A modern, CGI-assisted retelling of the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, “Murder on the Orient Express” follows legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) and his antics on an interrupted holiday on the luxury train Orient Express. Packed full of talent with well-respected actors including Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer and Judy Dench, backed by the stunning direction by star Branagh, famously intriguing plot and production by 20th Century Fox, the film should have blazed its way through box offices and wowed audiences all the way to an Oscar or two come March. Instead, audiences were met with a genuinely entertaining movie — that no one cared enough to actually see.
“Murder” presents a fascinating conundrum: a murder has been committed on a train deep in the middle of the wild mountainous swaths of Eastern Europe, and “no one could possibly have committed it.” The actors, the plot and the setting all work cooperatively to keep the audience guessing as to who may have committed the crime, changing their solution every time a new clue comes to light. Additionally, moments of levity brighten the otherwise sinister tone of the film, though sometimes those humorous quips distract too much from the characters and mystery at hand. Overall, the film is beautiful, entertaining, intriguing and well-worth watching for mystery fans and fans of the classic Christie story alike.
Despite the overwhelmingly positive traits the film displayed, “Murder” mustered a mediocre performance at the box office was generally disliked by critics. In fact, the film’s relative failure displays one of the greatest flaws with modern storytelling: audience participation. In order for a story, especially one as complicated as “Murder’s” to be captivating, viewers have to care about the characters and be invested in the issues they are experiencing. Without that connection, the audience has no reason or incentive to invest their attention into the film, and will be bored by it. In under two hours, the film introduces and attempts to resolve the flaws of 17 individual characters, each with their own history, motive and character arcs. And despite the fact that most characters were portrayed by A-list talent who each masterfully crafted their character, audiences didn’t care. The complexity and mental energy required to keep track of the information tied to each character was not worth the effort. Admittedly, this is largely to the movie’s fault; 17 characters is far too many for a two-hour movie.
In an entertainment atmosphere with increasing reliance on superhero films and franchise sequels to turn a profit, audiences look to blood-pumping thrill rides and cinematic universes for a good night at the movies rather than a slow-paced thinkpiece.
In 2017 alone, “Blade Runner 2049,” “Wind River” and “Mother!” all presented a fascinating plot, all-star cast and beautiful cinematography but failed to draw audiences and eventually ended in massive losses. The performance of films like “Murder on the Orient Express” force us to ask ourselves: what do we want from a movie? Do we want mindless entertainment, or should we look for something more? The answer to that question lies in the pockets of consumers.