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'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,' is One For the Time Capsule

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by Matt Singer
September 11, 2012 10:49 AM
13 Comments
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"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."

Imagine this scenario: the government comes to you with a plea for assistance. They're putting together a time capsule for the people of the future, and they want to include a movie -- the most emblematic example of filmmaking circa the 2010s. After they assure you that this has nothing to do with impending Mayan apocalypses or Roland Emmerich disaster movies, you agree to the task. 

But what to pick? I'll tell you my nominee, which I just watched for the first (and, I assume, only) time last weekend:

"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."

"SHAGS" -- as it shall henceforth be known, at least in this piece -- is, without a doubt, the epitome of contemporary Hollywood cinema. It is everything good and bad (mostly bad) that the film industry does in one very handsome and very stupid package. Stick it in the time capsule: if the people of the future are curious about our movies, "SHAGS" will tell them everything they need to know, including:

-Our Penchant For Remakes. And For Sequels: "SHAGS" is the latest version, cinematically speaking, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enduringly popular private detective. The first installment, directed by Guy Ritchie, was inspired by several Doyle stories, including "A Scandal in Bohemia." The second, also by Ritchie, was inspired by the $525 million the first film made worldwide (P.S., the second made even more).

-Having No Use For Intelligence, Except As It Benefits Action: On the one hand, Sherlock Holmes is a perfect subject for a movie circa the 2010s, because he has great brand recognition, and everything in movies circa 2010 is about brand recognition (see above). On the other hand, he's a horrible subject for a movie circa the 2010s because his defining characteristic is his intellect, and we live in an age in which Hollywood's defining characteristic is a sort of intentional brainlessness. Naturally, the film is less a mystery than a connect-the-dots chase movie, and Ritchie's Holmes, played with undeniable flair by Robert Downey Jr., is as much an investigator as a pugilist, who uses his brain primarily as a means to succeed in fist fights. The climactic confrontation with Holmes' arch-enemy Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) boils down to an imagined battle in which the two men each conceive of different ways to out-box the other in oh-so-cool, oh-so-modern, oh-so-ready-to-look-dated-in-five years speed ramping. Two geniuses "imagination fighting" each other. In modern cinema, this is what qualifies as "thinking."

-An Almost Pathological Obsession With Violence Coupled With An Almost Pathological Fear of Its Consequences: Imagination fighting is a fitting metaphor for most of the action in "Sherlock Holmes," even the stuff that "really" happens -- since so much of it is stripped of any hint of blood, gore, pain, or larger repercussions. One notable example is a scene in which Moriarty tortures Holmes for information by impaling him on a meathook, which is so obliquely and confusingly shot, presumably out of rating concerns, that it takes several minutes to even grasp what's happening. Characters do die, but almost always off-screen, and with little confirming evidence that they have, in fact, passed on, probably so they can still be brought back for future sequels under extenuating circumstances.

-The General Lack of Interesting Characters For Women: Forget the Bechdel Test -- "SHAGS" doesn't even pass the good ol' fashioned smell test in regards to its portrayal of women. Rachel McAdams, Holmes' feisty female foil from the first Ritchie film is -- SPOILER ALERT -- eliminated from the story after the cold open. She's replaced with a mysterious gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace), who is only "mysterious" insofar as her reasons for following Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) through the narrative are totally baffling. Essentially she's searching for her brother, who works for Moriarty, but really she sticks around just so the film can pretend it isn't one giant boys club. "SHAGS" makes a few vague overtures to Holmes' rivalry with Watson's fiance and his general lack of interest in the opposite sex, and that could play as sly acknowledgement of its misuse of its female cast if it felt even the least bit self-aware. But it doesn't, so it doesn't.

-How Incredibly Cool We Can Make Dumb Shit Look: Having said all of that, and having generally hated all of that while I was watching it, I can't deny that Ritchie and his team of craftsmen have made something that looks absolutely gorgeous. "SHAGS" includes a sequence where Holmes, Watson, and Simza run through the woods to evade Moriarty's men, who are firing at them with guns and tank cannons. Bullets whiz by our heroes; the camera zooms in and out to catch their flight as they pierce through their waistcoats. Mortars smash into trees and fill the air with thousands of pieces of wooden shrapnel: again, the camera, nimble as a dancer, seems everywhere all at once. With so little interest in the characters and so little understanding of what they're doing or where they're going, the whole sequence means absolutely nothing. But it looks amazing.

And that, I suspect, will be our generation's movies' true legacy. We came, we saw, we blew stuff up, we only vaguely remembered doing it a few hours later. All the more reason to put "SHAGS" in our time capsule: if we don't, human civilization may eventually forget it ever existed.

That's my pick -- what would you put in a time capsule to epitomize the modern movie landscape?

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13 Comments

  • About A Game | September 21, 2012 7:57 AMReply

    I absolutely LOVED A Game of Shadows and I speak as longtime fan of Holmes from books to films About A Game

  • Jessica | September 14, 2012 4:49 PMReply

    I hated A game of shadows so much that something happened that never happens to me usually: I couldn't finish it. I was bored out of my mind. I object vehemently against subjecting the people of the future to this miserable piece of junk. Representative? Mabye. But I have a much more optimistic look on the current state of film than that.

  • Mel | September 14, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    I absolutely LOVED A Game of Shadows and I speak as longtime fan of Holmes from books to films. It was brave in a mainstream Hollywood film to have neither of its male heroes fall into a conventional romantic clinch with its leading lady, Simza. They treated her as an equal, not a pretty face to flirt with. The onscreen chemistry between Downey and Law is marvellous and quite sufficient w/o needing a female romantic interest onscreen.

