2013 has been pretty good for movies so far. Some decent sequels with Kick Ass 2, Iron Man 3, some justified bombs that continue to show, no matter how hard Hollywood execs try, that star power–even with sci-fi genre tropes beside them–can’t drive box office hits (After Earth and Oblivion). It’s hard to say if Hollywood is getting the message: “We want better movies.” Although it’s hard to say if we’re sending that message properly.
Quality sequels (and the word “quality” has a lot of importance here) like IM3, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and Fast 6 still top the summer box office. In fact, the only films that aren’t sequels, reboots, retreads, adaptations that break the top 10 are #9 and #10 on the list are The Croods and The Heat.
But we’ve been over this. The fight for originality over comfortable franchises is nothing new, and we all know it’s not financially feasible for studios to put out a film that risks a loss. Yet Hollywood Bookkeeping is infamous for even keeping a Harry Potter film from making a profit. This is nothing new. So I think the appropriate question to ask it: Do we really want anything new? As a culture? Is “something new” a misnomer?
Theorist Roland Barthes certainly thinks “the writer can only imitate a gesture forever anterior, never original; his only power is to combine the different kinds of writing,” and by his logic, nothing is original. Let’s look briefly at the two most original films of the summer: Elysium and Pacific Rim.
Neill Blomkamp was originally touted as the director of Halo, the big screen adaptation of Microsoft and Bungie’s video game franchise of the same name, and what a bumbling mess it turned into. Blomkamp was lucky enough to direct a 10-minute promotional video for the release of Halo 3.
Blomkamp’s filmmaking style is very much his own: the shaky camera, use of multiple points of view and video formats; in fact it is very un-like Halo, the game’s cinematics scenes are smooth and it’s action choreographed without Blomkamp’s gritty realism, but that doesn’t stop him from borrowing from the Halo universe for his own “original” films. The title setting, Elysium, is in fact a Halo-like structure from the game, a self-contained environment on a man-made circular object floating in space.
What’s original about it? Sure, character names, plot devices are all rehashed, but they’re “new”. The “originality” comes from the idea that this is something that isn’t adapted from another medium, although the truth to that sentiment in Elysium bears little weight, either. Halo was borrowing from many earlier texts, and is part of a whole genre known primary for duplication and intense repetition. Genre tropes, obviously, exist for a reason and I don’t feel I need to say that, but the fact that the argument of “originality” exists kind of testifies to the fact that I do have to bring up such an obvious point. Are we, maybe just a little, confused about this idea of “original” or, “new”, that we claim to want?
Transformers, Godzilla, Top Gun, Independence Day, among others are clear influences on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Wearing these influences proudly on it’s shoulder without a winking eye towards the camera is a testament to the film’s strength. Shifting the focus on winkingly ironic references and homage and instead to the (arguably bare-bones) characters and the story, Del Toro and his crew safely provide a film that delivers on what it promises: Monsters fighting Robots. There’s no cinematic sleight-of-hand where, if you look really closely you’ll see Godzilla or an obvious Mecha-whatever from an Anime. Pacific Rim isn’t complex and it certainly doesn’t elevate itself to some level of self-importance like the Transformers series did, so it works.
But does that make it “original”? On the one hand, yes these are new characters, old monsters and a new story. But again, genre tropes–this time the high-octane action films of the 80s and 90s–are on full display. The characters aren’t really characters, they’re plot devices. It’s delivered competently and in an entertaining fashion, but because there isn’t a franchise backing it–hmmm–it’s “new” and somehow “refreshing”. I can’t tell you what any of the character’s names were, because they frankly weren’t that distinct–and the same applies to Elysium, unless we’re talking about Kruger. We’re playing with tropes here. Perhaps that’s something that large-scale franchise storytelling can do that two-hour film can’t. Obviously many one-off “original” films have characters we remember–many of Tarantino or Scorsese’s characters jump off the screen in such a way, but in stories that have a much larger canvas we–again, obviously–spend more time with the characters and understand their specific plight in these stories. In two hours of Pacific Rim we have a set-up of a global conflict that’s spanned nearly two decades and we hit all the important parts. This isn’t a tv show, where we have to time to spend those seemingly pointless hours with characters.
So What’s the Question? What do we Want?
After Earth was new, and it was a bomb even with Will Smith backing it. Oblivion with Tom Cruise, wasn’t exactly a smash with only $89 million earned. So new, or this idea of “original” isn’t really what we want.
Quality. On the one hand, at least. Look at Television when talking about quality because it a great example of this paradox. We simultaneously have the absolute best in television and the absolute worst in television (depending on who you ask, of course). Reality TV, to many, panders to a lowest common denominator audience who thrives on cheap, overblown drama as a distraction against real conflict. The debate isn’t even over the “reality” or scripted nature of the content, the debate’s shifted to shock value and celebrity closeness as a culture; the idea of “Let’s use these people as a barometer of our cultural behaviour.”
On the other hand, television drama has never been more complex, critical and far-reaching as it is now. Cable dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Newsroom, True Blood and others have devout cult followings that span genres, age-groups and more all for their storytelling, though they are always subject to interpretation and complex viewing structures. But what’s one thing that drives this whole ship of viewers to be more engaged in the content they watch? Whether their watching the overblown “reality” of Orange County Housewives or the growing tension between Walter White, his brother in law Hank, or his former partner Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad is the way the narrative is constructed. There is a story here. We don’t want something new for the sake of it being new.
Simply–and again, this point is to clarify what we actually want when we say we want something “new”– we want characters and a story that we can latch on to, empathize with, even question the actions of and we’re getting that now. The qualities of sequels and reboots are definitely higher than previously. Sure, Grown Ups 2 appeals to the lowest common denominator and still did well–that’s a debate for another time–but we got a third Iron Man film as part of a massive Marvel series that is handled competently, with a love of the material. We have what we want, we just happen to also have what we don’t want. We just have to choose what we want. I sometimes like to watch scatological humour and cleverly written stories (this is pretty much the description of Kick Ass 2) and I can. I have the choice.
We like to complain that there isn’t any original content, but when we get it, we complain anyway and it doesn’t meet our standards. The old-Hollywood star system is now antiquated, the new story-tellers are currently ruling, even though we don’t know it. All you have to do is look.