Drive-In Double Header: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and BATTLESHIP

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) – Directed by Rupert Sanders – Starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Johnny Harris, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Brian Gleeson, and Nick Frost.

Battleship (2012) – Directed by Peter Berg – Starring Taylor Kitsch, Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Tadanobu Asano, Hamish Linklater, Jesse Plemons, John Tui, Gregory Gadson, Adam Godley, Peter MacNicol, and Peter Berg.

According to yesterday’s Google Doodle, June 6, 2012 was the 79th Anniversay of the First Drive-In Movie. The first drive-in opened in Pennsauken, New Jersey and the first film was Wives Beware. Seventy-nine years later, I was at the West Wind Drive-In in Reno to watch a doubleheader of SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and BATTLESHIP, an seemingly odd pairing of films that actually ended up complimenting each other rather well.

I love the drive-in; I can remember seeing Star Wars for the first time at a drive-in, as me and my brother sat in the back seat of my dad’s Ford Granada. I wasn’t even old enough to be in kindergarten, yet I can remember all kinds of things from that night – not just the movie but the snack bar, the playground, the clunky metal speaker you had to attach to your windows, and even the bathrooms. I love that every drive-in I’ve been in over the years (which, admittedly, probably barely touches double digits) seems stuck in the ’50s. Even last night, in a drive-in with four screens going, the snack bar and bathrooms don’t look like they’ve been updated in at least four decades. (Though they were clean, which is the important thing.) The prices were reasonable and the popcorn was really tasty – as long as you got a piece that had been hit by the butter.

Looking around at the other screens, I had The Avengers followed by Dark Shadows to my left, The Chernobyl Diaries and the Dictator to my right, and Men in Black 3 and The Hunger Games behind me. I have no idea how these movies were selected to be paired with one another, but I was happy about our pairing because I hadn’t seen either film before tonight.

Both SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN and BATTLESHIP were pretty good films and they ended up complimenting each other rather well. SNOW WHITE is a bit of a feminist, fairy tale power fantasy while BATTLESHIP is a straight-up masculine, military stroke-fest.

Both films are heavy on CGI spectacle, but they use the technology differently; in SNOW WHITE, it’s done to enhance the natural world while in BATTLESHIP, it’s done to enhance the technological gang bang going on between the Navy and the alien ships. While the Drive-In experience doesn’t provide the best screen experience, both films looked beautiful, and it’s to the credit of all the CGI artists involved that these films looked so different from one another, but both were still beautifully rendered.

While both films were more hit than miss, they moved in opposite directions; SNOW WHITE started strong and then sort of petered out, while BATTLESHIP started out as horribly derivative and predictable as you can imagine and then somehow rebounded into a highly enjoyable second half. It’s not hard to pinpoint the reason why, either, because while BATTLESHIP perfectly understood what it’s here for, SNOW WHITE takes itself way too seriously for a summer movie experience. WHITE feels like a November film as it just stubbornly refuses to let us have any fun. It’s fine that WHITE wants to take itself seriously; I truly admire the attempt at what director Rupert Sanders is attempting, but if you’re going to send a movie out to the public in the summer and you’re going to play things this seriously, you’d better deliver something truly special and while WHITE is good, it’s not special.

Everyone in WHITE is dour. Snow (Kristen Stewart) is understandably miserable after being trapped in a tower prison while her stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron) rules the kingdom after murdering Snow’s dad. Ravenna doesn’t get to have much fun because she’s obsessed with staying young and beautiful, which means she’s always killing young people to regenerate herself. Her brother Finn (Sam Spruell) is eternally grumpy because the worst haircut in the kingdom. The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) isn’t a happy because because he’s in debt, and he’s a drunkard, and his life has basically just been in a downward spiral because his wife was murdered by the Queen’s forces. After Snow escapes and Ravenna forces the Huntsman to get her back, and then the Huntsman tells Finn to go screw and promises to get Snow to a castle where the opposition forces are hanging out, the two of them rush through the Dark Woods meeting all sorts of unhappy people: a troll, an all-woman sanctuary shrouded by fog, and the dwarves, who are not called names like Grumpy and Dopey, but rather names like Beith (Ian McShane) and Gort (Ray Winstone).

