In a recent study conducted by American website Edmunds, it was revealed that the Pontiac Aztek, perhaps one of the universally reviled SUVs in all of motoring history, was rated the second most popular used car amongst millennial buyers in the United States. Many attribute this surge in interest for the Aztek to its appearance as the lead character’s car in the hit TV show Breaking Bad, which isn’t all that surprising.
Film and television has played a huge role in minting star cars. Think of the Aston Martin DB5, which was by many accounts not really that great to drive or fast. But look at it now, values for the DB5 grown over the past few decades, surged recently during the great classic car buying frenzy. All of which are largely due to its connection with the James Bond movie, Goldfinger.
It is the same story with the colossal flop that was the Delorean DMC-12, which became the star of the Back to the Future trilogy. Three movies later and the Delorean DMC-12 has become one of the most sought iconic cars on the road today. Demand of which has been so great that businesses have sprung up to cater to Delorean enthusiasts and owners, even a company in America has started rebuilding unbuilt DMC-12 chassis left over from the Delorean Motor Company scandal.
Mind you it isn't just movies that has had a lasting effect on public opinion on certain cars. Shuichi Shingeno’s Initial D manga and anime series alone might have played a huge role in bringing the otherwise under-appreciated 1980s Toyota (AE86) Corolla to a larger worldwide audience. Ever wonder why it is so hard to buy a mint condition AE86 or what is causing their values to surge? Initial D and its legion of fans around the world is your answer.
But getting a feature in a blockbuster movie or television show doesn’t guarantee a champagne filled free ride to the nearest RM Auctions event. Think of the other Bond cars such as those from the Pierce Brosnan-era of Bond flicks. Nobody seems to be looking at the BMW E38 7-Series and thinking to themselves - “yes my office secretary will think that I’m Bond, rather than a bond trader.” Nor would anybody, ten years from now, be looking back and aching to own one of those colossal Mercedes-Benz GLE SUV coupés that appeared as the heroine’s company car in Jurassic World.
Which begs the question. Just how do you guarantee a car’s silver screen appearance would translate into a cult status? One word, character.
As much as there were more appealing, faster, and sexier Bond cars, the DB5’s wasn’t some technological wonder machine with rockets and unbelievable cloaking ability lifted from the set of Star Trek. It was a DB5 as conventional looking like your average DB5, fitted with toys that doesn’t ask the audience for a momentary suspension of belief.
Added to that there has to be a sense that the car is a flawed character. Just as how the time-travelling DeLorean’s needed immense power to work and malfunctioned time and time again to the protagonists dismay.
I can lump Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise in the same school of thought and how his portrayal of Bumblebee played a huge role in boosting up the popularity of the Chevrolet Camaro, but I try not to put mention of that annoyingly successful Hollywood hack. So let’s move onto the 2000 remake of Gone in 60 Seconds.
Critically panned by most movie critics, the movie surprisingly struck a chord with audiences, earning itself a cult classic status. Not so much for Nicholas Cage's performance but best remembered for the custom made grey Ford Mustang Fastback nicknamed “Eleanor”.
Identified in the movie as a 1967 Shelby GT500, it had the role of being the protagonist’s unicorn, an unobtainable prize with flaws that nearly killed the character made it an icon amongst enthusiasts. Never mind the dark green Ford Mustang that roared around San Fransico in Bullit, this is arguably the most memorable classic Mustang to have graced the silver screen, even our own Sultan of Johor has his own classic Mustang done up in its signature looks and colours. Neat.
All these cars were as much a character in their respective movies as the people who were driving them. Their flaws, struggles, and relation to the characters in the movie made audiences identify with the car as more than just being a collection of metal panels and bolts. It had a personality, an identity, a soul.
Sadly though as much as we love to spot car placements in movies, writers often treat cars as a deus ex machina, a getaway or bulletproof plot device, instead of being treated as an integral part of the play and its characters. It is this stereotypical role given to cars lessens the car’s imprint on the movie and its audience.
It is a rather poignant point to make considering how many brands these days are looking to movies to promote their new cars in the best light possible. Free from flaws and looking expectedly magnificent with carefully arranged lighting and camera angles. Crashing the car through a brick wall? Oh no, that would show that it is unsafe and uncontrollable. Breaking down at a crucial part in the story like the Mustang in Gone in 60 Seconds? Out of the question, it should be reliable as a bomb shelter. And polish up those wheel caps while you are at it, we need it to be spotless even after driving it through a swamp, somehow.
The whole business of product placement on the silver screen, perfectly tailored to look like a part of a two-hour long commercial might kill off the possibility of cars sharing the limelight in a movie role, and living on in movie history. Which, in retrospect advertisement-maestro Michael Bay might have actually worked on a successful formula, which is an equally sad fate for movies either way.