Style vs. Substance in Film

I watched the first episode of Shadow and Bone last night. I had to force myself to watch the whole thing, and I have no intention of watching any more.

The show made what is becoming a classic mistake of trying to introduce too much too fast. It reminded me of Suicide Squad, which tried to make us care about a half dozen main characters in twenty minutes. The series is fantasy, and there is world building to be done, but they’ve hardly mentioned any of it. Maybe they’ll get to it in later episodes.

Here’s what they didn’t skimp on: visual style and unjustifiably dramatic acting.

The production designers of the series deserve to be congratulated, I guess, for creating such gritty costuming and set design. Quite a bit of that is CG, of course, and they aren’t fooling anyone. However, costumes, sets, and lighting are really very good.

There are a bunch of bad guys and bad attitudes, and none of them are shy about bad acting. There has been no story, of course, to justify their badness, or their arrogance, or their all-powerfulness. We’re supposed to accept it on faith that everyone behaves that way because they are really, really bad. Or something. The (two?) good guys are bold and confident, and there are twelve seconds of flashback to assure us that they were precocious as children, so it’s perfectly believable.

Anyway, there is a disturbing trend in Hollywood that emphasizes productions with excellent visual style and/or melodramatic characters, but only includes the bare essentials of a story. Suicide Squad was one such.

I didn’t watch The Witcher, because it seemed that way from the previews I watched. I just watched the trailer for Cruella, and as far as I can tell, it’s an empty movie about a character in a Cruella costume who is cruel. Maleficent. Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t watch The Huntsman or Beauty and the Beast, but now it has me wondering. Let’s not get started with Avatar.

And then there are those things which have a story, but it isn’t a very good one. Penny Dreadful. Underworld. Van Helsing. Hollywood longs to repeat the magic formula of The Matrix, which had style and story in equal parts.

Hollywood has largely commoditized visual style. As far as I can tell, it is simply a function of budget. And bad acting, of course, is free. However, try as they might, Hollywood still has not managed to do this successfully with writing.

That hasn’t stopped them from treating writers and writing as a commodity. They just don’t seem to be very good at discerning bad writing from good, so they don’t even try until they have a finished product, and then it’s either good or it’s not.

Fortunately, if you have style and melodrama, it doesn’t matter whether the story is good, because American audiences will watch it, and they will largely rave about it. Who cares about writing if audiences are so indiscriminate?

Chalk that up as one more reason film audiences have ruined film.