Having just finished watching Spartacus, I felt the need to express my concern at the lack of today’s modern epic. Now, by epic, I mean a massive film. A film at least 2 1/2 hours long. But studios are releasing these in fewer and fewer quantities. Why? Is the American public becoming too tired to watch a movie longer than a football game? Is our attention spans shrank to such a degree that a movie of that length is too much to undertake?
In 2010, we saw Avatar become the highest grossing movie of all time. A movie that’s run time was just shy of 2 hours and 45 minutes. 3-D aside, why did people keep coming back to this particular film? The plot wasn’t very original. The special effects perhaps? I’d like to think it was the world’s way of declaring Avatar the epic of modern times. But where Avatar grossed $2.7 billion, not every attempt in recent history has fared so well.
Back before my time were big time, grand epic films. Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, and many others delivered a film that was grand in scope, but valued its characters. The longer run time allowed for a more live theatre based feeling. There was an Overture and an Intermission as a means to set the stage. Though Jaws is considered the original event movie, these films were endeavors not to be taken lightly. Those long hours took you on a journey that felt like a lifetime, and in some of the films, it was. But where today’s films fail to measure up, is the focus on secondary elements of the experience rather than on the core necessities.
I try my best not to let run times of films get me down. Some 90 minute movies can feel like forever, whereas some bigger films feel like they are over in a heartbeat. For every modern-day epic success, we get a film like Alexander. History of the cinema has taught me to always be leery of passion plays, or films the directors’ have been nurturing along for years. Alexander was one of Oliver Stone’s such passion plays. At a budget of $155 million and a runtime five minutes shy of 3 hours, it lost most of its American audience from the get-go. It didn’t help that the film itself wasn’t that great. The movie limped along and meandered every step of the way. But not all recent epics have been duds.
Titanic, Amadeus, Braveheart, and Dances with Wolves are all examples of an epic done right. Granted, all of these films are both historically based and Academy Award Winners for Best Picture. Each of these films succeeded by falling the epics of generations before. Each one contained a simple plot with a few characters, but a plot with enough of a journey to sustain the runtime. I love each of these films for different reasons, but the one thing that best suited them was the quality of the film.
The Lord of the Rings movies…not even gonna get into that. That’s a whole other post, but the mere mention of the trilogy is to prove that America does have the stomach for it.
Despite the successes, or failures, of recent epic, long running films, we begin to see an emergence in films clocking in around 2 hours 40 minutes. Though not much different from a movie running 2 hours 30 minutes, studios feel more confident with the latter. Two of David Fincher’s recent masterpieces, Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, fall under this spell.Zodiac was a character study and one that was surprisingly good considering the subject matter. It follows the story of a reporter, a cop, and a cartoonist as they all individually obsess over the Zodiac killings that plagued California in the 1960s and 1970s. TCCoBB follows a man who ages in reverse. Though this film lost to Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars that year, I still feel that this film was the better film. But that aside, this film was astonishing in how it took the life of an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift and watched him live his life. Though both of Fincher’s films could have been shorter, the scope and quality would have been diluted. They stand strong as great modern-day long-runtime films.
So with all this in mind, I still feel the end of the long run film is upon us. If studios were to quit griping about the length and focus more on the quality, we would get more films like Kill Bill as one film and fewer films like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End or Gods and Generals, a four-hour prequel to a four-hour box office bomb/critic darling about the American Civil War.