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Hacksaw Ridge: A Lack of Subtly in Storytelling

Hacksaw Ridge is one of those films that does a lot of things right, but gets a bunch of little things wrong. I left the theatre feeling conflicted, not about the film’s message or themes, but its presentation of its message and themes.

Because Hacksaw Ridge is not subtle. It is about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) who, despite being a conscientious objector, enlisted in World War II, refused to carry a weapon, and became a decorated soldier. The film spends about half its runtime on Doss’s process of getting through the army as a conscientious objector. Hacksaw Ridge wants to tell a story about absolute faith and it thinks the key to achieving this is to hammer the conscientious objector story until the nail is so deep it will never come out.

I’ll return to Hacksaw Ridge when it comes out on DVD and spend some time with it to figure out all my problems, but for now I’d like to quickly look at the lack of storytelling subtly in Hacksaw Ridge.

Please note, this article will contain Hacksaw Ridge spoilers. Moreover, because this article deals with some nuances of its storytelling, it won’t make sense unless you’ve seen the film.

Purposeful CGI: When CGI Serves the Story

I rewatched The Matrix the other day and was impressed by how purposeful it was with its CGI. And not just it’s CGI, The Matrix integrates all its ideas seamlessly into the story. Here’s a movie that wants to build a dystopian future, incorporate philosophical concepts, be the first North American film to have fight choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping, popularize a technique that manipulates how viewers perceive space and time in a camera’s frame (that they coined “bullet time”), and incorporate anime and cyberpunk influences.

And somehow, amidst these varied and bold initiatives they manage to make each and every single element serve the story as well as making an entertaining action movie. This helped me remember that good CGI has more to do with serving the story than it does with looking cool. There are a number of reasons CGI might look bad (low budget, time constraints, conflicting information between directors and producers), but unnecessary CGI is the greater crime.

Here are three examples of where CGI serves the story well and three examples where CGI serves the story poorly.

Superman III: Revisted

Superman III revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit Superman III.

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I haven’t seen Superman III since I was a kid and couldn’t really remember much of it. Re-watching it again, I can see why it wasn’t worth remembering. The basic plot is that tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) has ambitions to dominate more global markets. Webster discovers a talented computer programmer, Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor), and Webster forces Gorman to use his programming talent to manipulate the world and to combat Superman (Reeve).

The opening sequence of Superman III is a series of mishaps: A blind man’s dog runs away, the dog knocks over a lady, the blind man mistakes a street lane painter as his dog and starts following it. Somewhere amidst this chaos, a man gets trapped inside a flooding car and Superman must save him.

I wondered what kind of story this was establishing. Is this a story about all the things that go wrong in the world that Superman can’t fix? Is it a story about him struggling to decide between who to help and who to abandon, even if that sometimes means between choosing who lives and who dies? This was me giving Superman III too much credit. Superman III is a Superman story told as a screwball comedy. It is a strange movie. It is a boring movie. And I didn’t think it was a funny movie.

Here are six thoughts I had when revisited Superman III.

Doctor Strange: Imagery and Storytelling Through His Hands

While watching Doctor Strange I noticed a considerable focus on Doctor Strange’s hands. Because Doctor Strange’s journey begins when he damages his hands, they are a big part of the story’s purpose and the camera spends a lot of time on his hands as he progresses through the story.

Here is a quick breakdown of how images of Doctor Strange’s hands are used to describe his mindset and where he is in his journey.

The Rocketeer: Revisited

The Rocketeer revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit The Rocketeer.

For some reason I can’t remember much about The Rocketeer. Watching it again, I mostly recall the zeppelin at the end of the film. I wonder if I fell asleep the first time I watched it …

It’s certainly possible. Sometimes I did that as a kid on movie nights when I was bored. And re-watching The Rocketeer, I can see how that might have happened. The Rocketeer takes place in 1930’s Hollywood. The setting imbues the film with a sense of the era and it isn’t in a big ol’ hurry to get anywhere. On the surface it has pizzazz; The Rocketeer is about a struggling young pilot, Cliff (Billy Campbell), who stumbles across a jet pack that allows him to fly. Unfortunately, a lot people are pursuing that jet pack including the FBI, famous actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), some mobsters Sinclair hires, the Nazis, and a hulking brute named Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor).

But the film is more about people and relationships than it is about The Rocketeer. Like Cliff’s relationship with Peevy (Alan Arkin), who is Cliff’s friend / roommate / father figure / mentor / partner (it’s a multi-layered relationship). Peevy is a modest mechanical genius who stays up half the night making Cliff a helmet after they find the jet pack, even though Peevy thinks using the jet pack is a bad idea. The other big relationship in the film is the one between Cliff and Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). Jenny is an up-and-coming actress who is just gaga for Cliff. When Cliff takes her to the local airfield diner for the umpteenth time and one of the bumbling regulars splashes soup on Jenny’s blouse, she let’s it slide. She simply takes Cliff’s hand and makes plans for their future, saying they should celebrate at a fancier place when Cliff wins the National Flying competition.

Whatever else The Rocketeer is about, it always comes back to Cliff wanting to become the kind of man who deserves Jenny. That’s something I wouldn’t have caught when I was younger.

Here are four things I noticed when I re-visited The Rocketeer.