Jack the Stereoscopic Fairy Tale Killer

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Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) Directed by Bryan Singer

[contains spoilers]

There has been a recent trend for stereoscopic versions of well-known fairy tales (of which The Wizard of OZ can be included) and, as always when visiting well-loved traditions, there is a tension concerning how they are updated for our contemporary world. We are privileged and unfortunate to live at a time when racial, gender and sexual diversity are increasingly celebrated but not yet fully equalized. Manifestations of this state appear in our popular cinematic culture and for this reason Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), a film that purports to be a simple tale of a boy, his beans and some giants, cannot be taken as neutral expression.

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The film’s main addition to the beanstalk tale is the introduction of a Princess love-interest who Jack has to rescue when she is accidently thrust to the top of the beanstalk and deposited in the land of the giants. At the beginning of the film Princess Isabelle appears to be given equivalent protagonist status to Jack when scenes of Isabelle listening to her mother reading the history of the giants’ land are intercut with equal measure to scenes of Jack hearing the same tale from his father. Isabelle is then set up as a feisty and rebellious young woman who is inclined towards adventure as much as any of the typical heroes in traditional fairy tales. This set-up infers that the film will subvert the stereotypical princess narrative in which she plays second fiddle to her suitor and ultimate saviour. Not so, unfortunately. Although Isabelle wanders into the land of the giants with adventurous spirit, she is soon trapped and in need of help from both Jack and the secondary male hero, the King’s general Elmont. Once saved from the grip of the giants, Isabelle clings to Jack on the descent down the beanstalk with pitiful words, ‘hold me Jack.’ Even though she previously demonstrated her horse-riding skills she returns to court behind Jack, clutching him on the back of his horse. After some action packed battle scenes, the head giant Fallon is defeated and the stage is set for the finale. It was at this point that I expected the film to finally deliver its twist and redeem Isabelle from her servitude to the eponymous hero. In the courtyard of the castle the giants bowed their heads, Elmont directed the audience’s attention to the new ruler of the giants standing behind him, a moment of suspense was built…and then Jack stepped forward with the giants’ crown. He took up his position as ruler, Isabelle fell into step beside him and the long tradition of patriarchal happy-ever-afters was firmly embedded once more.

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In addition to the regressive gender politics, there is a strange rendition of the British Isles in Jack the Giant Slayer. While the film does not try to set itself within any specific period of British history the characters do refer to where they are as Albion. In the way that only Hollywood can achieve, the human characters have a strange mix of pseudo English accents. In contrast, the giants are given thick Northern Irish enunciation. While actor Bill Nighly takes credit for this decision, it does not appear as if anyone from the production company have thought through the implications of making the grotesque English-hating race Northern Irish at the same time as tensions continue to simmer in the Western outcrop of the British Isles.

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While I am sure there is much more that can be said about the politics of representation in this film, (and what is says about contemporary Hollywood) the reason I went to see Jack the Giant Slayer was in order to evaluate the use of stereoscopic technology in the film. Through fortuitous travel plans I was able to see it in the Buenos Aires IMAX, the first time I have seen a 3D film at an IMAX theatre since Avatar (2009).

In the IMAX screening, there is a type of scale to the images that makes them appear imposing. This is, of course, an apt quality for a film that is about giants and their greatness of size. One of the most interesting aspects of the film (which sadly says a lot about Jack and the Giant Slayer) was the Warner Bros insert that appeared at the beginning. Even though the widescreen aspect ratio meant that black borders were left at the top and bottom of the screen space, the negative parallax effects that projected the letter’s gold bands into the screen space seemed to completely overwhelm the auditorium. When the film’s narrative began, the moving images were much flatter although there was a lot of gentle negative parallax. This became clear when watching the film in Argentina as subtitles were placed along the bottom of the screen space, within rather than below the filmed images. In contrast to film’s such as Avatar (2009) that place subtitles within the diegesis, these subtitles remained at zero parallax and had a tendency to cut through objects that were displayed in negative parallax, making it obvious that the objects were constituted by projected light and did not have any solid physicality. Another aspect that was apparent in the IMAX screening was significant amounts of cross-talk, quite possibly due to the polarization systems used in the IMAX 3D display technology.

