by: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
by: M. Night Shyamalan
James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Music by: West Dylan Thordson
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SHYAMALAN’S PRIOR FILMS**
M. Night Shyamalan is arguably one of the most critically divisive directors working today. Not because his films are particularly controversial, but mainly because he is a risk-taker that tests the boundaries of genre expectations. He has so many different ideas and concepts that quite often his movies have back-fired spectacularly, however, when he gets it right his genre films are highly entertaining and compelling. Films such as: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), were for me, brilliant genre films full of invention, suspense and wicked twists. Many people felt The Village stretched the limits of suspending disbelief, but it was a masterpiece compared to his filmic failures like: The Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010).
I missed seeing the apparent disaster that was After Earth (2013), yet it was opined that Shyamalan returned to some essence of form with the horror film The Visit (2015). However, I still felt there were some dodgy creative decisions in that, such as the story-filler-white-middle-class-rapping kid in amidst a creepy thriller. Yet, with Split (2016), Shyamalan was back to his best, weaving an exploitational B-movie kidnap-plot with a searing psycho-performance from James McAvoy. The ending, which found Anya Taylor-Joy’s ultra resilient Casey fighting back against McAvoy’s twenty-plus split-personality maniac, then brilliantly linked the film to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000). Therefore Glass (2019), becomes the third part of an unlikely trilogy; three films where Shyamalan strives to create his own universe and mythology within a more realistic superhero and super-villain world.
Glass starts three weeks after the end of Split and opens with a terrific and bruising encounter between McEvoy’s dominant “Beast” personality and David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) vigilante, daubed “The Overseer” by the media. Captured by authorities, the two are locked up and analyzed by Sarah Paulson’s seemingly sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Ellie Staple. Enter Samuel L. Jackon’s Elijah Price, who is ALSO being held at the same mental health facility. I mean what could go wrong? Does the catatonic Price have villainous plans for The Horde and The Overseer? What do you think?
What I love about Shyamalan’s screenwriting, and this is something which he could equally be criticized for, is you can hear the cogs of contrivance creaking with every plot turn. Yet his ideas really capture your imagination and you genuinely want to know what happens next. Personally, as a fan of say Agatha Christie, I love theatrical exposition and clear “rules-of-the-world” mechanics. Shyamalan gets his three big-hitters in the same place and cinematic fireworks, however unlikely and full of plot-holes it may be, ensue. Woven within the fights, monologues and narrative misdirections are very clever meta-textual references to comic-book structures. This adds a welcome context to the denouement, which contains at least two incredible revealing twists.
Ultimately, I feel, unlike certain critics, that Glass is a fun and entertaining end to the trilogy. Yes, it tests the believability grid but Shyamalan must be applauded for striving, once again, toward some form of originality within his chosen genre. It arguably goes down a deep rabbit hole at the end which is hard to get out of; but the impressive cast keep you in the light for the most part. James McAvoy is simply, once again, outstanding. Why hasn’t he been nominated for an Oscar? Who knows! Jackson and Willis are always solid performers, although I felt that Dunn’s character was slightly thrown away at the end. Anya Taylor-Joy also stood out and she is going to be a big star if she carries on delivering wide-eyed and steely performances such as these. Thus, Shyamalan gives us another big hit and something very different from the Marvel and DC superhero universes; something altogether more human.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur. Simon Emanuel
Written by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan
Based on Characters: by George Lucas
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Anyone for another round of Star Wars bingo?
In a particularly biting satirical swipe at George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, the South Park episodes Free Hat (Season 6) and the latter episode The China Probrem (Season 12), criticized the filmmakers for digitally altering their beloved Indiana Jones films on re-re-re-re-release. The China Probrem took the barbs even further (too far one could argue) by showing a lascivious Lucas/Spielberg raping Indiana Jones. I mean, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls (2008) wasn’t great but to suggest its sexual assault on one’s childhood memories and a beloved character did have me spewing out my metaphorical popcorn in shock.
