Director Profile: Edgar Wright’s Popcorn Perfection
Mike Donovan | Friday, August 18, 2017
2017 has been a landmark year for the genre film. Action, comic, science fiction, and comedy flicks, once placed on a lower echelon than their dramatic counterparts, have risen to the top of the cinematic ladder. While these films have always done well at the box office, they’re now starting to garner praise from serious critics and film buffs alike for innovate technique and sophisticated social commentary.
Some of these emergent films — “Wonder Woman,” “Alien: Covenant” — stand out for their exceptional adaptation of source material. Others — Jordan Peele’s horror masterpiece, “Get Out,” and Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” specifically — demonstrate a new visionary level, adding completely original, thoroughly entertaining and highly intelligent pictures to a reboot-saturated market.
While “Get Out,” Jordan Peele’s first and uber-conscious film, represents a huge step forward for the horror genre, I’m going to direct my focus towards Edgar Wright, whose rip-roaring action flick “Baby Driver” sports exactly none of “Get Out’s” riveting social commentary. “Baby Driver” is, in fact, quite shallow, but it wears its shallowness with pride. Edgar Wright never set out to change the world. He just wanted to spill some popcorn.
In many ways, Wright is a younger Tarantino. A giddy cinematic fanhood runs in the veins of his films — films that wish only to tell a good story with everything at the director’s disposal. There’s a time and place for movies that reflect reality, but cinematic escapism is also a necessity. Over the past two decades Edgar Wright has come to define the image of this escapism at its very best, across all genres.
The following list will explore Wright’s work, and hopefully reinforce his reputation as the master of 21st century genre film.
“Baby Driver” (2017) – action / comedy
Baby (Ansel Elgort) coolly spins the dial on his antiquated iPod until a pulsating blues number — “Bellbottom” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to be precise — roars through the speakers. Then the cinematic universe starts dancing. First, Baby dances, working the chair of his Subaru into an instrumental rumble. Then, as the chase begins, Edgar too begins his dance from behind the lens. The stunning opening sequence refuses to waste a single camera motion, lighting flare, audio blip or line of dialogue as cars and people descend into a perfect, blues-driven synchronized chaos. It’s almost a music video.
The film, Wright told The Nerdist, builds on an idea over 20 years in the making — a passion project that forgoes the usual “heavyweight subject matter,” instead aiming to satisfy the director’s love of “car chases and shootouts.” He does so in the same way that Jack Kerouac depicted the beat life in his seminal novels — to the rhythm of infectious tunes.
Since the rhythms of the film’s stellar soundtrack — which feature Brubeck’s minimalist jazz, Simon and Garfunkel’s uppity folk pop, and Martha Reeves seductive soul among others — provides the film’s sonic backbone. This structure allows Wright to sidestep pointless, dialogue and invest his time into the manicured visuals. According to Pitchfork, “great songs are the sugar coating of Wright’s blood-soaked film,” but to even suggest that music takes a cursory role in these films ignores the centrality of their vibrant rhythms. The music decides and maintains the pace of the entire narrative. It is inseparable from the blood-soaked (but never gratuitously gory) sequences.
On paper its narrative is thin and the characters static — especially Deborah (Lily James) whose character exhibits a cardboard slavishness that suggests a total ignorance of contemporary gender roles — but “Baby Driver” was always meant to be about the sights and sounds, not the people. Its characters are simply stand-ins for Wright’s phenomenal spectacle.
“Shaun of the Dead” (2004) – zombie horror / comedy
Wright’s second feature film (his first work after the low-budget western “Fistful of Fingers”) delves into the oft-attempted zombie-horror genre. “Shaun of the Dead,” like most of Wright’ s films, approaches the tropes of its genre head-on for use as narrative springboards.
Wright molds his zombies according to the traditional metaphor — the drudgery of the working public, the mundane nature of metropolitan life, the perils of Kafka — and breathes new life into the tested formula with his comic lens. He shatters the platitude calling comedy a matter of tragedy plus time by delivering tragedy and comedy concurrently. Shaun, the film’s protagonist (Simon Pegg), appears to be locked in a hysterical competition to be more miserable and lifeless than the swarms of undead on his doorstep. Wright’s razor-sharp visual bits, whether it be an awkwardly timed close up or a cleverly framed juxtaposition, accentuate this completion beautifully to create a product far superior than the hordes of throwaway zombie films.
