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The Front Row
Review: “Space Jam 2,” “Roadrunner,” and the Misplaced Hand-Wringing Over Digital Manipulations
Two new movies dramatize the power and the peril of the new audiovisual mediaverse.
July 20, 2021
LeBron James in “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which was produced for theatrical release but, instead, dropped on HBO Max last Friday.Photograph courtesy Warner Bros.
etween 1950 and 1960, television ownership in the United States rose from nine per cent of households to eighty-seven per cent
. In that same decade, the number of tickets sold at movie box-offices dropped by about a third. Hollywood fought back with spectacular productions using technology then unavailable for television—color, widescreen, 3-D images, and stereo sound—and made fun of the small screen, most scintillatingly, in Frank Tashlin’s 1957 comedy “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
” Now, with theatrical viewing again menaced, this time by the rise of streaming, the Hollywood lampooning has returned, in the altogether lesser yet grander form of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which—in one of the industry’s droll ironies—was produced for theatrical release but, instead, dropped on HBO Max last Friday. (The film is produced by the studio Warner Bros., which is under the same WarnerMedia corporate aegis as the streaming service.)
Like Tashlin’s ebullient masterwork, Malcolm D. Lee’s effects-driven comedy is centered on the technological generation gap—with a crucial twist. Where the earlier film plays a middle-aged advertising executive against his teen-age niece, who’s an inveterate and unquestioning TV-watcher, the “Space Jam” sequel is rooted in conflicts between LeBron James (playing himself) and his fictional son Dom (played by Cedric Joe), who looks to be about twelve and is a precocious video-game creator whom LeBron (the character) is pushing to succeed at basketball. LeBron won’t let Dom take part in a video-game conference that’s being held the same weekend as a basketball tournament for which he’d signed up. As a small consolation, LeBron takes Dom along on a trip to the Warner Bros. studio. There, the N.B.A. star meets with executives (Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun) who pitch him a new entertainment project, called Warner 3000. The idea is to scan LeBron and put him into movies of any and all sorts, such as “Batman vs. LeBron,” “LeBron of Thrones,” and “LeBron and the Chamber of Secrets.” As the sales-pitch video intones, “The possibilities are endless. You’ll be the King of Warner Brothers . . . and together we’ll make mind-blowing entertainment forever.”
LeBron dismisses the notion (and the obsequious executives follow his lead) but, unbeknownst to him, the boardroom’s security camera and mikes are being hijacked by the movie’s villain, Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), who invented the Warner 3000 technology. Feeling humiliated by the rejection, he plots his revenge, using scans to suck LeBron and Dom into his Serververse, which is inhabited by all of the previous Warner Bros. properties, such as Looney Tunes. Al G., trading on Dom’s frustration, recruits him to lead a basketball team in a high-stakes grudge game against his father and the Looney Tunes. If LeBron’s team wins, everyone—including the huge audience of ordinary people sucked into the Serververse through Al G.’s hijacking of Dom’s app—gets to go back home to real life. But if Dom’s team wins, all the digital captives will remain eternally in the server, as mere characters in a video game—and, what’s more, the Looney Tunes will be deleted.
The sluggish movie takes a half hour to get LeBron and Dom into the Serververse, and another half hour to get the game going. In the meantime, LeBron—rendered in old-school cel animation—pals around with the Looney Tunes bunch and other animated characters, while Al G., gaining Dom’s confidence, steals his video game and related software, and transforms LeBron and the Looney Tunes into high-resolution, more realistic C.G.I. versions of themselves. The game itself, a slog through an unsurprising and dragged-out set of dramatic reversals and sentimental climaxes, seemingly fulfills Al G.’s threat of eternity. The movie is full of jokes but almost bereft of humor. (Its comedic failure is proved by the fact that the best gag is delivered by Yosemite Sam and his guns.) Though “Space Jam: A New Legacy” fails, woefully, as an aesthetic object and as a viewing experience, it somehow nonetheless succeeds as a conceptual representation of a Hollywood studio’s terror in the face of streaming domination, of the movie industry at large that, like Warner Bros., is in the process of being swallowed up in one Serververse or another. A director of Tashlinesque imagination and inspiration could have made something of the premise, and the film at one point had such a director attached to it—Terence Nance
, who left the project, in 2019, because of creative differences (but remains among the battalion of credited screenwriters).
