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Have films become gloomier?

An investigation into why contemporary cinema is getting darker

Published: 11 Apr 2022
Goethe is known above all for his novels and for having significantly influenced German and European romanticism. However, like the modern Renaissance man he was, the author of Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther also theorised about how light creates colour in a volume he published in 1810, entitled Theory of Colours. His premise is that colours are a degree of darkness and that they are created by dimming light. Goethe claims that white light is not a mixture of different colours, as some people used to think, but a balance of darks and lights. He argues that it is this dynamic that allows us to perceive different colours according to whether the level of darkness is high or low.
It would be interesting to know what the German writer might think of the recent trend of increasingly dingy films and TV series, characterised by colours that blend into dim backgrounds and become more and more uniform as darkness prevails. Sepia tones, desaturated images and a general lack of bright colours seem to have conquered world cinematography over the last twenty years. Whole films often seem to be covered by an opaque filter that tends to homogenise colours, creating unreal environments, surreal scenarios and artificial skin tones. This is understandable and less apparent in films and TV series where the atmosphere reflects the genre, such as thrillers, crime and war movies, post-apocalyptic stories, and films like the recently released The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson and Zöe Kravitz. After all, Batman is often referred to as “the Dark Knight”, and in Tim Burton’s chapters of the story, released in the 1990s, Gotham City looks like a city where the sun never shines. For other cinematographic or television works, however, like comedies and dramas with less sombre plots and scenarios, the recent obsession with this trend makes less sense. So, why is there no light? Why is everything so dark?
Emily VanDerWerff, a journalist for Vox, has posited a number of theories explaining this sudden love of shadow. Her first hypothesis regards technology as, up until a decade or so ago, altering light involved filters and analogue lenses, whereas digitalisation now allows directors to be more adventurous. Many of them have therefore begun playing with atmospheres and experimenting with changes in tones and colours in post-production too. Recent technological advances are also the foundation of another theory advanced by VanDerWerff to explain this trend. She argues that as lively colours and bright shades have now become so easy to use, they have immediately been monopolised by commercial television and the advertising industry, forcing art house and feature film directors to distance themselves from this explosion of colour.
Another possible reason is the quality of the end result. Films today inevitably include numerous scenes featuring special effects or digital elements and this artificiality is less noticeable when scenes are lit dimly as any imperfections are hidden by the shadows.
VanDerWerff’s most interesting theory, however, is the influence of a film that has become an icon straddling the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Namely, Matrix. Released in 1999, it is without doubt the trailblazer of this gloomy style of filmmaking, as it is full of scenes where it rains continually and the faces of the characters are permanently coated in a sombre sheen. It may therefore have been Matrix that gave rise to this twilight genre, where darkness wins over light at both an aesthetic and an existential level.
It may almost be true that during the last decade, certain aesthetic trends have encouraged the expansion of this tendency. These include a widespread desire to recreate vintage settings, like the seventies mood evoked in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Licorice Pizza. This nostalgic spirit, combined with the appeal of Matrix-like movies, may well explain the popularity of these dusky atmospheres. One last element to consider is how we experience this medium. As if we were to make the effort to go to a cinema, instead of watching these movies on a 13-inch screen while stretched out on the sofa, then perhaps we would be able to better appreciate all the different shades of light they contain!