Enough CGI blockbusters, cinema is returning to its roots


I don’t need to direct you to Avengers: Endgame’s historic $1.3 billion opening weekend this summer to show that we’ve been populating a computer-generated era. Even the phrase CGI to me seems to be becoming more redundant, so synonymous is it with our perception and expectations of cinematic (and increasingly, TV) material.

The over-saturation of CGI blockbusters over the last two decades has pervaded all aspects of cinema, but now producers are weary, audiences are cynical, and it’s time for a return to films of the 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps the title Endgame was prophetic after all, and we’re about to witness a slow decline of the digital cinematic era.

Looking specifically at the upcoming films Knives Out (Rian Johnson); Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton); The Irishman (Martin Scorsese); and The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie), I’m going to take a look at the way that we’re seeing a shift back to simpler narrative techniques.

I should explain that I’m not talking about reboots here. We’ve seen so many remakes of classic films over the last year or so that people have pointed out we might as well be in 1991. No, apparently exhausting our capacity to digest endless remakes of material that we know and love, I prefer to direct our attention towards new material, but which is framed in old genre conventions. Chiaroscuro lighting; moral ambiguity; and epic shootouts that don’t rely on SFX; there’s an emerging trend that’s seeing the films noir of the 1940s and 50s make a comeback.

A bit of context for the film noir movement: after a Pyrrhic victory in the Second World War for the Allies, remember that during the 1940s, the Cold War further exacerbated political tensions. The pervasive unrest resulted in a spread of films noir that echoed the sentiment in the US at the time. Are we in so different an era now? Well, looking at Hollywood’s most recent projects, I’d say not so much. 

Gone are the days when the lines between heroism and villainy were clear-cut. It feels today like everyone is a suspect and that this moral ambiguity has crept back into cinema. Foregoing the overly simplistic, reductionist approach of many other films, many of the new releases seem to offer time and attention to searching themes. For a fuller explanation of what makes a noir and what doesn’t, you can take a look at our Deep Analysis – for now, let’s take the above films and think about what they’re saying about the climate we’re in.

So why are we seeing an emergence now? It might be argued that these genres never went away or that they were simply less prominent in previous years, but it can’t go unnoticed that we’re seeing a resurgence of films that have recently been shadowed by spectacle. Now, bored with disposable spectacle, audiences are gravitating more towards older genres that hail back to a time before the Internet spoilers, fandoms, and forums, when films were truly escapist.

Is it a coincidence that so many of these films are a) set in the same decade; b) involve UK-US power relations; and c) create more of a blurred boundary between good and evil? We only have as to look at the modern political movements taking place to realise that we’re living in a similar age of cynicism towards authority. Whether or not this is symptomatic of a post-9/11 mentality or just cinematic fatigue, reaching the limits of digital capability, there’s something refreshing about the experience of watching an old-style film and getting caught in compelling narrative.

Knives Out (Rian Johnson)

Knives Out (2019 Movie) Official Trailer — Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis

Set in modern-day Norfolk, Massachusetts, Knives Out has a deliciously antique aura. The great mansion is the centerpiece of the film; the dynastic family only players in a game. Everything has been thought out: the setting, reminiscent of musty Agatha Christie tales. Even though it’s well and truly embedded in the modern day, it reveals Johnson’s commitment to genre filmmaking. 

At the London Film Festival, Johnson spoke at length about his love of film noir (take his first feature film, Brick, a formative film for many young film fans) and whodunits. His sophmore course through Looper and big break with The Last Jedi have, for better or worse, propelled him into the spotlight, and Knives Out is certainly among his most mature work.

 I lack the space here to discuss the full gender politics of each film, although Knives Out has a mixed ensemble cast and is more progressive than the others in terms of representing people of colour and anti-immigration sentiment. Although the deeply entrenched misogyny of bygone eras is certainly up for discussion, Knives Out has achieved the rare feat of both echoing old conventions while keeping up-to-the-minute with current affairs.

