You Want It Darker

Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is a film I’ve watched several times,” someone on the internet once quipped (and I am paraphrasing here), “but I’ve never seen it.” The joke being that the aforementioned sequel was so poorly lit that you frequently couldn’t see a goddamn thing that was happening on screen.

I have, myself, taken screencaps of scenes from AVP:R that are literally just black screens with subtitles at the bottom to show that yes, something is ostensibly happening, if only you could make it out.

Perhaps, however, the problem is just that the film, which came out in 2007, was about fifteen years ahead of its time.

I am in my early forties, meaning that I grew up with movies from the ’80s and ’90s, into the early 2000s. But I have been a cinephile for a long time, and I’ve watched movies from just about every era. I have also resisted the urge to declare one period of filmmaking intrinsically better than another, trying to view them all as simply different, with different strengths and different things to offer.

Everyone has their favorites, of course, and often those favorites are the era in which we grew up, though for me, it’s the 1960s, at least for horror movies, a decade with which I had absolutely no experience until I was an adult, and one that pretty much no one else would single out as the best.

In my life, I’ve also seen countless sea changes that threatened or promised to transform the world of cinema and, to the eyes of many, ruin it. From shooting on film to shooting on digital, from practical effects to CGI (and maybe a little way back again), from analog to digital, and from the dominance of physical media to the age of streaming. I’ve seen cinematic experiments including several 3D booms and the release of Peter Jackson’s (reprehensible for entirely other reasons) The Hobbit in 48 frames per second.

Through all of this, I have managed to avoid the dreaded onset of curmudgeonhood. I am not a curmudgeon by nature. I like things, and I like liking them. I enjoy enthusiasm, and 90% of the time, I am genuinely happy for people who like the things that I hate. What’s more, there are few things I appreciate more than changing my opinion on a piece of art. There was a time when I hated the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which I now regard as a masterpiece, even if it’s still not really my particular brand of vodka.

I have my preferences, certainly. I like film better than digital, practical more than CGI, but I have remained able to recognize, at least most of the time, the strengths of each, and realize that they are frequently better together, rather than trying to hold things in some often half-imaginary “way they were” created more by the poison of nostalgia than by reality.

But there is one particular change in movies, one that has been slowly amping up over time but has gotten so egregious in the last two years or so that I almost cannot watch new movies that feature it. It I loathe. I cannot temper my distaste, and I cannot find my way around it to acceptance. What’s more, in this case, I don’t want to.

The change in question is movies that are post-produced (or, in some cases, merely shot) to be so dark that you cannot see a damn thing. Sometimes this is something that happens entirely in post, in the color correction process that I honestly don’t fully understand. Other times, it’s a decision on the part of the filmmakers, a risk that shooting on digital allows them to take. More often, it’s both.

Sometimes, it’s also a factor of how you’re watching the film. Which goes beyond whether you’re in a theater or watching on the seatback of the chair in front of you on an airplane. If you’re streaming, compression can make the image seem darker than it would if you were watching from physical media or a projector. Ultimately, though, most of the research I was able to do about why films look like this suggests that they are meant to, which is maybe the worst of all possible explanations.

In 2018, I watched David Gordon Green’s requel of Halloween in a theater. I hated it, but at least I could see most of it. Last night, I finished watching Halloween Ends on my tablet, in a perfectly dark room. I mostly hated it, too, but more to the point, I couldn’t see a goddamn thing most of the time. Just muddy black screens in which indistinct blobs shifted and grunted.

While horror movies may be among the worst offenders – being, by nature, pictures that often take place in the dark – they are far from the only ones. Virtually every article I read on the subject referenced a particularly notorious episode of Game of Thrones, and not long ago I watched (also streaming) Wakanda Forever, a movie that cost over $250 million and is part of the MCU which has, in the past, been something of a poster child for “overlit” films. The night scenes were, again, essentially incomprehensible.

Of course, not all movies are like this. Malignant is filled with night scenes that are, for the most part, perfectly crisp, while Nope‘s dark scenes get a special mention at the end of the video I linked above for the way they were filmed with a mix of regular and infra-red cameras, allowing for deeper night shots that still retained their visual clarity. Meanwhile, films such as The Outwaters, like it or hate it, use the obfuscation of darkness in a way that feels intentional, whereas a film like Halloween Ends or Wakanda Forever or countless others (those are just the ones I watched most recently, not especially noteworthy offenders) feel like something has gone terribly wrong.

As I said before, I’m not a curmudgeon by nature, and I try hard to stay positive about the movies of today and tomorrow, even as I love and embrace those of yesteryear. But if anything is going to hurl me into my “old man yells at cloud” period, this trend may just be it…

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