Once You’ve Seen the Best, Can You Be Better?
For an ever-expanding percentage of viewers, the blockbuster cinematic event of 2022 doesn’t involve caped crusaders or cinematic universes or any of the familiar franchises that U.S. audiences have grown accustomed to. No, the movie that has audiences losing their collective minds is RRR, a sprawling Indian action epic from writer/director S.S. Rajamouli and starring N. T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan.
It’s cliché to say that a movie “isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience” but believe me when I say that RRR is, actually, an experience. Topping three hours in length, RRR is so much movie that it’s difficult to describe it within a reasonable word count. It’s a…historical epic musical action buddy movie (not including the twenty-minute diversion into the most charming romantic comedy you’ve seen in a long time) featuring physics-shattering action of every stripe (including actual stripes…because there are tigers…get it?) even as it blasts through plot at an astonishing rate while still finding time to juggle multiple melodramatic arcs of shirt-rending sincerity.
Yet for how exhaustive RRR is, it never tips over into exhausting. Not since Fury Road has an action film been so carefully attuned to an audience’s endurance and mercilessly structured its rising and falling action so that when the action rises, it just keeps rising and rising until you blink and realize that you can’t even see the surface of the earth anymore.
Famously, RRR doesn’t drop its opening titles until over 40 minutes into the runtime. By the time you hit the intermission, it feels like the movie has already encompassed multiple films’ worth of events, and there’s 90 minutes still to go. And those are the best 90 minutes. Except for the other 90 minutes, which are also basically perfect.
I want to pause here to note that this is not a formal review of RRR. Indian cinema is a massive blindspot for me, so I in no way feel qualified to write any kind of qualitative piece about the movie. Since seeing RRR for the first time, I’ve made an effort to dive deeper into Indian cinema, starting with other movies by Rajamouli. There is a lot of terrific writing about RRR to be found (including digging into the troubling nationalistic subtext of the film) from informed writers like the great Siddhant Adlakha and I’d encourage you to dig into those for thoughtful discourse on the history this film is playing with, the cultural context surrounding RRR, and how the film fits into the massive canon of Indian cinema.
Rather than a review of the film, this piece is more a meditation on RRR as a piece of blockbuster cinema. Because that’s what RRR is, all other context aside. It’s a massively popular director working with two massively popular movie stars to create the biggest possible movie with the intention of being seen by the biggest possible audience.
The degree to which they collectively succeed is somewhat staggering.
Watching (and rewatching, and rewatching, and rewatching, and then watching again one more time, and then again one more time, and then just one more time last time I swear, and OK one more time after that) RRR is an endless delight, but it’s also opportunity to reflect on the somewhat depressing state of the American blockbuster.
Here too we have directors and stars striving to create the biggest possible movies for the biggest audiences possible, and certainly box office receipts suggest that (sometimes) we’re succeeding in those aims.
But when you see the extravaganza that Rajamouli constructed, when you take a step back and just admire the sheer stunning craft of this thing, with its exuberant momentum and pulse-pounding blend of stunning action sequences and jaw-dropping musical numbers and truly affecting moments of human drama, it’s hard not to stop and wonder…
Why the hell can’t we do that?
Now, I don’t want to come in here and be completely negative about the state of popular mainstream American movies. Twitter and Youtube already overflow with sanctimonious neckbeards decrying what they perceive to be the decay of cinema (many on these platforms just so happen to pin the blame on the increasing prominence of women and people of color on-screen and behind the scenes. What a strange coincidence). The push and pull between art and commerce, between formula and innovation, between the system and the artist, this is a tension that has existed from before movies ever existed, and it will continue for as long as there are people with a need to create and people with an interest in monetizing those creations. There will always be drab, lazy executives and hacks happy to get in line and deliver hackwork, and there will always be creatives fighting to create good art anyway, like flowers surging into sunlight from between the cracks in the asphalt.
Just this year so far, we’ve gotten the likes of Prey, Top Gun: Maverick, Nope, Turning Red, The Sea Beast, The Northman, Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Black Phone, and Three Thousand Years of Longing all good or great, strange films with clear and distinctive authorial voices even as the movies themselves are aiming for mass appeal. And even in the most bold-faced of studio product like The Batman, Dr. Strange 2, Thor 4, that live-action Rescue Rangers thing, you can see the ghosts in the machine, weaving individual creative energies inextricably into the pattern of the latest installment of endless IP manufacturing.