    The film was enormous fun and the Reichenbach Fall enacted with dignity and some style.
    to the satisfaction of Doyle fans. Watson quoted faithfully the passage from the end of The Final Problem, sticking close to canon.

    I appreciate that you've worked hard on the piece you've written but it was somewhat overwrought. Rather overloading a light entertainment with too much symbolism and,
    sorry, coming across as somewhat priggish in tone. Also, if you check carefully, it actually made LESS than the previous film, and not MORE, as you've stated. You mustn't forget to take its increased budget into account and also the fact that the makers receive a smaller proportion of the box office overseas than they do domestically. And this sequel fell short of the previous film's domestic box office.

  • ray thor | September 11, 2012 11:21 PMReply

    I am looking forward to seeing SHAGS as I am a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan. Any movie that I would chose for the time-capsule would have to include elements of classic film-making: a good story, well-defined characters. no fuzzy camera work, no artsy-crafty bullshit, and some insight into future films production.

    A Sherlock Holmes mystery like SHAGS would be a good choice because like any successful film franchise, you know what to expect. In a good mystery story, if you put a gun on the mantlepiece in the first act, it better go off by the third act.

    I wrote a Sherlock Holmes ebook story that I would like to put into that time capsule. It is titled BLOODGUILTY (a thriller-chiller). It is available on KINDLE Bookstore by RAYMOND THOR. It has many ingredients: cloning, genetic engineering, organ transplants, mind transplants, and Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes (from 1888 London to 1998 Palm Springs). It is a combination of historical accuracy and fiction. It also got very good reviews. I can't wait to see the movie.

  • ray thor | September 11, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    I have been a movie fan since I can't remember when. In New York City where I was born movie theaters were a refuge from summer heat and bitter winter cold or rainy weather. Entering a darkened theater was like a magic carpet ride of adventures.

    Whatever the film choice for the time capsule, it must have a beginning, middle, and end that moves; that is why they are called movies.

  • anoop | September 11, 2012 10:08 PMReply

    Oh, i guess the real problem with this age of film is morons who can't read between the lines, just like the author of this piece. I thought Game of Shadows was pretty awesome, because beneath the action movie is a plot that i thought was very smart. Well, for godsake, it has the ultimate villain who has a plan i thought was pretty smart; fool the nations into global wars and make a profit out of it, one evil perfected by many smart men in 20th century.

    Ritchie's SH I was explicitly about Holmes in a changing London (the bridge, the bridge) between a superstitious past and a future of rational scientific thought. Given that, SHAG (as you prefer to call them) is way more smarter than your studio churned blockbuster. Also because studios know well that, er, that good criticism has long been dead and no average middle income household kid would like to watch a period costume piece with weird accents. Watch the movie close enough, Ritchie puts down every clue right before our eyes well in advance and also found a visual equivalent for Holmes's quick stream of thoughts. In regular Ritchie style, it also goes back to the great tradition of ealing comedies in characterisation and plot, that too in an age when most blockbusters don't know their fathers. Go get a brain, Matt Singer, cherry on the cake of half witted critics. Good god, film critics these days have no clue at all!

  • Steve Bailey | September 11, 2012 7:36 PMReply

    Spider-Man 3: It took everything that was wonderful about the first two movies and rammed it right into the ground in the search for more box-office cash.

  • Peter Zachos | September 11, 2012 6:43 PMReply

    Matt,

    I second your recommendation for the inclusion of SHAGS in the time capsule, with one condition: that your excellent and on-point article accompanies said film.

  • James | September 11, 2012 5:24 PMReply

    The Help. Based on a mediocre book, and Hollywood is so out of ideas that even mediocre books seem awesome compared to a direct to DVD Problem Child sequel. Conveniently one-dimensional characters (Not only is she racist, but she's terrible to her children!) who go through really clunky, unsubtle, uninteresting changes of heart. To top it all off, a character ends up with human feces in her digestive system! That's like every Michael Bay and Judd Apatow movie rolled into one.

  • Paul | September 11, 2012 5:14 PMReply

    Scott Mendelson, it is always a mistake to think about something more than its creator did, or to take it more seriously than its creator did.

  • Scott Mendelson | September 11, 2012 7:34 PM

    It's perhaps a mistake I make all too often, but one that I find enriches my movie going experience.

  • Scott Mendelson | September 11, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    One slight caveat, regarding the film's climax. The actual duel between Holmes and Moriarty is their chess game, which of course is a way for them to discuss the way in which Holmes indeed mentally outsmarted Moriarty, indeed celebrating a triumph of Holmes's intellect (and a way to Holmes to show that he trusts Watson as an equal, as he allows Watson to solve the mystery while he distracts Moriarty). The boxing match is merely an epilogue of sorts, with the idea being that Holmes will (theoretically) make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the few people he considers friends. Also, in terms of valuing brawn over brains, Holmes proves that he is smarter than Moriarty but lacks his strength and brawn. So he indeed 'wins' by doing the one selfless thing that Moriarty (a stone cold psychopath) would never even think of.

    But otherwise, aside from pointing out that McAdams is very much confirmed dead (and mourned for a brief period) I can't argue with much else up there. I liked the first film as a genuine character-driven detective story with a few action bits, but the second film is worthwhile only for Jared Harris's stark and icy turn as Moriarty.

  • Sam | September 11, 2012 6:33 PM

    Scott, Holmes was the equal of Moriarty both with brains and strength. The reason he couldn't outfight him was the injury he sustained during torture hindering him, which both of them took into account on their imaginary fight.

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