It’s almost Christmas, and that means only one thing: yes, the annual debate about if Die Hard is a Christmas film (it is). The debate ranges from a staunch yes, an emphatic no, and an indifferent “who cares, it’s only a movie”. Despite a heavy influx of films each year designed to become the new festive favourite, very few appear to have the long lasting appeal. Save for perhaps the utterly charming Klaus on Netflix, no film since 2003’s Elf has really stayed in the same way.
Often the debate about Die Hard and other similar films is about it’s setting vs it’s plot. What people forget is that theme is as important to a film than anything else, and for it’s themes, Die Hard feels very much like a Christmas film. From the outset a shoot-em-up set in a building doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that Christmas is all about, but look closer. John McClane is a man trying to mend his relationship with his wife and kids by travelling to them of Christmas Eve. At a party some international terrorists take over the building and McClane has to spring into action. McClane’s budding friendship with Reginald VelJohnson’s police sergeant Al Powell is one built on two men in the right place at the wrong time.
Powell harbours guilt over accidentally shooting a child with a toy gun and the impending arrival of his own child plays on his mind. Redemption, and forgiveness are intwined in the fabric of Christmas. For the more faith based around the world the birth of Christ was seen as a chance for mankind to redeem themselves from sin and that Jesus would forgive them for their wrongdoings. Powell’s arc, as well as McClane’s mission to be more present in his family’s lives tie directly into the those themes which carry through most Christmas films.
These ideas can be shared back to Dickens and A Christmas Carol, both haunting and full of warmth, the story is about forgiveness, most importantly the act of forgiving yourself and letting go of anger. Scrooge is a character that can be adapted time and time again because the idea of becoming better than you were is one that most people can believe in.
Since Elf there haven’t been many films that explore those themes, most are crass comedies that exploit the commercialisation of the holiday. Many are just set at Christmas without much discernible reason – Iron Man Three, Shazam! – while ones that look to a darker heart are often too cynical and acidic to remain holiday favourites. Jon S. Baird’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s black comedy novel Filth, looks at themes of forgiveness and guilt, but has a much darker heart to it’s core. James McAvoy’s search for redemption over Christmas in Scotland is not played for heartwarming joy but instead a darker, meaner edge is played.
The flip-side of this is films not set on or about Christmas but become Christmas films regardless. The most obvious example of this might be Mary Poppins. Neither set on or near the yuletide season, Mary Poppins gets hard rotation around Christmas. It again falls into the area of themes, famously and as per Saving Mr Banks, the story of Mary Poppins and the Banks children is not about her coming to rescue the children. She is there to save Mr Banks. In keeping with the theme of redemption, it’s Mr Banks’ decision to stop caring only about money and to start spending time with his children that captures what Christmas is truly about.
So why then are there no new classics? Why is it the last bona fide, canonised classic is a Will Ferrell vehicle from nearly twenty years ago. It’s not that studios aren’t submitting films for our consideration as classics, it’s that none of them really capture the spirit of the season. For all the slapstick humour and Joe Pesci trying to hold in a juicy swear Home Alone is ultimately about forgiveness, encapsulated by Roberts Blossom’s apparently scary neighbour who actually is just a regretful man who needs to reconcile with his family.
Films released now often forget that the dark heart of a film needs to be washed down with a little syrup, and yet they all too often fall into overly soft or overtly dark. Krampus looked to be this generation’s Gremlins, yet despite some moments of true invention and a frightening creature design, the film forgot that Gremlins worked because it took the time to build up the wonder at Gizmo and then unleash the horror of what follows.
Shane Black, for his career as a screenwriter and now director, has made it his trademark for setting his films at Christmas for no real reason. His screenplays for Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight are both set at Christmas despite being at the forefront action movies. His directorial output: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys are all set at Christmas also. What they all lack, as per Black’s own style, is an emotional core. Iron Man 3 along with DC’s Shazam! appear to be films set at Christmas without much reasoning behind it, the setting factors very little into the plot.
Juxtapose this with Tim Burton’s Batman sequel Batman Returns which itself does feature many themes synonymous with Christmas. The plot focussing on The Penguin’s bid to become Mayor and subsequent desire to kidnap the first born sons of Gotham comes straight from the bible, in this situation Danny DeVito’s The Penguin is King Herod, rounding up first borns in a bid to keep control and power. The illusions to the more biblical aspect are also helped by the resurrection of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, killed and reborn to avenge those who have been wronged.
Her avenging angel and the romantic friction with Michael Keaton’s Batman form the emotional heart of the film as they grapple with the realities of their differing opinions of vigilantism. All of this is coated by the inclusion of Christopher Walken’s business tycoon (and Donald Trump cosplayer) Max Schreck, who is introduced at one point as “Gotham’s Own Santa Claus”, his downfall is his own greed and lack or moral centre. His desire to create more for himself ultimately leads to his downfall, while The Penguin’s undoing is his own rage that causes him to become to hot and to suffocate.
However, perhaps the most important thing to remember at Christmas, despite the excess and the indulgence, is that there are people out there who are truly alone. Perhaps, as with every Christmas, it should be a time to reach out to others and even if we don’t know them offer them a hand and a sign of friendship. In that case, the only true Christmas film is Carol Morley’s docu-drama Dreams of a Life. The story of Joyce Carol Vincent who in 2006 was discovered dead in her flat surrounded by wrapped Christmas gifts. Vincent had died three years previously, and no one had noticed for a litany of reasons. Morley, and with sensitive reconstructions played by Zawe Ashton, deliver a portrait of Vincent’s life and her story.
Morley’s film, while utterly heartbreaking, reminds us that we all have the power to make positive changes in the world and it’s as simple as reaching out. Thanks to Morley, people now know Joyce Vincent, and in memory at least, she is no longer alone.