The colours in films are increasingly desaturated – from the gradual darkening of hues in the the Harry Potter films to the predominantly dark tones used to represent gritty, realistic settings for unrealistic characters like Superman. Sure, generally this works well and it’s true that it can help make things look more realistic, but sometimes it is nice to see a real explosion of colour on the cinema screen. Here are some of the best films that use vivid colour well:
I saw this the other night and it made me think up this list. Spring Breakers uses a neon palette against a night time backdrop to create a visual style that is as energetic and vibrant as the story. Similar to the use of colour in Drive, but with the contrast turned all the way up. Deliberately over the top and without subtlety, the use of colour compliments the the trashy dubstep and Britney soundtrack and the trashy teenagers and gangsters. A film that is apparently deliberately shallow, Spring Breakers was always going to divide opinion. But the truth is that it’s something like a nihilistic fairy tale – a metaphorical story about four girls that go in search of any sort of meaning in their empty lives and find a (gangster) handsome prince. I think Spring Breakers is a great, if occasionally flawed film and it’s suitably bleak and depressing. Pretty faces hiding empty existences, but all on show in the stark, uncompromising neon light.
I’ve already confessed my love for Speed Racer, another film that divides opinion. It’s the most colourful film on this list, in fact it might be the most colourful film ever – from the multi coloured set decorations and costumes to the insane strobing neon race tracks. It’s like being a human pinball and getting battered around a table for a couple of hours, and it’s baffling to me why that doesn’t appeal to more people. Everyone knows that the story makes the film, that plot and acting and memorable performances are what sets the great films apart from the mediocre. Except Speed Racer deliberately ignores these things and focusses entirely on the main thing that critics hate – namely style over substance. And it does it well. Speed Racer is a pop art film – a response to the traditions of cinema that merges kitsch elements with mass culture, humour, irony and bright bold colours to create something recognisable as a film, but different.
Like Andy Warhol, the film has some scathing critics, but you can’t deny how colourful they are. Oddly, I am not a fan of Warhol but I could watch Speed Racer on Bluray for hours. Plus, The Mannionator is in it.
More muted than the others on this list, but still wonderfully colourful compared to the typically desaturated look that gritty films tend to go for. While Marvel’s Avengers ought to be more brightly coloured (after all it features a bright green guy) the colours are toned down and desaturated in an attempt to make the superheroes look more realistic. Dredd takes the opposite approach, starting with a (comparatively) realistic set of characters and using colour to make them more comic bookish. Judge Dredd comics by 2000AD have always been more stylised and over the top than most of their counterparts but Dredd himself is the straight man, po-facing his way around ridiculous situations and environments: so while Zac Snyder might have completely drained The Man of Steel’s world of all vibrancy (and hope, whatever you think that ‘S’ stands for) in order to make Superman ‘realistic’, Dredd doesn’t need to worry about that. He’s comfortable in his comic book world.
Incidentally, I think if you drained the colour from Dredd (and stripped off the excellent soundtrack) you would be left with a film quite like Punisher: War Zone. Which I quite liked, but was the film industry equivalent of a family camping holiday – just a generally uncomfortable and unpleasant experience for all concerned.
The Fall starts off in black and white, like the Wizard of Oz, before emerging into glorious technicolour. It’s a good trick and perhaps an homage to the 1939 film which was one of the first to use colour in quite so revolutionary a manner (yellow roads, emerald cities – not possible before the invention of colour film). The Fall seems to celebrate the fact that we have colour film in every single scene, especially those set in the fantasy part of the story. The extremely lavish costume design and the use of giant coloured fabrics is particularly striking – similar to Tarsem Singh’s previous film The Cell. Stunning landscape photography also sets this film apart, and it’s a bit of a shame that Immortals didn’t continue the theme, being a relatively muted (if still quite stylish) affair.
Survive Style 5+
One of my favourite films, and one I should really have written about sooner, Survive Style 5+ is one of many vividly coloured Asian films that could have made the list (I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, Memories of Matsuko, Kamikaze Girls, and many more). Survive Style is the most colourful though, from the lavish set design to Tadanobu Asano’s shirt, everything is brightly coloured and patterned. Well, except for Vinnie Jones, the existential hit man who stomps through the film in an somber black suit. The director – Gen Sekiguchi (who has unfortunately stopped making films it seems) – used to make adverts and this is quite apparent in the meticulously arranged shots, full of bright, attention grabbing objects. I think Speed Racer borrowed some of the family household set design ideas from this film. It’s a great film, very funny and strange, with surreal and occasionally quite dark humour – my favourite type. Unfortunately it doesn’t have a bluray release, which is a shame because the colours are never quite as vibrant on DVD. The Christmas decorations are especially noteworthy, really puts my efforts to shame.
Some other films that deserve a mention:
Hellboy and Helboy II The Golden Army: Nice brightly coloured superhero fare, but not Del Toro’s best work.
Avatar: Impressively technicoloured when watched on bluray and not in 3D (which muddies the colours somewhat). It’s a lavish production but it’s just a bit too Disney to be completely convincing.
Anything by Wes Anderson: This goes without saying probably, but all Wes Anderson’s films use bright, bold colours to good effect, usually creating a playful and surreal tone which is usually populated by playful and surreal characters.