I can’t see everything. So it has to have happened before. Even if by accident. But before Dead Man Down, the only time I can recall seeing lightning bugs at the movies is in animated form (Grave Of The Fireflies; The Princess And The Frog) which probably shouldn’t count.
Not that these insects are so rare in the real and actual world, but the conditions are specific. You have to be in a certain area at a specific time of year at a specific time of day to see them. And that’s with your own eyes. Never mind through a camera. So when in Dead Man Down, they show up during a brief scene in a Brooklyn graveyard, it’s easy to completely miss what’s happening, movie-wise.
When they appear three months later in both Epic and The Great Gatsby (albeit in computer generated form) it seems as if something is afoot. Where have these inherently photogenic creatures been? And why did everyone suddenly think to include them?
It would be easy to say that Dead Man Down is obviously the superior movie to The Great Gatsby and leave it at that. But it cannot be that simple. Besides which, so very many more people have seen the latter, for better or never mind definitely worse. Strangely though, movie goers do not make their decisions based on the more ponderous use of lightning bug as production design. Not consciously anyway.
In Dead Man Down, Colin Farrell’s Victor drives into a graveyard to meet with Darcy (Dominic Cooper), who doesn’t know it yet, but is getting close to finding out who Victor really is. Victor’s family is buried nearby, which is bad enough of course, but if Darcy figures that out, Victor will be joining them. It’s a tense scene since everyone but Darcy realizes this. But nothing really happens. It’s one of a few brief glimpses into Victor and Darcy’s relationship, one we know is predicated on a lie, making Darcy’s exuberance in including Victor on his every move all the more tragic. And precarious. But the graveyard is just another mystery for Darcy to crack. Something he is increasingly both frustrated by and excited about. His is one of the better B-stories of 2013. Dead Man Down isn’t a terrible movie by any means, but you might still rather watch the one hidden inside of it (terrible accent aside), wherein a henchman blossoms into a private detective and has a great time doing it, until he solves his case and finds out his best friend isn’t who he says he is and probably is going to kill him.
There are a lot of ideas concerning the symbolism of fireflies, from the nearly literal light bulb type revelation to a representation of efficiency and economy. Baz Luhrman does a more relatable job with this part of it, as his scene not only involves the title character revealing himself to Daisy, but doing so in order to finally complete his marathon mostly-long-range courtship of her. This not only employs the most prominent and obvious semiotic use of the firefly, but the biological as well, since the only reason a lightning bug has this wonderous ability is to attract a mate.
Dead Man Down counters, if only esoterically. The story centers on a group of Hungarian mobsters (who work for Terrance Howard?), all marked for death by undercover Hungarian Victor. The Hungarian word for lightning bug is “Szentjánosbogarat” which translates literally to “St. John’s bug.” John was the only apostle whose death was not foretold and Darcy is the one man he works with upon whom Victor does not want to exact his vengeance. This is a long way to go to make the connection and Christ parallels are always tedious, but it wouldn’t be surprising if this amount of thought was put into this barely a minute long scene. There’s probably a lot in Dead Man Down we’ll never see unless we listen to a commentary track. But this line is muddled at best. Victor is more Judas then Jesus, really, and not everything has to have religious connotations as much as it seems that way sometimes.
In this regard, The Great Gatsby has to prevail. It may not be as pleasingly or briefly subtle as Dead Man Down, but then nothing Baz Luhrman has ever done would be either. Being computer generated makes the presence of fireflies distracting, but as it turns out, normal ones are too. You might spend the entire graveyard scene in Dead Man Down wondering if they were just lucky to be shooting while the lightning bugs were out or who had to go catch them if it was by design. There’s not a lot of mystery behind what a Baz Luhrman movie looks like, even when it does manage to dazzle you the way in which it is intended.
And Epic barely registers, as any animal or insect in an animated movie, never mind one that is about the saving of the forest, simply becomes part of the background. Which is ironic, I suppose, seeing as how that’s all the firefly is meant to be in Dead Man Down and The Great Gatsby.
Winner, better use of the firefly in 2013: The Great Gatsby
But there is a dark horse I’ve yet to mention.
Yes, G.I. Joe: Retalliation not only gives us computer generated remote controlled explosive nanotechnology lightning bugs, they are motivated by a character named Firefly. There is no subtlety here nor is there symbolism. These detriments alone are not obstacles, but rather the utter disinterest in adhering to the source material. While F. Scott Fitzgerald probably wouldn’t mind, would maybe even welcome this particular choice of Baz Luhrman’s (assuming he was able to continue watching that long, which is not taken lightly), anyone who has ever written any previous incarnation of G.I. Joe and/or the character of Firefly would have a difficult time coming to terms with almost anything in G.I. Joe: Retalliation.
This Versus series will (hopefully) pit other such cinematic coincidences against each other. Be they curiously and inconveniently from the same year of release or mirroring each other across the annals. Subjectively answering the question you (understandably) never thought to ask.