Moreover, South Park further lambasted the avarice of corporate culture, specifically Disney, and their purchase of Lucasfilm in the excellent episode from Season 16 Obama Wins! All this proves is that controversial and offensive satire cannot and will not change the Panzer-like “progress” of the Mickey Mouse machine. They own many of the biggest film franchises and absolutely will not stop until they have our money. What can you do? Do you rebel against the Disney Death Star or do you join the dark side? After all, it could be fun.
Indeed, after all the apparent production shenanigans reported on the set of Solo (2018) – notably the “sacking” of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – I can advise that this latest Star Wars prequel is a lot of fun. That darned elephant in the room still haunts the film though and that is the nature of prequels. Whatever danger you put your protagonists in you know they are going to survive; thus, tension is very often lost within the action and drama. Having said that Star Wars fans will have a lot of joy ticking off HOW Han Solo’s early life began and how he originated into one of the best characters of the whole science-fantasy series.
Characterisation is in fact one of the strengths of the film in my view. Solo comes from sewers of a guttural world and chances and gambles his way through the story but with strong motivation. His devotion to Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) is a powerful spine with which to hang the excellent action set-pieces on. Their romance and the chemistry between Clarke and Ehrenreich is palpable throughout and drives the story into interesting areas. Alden Ehrenreich, I think, is a bona fide movie star. He shone in Hail Caesar (2016) and does so as Han Solo. Whatever the difficulties were on-set I think his likeability and acting style brings handsome energy and humour to the role. I especially loved the gambling-fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants nature of Solo’s character which owes much to Lucas’ original scripts.
Overall, Solo is a very entertaining join-the-dots prequel that ticks off all the by-the-numbers Star Wars scenes, tropes and characters including: the Millennium Falcon, Chewbacca, the Empire, Lando, the Kessel Run, plus many more to keep the fans happy. Lastly, Solo works very well as both an origins story and a fantastic fusion of heist and Western films. The supporting cast all deliver in a positive way, notably the charismatic Donald Glover and always reliable Woody Harrelson. While you can often see an element of chaos in certain scenes I think the steady directing hand of Ron Howard has delivered a franchise film which will safely keep Disney’s gravy train on track. In fact, both prequels have been, in my humble opinion, better than The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017), because Solo (2018) and Rogue One (2016), actually have narratives which made some emotional sense.
Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Based on: The Avengers by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana. Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt etc.
The reward for Marvel fans and cinemagoers committed to watching every single film – from Iron Man (2008) to Black Panther (2018) – is a gigantic, breath-taking, explosive, colourful, dark, epic, fantastical end-game blockbuster. Unless you have been stuck on a desert island or on a digital detox, Infinity War (2018) is the culmination of decades of comic-book and cinema storytelling coming to a head in one incredible feat of spectacle and super-hero conflict.
The film opens pretty much immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has hunted down Thor, Loki and the Hulk in order to obtain the Tesseract and the Infinity Stone within it. In fact, he is after all six Infinity Stones in order to gain twisted, yet in his mind, logical control over the Universe by killing half its inhabitants. Thanos’ characterization as a villain is given the most narrative power throughout and via him we get some nuance and subtext.
While brilliantly rendered, in look, by the army of special effects, and performance by Brolin, I kind of felt we were missing an element of mania and a committed statement of intent. I knew why Thanos was doing what he was doing but aside from an opening speech about destiny his mission lacked the political or social context compared to say that of Hydra from The Winter Soldier (2014) or Erik Killmonger from Black Panther (2018). Nonetheless, lack of political context is a mild gripe because spectacle in terms of power and storytelling is what Infinity War is all about.
Thanos’ quest for domination was still a pretty decent structure to hang the story beats on and the writers should be applauded for trying to create a rounded super-villain. Because, allied with the incredible set-pieces and locations across the various galaxies, a major strength of Infinity War’s screenplay was the pace, power and interplay between the multiverse of characters and plot strands which were fantastically juggled by the directorial and editorial teams. This was epic storytelling, not just in length, but in scope. As we cut between Dr Strange, Iron Man and Spiderman on their particularly deadly mission; we also cut between Thor, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vision, Wanda the Scarlet Witch, Captain America and their respective advnetures. There are so many different elements at play there is little breathing space, yet with a whip-smart script full of one-liners any plot deficiencies are masked expertly with perpetual motion and punchlines.