It takes a genre prone to dread, darkness, and Kafkaesque inhumanity and casts it as a raucous sit-com — an unlikely and wildly original cinematic fusion.
“Hot Fuzz” (2007) – buddy cop / thriller
With “Hot Fuzz,” we experience the peak of what is now called the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.” Again, Wright ties himself to the necessary archetypes. He has the adept and focused city cop, Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) and his incompetent country boy partner (Nick Frost). The pair clash at first before working together in perfect harmony.
Wright, however, reinvents these bones with new flesh. He creates a cognitive disconnect between the town (where absolutely nothing goes wrong) and the protagonist cop (who naturally sees the world in a high-energy, hyper-alert manner). The town’s eerie perfection often clashes with Wright’s quick, montage-heavy shot selections. He seems to stylize the mundane. But, gradually, Wright matches the plot to his visual style as he moves the narrative towards the film’s stunning climax.
Within the ultra-familiar context of the buddy cop narrative, Wright’s visual tricks stand out vividly. They guide the viewer around in the protagonist’s shoes, placing the audience in the little town’s devilish trance. Moreover, most of the clues pertaining to the central mystery of the film work in Wright’s vibrant visual arena.
“The World’s End” (2013) – sci-fi apocalypse
While it is by no means Wright’s finest work, “The World’s End” still stands tall amidst its director’s staggering list of achievements. The film (the third and final installment to the “Cornetto Trilogy”) combines a genre known for extravagance — apocalyptic science fiction — with a more intimate storyline following a broken Gary King (Simon Pegg) as he tragically searches for his long-lost youth at the bottom of a pint glass. Unlike “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” which expertly weaves human growth stories into their spectacle, the emotional elements of “The World’s End” don’t mesh all that well with the apocalyptic fireworks. In fact, the combination seems a little forced. Nonetheless, the film manages to shine in its awkwardness. The parallel stories derive a lot of their entertainment value from the fact that they don’t fit together. For the protagonist, development is about as practical as stopping the apocalypse. Consequently, there’s no point in him trying to marry his story with the greater destructive narrative at work.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” (2010) — superhero / video games / comic books / romantic comedy
This box office flop is also Wright’s greatest cult success. Since comic book films, by nature, owe a lot to their source material, they often have little to show for interims of originality. Hero films, in particular, are known for spurting out half-rate sequels. “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” breaks the trend of the uninspired comic flick, and it does so by moving closer to its source — the printed page. Wright’s filmmaking casts the real world as a comic book in stark contrast to the many who try to adapt comic book themes and action realistically. In doing so, Wright opens our imaginations to the possibilities of everyday life in the presence of ridiculous powers but also considers the limitations of a life lived only in print. He embraces the absurdity of heroic idealism, immortalizing it in his beautiful visual style.
Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a hero unfit to assume to wrap himself the grand expectations of a heroism, lies at the center of the tale. The wholehearted subversive flip of the traditional hero imagery is quirky, hip, awkward, woefully honest and Canadian hipster. He fights as if he’s in a videogame and does so only to pursue Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). a strange, often toxic dream girl. He is a far cry from an archetypal, white bread and confident American superhero hell bent on achieving universal just. He’s a convincing everyman.
Wright documents his comic book story with perfectly executed transitions. Scenes make fluid jumps between locations and time. As the setting constantly mutates in front of us, Wright keeps our eyes and ears fixed on the unbroken character interactions. Much like “Baby Driver,” the film also employs musical rhythm extensively. The fights swing and syncopate with the rhythms of the characters’ successes and woes.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” illustrates Wright’s unbelievable capacity to seamlessly mash genres together and still make it work.
Wright’s films pay homage to the immortal fact that a powerful story will always transcend the constraints of genre. Moreover, he asserts that effective visual storytelling should incorporate every tool at the director’s fingertips. When the year comes to a close, year-end lists will inevitably feature a disproportionate number of heavy, dark films with superb writing — films like “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea.” But these lists, we know, will be too narrow. They’ll praise the writers and the criers but they’ll miss the masters of genre — those like Edgar Wright who wish only to entertain.
Of course, talented genre filmmakers aren’t looking for awards, they simply want to craft thrilling fantasies in realms far away from the often bitter reality. Which is important, sometimes we can stare in the mirror a little too long and get disheartened, and it is in these cases, we need thunderclap, a car chase, a jump scare or a hearty laugh to jolt us from our realist stupor.