Gladiator

THE PATRIOT: an entertaining, if troubling, slice of jingoistic, historical fantasy (2000 in Film #25)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 30th, Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

If we have seen American cinema across the year 2000 attempt in some way to reconcile America’s place in history as we enter a new millennium, The Patriot is heavily concerned in re-writing and re-conceptualising it.

The Patriot wasn’t actually the biggest box office hit of this weekend, coming in a little short (unexpectedly) of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm. Though both are highly different movies playing in different eras with very different concepts, both do share a particular, definable ‘Americanism’ that even for Hollywood is powerful and potent. The Perfect Storm, telling the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel out of Massachusetts that sank during the so-called ‘Perfect Storm’ of 1991, boasts a tremendous cast of character actors spearheaded by a grumpy George Clooney and hot-headed Mark Wahlberg but suffers under the weight of melodramatic exceptionalism, overblowing a far more tragic real life story for rousing, heroic and ultimately bittersweet Hollywood effect. Jaws by way of Twister and saccharine, Lifetime drama.

Both this and Roland Emmerich’s take on the American Revolutionary War share a dubious claim on historical accuracy in the same vein of U-571 earlier in the year, and to an extent Gladiator, except the latter looked more inside out on what American exceptionalism actually means at the turn of the 21st century than either of these two films. The Perfect Storm, which—in a very local side note—had its UK premiere at a recently opened Midlands entertainment centre called Star City, with Clooney and Wahlberg in attendance, is now remembered more for the nautical effects—particularly the gigantic wave that sinks the Andrea Gail—than the overwrought script and performances, which pitch these real-life sailors as reckless, masculine sea lovers who needlessly throw themselves into the eye of the storm not just for bounty but for male obsession. It may have performed more strongly at the box office but The Patriot lingers further in the minds’ eye, serving as the first significant Hollywood take in some years on America’s bloody, foundational history.

In truth, the timing of The Patriot, and what it brings to 2000’s ongoing exploration of America’s past and future, is especially timely.

“Am I Not Merciful?!” GLADIATOR, Commodus and the Rise of the Populists

With Gladiator celebrating 20 years since it was released, I had some additional thoughts about the character of Commodus, expanding on my recent piece covering the film as part of my 2000 In Film series

We live in an age of populists. I’m sure you could name a few. A mixture of entertainment capitalists in the West and dictators in the East, with a few tinpot warlords in Africa and corrupt family dynasties in the Middle East. Sprinkled in between that are a few genuine democracies, sure, but the 21st century is not flying the flag for government by the people, for the people. I wonder, in part, if Gladiator saw this coming.

I wrote recently about the film as part of my 2000 In Film series, looking back the number one box office hits in Hollywood that are not a princely twenty years old, and in that piece I wondered about whether the villain Commodus reflected certain 21st century political anxieties that were facing down America at the turn of the millennium. The parallels between a particular US President, if you strip away the ancient Roman details, are quite striking. Yet Commodus as a character, and what he represents, goes beyond one man. He speaks to the rise of a leader who builds his strength and reputation not on trust, not on his own personal record or success, but on how he can make the people love him.

Populists are, at the heart, complete narcissists. The very nature of the word ‘popular’ stems from the Latin and has a strong connection, in fact, to Rome. The adjective populāris is described as “pertaining to all or most of the people, belonging to or used by the common people (as opposed to the military, the aristocracy, or the senators)”, and that sums Commodus up to a tee. He seeks absolute rule, backed by the military, yes, and supported by the Senate, sure, but has a leader he does not expect to be beholden to any of them. They, and by definition the people they support, are designed to support *him*, and if they don’t they, like Maximus, are considered a threat to Rome, and by extention to “the people”.

In that, we can see strong parallels between the world Commodus wanted to create in Gladiator and the political landscape of the early 21st century.

GLADIATOR: an epic, bravura examination of Pax Americana (2000 in Film #18)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 5th, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator

One of the defining films of the 2000’s, Gladiator might also be the first epic piece of blockbuster American cinema released in the 21st century.

It had been decades since Hollywood had produced a film like Ridley Scott gives us here. The sword and sandals epic went out with the birth of the New Hollywood movement in the late 1960’s, which swopped the pomp and exuberance of languid historical epics such as The Fall of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, even Stanley Kubrick’s superior Spartacus, for a leaner, grittier and more contemporary cinematic aesthetic. By the time cinema once again dipped its toe in grand storytelling, the blockbuster gave birth to fantasy, science-fiction and adventure which, again, put paid to audiences wanting to see large scale historical recreations of the ancient world. A decade earlier, Gladiator would have struggled to even be made.

