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The Sound of Not-Quite Silence: The Era of Dialogue-Lite Blockbusters

There are several remarkable things about the blockbuster slate for 2017. The most obvious is that the blockbuster slate for 2017 is remarkably strong.

It is definitely the strongest slate of summer releases since at least 2012, if not 2008. Sure, there have been misfires like CHiPs or Baywatch or Transformers: The Last Knight, but there has also been a lot of great stuff. Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk, The Big Sick. Going back to earlier in the year, there is a fine selection of genre material. Get Out, Logan, John Wick: Chapter II. Even the second-tier blockbusters like Kong: Skull Island, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are relatively solid.

However, there is also an interesting trend in how these stories are being told. In particular, the summer blockbusters of 2017 are quite interesting on a formal level. In particular, these blockbusters are very invested in non-verbal storytelling. While the superhero movies of the summer – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming – still conform to a familiar structure of dialogue-driven exposition, a lot of the other films tend to be quite light on conventional dialogue, relying on other ways of communicating character, story and theme.

This is most obvious with War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk, impressive blockbusters that feature a number of extended dialogue-light scenes. When the characters do communicate, it is often in unconventional ways; the technical dialogue plays beneath the soundtrack in Dunkirk, while the apes communicate through sign language in War for the Planet of the Apes. In some ways, Baby Driver is also part of this trend. It is a movie that features dialogue, but is largely driven by its soundtrack. It characters often seem to speak in pulp clichés, with movie’s individuality shining on Baby’s iPod.

This approach is breathtaking, feeling fresh against the backdrop of the last few disappointing blockbuster seasons. Both Baby Driver and Dunkirk lean more heavily on the soundtrack than on the dialogue to convey a sense of mood and place. Baby Driver has been described in some quarters as a jukebox musical heist film, even though its characters rarely actually sing. Edgar Wright’s carefully curated soundtrack instead serves to illuminate and enrich scenes, to the point that even characters who cannot hear the soundtrack seem to move in rhythm to it.

Dunkirk conveys a lot through its sound design. The movie repeatedly emphasises the obscured perspectives of its characters, who rarely seem to see anything of particular value; the stranded soldiers can almost see home, but cannot see the enemy forces sniping at them from the edge of the port city. At the start of the film, one character is caught in the middle of a brutal ambush in which he never even sees his attacks. Instead, he hears the percussion of gunfire and sees the splinters as the bullets hit the wood. As Dunkirk moves backwards and forwards in time, Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack provides an anchor and throughline.

War for the Planet of the Apes does not lean as heavily on its sound design as either Baby Driver or Dunkirk. The science-fiction spectacular features a cast composed largely of characters who cannot speak out loud. Caesar has the gift of speech, but many of his fellow apes rely on sign language to make themselves heard. At the same time, the human characters are largely silent. They apes communicate among themselves through sign language. In some ways, War for the Planet of the Apes feels almost like a foreign language blockbuster, which is perhaps the most daring creative move in a blockbuster full of them.

It is interesting to wonder what has motivated this trend. After all, these three relatively big and relatively well-loved blockbusters released within weeks of one another. A more cynical perspective would argue that the global box office played a part in these creative decisions. It has been suggested that Baby Driver‘s use of music over dialogue might make it more accessible to non-English-speaking audiences. Foreign audiences are increasingly important to studios. It has been argued that difficulty translating the intricate reference-heavy dialogue in the original Guardians of the Galaxy hurt its overseas performance.

However, this seems a little trite. War for the Planet of the Apes seems like the most likely beneficiary of this strategy; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earned more than $100m in China, and the third film in the trilogy is off to a strong start internationally. That said, Baby Driver and Dunkirk are both very culturally specific films in ways beyond their use of English. Baby Driver hinges very much on British and American popular music, and so might not travel particularly well. Dunkirk is rooted an event that is a touchstone for British audiences, but may need to be explained to even American viewers.

It is also possible that these films are trying to distinguish themselves from the competing television market. After all, it could reasonably be argued that television has become the home for a lot of what would have been mid-tier adult-focused films during the nineties. Twenty years ago, television series like The Night Of or Big Little Lies would probably have been respectable autumn releases. It would have been  impossible to imagine books like The Handmaid’s Tale or American Gods being optioned for television.

In some respects, the explosion of prestige television has cannibalised these mid-range movies. Actors like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Bacon, Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell are as comfortable working on prestige television shows as they are on film. Even allowing for shorter runs of eight to thirteen episodes, television has more room for conventional character development or storytelling. Film simply cannot hope to compete with television on that level.

