Over the past half-decade, Damien Chazelle has emerged as one of the most promising young directors in Hollywood. Ignoring his first forgotten film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), his two other features – 2014’s Whiplash and 2016’s La La Land – were both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Additionally, both were nominated for Writing awards at their respective ceremonies and the latter film won Chazelle the coveted Best Director Oscar.
All of this was building up to his upcoming feature, First Man, which is a typically Oscar-baity, critic-pandering, awards-attempting period biopic about Neil Armstrong: the first man to set foot on the moon. It was to mark the first time Chazelle stepped out from his comfortable jazz milieu (the subject of all three of his feature films thus far) and into weightier, more dramatic territory. Many saw it as an opportunity for him to come out as a director: to live up to his promise as a truly great director outside of his narrowly-defined comfort zone.
And… then this trailer finally hit, kind of shattering the perception of this being anything other than a drastic misfire months before anybody gets to so much as see the movie.
You see, the trailer for First Man is bizarre. Really bizarre. It doesn’t feel like this grandiose, sweeping epic about a man who quite literally “slipped the surly bonds of earth [to] touch the face of God.” It doesn’t feel like a fact-driven tour through one of the most dynamic and eventful periods of American – and indeed, world – history. It doesn’t feel like an intimate look into the private life of a man suddenly cast to the forefront of the global stage.
What it actually feels like, hard though it may be to believe given the director and the subject matter, is a horror movie. And no major movie has been more horrifying in recent memory, nor fit the dark, Hitchcockian vision of the film as seen through its first trailer, than Fant4stic: the Fantastic Four reboot that was somehow less interesting, exciting and all-around engaging than the infamously terrible, officially unreleased, 1994 ashcan Fantastic Four hastily and cheaply produced by notorious shlockmeister Roger Corman.
No. Seriously. Watch this trailer. Everything from its muted, washed-out color pallet to its omnipresently dark-lit scenes to the tension-driving minimal score screams of the uniquely terrible narrative and aesthetic decisions made by the movie that put the definitive nail in the coffin of “Marvel’s First Family” as a blockbuster property in an age when superheroes in general and Marvel adaptations in particular are THE most dominant forces acting on the global box office. This movie feels exactly like that.
And it makes absolutely no sense why it should is that tragic thing. Armstrong is a compelling man: ahead of his time socio-politically and literally rising to take his place above the rest of the world among the stars. The story is not just gripping, but one that had been effectively told both in the forefront and background of Hollywood entertainment for decades. And biopics like this are the staple bread-and-butter of the industry: both as reliable box office draws in the down-season and as major awards contenders in the prestige season.
Just compare what should be a pretty straight-forward, impossible to mess up project with other, similar offerings. Gravity was a major critical and box office success. The Martian was a major critical and box office success. Hidden Figures was a major critical and box office success. Hell, going back even further you can find Apollo 13, not just a major critical and box office success, but a bonafied classic in its own right. And yet this movie, with the same narrative DNA and artistic pedigree as its storied forebears, wants to model itself off of one of the biggest box office disasters of the last decade?
I can only hope that this trailer was merely a misfire and somehow failed to accurately portray the kind of movie that will be delivered to theaters later this year. I like Chazelle as much as the next guy and the movie sounds like one that I would love almost out of habit. Sadly, though, I doubt that it’s anything but the genuine article. You can switch up the score and editing easy enough in a trailer, but everything that should be a story about the wonders of space travel during an age of unbridled optimism is shot in an almost gray-scale color pallet and looks dour as sin (and not the fun kind of sin, either). That’s not something you can easily fix in post production.