Tom Jolliffe looks at the career, rise and fall of Alex Proyas…
Born to Greek parents in Egypt and subsequently raised in Australia, you could say that Alex Proyas has an interesting background. He started, as a lot of film directors have, in music videos (working with the likes of INXS and Sting). To many his first film might be assumed as The Crow, but several years earlier, and fresh out of college he made Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds. This was a small post-apocalyptic film, every bit as odd as the title suggests, but undoubtedly carrying a certain Oz charm.
When The Crow was in development, the source material being so heavily influenced by music (particularly The Cure, Joy Division and Iggy Pop) and with an intention to include a notable soundtrack to the film, meant that there was a natural lean toward hiring a director with a music video background. That man was Alex Proyas. The Crow has gone down in cinema history as the film in which Brandon Lee tragically died. It will always have that fatalist twinge to it. Lee after all was playing an avenging angel back from the dead. There was almost a grim irony to the events. What cannot be denied was the talent Lee had which was on the cusp of fully flourishing. The Crow, and his performance, is testament to that. He’d finally stepped out of his father’s shadow and showed a side to him that set him apart. He was doing something a little different and it worked.
Lee’s legacy aside, the film is also remembered and appreciated as a piece of cult brilliance, for the visual style. Near monochrome desaturation in a graphic novel styled world of deep blacks, shadow and hazy lights. It owed a visual style to everything from those graphic novels (not least Jame’s O’Barr’s source material), to Tim Burton, Russian expressionist cinema, and noir cinema to name a few. Influences aside, it had a style that was very much Proyas’s own. The film oozes style. It’s cut quickly, like a music video and infused with stylistic camera work but it never disorientates. In many ways the film is a forerunner to a stylistic type of film, most common post Matrix, where hyperactivity overtakes creativity both behind the camera and in the editing suite. The Crow got the balance right though. It pushes right to the edge of the precipice without falling into the black hole.
Following up The Crow would be difficult. Many directors who strike such a cult following first time out, with such visual aplomb, often struggle second time out. You can look for example at Russell Mulcahy, the director of Highlander. The film, much like The Crow, was musically infused and uniquely styled. Whilst that didn’t hit big until its video run, it garnered a huge cult following that would spawn a TV show and a ream of poor sequels (The Crow would also do this). Mulcahy disappeared out of relevance quickly though (not aided by the first sequel which was regarded as a disaster on every level). He has worked solidly since, without quite ever managing to find that sort of creative impact, and becoming more of a gun for hire in low level genre fare.
Dark City was just the sort of follow up that could make or break Proyas. Whilst the film wasn’t an initial success commercially it did gather a cult following rather quickly as word of mouth spread (Roger Ebert loved the film enough to provide a commentary track on some DVD versions). This science fiction mystery thriller was visually dazzling and thematically interesting. There was an element of pulp about it, whilst it carried over a few of the influences from The Crow. The use of visual effects was inventive and stylish and it’s a film which, approaching 20 years old, still looks great. Dark City with certain odd charms within, remains a cult film but one which could still pick up more fans. It’s one that is becoming a little forgotten in time, which is a shame. There is a lot to enjoy for genre fans who want to discover something interesting.
With such a strong visual output, with everything dripping in grime and noir lighting, there were many among his fan base who expected a lot from Alex Proyas going forward. There was a wait for sure. Garage Days was something very stripped back and independent, though very musically infused. That plugged a gap until a big break came. Proyas would direct a summer tent-pole flick with Will Smith headlining, based on Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novels. I Robot could have been something epically scaled and thematically important. The source material is there. The budget was there, but with all that money and heavy reliance on CGI came another problem. All that visual ingenuity that was in The Crow, and Dark City was replaced by something that looked like it came from a Hollywood production line mould. Lacking interesting visual palettes and feeling somewhat watered down, it lacked any punch. It wasn’t a film like his first two majors which gathered fans and aged well. I Robot is a film that was average to begin with and has aged badly.
Another long break would follow before Proyas returned in 2009 with the Nic Cage puzzler, Knowing. At this point Cage had gone from being a box office dead cert to a dead duck. Knowing, alongside a few others around that period going into a new decade would mark the rapid descent into straight to video films. It opened to poor reviews and reasonable box office (though below some of Cage’s bigger hits of that era). In truth it has probably stood the test of time marginally better than I Robot but it’s a middle of the road end of the world pot boiler. The film also didn’t offer much scope visually for Proyas to play with, nor did his direction appear to have as much verve and vibrancy as his two cult favourites did.
In 2016 Proyas was back in a big budget epic and the dazzling potential of doing something fantastical, with no shortage of caveats to draw visual inspiration from. Gods of Egypt was big but it was the worst kind of big budget spectacular. The kind that despite all the money thrown at it, looked cheap. It looked like a Syfy special. Had Gods of Egypt lived up to its budget and potential it might have spawned a 10 cent, Asylum knock off. Said knock off would not have looked a million miles from what Gods of Egypt inevitably ended up as. Disastrous box office and dreadful reviews followed. Proyas went as far as pouring scorn on film critics who dared lambaste the film. The defensive wild swings of a fighter in a corner, about to get knocked out.
There doesn’t seem like much in the offing with Proyas. It would seem he typically takes a gap averaging around five years between films but the shattering disappointment of the last film will certainly play heavy on his mind, and indeed the minds of potential employers. As a huge fan of The Crow and Dark City though, I want him to come out all guns blazing. I want to see that flair and ingenuity and deeply unrestrained vision that he showed in those two films. Perhaps given the large budgets of his last three he has had to bow more to studio pressure but a return to a more intimate and controllable budget could be good. Those odes to noir cinema and expressionist lighting always served him well, so perhaps there’s a starting point.