Stepping into the new millennium, Scott nevertheless saw an opportunity, as DreamWorks pictures believed there was the space to develop a revision, a reimagining, of such classical Hollywood storytelling for a new age. Saving Private Ryan two years earlier, which revolutionised how to depict the visceral nature of World War Two, arguably inspired how Scott and DreamWorks envisaged bringing the harsh world of the ancient Roman Empire to life; a world filled with war, bloodshed and a copious lack of sanctity for human life in the face of a populous bating for blood. The space was created for the very Spartacus-influenced tale of Maximus Decimus Meridius, the beloved Roman General who sees his family murdered by envious new Emperor Commodus, before slaying his executioners and fighting his way up through the gladiatorial pits of Rome to challenge the very notion of Empire itself.

What strikes me, looking back with two decades distance, is not just how impressive Gladiator remains in vision and scope, even if at times it falls into melodrama, but how it speaks even more potently now than then about what the film was really about: America at the end of the 20th century. It continues the refraction we have seen thus far in 2000 in American cinema about the nation’s legacy and place in the world.

Scene by Scene: STAR TREK: NEMESIS Pt I – ‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins’

As Star Trek: Picard begins, with the return of The Next Generation era, I’m going to take a scene by scene look back in the next couple of months about the tenth Star Trek film, Stuart Baird’s Nemesis, from 2002…

‘A Generation’s Final Journey Begins…’

That was the uniquely ominous strap line for Star Trek: Nemesis at the end of 2002. The promise of closure. 

After fifteen years, since The Next Generation launched on television in 1987 and triggered the second era of Star Trek, the voyages to go where no one has gone before for Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E (formerly D) would be coming to an end in the fourth and final film for a dynamic new crew slipping gracefully into middle age. Voyager had just ended on television after seven years but Enterprise was in its second season, and there was every indication more spin-off shows would eventually line up alongside it. To Paramount, franchise producer Rick Berman, and the cast and crew, it felt like the right time to bring the curtain down on these characters.

Many remembered how just over a decade previously, The Undiscovered Country had quite naturally retired the crew of The Original Series. It felt apt, with a group of characters born in the heart of Cold War detente and futuristic optimism, to see Kirk, Spock et al warp off into the sunset as the Soviet Union fell and the geopolitical paradigm changed. Nemesis struggles to replicate that same feeling of finished business. The Next Generation crew never entirely gelled with the cinema in the way The Original Series crew had, and arguably only First Contact stands out with time and distance as a truly great Star Trek movie. Kirk & company found each other again in middle age and discovered a creative renaissance, triggered by the success of The Wrath of Khan. Picard and his crew went immediately from the end of their series into Generations and a movie saga, stuttering across a decade in which the world changed around them.

Nemesis, released in the long shadow cast on all American storytelling by the horrific events of September 11th, 2001 in New York, as a result feels like the reluctant last gasp of Star Trek’s second era, wedged amidst the embers of Reaganism and the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ that 9/11 blew out of the water.

It feels, oddly, like a crew who aren’t quite as ready for retirement as everyone thinks.

Mutated Anxiety at the Millennium: X-Men (2000)

With X-Men: Dark Phoenix on the horizon, a film predicted to signal the end of the original iteration of the X-Men franchise, I’ve decided to go back and revisit this highly influential collection of comic-book movies.

We start with Bryan Singer’s original, 2000’s X-Men…

Though not always discussed in the annals of great comic-book cinema, or even considered the height of its own franchise, Bryan Singer’s original adaptation of X-Men is a seminal moment in superhero cinema.

Before Singer brought Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s formative 1960’s Marvel Comics property to the screen, after over a decade of attempts by a range of filmmakers (most notably James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow), comic-book cinema was principally dominated across the 1980’s and 1990’s by two heavyweights: Superman and Batman. The former ruled the late 1970’s into the 80’s before falling from grace with a succession of sequels whereby the budget went down as the schlock went up, while the latter moved away in the 90’s from Tim Burton’s initial Neo-Gothic vision into a high camp, overblown blockbuster confection. Beyond these behemoths, comic-book films were curiosities – The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Crow, Darkman, Spawn – films which either garnered a cult audience or disappeared from the radar entirely.

X-Men changed all that. While not the first Marvel property brought to bear on the big-screen, Singer’s film was without doubt the first adaptation of their source material to go mainstream as a major box-office success – two years earlier, the Wesley Snipes-fronted Blade arguably also did well but was too violent and pulpy to reach a wide audience, and many to this day are unaware it even *is* a Marvel adaptation. X-Men changed the game. X-Men showed that comic-book movies could be more than kitsch spectacle or showy theatrics. Superheroes could be *real* people with heart and soul, their villainous antagonists complicated foes, both morally and psychologically; plus, these films could, much like the related genre of science-fiction, work as powerful allegory and social commentary. In other words, comic-book cinema could do what actual comic-books had been doing, without much in the way of critical respect, for decades.

While X-Men absolutely gives in to some of the silliness that weakened comic-book movies of decades past, it also shows what is possible in this sub-genre, and unknowingly lays down a template for the eventual rise and domination of superhero cinema.