Uploaded to MoviePilot August 3rd 2017
One joke added in a caption due to events that happened since this article was originally printed.
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Atomic Blonde]
When making a film, one of the key things that the film makers decide is what the visual tone of the movie will be. This is essential in every film but it’s particularly important when doing an adaptation as the style of the movie should correspond to the style of the book that it’s being adapted from. It also needs to have a style that is consistent within the film itself. If you’re watching Captain America and suddenly the entire tone of the film changes from something out of Marvel Avengers to something out of Marvel Zombies, you’d notice and be instantly put off the main story. A sudden change in tone or a random stylistic choice can be detrimental to a movie.
Atomic Blonde has this problem. Stylistic choices happen randomly that don’t really make sense within the context of the two-hour film that we’re being presented with and I want to talk about those choices, but I need to make something clear. I enjoyed this movie. I think it’s a good, fun action film and you should probably give it a look, but the element of stylistic inconsistency that ran throughout this movie is something that I need to talk about it.
The Fourth Wall
There’s a concept in the theatre known as “The Fourth Wall” where the actors involved imagine a mysterious wall that keeps them separate from the audience. This is a standard rule that almost every play follows in order to keep the show in its own world, the audience is spectating without interacting. This idea continued into TV and film, the fourth wall being moved from the edge of the stage to the lens of the camera. Breaking the fourth wall is done in order to pull the audience into the show and have them be more directly affected by what’s going on. It also means that the characters in the show are aware of the audience and fundamentally changes a key element of the storytelling.
Frank Underwood is watching you and judging your browser history…though maybe we should be judging his!
One film that breaks the fourth wall expertly is Fight Club by its use of the unreliable narrator with the Edward Norton character constantly lying to our faces about what we’re seeing. There’s the constant playing with the physical film itself by turning the cigarette burns into a point of discussion or editing in a single frame of porn at the ending to imply that the man in the booth behind us is Tyler Durden. Most obviously, of course, there is just having characters repeatedly turn to the camera to address the audience and talk to them, pulling them into the story like Frank Underwood does in House Of Cards. This stylistic choice is done early and often, to the point that it just sinks in as a part of this world and so we go along with it readily. It also means that the film can use this to surprise us by having the characters stop interacting with us or get annoyed that we’re watching them.
Atomic Blonde has exactly two sequences where the fourth wall is, ostensibly, broken. The first is when a character is describing the image of film cracking and burning, just as the film we’re watching crackles and burns as a part of a transition. This is a direct lift from the cigarette burns in Fight Club, except in Fight Club the burns are there to explain an element of the Tyler Durden character and to provide a setup to the punchline of porn that comes seconds later. Fight Club also would repeat this joke at the end of the movie by having the film burn and more porn sneaking into the film we, the audience, are watching. In Atomic Blonde the film burns because they needed a transition and film burning looks cool. There is no narrative reason that film burning should be brought up, it’s not a setup for anything, it’s a strange metaphor for Berlin during the cold war. It looks cool, but it’s not needed and is never repeated again.
The other moment of breaking the fourth wall comes right at the end when a major character is delivering a speech. They look directly at the camera and start talking as though they were Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. At this point in the film (the endpoint), no one’s really acknowledged the audience is even there. No one looks to camera, no one delivers a speech like this at any other time in the film, at no point are we to believe the fourth wall has been broken by anything other than that random transition using a piece of burning celluloid which isn’t even breaking the wall, just kind of poking the wall. It doesn’t serve the story or character in any real way, it’s just a strange style choice that they only make once.
The Long Take
In film, you are likely to never see a shot that lasts longer than about 15 seconds at the most. In action movies, you’ll be lucky if the shots are half of that. This is because film is a tricky medium to work in and most of the performance is created in the editing. Doing shots for any longer than that, especially action shots, runs the risk of something going wrong. When action shots are involved, something going wrong can cost thousands of dollars just to reset everything and try again. So to do a long take where you hold the camera on an action sequence without cutting away is a very high-risk situation because you run the risk of having to do large sequences of action once again.
One of the better recent examples of a single take action scene comes from the Netflix series Daredevil, during season one. In this scene, a boy has been kidnapped and our hero Matt Murdock goes in to get him and what follows is a three-minute long single shot showing the fight scene from inside the hallway (Which is also a nod to a similar scene in the movie Old Boy). It’s incredibly claustrophobic with the camera moving slowly inside the hallway, fists fly and large items get thrown around. Theoretically, this exact same sequence could’ve been done as a series of 15-second shots cut together but it has one major purpose behind it, to show the exhaustion that he was feeling and create a real sense of realism that the show built on. It’s such an incredible fight scene that they tried to recreate it in season two, with less impressive results in my humble opinion.
Who want’s to kick ass and chew bubblegum?
