Modern-Myth Making: The Case for Taking Big, Weird Chances

                                                  Written By:  François-Noël Vannasse    

Sometimes you don’t enjoy a particular film. You can’t just not like a movie, though, there has to be some reason involved. Perhaps you can say the acting was poor, the special effects were lame, or the plot was full of holes. Was that true, though? Sometimes as audiences we latch onto unimportant details and direct our criticism there instead of just accepting that the film didn’t work for us. There’s a tendency sometimes to think “I don’t like this, therefore it’s bad”. But surely life would be more interesting if you were able to enjoy every film, video game, and book that came out? It’s a sad thing when I can’t find something to like in a major release, not a strange point of pride that I’m somehow more discerning than everyone else. The world would certainly be more fun if I could find nothing to complain about in the art I consume. It can be difficult to adhere to that philosophy while taking an amateur interest in writing film criticism, but my reviews are never rated and only rarely encourage or discourage the viewing of a film.

Some movies don’t connect with critics or audiences. Sometimes those are some of my favorites. For example, I really enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi film After Earth (2013). I even bought the prequel novel, the novelization of the script, and the artbook. It was a fleshed out sci-fi universe that I really enjoyed. Humans working together to build massive arks, flying to a new world and setting up a whole new society, crazy genetically engineered aliens, cool technology, and wacky evolved earth creatures. The story was environmentalist, progressive, and inspirational. Some of the most common criticisms I’ve heard include a lack of laser guns, supposed Scientologist themes, and accusations of rampant nepotism. To that last point, I found a lot to like in Jayden Smith’s performance in The Karate Kid (2010) and as I recall most of us were quite surprised by the quality of that remake (including some of my fellow Porkchop contributors). I found a lot to like in his performance in After Earth as well. In defense of that film, I will say that if you deceived yourself into expecting only action stunts from Will Smith you should still take the movie on its own merits. Any other perceived problems like the younger Smith’s character being a whiny brat are addressed in the script and are actually what the movie is about. It’s not bad acting, it’s acting so good you have trouble divorcing the character from the actor like the hatemail received by Lana Heady, the actress who plays Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, or Anna Gunn as Skylar White, the wife and mother in Breaking Bad.

But there are other examples of films that I believe deserve a second look. Some of these movies can be long and confusing like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) but still have plenty of interesting things going on within them. Others are simply beautiful and bizarre like Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt (2016). The most recent of these films is Guy Ritchie’s fantasy epic King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). Each of these films deals with mythology and history in interesting ways. For Noah and Gods of Egypt that intersection becomes religion but for King Arthur, it remains in the realm of folklore and fantasy. These movies highlight everything I like about what can be done with mytho-history in cinema. They take place in alternate universes, they feature impossible special effects, and they’re all about some of the most interesting stories humans have ever told.

It might surprise some readers to learn that the story of King Arthur has no basis in reality. There was no Camelot, no Excalibur, and no Merlin outside the pages of literary tradition. Despite that there are decades worth of baggage to folklore and legend; some even stretch back hundreds or thousands of years. For example, most of us know well the various rules under which zombies, vampires, and werewolves operate and become critical of stories that deviate too far from the accepted “facts” without explanation. This collective baggage or “canon” unites us culturally and imposes itself onto the fictional worlds we create when we take elements from it. That’s why modern High Fantasy exists largely in the wake of J.R.R. Tolkien who took much of his themes and cues from Norse and Celtic mythology. There is a similar sense of tradition in stories about King Arthur. The audience expects and anticipates certain things. What’s lovely about mytho-history, to me, is that creators have largely only scratched the surface of what we can present audiences.

Adaptations of Shakespeare have explored this concept the most. Variations on the plays have been performed a million different ways. Hamlet has been done in New York City with CEO’s instead of kings, while Macbeth has been moved to WWII, littered with generals and bunkers instead of castles. Modern re-tellings of the plays taking place in an American High School even exist as loosely adapted teenage rom-coms such as 1999’s 10 things I Hate About You a reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew or She’s The Man (2006), a modern retelling of Twelfth Night. It might just be an oddity to get butts in chairs or sneak Shakespeare into kids but often getting rid of the capes and balconies allows the material to shine. Many stories of the Western literary tradition are no different. They take place in a fictional and indeterminate time period. A time and place when magic was very real. Producers and writers can literally do anything with this setting. Why stick to the same old trappings?

