Clarkson on: special effects
The other day, for reasons that are not entirely clear, I decided to sit down and re-watch Armageddon, an extravagant Hollywood blockbuster in which some Americans have 18 days' notice to try to stop a rock the size of Texas from crashing into the Earth at 22,000mph.
It's all very exciting. Paris gets wasted. So does Owen Wilson. And so, in a rather harrowing scene, do the Twin Towers. Bruce Willis, meanwhile, pulls a lot of serious faces and then he gets wasted too. But not before he's saved everyone on the planet from what Bill Bob Thornton calls, "All the worst bits of the Bible".
The funny thing though, is that when you actually pay attention, this is one of the stupidest films ever made. Radios work then don't work. Gravity comes and goes. Oil companies are set up in a day. Ear plugs appear then disappear.
The plot is more riddled with holes than a termite mound.
And then there's the script. Sweet Mary, mother of Jesus. Who thought it was a good idea to ask Bruce Willis to say: "I don't keep any secrets from my daughter Grace". It's either "My daughter". Or "Grace". Or "her". Saying "My daughter Grace" is ridiculous. Nobody does that.
There's another scene on the oil rig in which Bruce, again, is asked to deliver a monologue of such mind-bending ineptitude that he simply gives up half-way through.
I don't understand how this happens. Why does a director not simply look at the lines Bruce is being asked to say and point out to the chap who wrote them that they don't make any sense? They go to all the trouble of staging incredibly realistic demolition jobs on New York, and the Far East and the Russian Space Station, but in-between the explosions, the cast may as well sit there saying, "Wibble wibble wibble".
Inglourious Basterds is a bit different. Because the opening scene is almost perfect cinema. No Russian explodes. There is no lesbianism. It's just two men in a room, talking. Mostly about milk. And yet, it's so captivating I can pretty much guarantee that if you take a piece of popcorn from the box when it begins, it still won't have reached your mouth when it ends, 10 minutes later.
I suppose I should say at this point that I'm a Tarantino fan. And the reason I'm a Tarantino fan is that he pays attention to everything; what people say, how they look, and why they're doing what they're doing. Watch Kill Bill 2 and look at the sofa in Bill's hacienda toward the end. It's perfect.
Then there are the cars. Bill drives a De Tomaso Mangusta. (Italian for Mongoose. The only animal feared by a Cobra.) He would. It's the only car he could have driven: American, and yet not.
Daryl Hannah uses a Trans Am with an eagle on the bonnet. Whereas Uma Thurman, who has two eyes, has a Karmann Ghia. You just know that His Quentin-ness spent hours, maybe even days, agonising over these tiny details, but it's precisely that which makes (most of) his films so much more watchable than the when-in-doubt-blow-it-up blockbusters.
Now. At this point you are probably wondering how on earth I can possibly land this month's column on the deck of a car mag, without crashing into the model railway magazines and Horse and Hound just along the shelf.
Simple. I wish car companies would behave a bit more like Quentin Tarantino and a bit less like Michael Bay, the slap-happy madman who foisted Armageddon on the cinema-going public.
The trouble is that, like Bay, car companies are obsessed with the big-money special effects. They think that what we want are automatic windscreen wipers and what Michael McIntyre called the "little people" in the bumpers who shriek and wail when we reverse too close to a wall.
"I wish that car companies would behave a bit more like Quentin Tarantino, and a bit less like Michael Bay – the man behind Armageddon"
They think we want 600 horsepower because their big rivals can only offer us 570, and that we want chilled cubby holes in the boot where we can store the lemonade they think we drink on the picnics we don't have.
All of these things, though, are superficial. They're perfectly good at entertaining us for a short while, but in the long-term, I'd much rather have a sense the dashboard is screwed in place; not clipped. And that the brake hoses are made from titanium, not rubber.