WHITE is so set on taking itself seriously that’s there no wink to the audience with the dwarves beyond one reference someone makes to whistling. No, these dwarves wandered out of Middle Earth at some point and got lost in the Dark Forest. It’s a shame because the film needs some levity, and the dwarves could have provided it.

The Hunger Games is not a bucket of chuckle monkeys, either, but that film does a much better job lightening the mood from time to time. Even in serious films you need to provide a few beats for the audience to catch their breath and exhale or open up another line of thought, and WHITE never does that. Truthfully, the film fails all over the narrative board – while the basic structure is perfectly sound, it’s the little decisions that catch up with the film. The relationship between Snow and the Huntsman never really comes together. It’s his kiss that awakens her from Ravenna’s poison apple spell, but there isn’t a romance between them. In fact, after his drunken monologue that ends with the kiss that awakens her, the Huntsman’s role is severely diminished from their on out

The movie is a chase film during the middle portion as Finn and the Queen’s men hunt Snow down, but Sanders utterly fails to make them a consistent threat. If you’ve got pursuers, you need to feel their presence pushing the protagonists forward (like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), but I never felt that threat. Instead, they just show up every so often and shoot people.

The best scene in the movie comes after they’ve met up with the dwarves. Snow awakens early and follows some fairies into a clearing in the woods, and all the animals are drawn to her. We get honest-to-goodness beauty here, and it’s a much needed change of pace from all the greys and browns that permeate the film. Snow has been brought before the White Hart, who blesses her before getting shot by Finn’s men. There’s a real sense here of Snow as the woman who can make the world a better place, and in a few minutes of seeing rabbits look cute and stare at her we get a better sense of her importance than in all the times people tell us she’s important.

Show don’t tell, kids.

Unfortunately, no one in the film is really called up to act – Kristen Stewart simply has to look pained and driven, Hemsworth has to breath hard and swing an axe, and Theron has to look gorgeous and proclaim death. They can all manage this but I wish they’d been given more to do. I wish that the people and animals and trolls whose lives Snow touched during her chase through the Dark Forest came back and fought with her at the end, but they don’t.

SNOW WHITE is a film that’s good but could have been something much more with a defter narrative touch and some brighter moments sprinkled in.

As for BATTLESHIP, the movie is exactly what it says it’s going to be – a big war movie between Navy ships and alien ships. The film starts out laughably bad as we’re introduced to bad boy Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), who’s 26 and doesn’t have a job and who thinks it’s a good idea to break into a convenience store after hours to get a burrito to give to Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker). There’s all kinds of ridiculous implausibilities here, but why wouldn’t there be in a film like this?

The whole opening half-hour or so just felt like one big homage to Top Gun, except with less homo eroticism. (They play shirts-on soccer here instead of shirts-off volleyball, for instance.) We get all sorts of completely unnecessary and pointless subplots about Hopper’s relationship with his brother and that Samantha isn’t just a hot blonde who’s into burritos, but the daughter of the Big Cheese Naval Man in Hawaii, Liam Neeson. We have to sit through Hopper getting dressed down by his brother for being a loser and Hopper psyching himself up (not once, but twice) to ask Liam Neeson for permission to marry Sam.

When the aliens show up and things start blowing up, that’s when BATTLESHIP becomes entertaining. Unlike WHITE, BATTLESHIP knows that it’s good to lighten the mood every now and then.

But really, sh*t gets blown up. That’s what BATTLESHIP sells, and that’s what BATTLESHIP delivers. It’s a clumsy story at times, but there’s enough little things here, like the alien’s artillery looking like the plastic pieces from the board game or for a sequence in which the Navy has to try and attack the alien vessels in a manner similar to the game, as the soldiers need to try and guess where the enemy will be. I love these bits, just like I love how Hopper and the rest of our heroes end up asking some World War II vets for help during the final battle.

As great as these bits are, however, don’t let yourself think BATTLESHIP is anything but pro-military masturbation.

If I was going back to the movie theater tomorrow, I’d probably pick watching BATTLESHIP over SNOW WHITE, but I have a greater fondness for what WHITE is attempting.

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