Motherless Brooklyn (Edward Norton) 

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN - Official Trailer - Warner Bros. UK

Although not everyone here on staff shares the opinion, I’m looking forward to Edward Norton’s directorial debut Motherless Brooklyn; the story of Lionel Essrog (Norton), a detective with Tourettes uncovers a side of a detective that makes him seem even more frustrated and troubled than your standard noir protagonist. I feel like this one is going to be a slow-burn, investing heavily in relationships between characters and the steady decline of one man into a dogged agent. 

The neo-noir is based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. I think the themes of feeling displaced and searching for one’s identity, searching for truth, are universal. I like the idea of it being called ‘Motherless’. Perhaps this is mere speculation, but I’d suggest the title refers to an individual (or a city) that’s lost his sense of self and belonging. In the same way, how can we really keep in touch with who we are as viewers when all we have as a point of reference are wildly fantastical films? The return to a more concrete narrative seems to fill a gap where we can’t seem to remember who we are and what we came from: now, we can look at people in the real world and remember what it’s like to feel connected to people on screen.

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

The Irishman | Official Trailer | Netflix

Ironically, the 210 minutes of de-aging CGI might mean that this isn’t technically a film devoid of digital manipulation. But Scorsese’s latest film is one of the most high-profile films of the season and can’t go overlooked. Set in 1950s Pennsylvania, the epic mobster flick has been hailed as Scorsese’s piece de resistance in a long and fruitful career. Based on the novel I Heard You Paint Houses, the film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), working for criminal Russell Bufalino (Pesci) and a long, winding tale of how their criminal activity plays out.

It fits neatly into Scorsese’s wheelhouse, but Flixist’s own review has pointed out that it may as well be his last film for its tone. Slower and more reflective than a lot of the films on offer at the moment, it shows that audiences have more an appetite for slow-burners — or perhaps the industry is bringing them out in anticipation of that taste. (Whether studios or the public influences industry trends is an unanswered question: but the relationship is mutually influential.)

The main takeaway from The Irishman is that it consciously looks back. It’s a film about reflecting on youth, both within the story and through the way it’s filmed. Coming from a director as influential as Scorsese, you can’t help but feel like he has something to say – and maybe that same farewell to youth is being directed towards two or three decades of flashy computer imagery.

The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)

The Gentlemen | Official Trailer [HD] | Own it NOW on Digital HD, Blu-ray & DVD

The Gentlemen sounds not dissimilar to a number of Guy Ritchie films that we’ve seen before: “A very British drug lord tries to sell off his highly profitable empire to a dynasty of Oklahoma billionaires.” The film, much like Knives Out, is led by a stellar ensemble cast: Matthew McConaughey, Charlie Hunman, Colin Farrell, Henry Golding, Hugh Grant, Jason Wong, et al. It’s got the star power, but the difference between this and his other work is that it fits loosely within the anti-digital framework.

Guy Ritchie cut his teeth on thrillers like Snatch and Lock Stock, so you could argue that there’s no need for him to revisit the same genre. And while The Gentlemen isn’t strictly a period piece – Ritchie already ventured into that territory with Sherlock Holmes – I’m using it here as an example because it plays on the old-fashioned idea of a crime thriller. There’s an irony at the level of decorum suggested at the title, Gentlemen, and I think this feeds back into the idea of a nostalgic old gangster mob. While it’s again set in the modern day like Knives Out, the tone of the piece, with its sharp-talking gangsters, is both characteristic of Ritchie and of the hard-boiled, jaded detectives of the film noir.

What does this mean for new releases?

The trend may or may not take off, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m certainly not suggesting a complete halt to all digital productions; it’s far too lucrative. But it’s a fair speculation to make when we’ve factually seen a period of digitally manipulated films, followed by a slow emergence of retrospective material. 

It could be that we see more of a traditional approach to genre with upcoming productions. The fast-food streaming model might just tire us out in the long run; perhaps we have more of an appetite for longer, more cerebral material than than we think. It’s heartening just to acknowledge that we might be on the brink of a move back to more traditional genres. If that means a move towards more deliberate filmmaking that employs carefully-selected techniques and means that brings an understanding of cinema history to a younger audience, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.