Why 1917 And Uncut Gems Are The Best Kind Of Theme Park Rides
“Martin Scorsese, the greatest living director, made the news for his controversial comments about the Marvel franchise,” said host Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes this week. “He said they’re not real cinema and they remind him of theme parks. I agree, although I don’t know what he’s doing hanging around at theme parks. He’s not big enough to go on the rides.”
It was, in fairness, one of Gervais’ better gags on the night, a fact emphasised by the incongruous sight of Robert De Niro – a man with pallbearer-resting-face – cracking up alongside Scorsese. The man himself, meanwhile, just nodded: a look that said, "You’re right." But also, you suspect, "I’ll have the last laugh, you mook."
Except, of course, he didn’t. His late-career mob masterpiece The Irishman walked away with nothing, despite having gone in with five nominations – tied with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood and second only to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
What won? In short: a theme park ride, but not any theme park ride – the best theme park ride: Sam Mendes’ First World War thrill ride 1917, which scooped both Best Director for Mendes and “Best Motion Picture – Drama”.
Granted, it’s not exactly the theme park ride Scorsese had in mind when he was talking about cinema’s current obsession with superheroes, but if anything it’s more of an on-the-rails, adrenaline-milking machine than the Marvel films ever are.
As 1917 is a First World War film, most critics feel obliged to call it "Mendes’ First World War epic”. Except it’s not epic and the lack of epic-ness is actually the point. We don’t get stirring speeches or overhead massed battle shots or the kind of scattershot destruction that lets you understand war’s disregard for the softness of flesh.
We don’t get, as in The Irishman, the dramatic sweep of history or how each carefully crafted conversation plays its part.
Instead, we get one man, played by George MacKay, and the camera is often so close we barely get the dramatic sweep of his hair. He’s a man on a mission: he must deliver a vital message and if he doesn’t do it by a certain time countless thousands will die. And so, as he ducks enemy fire in trenches and leaps clear of dive-bombing planes, the camera doesn’t leave him once.
We’re strapped in, in other words, and the result is a film that exists almost entirely to raise the pulse and fling the audience from one near-death moment to the next. It’s thrilling, brilliant, nerve-shredding – and it is, most certainly, a roller-coaster by any other name.
Crucially, though, it’s one that demands to be seen on the big screen in order to deliver the adrenaline high that it’s clearly been created for. Purists will no doubt hate me saying this, but you just don’t need to see The Irishman in a cinema. You just don’t. It’s a film of elderly men talking darkly about having done “everything they could for the man”. It’s a film of car journeys and cigarette breaks and people being beaten up... slowly. It is a film where you get to watch, in real time, Joe Pesci opening a mini selection box of cereal and then pouring the milk. I sometimes think watching it on a 55-inch TV is a bit overkill.
But the bigger question is this: is the very idea of cinematic appeal – the kind of film you’d actually pay money to watch in the cinema – now seeping into what awards season judges are deeming award worthy?
There’s long been talk of the new dividing line between quality TV and cinema, how high-end TV has become the go-to medium for quality writing, how cinema has mostly retreated into bombast, superhero sequels and the kind of films where people occasionally shout, “Hell no!”
And you could argue, if you like, that Netflix is single-handedly saving cerebral cinema, funding the likes of The Irishman and Marriage Story, the latter a film that mostly consists of protracted arguments in nondescript rooms, when the major studios would now hesitate. But rather than saving “cinema”, you could also argue the Netflixication of these films – which nearly everyone will watch on their flatscreens – has instead simply confirmed their move over to TV.
As 1917 shows, cinema now has to be something different, something not simply enhanced by the cinema experience, but tailor made for it: the iMax screen and surround sound as the overhead harness that locks you into the ride.
After all, 1917 isn’t even the only film out this week that does this. Uncut Gems, starring Adam Sandler as a grifting diamond dealer in New York, is easily the most stressful film I’ve ever watched. It’s the big-dipper, loop-the-loop, Space Mountain blood-twister of cinematic roller-coaster rides. Variety compared the experience of watching Uncut Gems – directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie – to a “protracted heart-attack”. It’s honestly hard to disagree.
As in 1917, we follow our hero – in this case Sandler – so closely it’s as if they’ve simply strapped a GoPro on him. Sandler has money troubles, but he also has a plan: a huge rock with uncut gems in it has just arrived at his jewellery shop and if he can just sell it in time, if he can pawn this here, and dodge the gangsters he owes money there, and make that bet on this basketball game, and march across town to speak to the guy who can help him out with the thing... Imagine the most stressful hour of your life and then imagine two or three days of those hours. Granted, it doesn’t quite have the gliding single-shot gimmick of 1917, but where Thomas Newman’s score in that film veers between dread and awe, the nonstop percussive soundtrack of Uncut Gems provides an experience closer to the chimes of the Countdown clock spread over 135 minutes.
Uncut Gems, too, will arrive on Netflix later in the month, as it’s a coproduction between the streaming site and indie distributors A24. But just as both 1917 and Uncut Gems are experiences immeasurably heightened by watching them in the cinema, I can only imagine the latter will be somewhat diminished not especially by the size of the screen, but the ability to press pause. Half an hour into the screening I attended, if I could have called a time-out in order to let my heart rate fall below 100 for a few minutes, I dare say I would have.
I imagine Netflix viewers, 20 minutes in, mopping their brows and thinking to themselves, "Maybe just a 10-minute break", which is as much cheating as being able to pause a roller-coaster mid ride. The discomfort, after all, is part of the thrill.
Filmmakers were up in arms recently when rumours surfaced that Netflix were working on technology that would let viewers watch at a faster speed, but if they want to get the world of cinema – and who knows, the world of awards season judges – back on board, may I suggest an alternative use of their technology? After the first 20 minutes of a film, you're locked in to watch the rest. All interactivity is taken away: no pausing, no fast-forwarding, no rewinding. Hell, you can't even press stop and watch anything else on Netflix. If you want to p*** you have to sprint to your own toilet. Finally: home cinema as the makers intended.
1917 and Uncut Gems are out now. Uncut Gems is on Netflix from 31 January