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What’s of interest in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the concept: spare yourself the hundred and fifteen minutes and read a synopsis, then consider the metaphors. Digitizing people into a server doesn’t literally zap them out of the world—yet when the disproportion between the image and the reality is too great, when the public image dominates the private existence, it may indeed seem like it does. The terror of movie-world in the face of the Serververse is, first, that of dematerialization and image counterfeiting, as in the pseudo LeBrons whom the studio would cinematically clone and deploy. Second, it’s in the despoiling of history, the manipulation of the settled forms of legacy movies by means of C.G.I. for a new generation of captive consumers. Third, it’s the ultimate danger of a server-based digital centralization, namely, the power to delete, to literally destroy the past. (When the studios of yore sent out prints, even in the absence of a central archive, prints could survive in the damnedest ways—see Bill Morrison’s documentary “Dawson City: Frozen Time
By odd coincidence, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” ’s theme of the predatory manipulation of digitized likenesses has a documentary counterpart in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” “Roadrunner” is perhaps the most widely discussed of recent documentaries, not for its artistic merit but because of a bit of digital trickery pulled by its director, Morgan Neville. As he told my colleague Helen Rosner last week, Neville wanted the film to include Bourdain speaking three lines of text for which no voice recordings exist, so Neville “commissioned a software company to make an A.I.-generated version of Bourdain’s voice.” In his conversation with Rosner, Neville fliply dismissed any concerns that the revelation of his trickery might raise: “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”
Anthony Bourdain in a scene from Morgan Neville’s documentary “Roadrunner.”Photograph courtesy CNN / Focus Features
Yet the real problem with “Roadrunner” isn’t ethical but aesthetic. The documentary is a mere encyclopedia-like info-product, which reduces its rich audiovisual archival material and its heartfelt interviews with people who knew and loved Bourdain to freeze-dried sound and image bites. It hardly deserves the attention it’s received—and Neville’s audio stunt, far from marring the film, merely serves as a brazen form of self-promotional publicity. What the gimmick displays, above all, is the substitution of chutzpah for audacity. Neville uses bits of synthesized voice in a petty, nose-thumbing way, as if to prove that he’s above the scruples that prevent other documentary filmmakers from getting the effects that they want. Yet he doesn’t actually do anything particularly imaginative, original, remarkable, or, for that matter, noteworthy with his Bourdainoid voice-toy. If Neville wants to fabricate, let him fabricate conspicuously, copiously, and freely rather than slipping in a few ornamental voice clips. To have a tool so powerful at hand and to use it in such a minor, merely decorative way—not to use it with a full and bold range of creativity—suggests, first, his lack of imagination, and, second, his sense that he was indeed doing something improper. This trivial would-be transgression lets Neville pose as the bad boy of documentaries, even as his formulaic film dutifully follows the rules.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy,” in its metaphorical hand-wringing regarding digital media, also muddles its own concept by substituting the ethics of digital cinema for the aesthetics. The problem with C.G.I. movies isn’t the digital technology but how it’s put to use. For instance, Martin Scorsese’s conspicuous deployment of digital image-manipulation in “The Irishman” and his stealthy deployment of it in “The Wolf of Wall Street” makes him perhaps the greatest special-effects filmmaker of the era. Miranda July’s digital miracles in “The Future” and “Kajillionaire” are among the great inspirations of recent movies, as are the computer-generated visions of Jim Jarmusch in “The Dead Don’t Die” and of Bruno Dumont in “Coincoin and the Extra-Humans”—and, for that matter, of Terence Nance, in the HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness.” The fetishizing of 35-mm. film and of hand-drawn animation suggests the woeful unoriginality with which most of the corporatized, infantilized modern digital cinema is made, not the lack of possibilities that digital media offers. Had Nance directed “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” he’d likely have proved what artistic wonders could be accomplished digitally—exactly as the hand-drawn animation of Looney Tunes reflects not any inherent merit to the medium but the groundbreaking artistry of the series’ directors, including Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Tashlin himself. The people pulling the plug on such artists in the digital age, and the ones who misuse their own Serververses and threaten to submerge their legacy properties in digital oblivion, aren’t resentful engineers but executives such as the ones, played by Silverman and Yeun, whom “Space Jam: A New Legacy” depicts as obliviously innocent victims.
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