Visually, the film is also extremely strong with bright funky new suits for the Hulk, Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Moreover, the locations in space and on Earth from the dark lands of Vormir to the verdant pastures of Wakanda are rendered beautifully on the screen. All manner of magical weapons, space-ships and military hardware explode and destroy and whizz-bang throughout. There is SO much crammed into the film that it’s a major coup that it worked so well. At one point I felt like I was watching three films in one echoing the great ensemble films I grew up with such as The Great Escape (1963). While the now obligatory end-game battle sequence echoed the likes of: Spartacus (1960), Braveheart (1995), The Return of the Jedi (1985) and more recently HBO’s epic Game of Thrones (2011 – )
In terms of performance it’s difficult to pick out any one stand-out as the ensemble cast were uniformly impressive. My particular favourites were Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill and Zoe Saldana as Gamora, all giving memorable performances. Saldana’s Gamora arguably had the most powerful moments of stillness and pathos especially in her tragic backstory. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker nailed their comedic patter too; the former’s deadpan literalism raising many laughs throughout. I also thought the details in look and voice given to Thanos’ Black Order stood out; notably the wonderfully named Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) and Corvus Glaive (Michael John Shaw).
In conclusion, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) overall was spectacular blockbuster filmmaking which entertained me thoroughly for over two-and-a-half-hours. It could be argued that the army of special effects technicians, plethora of Disney and Marvel executives, array of Hollywood acting and filmmaking talent and the obscene amount of money spent has churned out YET another soulless super-hero film but wow didn’t they do it in style!!
FAMILIARITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE FANTASY FILM GENRE
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
― Walt Disney Company
Once upon a Time. . . four simple words which immediately conjure a whole host of possibilities and eventualities in literature and by extension, cinema. In her book A Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Marina Warner attests that fairy tales are “Stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things. . . this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art and cinema.” My own personal experience growing up was of reading fairy tales, myths and legends. Indeed, such stories formed a narrative backbone to my childhood and opened my mind to all manner of worlds of monsters, magicians, Kings, Queens, dragons, spiders, ghosts, gold-haired heroines, muscular heroes, acts of love and war, epic journeys; as well as breath-taking battles and feats of unimaginable compassion and bravery.
Such an education conditioned my young mind for an array of imaginative potentialities and in later life my love of fairy tales and stories would bleed through into my love of cinema. But how does one make the leap off the page onto the screen, making that which is fantastic believable to our eyes, hearts and minds? In this article I would like to consider certain ways we have been conditioned and how storytellers develop their narratives in the fantasy genre. How does the unbelievable become believable in our minds? There are many ways in which this is achieved but I would like to focus on two methods which are familiarity and nostalgia.
How does one define fantasy cinema? One could certainly posit the notion that the fantasy genre deals with fantastic themes including: magic, the supernatural, myth, folklore, exotic worlds, and fairy tales; and for the benefit of this article can encapsulate science fiction, horror and superhero movie genres. Essentially, fantasy is that which is not of our perceived rendition of reality, enabling escape into the extraordinary. Fantasy cinema is not simply dragons and wizards but more far-reaching as their stories cast their magic from childhood to adulthood. I myself recall the day when I first saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) as Dorothy’s journey from Oz literally took my breath away. Moreover, only recently I marvelled at the fantastic images and comedy of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on the big screen.
Lew Hunter’s book Screenwriting 434 is a fine research tool for all budding writers. He opines, “You have to make the audience care about your on-screen people and their dilemmas, and when that occurs you’ve created believable unbelievabilty. Audiences will not just get with a film that starts with what they perceive as unbelievable unbelievability.” Thus, this is an integral rule in getting the audience to suspend disbelief and come into a fantastic world. I mean for every Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which in my view brilliantly brought to life J. R. R. Tolkien’s incredible literary behemoth, you get many films which fail to achieve this. Peter Jackson obviously used, at the time, state of the art special effects to achieve his vision of the book but more important, in my view, is establishing the world and characters in the audience’s psychology and making the unbelievable believable.
