Eric Bay-Andersen on trends and the lack of originality in Hollywood…
At the beginning of this year I went to the cinema and saw a preview of all the big films coming out in 2016, and it really depressed me because almost every upcoming ‘event’ film was a sequel, a re-boot, or a prequel to the re-imagined spin-off of a TV show adaptation! It’s gotten to the point where I even get disheartened by book adaptations, which is silly I know because there are so many great published stories out there that are worthy of being adapted for the big-screen. I guess I just find it sad that most film-makers these days seem to look to the best-sellers list for their inspiration, rather than their own imagination. I mean, if a new book comes out and is a big success, then of course someone will make it into a film at some point, but originality in Hollywood is only going to thrive if big directors – like Steven Spielberg for example, whose last film based on an original screenplay was The Terminal over ten years ago (and even that was inspired by a real-life story) – use their clout and influence to get original films made.
Of course, a film isn’t automatically bad because it’s based on something that already exists – there are plenty of great adaptations of books and real-life stories made each year, and usually a few good sequels and remakes too. It’s the lack of bravery I find depressing. That being said, I completely understand why studios look for titles with brand recognition – if you’re sinking $200m into making a blockbuster, you want to off-set that risk by making something with a built-in audience; a concept that people will recognise and don’t need explained to them. But more often than not, these films end up being generic and boring, full of “wink-wink, nod-nod, did you catch that not-so subtle reference to the previous incarnation of this thing”? Studios also try to capitalise on trends, making it clear in the trailers that their upcoming film is just like that one from last year that you all loved so much (“from the producers of…”). Here are a few examples of films from the last 20 years which, for better or worse, inspired trends in Hollywood…
The Matrix – The Wachowski’s 1999 cyberpunk masterpiece ushered in a new era of sci-fi/action films filled with balletic fight scenes, slow-motion shoot-outs, leather-clad and/or sunglasses-wearing action heroes and quasi-religious philosophising (films like Ultraviolet, Equilibrium and the Underworld franchise). Unfortunately, hardly any of them (including the two Matrix sequels – which, flawed as they were, I maintain are underrated) were anywhere near as good.
Harry Potter – Every children’s book/young adult novel adaptation of the last fifteen years has been an attempt by the studios to create ‘the next Harry Potter‘, but with the possible exception of the Twilight and Hunger Games films, none of them have even come close to matching Potter’s cultural impact and unprecedented financial success.
The Bourne Identity – The grittiness and sombre tone of this surprise hit, starring Matt Damon as an amnesiac assassin, re-wrote the template for the entire spy/crime thriller genre. Daniel Craig’s tougher, camp-free Bond in Casino Royale was a direct response to the success of this film and its sequels (which also started a less welcome trend – shaky, nausea-inducing camerawork and ridiculously rapid editing, particularly in action scenes).
The 40 Year Old Virgin – For the last decade, Judd Apatow has been America’s most influential and prolific comedy producer, and it all started with this, his directorial debut. Many of today’s top comedic actors owe their success to being cast in one of his projects – people such as Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and his wife Leslie Mann. Most of his films tend to follow a similar template – a nice but geeky/lazy guy meets a beautiful woman, and after two hours of scenes featuring semi-improvised dialogue and a lot of marijuana smoking (with a bromance subplot and a couple of gross-out scenes thrown in) they have a very conventional yet very unrealistic happy ending.
It’s a formula that, for me, wore thin after about three films. I particularly dislike the heavy reliance on improvisation – I prefer a funny, well-written script featuring engaging characters, not a bunch of static shots (they have to be filmed this way so they can be edited together later) of the same bunch of comedians making tired references that won’t be funny in five years time. But clearly a lot of people don’t mind, because his films are still making money.
Batman Begins – Even though Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were the first of the new wave of ‘serious’/more grounded comic book movies, Begins had such a huge impact on the genre, that nowadays whenever a superhero movie is released that is noticeably darker/more adult than its previous incarnation, critics are quick to point out the obvious influence of Nolan’s incredibly successful Dark Knight trilogy.
Taken – Arguably it was Bruce Willis’ return to the Die Hard franchise the year before that kick-started the ‘old man action hero’ trend, but this surprise mega hit starring Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills (the man with the “special set of skills”) was a major part of it – it not only spawned its own trilogy, but was a obvious influence on Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables trilogy, as well as films such as The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington, and The Gunman starring Sean Penn.