But even if we’re not willing to give up on American movies, it’s hard to deny that a not insignificant degree of monotony has set in. Most large-scale studio fare comes in one of two modes: Self-aware and snarky, or po-faced and grim. Action is either cartoonish or nauseatingly realistic. Your hero either cracks wise and drops pithy pop culture references, or everyone stomps around looking, just, severely constipated. Pick a tone, one, and ride it from opening logos to closing credits.
Our heroes are forever shuttling from MacGuffin to MacGuffin, trying to stop the bad guy from getting the thing that will open the other thing that will trigger all the CGI to crash into itself. “If he gets his hands on the Sword of Oshmygosh, he’ll use it to open the Shadow Void and bring a dark army that will sweep across the land!”, or, “My God, if he gets his hands on the Prometheus Covenant, he’ll be unstoppable!”. You get the drift.
This year finally saw the release of the Uncharted movie. Long one of those cursed projects that consistently proved to be the Roadrunner to many a talented Coyote, Uncharted finally made it to the big screen starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, directed by Ruben Fleischer. And it is…fine. A decent 5 or 6 out of 10. The movie stars do what they are hired to do. The puzzle-solving and fisticuff sequences are competent. It all looks very slick and expensive. It is… fine.
And fine’s fine, I suppose. ‘Forgettable but pleasant’ was probably always the ceiling for a movie adaptation of a video game series that largely coasts on letting you play as off-brand Indiana Jones. ‘Forgettable but pleasant’ is often the ceiling we set for this sort of fare (which makes it all the more galling when a big budget movie can’t even clear this lowest of all possible bars).
And fine is indeed fine, I suppose.
Until you see something like RRR.
Until you see what happens when a filmmaker isn’t bending over backwards to adhere to a three act structure that’s a copy of a copy of a copy of either Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and instead writes to theme and character, trusting that the audience will follow every side-track and diversion.
Until you see an action film that is wall-to-wall chases, fistfights, gunfights, escapes, brawls, duels, and never lags, never gets repetitive, never runs out of imaginative ways to tell gravity to fuck off in pursuit of the most iconic imagery and thrilling crescendos possible.
Until you see a film that never feels the need to apologize for its sincerity, that wears its heart fully on its sleeve and dares you to try and keep ironic distance.
Until you see a movie that seems to be truly making an effort to have every scene be the best scene, every shot the best shot, every piece of it the best thing in it. There’s no shoe leather, no, ‘Well this is the boring stuff we have to get through to get to the really good stuff’. Every scrap of RRR is ‘the good stuff’. When most American blockbusters run up to around three hours, my reaction nowadays is to flinch, knowing that there’s going to be a lot of wheel-spinning and excess and dead air. With RRR, if you’d told me there was another hour to go, I’d have happily settled in for hour four (after a bathroom break, of course. Enthusiasm is one thing, but let’s be reasonable).
The crossover success of RRR in the States, on a scale no other Indian film has yet achieved, not even the other global hits essayed by Rajamouli, suggests that I am not alone in my reaction. We’ve run our formulas into the ground, we’ve used up our biggest franchises to the point of exhaustion, we’ve algorithmed and think-tanked so much personality and style out of our biggest movies that the sheer energy of RRR can’t help but to stand out and hit like a breath of fresh air.
It’s time for American blockbusters to begin redefining just what a blockbuster to be. It’s time to throw out the rule book and start diving into new stories, new faces, new sources of inspiration and influence.
As the ripple effects of Fury Road and Into the Spider-Verse begin to be appreciably felt in new film and TV, there are certainly indications that a new language of blockbuster is starting to be spoken. A generation of rising creative forces are coming into prominence who have grown up on a cultural diet of anime, comic books, video games, international cinema at an availability that wasn’t really possible until fairly recently, etc., and we are beginning to see those idiosyncratic slurries of influence manifest in striking and unusual ways (gestures towards Malignant).
I’m not looking for American movies to replicate RRR, a surely impossible feat. But I want to live in a world where every blockbuster has that much skill, that much style, and that much pure delirious joy in itself and its every image. I want films that can be anything, that can go anywhere, that can transform genre and tone at the drop of a hat because all that matters is being as entertaining as humanly possible. I want to be transported, thrilled, and amazed when I watch a movie. If you aren’t at the very least swinging for that ideal…
…then what we are even doing here?
RRR is available to stream in Hindi on Netflix, and in its native Telugu on Zee5.