In Aronofsky’s film Noah, audiences might expect to see the account as described literally in the Bible. Perhaps instead, that would hew fairly closely to early Hollywood adaptations of Biblical epics. Those epics spawned the entire Swords and Sandals genre,. Perhaps audiences could expect some historicized version that takes place in the Middle East with very few or only implied magical events. The kind of story you’d see as dramatic reenactments in documentaries promising us “The true story behind Noah”. Instead we were all treated to a completely mythological setting. In the movie’s world, literal angels, beings made up of light and energy fell from the heavens like meteorites. As the molten rock cooled around their bodies inside the resultant impact craters the angels were twisted into disfigured multi-armed giants. Noah and his family live alone in the harsh wilderness but, after being visited in his dreams by a vision of of the destruction of the world via flood, he is forced to travel in search of Methuselah for instructions. In this way, the world of Noah also appears to be post-apocalyptic. During the journey we see the ruins of cities and industry which spewed poison into the land, water, and sky thus turning the world into polluted inhospitable desert. The miraculous seeds provided by Methuselah bloom into massive lush forests, raw materials for the ark, and attract the attention of the greedy tribes of men. It’s pure fantasy. It uses the bare bones of the story of Noah’s Ark and the mythological setting to craft a whole new world and it’s beautiful and strange. It left me craving more. I wanted to see every story, from The Epic of Gilgamesh onward, treated with this level of mythic seriousness. It’s not “the true story behind Noah” and it’s not bronzer, eye-liner, and a big white beard. It’s green screen, CGI, and epic legend.

Things went less well, with critics and audiences, for Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt. For this viewer, it’s an amazing film. The art design is unreal and gorgeous. Just listing some of my favorite examples makes me want to watch this movie again. The Ancient Egyptian gods are 12 feet tall and bleed liquid gold. The Earth is a flat disc and every night an elderly Ra rides his sun ship over the rim and does battle with Apophis who is here depicted as a giant world-devouring serpent cloud monster bent on destroying the world. It’s The Book of the Dead played straight but human and it provides spectacle you can’t see anywhere else. The Gods transform into an impossibly shiny divine armor; the evil Seth rides on the back of enormous scarabs and snakes. Anubis, jackal-headed god of the dead, is presented here bald and rotting as if he were suffering from mange. It’s a thousand different interesting artistic decisions which culminate in a tremendous and original experience. Not only is it beautiful and strange to behold, but the characters are self-aware, funny, and human. Nickolaj Coster-Waldau is going through many of the same beats he did as Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones but it’s still something he’s great at. Chadwick Boseman is laugh-out-loud funny as the God of wisdom Thoth. The plot is simple and the human characters are blunt and relatable but when the visual language is pushing the envelope, it becomes the rock that holds the film together. The film was heavily criticized prior to release for not featuring enough actors of middle-eastern descent. I’m not even sure if the movie can be said to take place in anything resembling a real Ancient Egypt. It’s worth noting that Noah received similar criticism but seemed to do better with critics and at the box office.

Which brings us full circle, back to King Arthur. Guy Ritchie’s world makes little sense. It begins with evil wizard Morgan le Fay attacking Camelot with an army and two mind-controlled elephants who are as tall as mountains and feature spiked wrecking-balls chained to their trunks. Le Fay is killed with the power of the Sword by Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who is then murdered by his brother, Vortigern (Jude Law). Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) escapes down the river like baby Moses until his is found and raised by whores in a Londinium brothel. In a matter of minutes Arthur’s entire life unfolds through a montage of him growing older and smarter. What drives him to become a brawling street tough and enterprising money-making criminal is the desire to keep the women who took him in as a child safe from abusive johns. It’s more than just sweet. It could actually be argued that he’s projecting the trauma of watching his mother die in front of him onto his adoptive mothers and by becoming strong enough to protect them, he is struggling in some small way to save his mother. That’s not the kind of character beat I normally get from dumb fantasy blockbusters. Though, naturally, Arthur claims to have no memory of his life before the brothel and experiences the death of his parents only through cryptic recurring dreams of the repressed memory. Characters speak and swear in modern English in the manner we’ve come to expect from Ritchie’s crime movies. It’s anachronistic, sure, but the myth of King Arthur exists outside of time. There is no real time-period to which Ritchie needs to remain accurate. This movie is also the most diverse of the bunch. Far more than Game of Thrones to which it has often been compared. Ritchie’s is the one which nominally takes place in our Iron Age Britain which could arguably make that diversity more of an anomaly than it would be in A Song of Ice and Fire’s imaginary Westeros. Arthur goes on to pull his glowing blue sword from the stone, fight giant snakes and bats, and rise to folk hero as the “true-born king” who liberates the people from his uncle’s oppressive regime. It’s a cool, slick, fun origin story that fully peddles in legend and myth and it’s a trip to behold.

I am disappointed that the poor reception means there probably won’t be any more. When a movie is set in a real time and real pace and stars actors playing characters who were real people the artistic possibilities shrink somewhat. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was free from all of that. Sir George taught Arthur Kung-Fu, Sir Bedivere was played by Djimon Hounsou, King Vortigern sacrificed his wife and daughter to a trio of sea-witches in search of ultimate power. It suffers from a common silly third act problem where the distance between locations suddenly shrinks thanks to plot urgency but turning the secret hideout from a place that read as being days away from Camelot to hours away on horseback is worth it thanks to the enjoyment I get from watching Arthur hallucinate dryads emerging from tree trunks while the sounds of British folk rock fills the theater. Of course it’s confusing because we’re adrift in an unfamiliar universe on top of Guy Ritchie’s erratic house style, but it was awesome and I want more.

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