As aforementioned there are many other movies which do not arguably work as fantasy films. Of course these are subjective choices but offerings such as: The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), Van Helsing (2004), Cat Woman (2004) The Lady in the Water (2006), Eragon (2008), Foodfight (2012), Terminator: Genisys (2015), Death-Note (2017), to name a few, could all be argued to have failed to make the unbelievable believable. Be it the poor writing, bad production choices or a lack of cogency in the presentation of the rules of their respective worlds, these are a few examples of movies which arguably did not work. But what of the films that successfully connect with our imagination. How do they achieve that?
Disney Studios has been presenting animated and live action films for close to a century now. As well as developing short animated films centred on iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Disney Studios used established texts too. Their first short was Little Red Riding Hood (1922) and subsequently they would win an Oscar for The Three Little Pigs (1933). Thus, the Disney template of utilising familiar stories from folklore or fairy tales was born and since then they have produced many, many such short and feature length productions such as: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). The suspension of narrative disbelief is achieved because innately we are accustomed to the idea of talking animals or wicked witches or half-woman-half-fish characters as they were familiarised to us in infancy. Indeed, as famous fantasy writer Neil Gaiman confirms, “We encounter fairy tales as kids, in retellings or panto. We breathe them. We know how they go.” Thus, believable unbelievability is achieved due to conditioning as children with the extraordinary. Likewise, our acclimatization with commercial products when growing up, including toys such as: Lego, Transformers, Barbie and the Pixar’s ingenious Toy Story trilogy tap into this familiarity model and the child’s dream that perhaps our toys can actually come to life.
As we grow older though many of us can become cynical and lose the innocence and imagination we had when younger. Thus, the challenge for filmmakers is to make not only children but also adults believe in the fantastic and the unbelievable. One way of doing this is through nostalgia or harking back to narrative conventions established from yesteryear. Academic Frederick Jameson wrote in his seminal essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, that society entered a key cultural period from around the 1960s onwards where modernism had given rise to postmodernism and that originality per se was being replaced by emulation; more specifically satire, parody and pastiche. He goes on to suggest “. . . individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past. . . stylistic innovation is no longer possible and all that is left is the imitate dead styles.” A cinematic element of pastiche he argues is the “nostalgia film” which consists, not of original narrative, but of film moments and narratives from the previous films.
Indeed, one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time is George Lucas’ series which began with, Star Wars (1977). While containing many original elements in regard to the fictional monsters, creatures, planets, space ships, weapons, heroes and villains it’s structurally very familiar, featuring the archetypal hero rescuing a “Princess in a Tower” narrative. Even the “Once Upon a Time. . .” like beginning is echoed in the now classic opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .” Moreover, the expositional crawl which then follows is inspired by the early Saturday cinema sci-fi adventures such as: Flash Gordon. Lucas’ genius in using such nostalgic devices creates a clear pattern of familiarity and mental preparation for the fantasy elements yet to come in the story. Lastly, and less obvious, Star Wars also draws heavily, in terms of structure and characters, from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Hidden Fortress (1958).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally adept at creating a magical world out of nostalgia and familiarity. The films are all structured around the school year and generally begin with an opening set-piece set in a mundane suburban area before slowly introducing the fantasy elements. Of course, some of us may not be so nostalgic for our school years but we are familiar with the educational structure. The Harry Potter books and films are a creative stroke of genius creating both emotional connections for children and adults. Children see the characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron as reflection and wish to emulate such characters; while adults can look back on their school days nostalgically and perhaps also enjoy the magical adventures from a position of halcyon positivity. What Star Wars and Harry Potter both offer is a means to project some incredibly fantastical elements but make it believable by setting their worlds in a recognizable environment such as school or through the stylistic signifiers like the opening Star Wars text.
Ultimately, most of us love reading or going to the cinema in order to be entertained and escape from our reality. However, if the writer or filmmakers have not successfully created a suspension of disbelief we as an audience will fail to enter their fantasy world. Quality writing, production design, costumes, make-up, performance are of course integral to ensuring we believe what we read and see on the screen. However, as I have attested films also work on a more psychological level of drawing us in using methods such as familiarity and nostalgia to tell their stories. We may not even be aware of this but to make the unbelievable believable it paradoxically must connect with our prior knowledge and experiences, especially those we had as children.