Although much of the film is quite ‘flat’ in its use of stereoscopic effects, it does include striking use of rain to create a conduit between the space of the film and the space of the spectator. Both Jack and Isabelle have scenes where they are captured in strong downpours and in each case it seems as if the rain is a permeable and always shifting partition between actor and audience. In later scenes the rain lets off and the striking effect is reduced but nonetheless continues to add to the palpable quality of the images. There are also a number of scenes that exploit the thick, tactile spaces that can be created when liquid fills the screen space (successfully employed in previous 3D films such as Titanic 3D (2012), Bait 3D (2012), Life of Pi (2012) and Piranha 3D (2010)). In the first of these scenes, Jack hides under water when a giant approaches. The tension as he holds his breath is enhanced by the claustrophobic sense that the auditorium is also aquatically submerged. Later, Elmont and the antagonist Roderick fight under water near the top of a waterfall and then in a major battle scene, Fallon falls into and swims through the oil infused moat water. In each case, the space between audience and characters takes on its own tangible quality.

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Like most contemporary 3D action films, the use of negative parallax increases as the film continues. When the battle scenes between the giants and the humans intensify, typical stereoscopic debris – clods of earth, red-hot embers, exploding masonry, splintering wood – is flung around the screen space. There is also a particularly visceral scene when Jack drops the remaining magic bean into Fallon’s mouth. The curved surfaces of the bean hang in negative parallax before the bean begins its fall into his mouth. The shot then changes to one from the POV of the bean and the film undertakes a type of phantom ride into Fallon’s slimy and grotesque gullet.

In a similar manner to Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) there are a number of references to old optical technologies. In Jack the Giant Slayer, the King is painted using a form of camera obscura to project his image onto a large canvas. The set up reappears later in the film when Jack and Isabelle hide from the giant Fallon. At another point we see views of the beanstalk through the lens of a telescope held by one of the king’s aides. Although telescopic views are a common occurrence in cinema, it is worth remembering their place as elaborate objects, those objects that Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman (Instruments and the Imagination, 1995) suggest go beyond mere observation in order to reveal nature’s secrets. It seems to me that the interest in optical technologies follows on from and augments the interest in mechanical technologies that is apparent in many steam punk influenced contemporary films. 3D versions include Hugo (2011), John Carter (2012) and The Three Musketeers (2011)

Throughout the film there is quite a bit of what Matthias Stork calls ‘chaos cinema.’ Stork suggests that recent Hollywood films have become overstuffed and hyperactive and one of the main results is that editing during action sequences is constructed in such a way that the pace and energy of the action is maintained but the actual events are intelligible. When the beanstalk grows for the first time in Jack the Giant Slayer, rain lashes the scene and strands of the stalk seem to grow in all directions at once. There are abrupt edits and a multitude of changing directions in camera movement within the scene. All of this actions is ‘filmed’ (in reality it is constructed digitally) close to the beanstalk meaning that it is impossible to get a concrete perspective on how and where the beanstalk is placed. It is only later in the film that brief scenes of the beanstalk are shown from a distance. It is a shame because the scale of the beanstalk and the size of the giants are the defining features of the original fairy tale. Stereoscopic effects offer the perfect opportunity to demonstrate this scale and size but they are under-utilised in favour of a chaotic filming style that prefers a montage construction of space to the representation of objects in deep space.

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Through its use of similar tropes and technologies to other contemporary stereoscopic films, Jack the Giant Slayer claims its place in the digital era of 3D films. There has been much focus on the poor narrative quality of many recent 3D films and Jack the Giant Slayer is yet another film that misses the opportunity to undertake  a more dynamic and progressive combination of stereoscopic technology and narrative filmmaking.

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