The format for a lot of epic films is very formulaic, so in following those usually set-in-stone aspects, your audience is not going to be surprised by the outcome very often.
So you need to throw some surprises in along the way, and if you don’t do it in an engaging fashion, your epic can only be judged on whether it at least seemed bigger or more fx-filled than the last epic.
I think coming up with those surprises works much better than simply fx-ing things up, but that doesn’t seem to be the general trend. I mean, I skipped SPIDEY in the theatre on the basis of how the CG looked, but when I finally saw it on DVD, I was able to overlook (for the most part) how non-credible that whole aspect was, because I actually enjoyed the live-action to some degree. The fx totally failed any suspension-of-disbelief test, but I liked the movie regardless (same thing could be said about the old Quatermass movie 5 MILLION YEARS TO EARTH, or THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES for that matter, so in this instance it isn’t just an anti-CG rant … I can always save that for another thread, one that focuses on the MISuse and OVERuse of CG when a more traditional methodology would be more effective.)
GLADIATOR had some not so hot moments in the FX dept (and in the hysterical editing and too-trendy shutter speed depts as well), but for me it overcame that on many other aspects, the more meat&potatoes ones that seem to sometimes get shunted aside in favor of bigger and cooler fill in the blanks.
But most large scale pics seem enslaved by the formulaic approach, so you get movies that play out the way most TV used to … 5 minutes in, you know who is going to be revealed as the bad guy and just twiddle thumbs waiting for the next big set piece sequence, sort of like a Roger Moore Bond movie where the setpieces are pretty much all there is to recommend (or to stick around for.)
As for epic kinds of movies that worked on their own w/o overreliance on gimmicks, I guess I’d think of pics that may be a little on the small side. GLORY was a well-told, well-shot tale, not terribly innovative but IT FELT HONEST.
THE AGE OF INNOCENCE feels like a real epic, and not just when they have a room full of dancers … it feels epic even when you’ve just got two people in a room together, from the art direction and the shooting and the performances.
I still haven’t ever gotten through more than a half hour of PEARL HARBOR or TITANIC, so I don’t know about those. But if you look at an old 60s wwii epic, IN HARM’S WAY, you’d be staggered by the risks they took. Your second lead, Kirk Douglas, who is supposed to be the rogue 2nd hero type under John Wayne, rapes a girl, who I think then commits suicide.
Try selling that today, you’d have all these exec-types saying that you alienate the audience with a move like that. Well, that’s fine, that kind of act SHOULD alienate the audience. But if you tell that story properly, then the fact the audience responds to it means IT IS WORKING – which is more than I can say for a lot of the stuff being done now.
They seem to fail for lack of daring, because market research says, ‘do something different and you alienate x-percent of your audience, and you can’t do that because your movie cost so much you need ALL of the potential audience.’ Well, throw out the background 8000 spaceships (or better still, do them as photo cutouts or in silhouette, nobody’ll see the difference anyway) and you won’t spend as much. Better still, tell the story RIGHT STUFF style with non-stars and you’ll spend a LOT less. But no, stars are ‘protection’ for the investment. Spend 25mil for an actor to guarantee a 20mil opening weekend. I think that 'tude is more about “minimizing loss” than “making profit,” but hey, it ain’t my money, so I guess I shouldn’t bitch anymore about it.
EDIT ADD-ON: since LOTR keeps coming up in this thread, I suppose it needs to be acknowledged. I thought the first one was slow but good in parts (sean bean is AWESOME in just about everything), but TWO TOWERS put me to sleep and I skipped the third one altogether. Now this is a series I was looking forward to, in part due to the director’s committment and passion for it, and STILL it just came off as routine and dragged out to me. Stuff that works wonderfully in MAGNIFICENT 7-style flicks just didn’t engage me emotionally in the slightest here, so maybe the over the top scale Scale SCALE they push in LOTR works AGAINST audience involvement. (The huge cast of thousands stuff in Kubrick’s SPARTACUS right before the big battle DID work for me, but maybe that’s because it had a tangible sense of reality to it, whereas fantasy epics ain’t selling reality.)