Brow Beat

1917 Wins the Weekend Box Office in One Continuous Shot

A production still from 1917, showing actor Mark Strong, in costume, surrounded by cameras and crew.
1917 and some of its heroes. Universal

The box office results are in, and 1917, the World War I drama from director Sam Mendes and his co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, has comfortably won its first weekend of wide release, taking in $36.5 million against Rise of Skywalker’s $15 million, though the numbers look a little different if you compare total box office hauls, since 1917 has earned only $39.22 million so far—the film had a limited release on Christmas Day—while Rise of Skywalker has already pulled in $478 million domestic and $990 million worldwide, neatly demonstrating how unfair it is, at least under normal circumstances, to compare the box office results of a run-of-the-mill war movie with a Star Wars movie, because even when that war movie is based on a true story—in this case, the war experiences of Mendes’ grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, which he chronicled in a posthumously-published autobiography—or is constructed around an intriguing formal conceit, like presenting an entire feature film as one continual camera shot (although, to be strictly accurate, 1917 does contain plenty of hidden cuts and at least one hard cut at a crucial moment), it’s still extremely difficult for any original property to best one of Disney’s franchise juggernauts—and yet, at least this weekend, those comparisons are not only fair but welcome, because 1917 managed to not only triumph over Star Wars but also Warner Bros.’ legal drama Just Mercy, which came in third with $10 million in domestic box office; and Paramount’s Like a Boss, an R-rated workplace comedy starring Tiffany Haddish, which is currently running in fourth place but may rise to third when the final numbers are in; and frankly, the more good news Universal executives can get right now, the better, because after the calamitous box office failure of Cats, director Tom Hooper’s baffling adaptation of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which Slate’s Marissa Martinelli dubbed “a void of horny confusion,” any piece of news that might raise morale in the studio’s trenches has got to be extremely welcome; after all, the studio is gearing up for a big 2020 slate, which includes not only a new chapter in the Fast & Furious saga on May 22, but also Untitled Blumhouse Productions Project (March 13), Untitled Judd Apatow/Pete Davidson Comedy (June 19), Untitled Next Purge Chapter (July 10), Untitled Universal Event Film (Aug. 14), Untitled Universal Event Comedy (Oct. 23), Untitled Universal Event Film (Nov. 14), Untitled Amblin Project (Nov. 20), and, of course, The Croods 2 (Dec. 23), though it would be irresponsible not to note here that the road to all these potential box office successes leads through Dolittle, the studio’s adaptation of the popular series of novels by Hugh Lofting, which began with The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed and ran for nine more books between 1920 and 1948: The budget for the new film, with Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role—past Dolittle films starred Rex Harrison in 1967 and Eddie Murphy in 1998 (Murphy’s version did well enough for a sequel)—was somewhere around $175 million, giving it virtually no chance at profitability, unless, of course, it turns out to have been constructed around an interesting and challenging formal conceit like presenting the entire film as one continuous shot, a technique that sometimes draws curious audiences even when the story being told by that extremely long take is less interesting than the technique itself (the best of these experiments give the sense that, although it was perhaps not worth doing, it was undeniably done extremely well), an imbalance between form and function that can give the entire viewing experience something of the feeling one gets watching sports, where the arbitrary nature of the goal—putting a ball through a basketball hoop, say—is entirely subsumed by an appreciation for the grace and speed with which the players pursue it, and although this is a different type of catharsis than one might experience while watching the Death Star (or one of the many, many planet-killing weapons that followed it) explode, it is nevertheless a very real one: Identifying with the creator of a work of art and rooting for them as they face a challenge they’ve imposed on themselves rather than identifying with the protagonist can be just as thrilling as any hero’s journey, and as of this weekend, there’s no better example of form triumphing over function in precisely this manner than 1917’s box office success, period, full stop.