Transformers – Although it was also an animated series in the 80s, the success of the ‘Transformers‘ franchise started the trend of movies inspired by toy brands. Since then we’ve had Battleship (which was, essentially ‘Transformers At Sea’), and The LEGO Movie (which, although very funny and creative, was arguably just as visually manic as any Transformers film). This year sees the release of a Trolls-inspired film, and films based on Monopoly and My Little Pony are currently in production. God help us all.
Twilight – ‘The main blockbuster audience is teenage boys’ used to be the mantra of Hollywood, but this incredibly successful series showed that girls will turn up to the cinema in huge numbers if you give them what they want, and apparently what they wanted was five films of wooden one-note performances, sub-par effects, terrible dialogue and Bella Swan, the single worst female character of all time – I pity anyone who relates to her, because she’s a whiny, helpless, moody, indecisive, ungrateful, selfish brat.
Still, I can’t really complain about the box office success of these films because I went to see all of them at the cinema (purely to give credibility to my many, many criticisms, I assure you). It also paved the way for the Fifty Shades of Grey books/films, which started off as Twilight fan-fiction, and makes it look like Shakespeare by comparison! A female-led blockbuster franchise with an infinitely better lead character (as well as better writing, effects – hell, better everything!) is the Hunger Games series, so hopefully that will be just as influential in the future.
Alice In Wonderland – Tim Burton’s 2010 soulless CGI-fest started the trend of live-action versions of practically every animated Disney film being cranked out. So far we’ve had Cinderella, Maleficent (which was Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s point of view), Pan (a re-imagined Peter Pan origin story), two versions of Snow White and one of two versions of The Jungle Book. Currently in the pipeline are adaptations of Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Dumbo.
I despise the term ‘franchise’ when it comes to films, because it seems to imply that there is no artistic or creative side to the movie business at all, but it cannot be denied that we are living in the ‘Age of the Franchise’. We don’t really have ‘movie stars’ anymore, and by that I mean actors whose presence virtually guarantees a hit – it’s all about whatever franchise they’re in (e.g. Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise pull in big crowds when they’re playing Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark and Ethan Hunt, but not so much when they’re playing Charlie Mortdecai, Hank Palmer and Roy Miller). Pixar are an interesting example – most of their films are original ideas, but they are always successful because they’ve established themselves as a brand/studio that makes quality films. All they need to sell a film is their name, as opposed to Dreamworks Animation, who feel the need to cram their movies with as many big stars as possible to ensure a hit. Sadly, since being acquired by Disney, Pixar have started producing more sequels than ever before – a clear influence of big studio mentality.
I wish we could enter a new age where a film’s main selling point is it’s writer/director. There are certain auteurs who have passionate fan bases (like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino) but while their films are often critically acclaimed, they rarely enjoy the same level of exposure or financial success as blockbusters. I’m much more willing to overlook or forgive the flaws of an auteur’s film, because at least I know it’s the result of a singular vision, and not an impersonal committee-written studio product. In recent years the studios have started giving high-profile blockbuster gigs to directors who have previously only directed small independent films (e.g. Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World). They say it’s because they want to work with and nurture the best new talent in the industry, but to me it reeks of the big guys getting scared that the little guys are going to keep making their own cool personal films and steal the limelight from their mega-budget franchises! What sometimes happens is these directors end up jaded by the big studio machine, like Alan Taylor (who felt he didn’t have control when he made Thor: The Dark World for Marvel) and Edgar Wright (who spent a lot of time working on Ant-Man for them, but quit when they couldn’t agree on what kind of movie they both wanted to make).
Maybe Spielberg is right – that soon, after a few too many high-profile flops, the blockbuster bubble will pop and studios will be forced to start making smaller-budget movies. While I don’t want blockbusters to disappear entirely (after all, my favourite film of the year so far is Captain America: Civil War) it would be wonderful if studios were willing to take more risks – more new talent would be discovered this way, and it would give so many more original stories a chance to be told. Until then, all we can do is promote such stories through word-of-mouth (with that in mind, I urge you all to see another favourite of mine from this year – Jeff Nichol’s Midnight Special)