As such, it makes sense for film to try to offer something that television can’t. After all, Christopher Nolan is pitching Dunkirk as “virtual reality without the headset.” Although shows like Game of Thrones are pushing the technical limitations of television, television cannot yet offer the sheer scale of blockbuster television. Perhaps the emphasis on this sort of broader dialogue-lite storytelling reflects an attempt to construct narratives that simply would not be feasible on television, to emphasise movies as relatively episodic adventures that can be a bit more narratively experimental and less rigid in their storytelling.

That said, the lack of emphasis on dialogue on these films plays like more than just a commercial decision. The non-verbal nature of these stories is quite tightly woven into the fabric of these tales. In Baby Driver, Baby’s hearing difficulties are a conscious plot point; he suffers from tinnitus at the start of the film, and is partially deaf by the end of the movie. In the movie’s first exposition sequence, following two heavily soundtracked moments leaning on Bell Bottoms and The Harlem Shuffle, one of the characters demands of Baby, “Does he talk?”

Baby spends most of the movie effectively quoting other characters’ dialogue back at them. He repeats Bats and Doc, and even steals from Monsters Inc. at one point. He records conversations and constructs retro mix tapes out of them with titles like “Was He Slow?” and “Mozart in a Go-Kart”, seemingly oblivious to the obvious dangers of recording a room full of psychopathic criminals. It is ambiguous as to whether Baby grasps the importance of his words, which ties into the movie’s suggestion that Baby is willfully oblivious to the consequences of his own actions.

Dialogue is even more thematically important in War for the Planet of the Apes. As the eponymous simians are learning to talk, the movie reveals that mankind is losing the ability to speak. The virus that threatened to wipe out mankind in the earlier films has mutated, and seems to be preventing people from using their vocal chords. In an obvious effort to bridge continuity with the original Planet of the Apes, the film suggests that the loss of speech is leading to something of a regression. As mankind loses the ability to speak, they become more primitive and more regressive.

Once again, communication is a key theme of War for the Planet of the Apes. Colonel McCullough faces several breakdowns in communication over the course of the film. He refuses to negotiate or discuss terms with Caesar, suggesting that any attempt at dialogue will ultimately lead to mankind’s extinction. He cuts himself off from the lines of communication with his superiors. In his brutal attempts to contain the virus, it is suggested that Colonel McCullough is himself reverting to something more primal. War for the Planet of the Apes is in part a tragedy about what happens when communication is rendered impossible.

Dunkirk hits on these themes in its own way. Although the characters are all named in the script and in publicity materials, the characters very rarely communicate through dialogue. Audience members might be forgiven for being unable to name a single character in the movie. Dunkirk is populated with archetypes, to the point that the nominal lead character is a British soldier named “Tommy.” This is a colloquial nickname for British soldiers akin to “Joe” for American soldiers. Dunkirk has a minimum of exposition, and a minimum of extraneous dialogue; nobody has a sweetheart waiting at home.

One plot detail in Dunkirk hinges on this lack of unnecessary dialogue. Tommy spends most of the movie in the company of Gibson, a shell-shocked colleague who he meets on the beach early in the film. The two become fast friends, a camaraderie forged in the heat of combat. Gibson and Tommy carry a stretcher to an evacuating ship, try to sneak their way off the beach, associate with another group of would-be escapees. The film is almost over by the time that somebody points out that Tommy and Gibson have never said one single word to one another over the course of an entire week. The audience might not have noticed.

Although obviously much less literal and obvious in this regard, it is also worth mentioning The Big Sick in the context of this recurring theme of communication breakdown. The Big Sick is a romantic comedy, and so if very heavy of dialogue and banter, featuring a lot of witty exchanges and several extended scenes set during pieces at a comedy club. However, it is also a romantic comedy in which the female lead spends most the run-time in a coma, and which the male lead is forced to acknowledge his own terrible communication skills (with both her and his own family) through this crisis.

As with War for the Planet of the Apes or Dunkirk, the crisis at the heart of The Big Sick suggests that characters can be thrown into incredibly intimate life-and-death situations without being able to clearly communicate with one another. Nanjiani is repeatedly reminded of how little he knows about his ex-girlfriend, despite how close he has grown to her. In one of the film’s most surprisingly touching scenes, he show up in her room with a giant stuffed giraffe. “I don’t even know if she likes giraffes,” he confesses, exhausted and confused. “We… never talked about giraffes.” And yet here the characters find themselves.

