Friday, 18 September 2015

Nothing New

by Robert Merriam


New Star Wars movies, new Jurassic Park movies, new Terminator movies, new Mad Max Movies, endless comic book and YA novel movie adaptations. It seems there’s nothing new anymore. I won’t pretend to be the first to notice the creative drought in Hollywood but I thought I’d weigh in on why it’s happening and what it might mean for the future.

You can find original cinema
if you look
For a start it is not as bad as it seems. When people bemoan the lack of originality in film it is usually in reference to the lack of originality in big film that is to say the movies that make the most at the box office and have the largest presence in terms of advertising and merchandise. Recent months have given us excellent indies like ‘Whiplash’, ‘Nightcrawler’, ‘The Babadook’,’ Birdaman’, ‘It Follows’, ’Ex Machina’ ,‘71’ and ‘The Voices’ to name a few of the finest, if you want cinema that’s original you can find it if you look.

The issue, it seems, is with mainstream film, the ‘popcorn flicks’ that rake in the most audience members and the most money. The fact is if you wanted to see a movie this summer you had to choose either a sequel (‘Age of Ultron’, ‘Jurassic World’, ’Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation’ etc.) an adaptation (‘Man from UNCLE’, ‘SpongeBob’, ‘Kingsman’ ‘Insurgent’ etc.) a reboot (‘Mad Max’, ‘Terminator: Genysis’) or try something new and, judging by the figures, most of you didn’t. Of the top 20 highest-grossing films of the year five were original works: ‘Inside Out’ (a masterpiece truly deserving of its No.3 spot), ‘San Andreas’ (No. 14), ‘Spy’ (18), ‘Trainwreck’(19) and ‘Tommorowland’(20). The latter was by all accounts a genuinely ambitious and visually beautiful if flawed film directed by Brad Bird, the man behind ‘The Incredibles’ and the fourth ‘Mission Impossible’. Tommorowland made less than half its money back.

Plumbing the depths
And this is the thing: the studios want our money and they know they know they’re less likely to get it if they gamble on something new. But if they slap on a recognisable brand name, mediocre pabulum like ‘Jurassic World’ can gross $649,084,726.

Some of these movies are good and some are bad but it’s true to say that its getting harder and harder for these films stay fresh. ‘Fury Road’ was great but what else can you do with Mad Max in the inevitable sequel? The same goes for the world’s richest dinosaurs, other than ‘we should be careful when we meddle with nature’ what can any Jurassic Park movie have to say at this point? And the problem isn’t that we’re tired of seeing the same characters or titles, in the theatre audiences will see different productions of the same play over and over again to see what different directors and actors do with the material. The lack of quality of these re-dos comes from lack of artistic engagement with the material or from the meddling of studio execs who want to make their films branding exercises instead of films.

Many recall a time when it was not this way, namely the 70s, when desperate studios allowed risky auteur directors to go nuts in a desperate attempt to compete with television. These directors (Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, Lucas to name but a few) made stunning challenging thrilling cinema that is still revered and popular today but it was never going to last. When ‘Star Wars’ was released 1977, the lightning was caught in a bottle and after that the studios were able to make hits simply by sticking to the ‘Star Wars’ formula, ending the need for auteur driven mainstream cinema. The excellence of ‘The Godfather Part II’ also opened Hollywood’s eyes to the value of sequels.

1977: dawn of the blockbuster
Since then the rise of Video Games, Netflix, streaming and all the other media competing for our attention at every second has forced the film industry to take fewer and fewer risks just to keep the money rolling in, now it seems that sequel potential and brand recognition are the driving forces of the movies and not artistic vision or madcap creativity.

So how and when does this end? Does it ever end? These films are entertainment juggernauts, the system ‘aint broke, so there’s no reason to fix it...yet. In twenty years the problem Hollywood will face the fact that there are no more popular brands to exploit at which point they’ll either have to start again with originality or continue with plans for Jurassic Universe, Star Wars episode XXVI and Avengers 9. Until then we can rely on the indie scene to craft a steady stream of excellent original movies but perhaps that isn’t enough.

Mainstream cinema has a power to affect the public conscience the way little else can; if the money never again comes into the hands of people with something to say I believe our culture will suffer. For now we can only hope that the George Millers and Joss Whedons of the world continue to put as much originality into the re-boots and sequels as possible and perhaps when the pot of old ideas runs dry in twenty years or so we can get back to a new Golden age...or just go and see Jurassic Multiverse instead.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this article, I hear too many people listing 'Jurassic World' and 'Age of Ultron' as the best films of the year. To me they do seem unoriginal and rely on recycled or just badly written storylines to appeal to the masses.

    The only 'reboot' I would defend is Mad Max: Fury Road. Firstly it was supposed to have been filmed about 17 years ago (but was pushed back due to production problems) and so would have missed the plague of reboots we now face. Secondly the level of artistry, engineering and general effort that went into everything about this film elevates it beyond just being a reboot. It is an art piece in it's own right.

    An Indie that seemed to go under the radar (due to the release of a reboot in the same week, Fantastic Four) was the 'Gift', which I highly reccommend as it was incredibly well acted and directed. It was a solid thriller with very clever and unexpected twists, however the average cinema goer has now been desensitised and only wants giant CGI explosions etc. hence why more of the same thing keeps being made. If only the funding was going to directors and producers that care about Cinema as an art and not as a cash cow.

    Unfortunately if you want smart, original cinema, you will have to look more to smaller Indie productions and less to the mega-blockbusters (although some, e.g. Fury Road do surprise).

    Unfortunately you will also have to beat your head against a desk each time a new Marvel film comes out and a good 50% of people you talk to hail it as 'the best film of the year' ;)

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