Sometimes I look down into the passenger footwell of my Mercedes and it fills me with a terrible sense of dread that the speaker grille has half come off. It annoys me too that the sound which comes from the stereo would have been unacceptable on a 1974 transistor radio. And that the seat-belt anchor points are inside the side squabs where you cannot get at them if you have a bottom.
Likewise, I was annoyed when I drove a new S-Class last month to find that no cupholder is provided in the front. There can only be one reason for this. Since the man in charge of this car's development could not possibly have said, "Let's not bother", because that would have been a stupid thing to say, the concept must have slipped his mind. It's therefore a mistake. Like putting Kill Bill 's Bill in a Nissan Micra.
I look too at the new AMG SLS, and in some ways it appears to have been designed by someone who was paying attention. The engine is big and simple and loud. The interior is trimmed like an expensive suitcase. And believe me, in the flesh it looks a million times better than it does in pictures. It looks completely fabulous.
But I cannot get those doors out of my head. Yes, they hark back to the SLs of old, and, yes, I'm sure the explosive bolts that blow the hinges in the event of a rollover are very clever. But doors like this make getting in and out difficult. They mean you can't park in a low garage. They make you look like a frightful show-off. And if you're less than five-foot, Hammond, you won't be able to reach the handles to pull them shut once you're inside. In other words, they've created an amazing special effect, but while they were doing so, they can't have been fully concentrating on the script, and the plot and the things which, actually, matter most of all.
I've singled out Mercedes in the examples I've chosen, mainly because it's Mercedes who used to get the Tarantino approach so right. Look at the W123 models. There were no aliens. The White House didn't explode, Will Smith wasn't in the glovebox with a wise crack. They were just well-made cars.
I think this is an approach that should be favoured by the people behind Spyker as they wrestle with the next Saab. Since it will be bought, mainly, by architects and since architects favour a minimalist, crisp, no-nonsense approach, why not give them a modern-day incarnation of that old W123. No bells. No whistles. And please, no idiotic claims that it's a jet fighter with an ashtray.
I want to finish though, with Jaguar. The engineers there may think that they need the bipolar satnav screen and a gearlever that rises from the centre console. They may think that they cannot compete in the big and boisterous world of multi-nationalism without such things.
Well, I urge them all to sit down one afternoon and watch the Hurt Locker. Made for a pound. Won six Oscars. Everyone loves it to bits.
This article was first published in the May edition of TopGear magazine.
Want to comment on this?
I definitely agree with your analysis, and Armageddon belongs in my top ten of worst movies ever (which, by the way, already contains at least 50 movies). But one point is beyond my understanding: how could anyone not currently bound to a chair in a moist cellar of Guantanamo re-watch Armageddon?
i think Jezza's a bit like Tarantino. everything has to be so simple just so his mind can comprehend it... and he doesn't need to pick up a hammer. but then i remember his VW Sirocco advert and.. i just think he's a bit confused as to what he actually wants.
The thing that nags me is that this argument comes from a man that wanted to make a Volkswagen ad with explosions and partial nudity.
I think Jeremy has it all wrong. Partly because he doesn't really know anything about it. The occasional mistakes have been made - new mini as an example, but in general design is thought through fairly well. if it wasn't then it wouldn't get built, unless it is being made by rover. Take the jag for example, its a fantastic car and a lot of this comes from the sense of 'theatre' that it has. The whole car is an experience, and by taking out things like the fancy gearstick that experience is lost. The main problem comes not from the designers, but the finance people, who once the car is nearly ready for production look at ways that they can cut costs. They do things like make the plastics a bit thinner and harder, use clips not screws, use stuff from the company parts bin. Designers don't add flair instead of the common sense stuff - but a compromise has to come in somewhere so you can both enjoy a car and not pay the value of a house for it!
Exactly. People want a good script, not special effects. I can't help but think of top gear's Lexus LFA review though, and all the other reviews of late riddled with special effects. The script really hasn't been there. Stay true to your own belief, forget the effects, and put together a proper extensive review.