As such, Baby Driver, War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk all play their lack of unnecessary dialogue as a major plot or thematic element, suggesting that this is more than just a cynical play for foreign box office. In some ways, this idea of dialogue-lite narratives driven by characters who are unwilling (or unable) to communicate with one another through dialogue offers a reflection of the contemporary world, much like the recent fixation on the post-apocalyptic western in movies like Logan and War for the Planet of the Apes seems to provide a thematic connection between America’s past and its future.

Much has been written about the breakdown of communication in the modern world, of the way in which political life has become increasingly polarised and the fact that people increasingly live in bubbles that protect them from the horror of communicating with those who hold opposing views. People seem unwilling to talk to polling companies about their political views and the media is increasingly treated as a hostile combatant rather than a forum for political debate.

Even leaving aside the political implications of a world in which dialogue has broken down, the modern world is noticeably less dialogue-driven than it used to be. Modern technology has made the world smaller, but it has also limited mankind’s opportunity for verbal interactions. Modern adults tend to spend more time interacting through social media than face-to-face. Although social media makes it easier to chart connections over geographical distances, people today have fewer close friends than before. People prefer to email or text rather than call and converse; major companies have begun rolling back voice mailboxes.

Perhaps this modern wave of dialogue-lite films reflects this modern reality, of a world in which the primary modes of communication tend to be non-verbal and which actual conversation seems a lot harder than it would have been only twenty years ago. Baby Driver offers perhaps the most optimistic interpretation of this world, where communication is still possible through a shared cultural canon, through music and rhythm as much as conversation. War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk are notably bleaker in their assessment, suggesting a world of chaos, confusion and carnage.

In some ways, this is all very 2017.

2 Responses

  1. Great work here and in your companion piece on prestige television. I think you’re right but only a handful of people at the movie studios seem to have caught on. Nolan gets it and began pushing IMAX as a reason to go to the theater with the Dark Knight and upped that with each subsequent film. James Cameron did the same with 3-D in Avatar. I’m not a fan of 3D but Cameron understood something about embracing and promoting the movie theater as the superior way to view his films that others don’t. Avatar is still the only film I have intentionally seen in 3D.
    But I think there’s an important distinction to be made in your point. I’m not sure you’re saying that films like Baby Driver and Dunkirk are best viewed in a movie theater or that they’re better suited as a 2 hour film vs a television series. As to the latter, I would also add that Nolan has credited some of his inspiration over the years to Terence Malick, who just so happened to have made a “dialogue-lite” war movie 20 years ago in Thin Red Line. (I haven’t seen Dunkirk yet so I don’t know they might compare). But Malick’s films suggest that maybe the future of cinema is not limited to blockbusters. I’m not sure that Tree of Life or To the Wonder demanded viewing in a big movie theater, but maybe there is still a place for quiet biopics, romances, and dramas that work better as 2 hour films than as 10-20 episode television seasons.

    • Yeah, I was a bit hazy on that point, about what I meant when I said this was an attempt to draw a line between film and television, whether I meant it had to be seen in theatres or simply if it worked better as a two hour story. That was perhaps intentional on my part, being somewhat schneaky to avoid going off on a tangent.

      I think it’s a combination of the two, but leaning more towards the latter. Obviously, a good film is a good film, no matter how or where you watch it. However, it is clear that Nolan has structured Dunkirk so that it is optimised by watching it on a big screen rather than a television screen. But I’ve watched Inception on a fuzzy screen in the back-end of nowhere, and it is still good. (Indeed, The Prestige is somewhat enhanced by a little grain and static on television broadcast, making it seem slightly more unreal.)

      But I think it’s more accepting that, if you have a two-hour block, you cannot compete with a six-, eight-, ten- or thirteen-hour block in terms of conventional characterisation or drama or dialogue. If you want to do a conventional character study, that decompressed format will offer a greater opportunity to peel back the skin on your characters in the standard manner. So I think that the shift in emphasis in storytelling and characterisation in films like Baby Driver, Dunkirk and even War for the Planet of the Apes is a part of that. The music in Baby Driver is a very effective characterisation shorthand, for example. Dunkirk doesn’t so much bother with individual characters as much as the larger story it’s telling. Even Apes has its characters communicate through action (literally, sign language) rather than through conventional dialogue.

      (And you’re right, Malick is a big influence here. I’m also tempted to bring Lynch in, although he’s currently demonstrating that you can do similar storytelling television.)

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