It’s instructive to compare Ben Stiller in two recent movies, While We’re Young and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (both from 2014). Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young is maybe not a great movie, but it’s an original comedy about hipsters, generational differences, and the art of documentary film, with no special effects that I could see, whereas Secret of the Tomb is the latest of a successful franchise, offering a warmed-over variation on the exhibits-come-to-life premise of the previous instalments, done up with state-of-the-art technical gimmickry. Stiller is credited in both movies, but he truly acts in just one.
A similar aesthetic to Secret of the Tomb informs this year’s Pan. Take a pre-sold brand – in this case, J.M. Barrie’s enduring fantasy of Neverland and eternal youth – depict it with computer-generated imagery from beginning to end, and make the entire film as busy, as choreographed, and as loud as a pop concert (the jarringly incongruous inclusion of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” sung by a vast chorus of pirates and Lost Boys, reinforces this methodology). As with Secret of the Tomb, the longest sustained stretch of pure dialogue, acting, and special effects-free cinematography in Pan lasts about twenty seconds. Pan has a director (Joe Wright), but its real auteurs are the coders who designed its CGI.
There’s also something contrived in Secret of the Tomb‘s presentation of big stars – Stiller, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, the late Robin Williams, and even a cameo from Ben Kingsley – essentially posing in front of a green screen and projecting their inherent celebrity, presumably for huge fees, rather than creating anything resembling a serious dramatic performance. Hugh Jackman, in Pan, does somewhat more with his part, but there’s the same sense of watching a human product placement instead of a realized character. Acting is a strange profession, where you can be waiting tables and attending casting calls one year and then earning a million dollars for a day’s work the next; you have to wonder if Stiller, Williams, Jackman, Kingsley et al ever aspired to this kind of career, having their likenesses digitally inserted into an elaborate software program while the movies’ producers rest assured that just the contractual commitment of marquee names guarantees a return on their investment. Even before the inevitable merchandising, the appearance of A-list figures in these sorts of films seems more like a hands-off endorsement rather than an artistic involvement with the final work.
Of course, interesting and personal pictures are still being made – I liked While We’re Young, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, and Steve McQueen’s powerful 12 Years a Slave – in which involving stories are told and talented craftsmen and women stage plausible scenarios. Yet the McMovies differ again from even the small-brained, big-budget summer blockbusters of earlier eras, by barely being movies at all, and more like two-hour Xbox games. With Star Wars, Jurassic Park, or Titanic, you could at least see where the money went, since the stunning visuals were clearly the result of costly bricks-and-mortar effort, but the McMovies don’t offer that reassurance. With Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Pan, we have started to leave the medium of cinema and are entering that of computer programming. Hey, give me a comic book or a fairy tale, a few minutes’ video of a famous person, and a new iMac, and I’ll make a McMovie too.