” feature relatively rarely in the Academy Awards lists of the last decade and a half, except for technical or effects awards.
Granted, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)is currently up for several prizes, but with its huge success, progressive feminism and reliance on practical effects, it would have been hard for the Academy to ignore all the noise that was made about it.
On the flip-side, if this is the case, where are the nominations for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) for its choice of lead characters, and its focus on real sets?
But then again Star Wars is a flashier, more commercial property which the Academy avoids nowadays, though the saga did receive nominations in its earlier installments.
It would be preferable or understandable if the Academy were prioritising independent or alternative films of good quality, but more often than not, these films are made and distributed by major studios that are part of the American studio system such as the Weinstein Company.
Every film has its flaws and nothing is ever perfect, but sometimes the endeavour behind the art, however commercial it is, should be acknowledged.
Many felt that 2008’s The Dark Knight was destined for greatness, yet it was “snubbed” and only received the Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s notable work, even if it seemed almost reluctantly given.
Through this piece, I’m not in any way suggesting that there is anything wrong with praising or drawing attention to less marketable films.
Far from it; many Oscar winning movies and talents deserve the recognition that they have received. But it could be argued that some more popular pieces do, but conversely we know that not every popular movie deserves awards.
But the current trend where films are seemingly divided between qualities of the prestige films that the Oscars lean towards and the “quantity” of popular cinema seems to be growing ever stronger and potentially troubling.
Culture overall should be inclusive and accessible, not insular.
Is there too much focus to self-congratulation to traditional, prestigious works? In Hollywood today, it would seem so.
Should a thoughtful yet forgettable film be judged better than an entertaining yet memorable movie? And does art have to be intentionally saying something in order to connect with you, or is it what you make of it?
I know which I prefer, and to many extents and purposes that’s all that matters. I value both The Grey and The Revenant on their own terms and what works well in each movie, and not by what is popular and what it prestigious.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as long as they acknowledge each others before dismissing it.