Atomic Blonde also uses a long take for a fight sequence that starts at the bottom of a staircase, goes up in the elevator and then slowly works all the way down the stairs, back up again, then down once more before going outside and taking the remainder of the action into a car. It’s insanely bad-ass and I can’t fault the ambition of the eight-minute long shot but in the end… what was the point? Yeah, the character involved is tired at the end, and there may be a few deaths involved, but it’s not something we needed to see in absolute real time. Even though the shot is cool (and it is, it’s insanely cool) it’s not the kind of shot that required the long take because the fight that the character was involved in wasn’t exactly the most important thing in the world. The events that preceded it? Essential, had to see everything happen just the way it did, but the big fight scene wasn’t one that required real time.
As a wise man once told us, “The hour’s approaching to give it your best and you’ve got to reach your prime. That’s when you need to put yourself to the test and show us a passage of time”. That is the most accurate description of montage that I’ve ever heard because it is simply the condensing of a large amount of time pushed into one small sequence of the film. It’s truly an important technique to keep a film from lagging and spending too much time on something that could take forever… yes, I’m using Team America as the example of montage done well, it’s more fun than any other example.
Beyond the absolute pitch-perfect lyrics to the song that describe the montage, the visuals used are perfect examples of montage. At this point in the movie, we are trying to get from the destruction of the Team America headquarters to the climactic end sequence involving Kim Jong Il’s big show. Even though this scene is parodying the montages of action films, it does so by imitating them perfectly. Showing gradual improvement, fill in key details that don’t need their own scenes and pass through weeks of time in a matter of minutes. When used correctly, montage will push towards the climax of a movie.
Atomic Blonde had a montage because it looked cool, that’s it. Shots of scenes faded in and out with no real obvious improvement or advancement in the story happening. It keeps cutting back to an interrogation that’s taking place (Since the entire film is told through flashback) and there is no great advancement there either unless you count the fact that the character’s cigarette is almost gone. It’s a montage without a purpose and its placement in the movie didn’t push towards the climax like it’s meant too.
The Rotating Camera
When learning about film you learn about the ideas of tilt, pan, zoom and dolly. These are standard shots that make up a majority of what you’ll see in any film. One type of shot that is rarely used is the rotating shot, where the camera will slowly revolve to reveal something new or, ideally, to disorient the audience. It throws the audience off because we’re not used to seeing things changing the angle so rapidly like that and it’s intended to create a certain feeling of unease in the viewer.
American Horror Story: Coven uses the rotating camera to great effect when telling the story of Spalding losing his tongue, specifically showing the covens reaction to the sight of their servant mutilated in the bathroom. The camera for the majority of the sequence has been a mixture of Dutch angles and slow Steadicam shots that create an unnerving feeling throughout the scene that builds until that final shot when the camera spins around at all angles until the climactic moment when we hear the screams and the camera goes from lying down to a normal angle to floating upside down on the ceiling looking directly at Spalding with his DIY glossectomy, all to disorient the audience as much as possible.
Atomic Blonde has a similar scene where a doorway is shown completely horizontally and as someone walks through it the camera spins around, turns and follows them… that’s it. It’s not a shot meant to disorient the viewer, it’s not there for any real surprise reveal and is never repeated again. It’s a cool image that transitions into a regular sequence and that’s it.
The Twist Ending
While the idea of the twist ending has been around forever, it’s been recently popularized by M. Night Shyamalan. A twist ending is an ending that takes the story in a new direction suddenly right at the end and is the cinematic equivalent of flipping the table. If done right the twist ending fits, if done wrong then the twist ending feels forced. M. Night has done this both ways but let’s look at how he did it the right way.
Arguably the most famous twist ending of all is that of the movie The Sixth Sense. In that movie, it’s revealed at the very end that the main character was dead the entire time. What makes this reveal work so well is that it’s telegraphed ahead of time in very subtle ways but most notably with the line “I see dead people” that’s delivered about 50 minutes into the film while Haley Joel Osment’s character is looking directly as Bruce Willis’ character. There are other hints like the Bruce Willis’ character never directly interacting with any character other than Cole but it’s the line “I see dead people” that gives the game away. If you’re going to pull off a twist you have to make it fit and do a proper setup.
Atomic Blonde doesn’t do the setup. It tries to pull a big shock twist on us but the problem is that at no point is it hinted that this big twist is coming until the last five minutes of the movie. All signs point to one thing happening, one inevitable ending and then the rug is pulled out from under us for the sake of a cool twist that makes no sense in context. That’s the trick with a twist, it still has to make sense in context. You have to be able to watch the film a second time, knowing the twist is coming, and everything has to make sense with this new piece of information. I promise you, the film’s twist ending does not work if you know it ahead of time.
What I’m getting at here is that Atomic Blonde is a film that is built, almost entirely, out of ‘cool’ shots. There are other shots that are in this film that I’m convinced are just in there because they look awesome, including slow-motion shots and underwater shots. All these shots look really nice but they aren’t meant to go together, they’re very different styles of film that need to be picked carefully. They change the tone of the picture with how they’re used which makes the film hard to follow. It doesn’t make it a bad film, but it makes it a harder watch than it needs to be
What kind of ‘Cool’ shot do you most enjoy seeing in a movie?