Are there any star-studded ensemble movies that actually work as drama? The ones that come to my mind are typically comedies: It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the original Ocean's 11, Star Trek IV, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen. You could argue that of the bunch, only Mad World set out to be an actual go-for-the-jocular-vein comedy, but the others all have a light touch and a shared sense of How can we possibly take this seriously? When it comes to epic dramas, though, the vehicle gets awfully creaky.
The question occurs to me after watching Serenity, the movie finale of Joss Whedon's Firefly. I'm under the impression that Whedon hoped the movie would pull in enough money to inspire a serial, a la Star Trek, but that clearly did not happen. And no wonder: Serenity is a mess.
There's plenty for hardcore Firefly fans to enjoy, mind you. The movie tidies up a few story lines the series had left open-ended, particularly regarding the origins of those ubiquitous baddies, The Reavers. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a terrific job at being a cultured killer -- the type that sips tea, then uses the cup and saucer to take out an entire room full of goons. Set his imperial swagger against Nathan Fillion's Oklahoma swagger, and you've got the kind of hero/villain chemistry that only Hollywood can generate.
But if you're not of the "Browncoat" persuasion, this movie will leave feeling very alienated. Since it is an extension of a television series, everyone in the carry-over cast is required to say something, so each character inserts the sort of catch-phrase that he or she has come to be known for. And since this is a movie, with a running time that's been set in stone, the catch-phrase is all they get. It's difficult for a viewer to work up emotional interest under such conditions, and Whedon seemed to think the best way to counter this impediment was to kill off a few secondary, but important, characters -- Wrath of Khan times two, basically. I couldn't quite buy into it, especially when the hero (Fillion) was kicked, pounded, stretched and squashed like so much silly putty, only to bounce back and conquer. When the secondary characters started dropping, so did my interest.
I'm guessing the chief difficulty with ensemble dramas is big name actors will only sign on to a project if they get to deliver a memorable moment. So long as the film is a comedy, the star will happily rise to the occasion and play the fool. But no-one can guarantee a memorable moment in a drama -- at least, not the way a star prefers to be memorable (I'll certainly never forget Gene Hackman's Pepé Le Pew accent in A Bridge Too Far).
It strikes me that Robert Altman figured out the best way to circumnavigate this difficulty by just letting the big names do what they were going to do. So long as the movie was an enormous pastiche (Short Cuts, Prêt-à-Porter, Kansas City, A Prairie Home Companion) he and his editors would find someplace to insert the moment. Narratively speaking, it might even make intuitive sense. In fact, now that I think of it, you wouldn't have to work too hard to define these pastiche films as being comedies of a peculiarly dark and cynical stripe. Hey -- what would Altman have done with Serenity, or, for that matter the up-and-coming Star Trek movie (which shows every indication of turning into the largest train wreck of the bunch -- and that's no small feat, given how Rick Berman reduced the series to flashy warp core breaches and Jean-Luc Picard in a fruity little muscle shirt).
What do you think? Could Altman have pulled another Popeye with Star Trek, or the X-Men? What does it take to make a successful comic book ensemble action flick? Or is Brad Bird the only one who knows the answer to these questions?