It’s hard going into a movie and watching it as if it’s “just a movie” when there are preconceived notions that predate the viewing. When it came to Atomic Blonde (2017), this was a concept that disrupted my pleasure of watching it. For a decent chunk of this year, Atomic Blonde has been hyped up with the implication that it’s a step in the right direction for female representation in films. Hailed as a “female James Bond,” it’s easy to assume going in to the theater that we’re being blessed with a rootin’ and tootin’ good time; an action-packed romp with a woman at the head of it. “Why can’t all action movies be like Atomic Blonde?” you might’ve found yourself wondering. Well, maybe it’s not a bad thing that they aren’t.
We open the scene with footage of Ronald Reagan’s Gorbachev speech in 1987. “This isn’t that story,” though, the movie lets us know via a groovy lookin’ title card. I mean, okay? I’ve only seen two seconds of this movie so far, I had no real reason to believe it was about that, but now I see that this is a time-piece of sorts. We flash forward to 1989, soon after the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Was there a point in setting the scene this way? Well, not really. This is a precedent set that carries on for a good amount of this movie. “Was there a reason for that? Eh, not really,” is something you’ll hear yourself saying a lot during its run time.
“Do all bad-ass characters need to have drinking problems?” you might ask. “What, in Atomic Blonde, does it add to her character?” Nothing. “In a movie touted as a feminist breakthrough, why do women have to be used as naked props to show that a guy is slimy when he rolls out of bed? He could easily have just been jacking it instead and that would’ve evoked a more visceral response from me, the audience.” “Cool that in the beginning Atomic Blonde herself rolls out of bed naked but isn’t sexualized in any way. Why, then, does every other scene open with an ogling tilt up and down her body? Is there a need for that?” No! Male directors LOVE to have those female characters that could beat the shit out of them, yet also, they want to fuck them. An appealing faded blue paints the extent of the frame once we flash forward, but “If I look at this too long,” I thought, “I’m going to get a headache.” Does this cool blue really make you feel a certain way towards the movie’s setting? Eh!…not really! It’s a style, but there’s nothing behind it. Luckily, it doesn’t last long. We’re pretty soon treated to substance-less fluorescent pinks.
Don’t get me wrong, I love myself some pointless fluorescents, and those that know me know that vibrant and vapid hot pink is my absolute favorite color both in real life and to use when making movies. I love me a mindless movie to tune out to, where I can stare at pretty visuals and cool action, but the problem here is that Atomic Blonde wanted so badly to be more than it is. I wanted mindless moving pictures of Charlize Theron butchering people in creative ways, I was praying for it! But it’s just not what I got. Simple plot points are given to us in convoluted ways to make it all seem more complicated than it is, the setting never really adds to the story in the ways that it wants to, and despite the movie insisting on it so many times, Charlize Theron’s character is never well rounded. The soundtrack makes for a cool mix-tape, but every song is presented in very ham-fisted, diegetic ways, and it comes off as disingenuous, and it doesn’t even include ‘Atomic’ by Blondie. “Oh! We’re in Germany, so we should play a German song that everybody knows! ’99 Luftballons’? PERFECT. What about when she goes to London? What song could we use that’s by an 80s punk band and talks about London?”
I mourn what this movie could’ve been. Aside from some cool scene transitions and an admittedly impressive single-shot (or so it appears) fight scene, Atomic Blonde has nothing more to offer than every other Expendables (2010) out there other than being painted with more pretty colors.
But maybe that’s a good thing? Maybe we want every genre of movie, yet with the twist of a female lead, to be represented. Is that not equality? Eh…not…really. We want every movie to be good! We want every movie to be at least entertaining. Especially when there’s a lot at stake for the future of movies with female leads, there’s unfair pressure for them to be good so that your not-so-subtly sexist uncle will continue to give them money and they’ll continue to be made. The future doesn’t look so bleak though, for Patty Jenkins is confirmed to continue helming the Wonder Woman (2017) franchise.
I’ve been very critical but all in all, Atomic Blonde, as “just a movie,” is…alright…It’s just a bummer than the biggest takeaway is that corporations continue to be corporations, and feminism, as it should be, is NOT a marketable movement by their standards. Be wary when you see films being advertised as triumphs in representation. Maybe the graphic novel is better?