The Marvel Franchise bus shows no sign of slowing down and the number of Superhero passengers and routes its taking increases every year. Indeed, I’m wondering which driver (i.e. director) will be the first to get a puncture and crash their respective bus, because even though we are well past saturation point the successful formulae is still sweetly cruising along without the threat of breaking down. Even slightly lesser known heroes such as Dr Strange (2016), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015) have all made loads of money, and corny vehicular metaphors aside, surely it is only a matter of time before Marvel’s monopoly on Superhero movie success flails. However, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is most certainly NOT the film that causes the decline.
The crafty Marvel bosses have kept their products fresh by often changing directors because where DC failed artistically, in my view, was they allowed the hyperbolic effects-driven blockbuster style of Zach Snyder — until the impressive Wonder Woman (2017) that is — to dominate their bombastic releases. Marvel Studios, on the other hand have given reign to arguably more quirky, indie-flavoured filmmakers such as: Joss Whedon, James Gunn and now Taika Waititi to drive their movies forward. Thus, along with the standard heroes-versus-villains-end-of-the-world storylines, massive battle set-pieces and fantastical worlds and characters on show, such directors add an element of humour and characterization to proceedings.
Humour, more than anything, is what Waititi brings to Thor: Ragnarok. This is essentially the first all-out Marvel comedy pitched an octave funnier than Guardians of the Galaxy on the comedic scale; as punchline after punchline reigns down with the power of Thor’s lightning bolts. The opening scene is a case in point where Chris Hemsworth’s sly comic timing is utilised to great impact when facing the demonic Sutur. Hanging upside down and chained, Thor’s momentum swings him around and away as the fiery devil delivers his monologue, only for Thor to ask him to wait until he comes back round again. While covering the exposition in a very funny way the gag also satirizes the clichéd villains’ plot while serving as a wonderful taster for the events to come.
The witty screenplay and lightning pace covers up the familiarity of the story as once again Asgard comes under attack from a hellish force, this time in the guise of the beautiful evil of Hela (Thor’s older sister) portrayed with tremendous gusto by the ultra-talented Cate Blanchett. Usually seen in more serious dramatic roles Blanchett excels as Hela, and arguably is a touch underused until the incredible battle scene at the end. Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston once again reprise their roles as Odin and Loki respectively; Loki, as usual, getting some great moments to show his dupliticity and mischief. Both Hopkins and Hiddleston take great pleasure to also parody their characters compared to the pitch black seriousness of Thor: The Dark World (2013).
Waititi, the writers and production crew deserve much credit for not only delivering some familiar faces and worlds to the film but also some new ones to freshen it up. I must admit I wish the trailer hadn’t spoilt the appearance halfway through of the “Big Guy” because if I had not known that I would have been amazed at such a twist. Nonetheless, the Hulk does appear and via Mark Ruffalo’s neurotically bemused turn as Bruce Banner we get, amidst all the gladiatorial mayhem, a cracking buddy story too. Moreover, Tessa Thompson as a hard-drinking-hard-fighting “Scrapper 142” (with a hidden past) is another sterling addition to the ensemble and the visuals which derive from her backstory via flashback are the some of the most impressive I have seen all year. Jeff Goldblum as a wacky but dangerous Space Dictator and the hilarious Taika Waititi as a wise-cracking Kronan (a rock-looking dude!?) almost steal the show too.
As he showed with Eagle versus Shark (2007), What We Do In the Shadows (2013) and the exceptionally funny and touching, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), Waititi is a very talented filmmaker and he has brought his love of eccentric characterization and comedic ability to great effect within the Marvel Universe. Thor: Ragnarok is a riotous mix of stunning visuals, booming rock music, huge battles, family wars, smashing punchlines and hilarious performances. Arguably the comedy sidelines the drama and tonally the film is uneven in places and compared to the magical and hallucinatory world of Dr Strange it is not as satisfying in terms of the whole world and vision created. Nonetheless, as comic book adaptations go it is one of the most entertaining Marvel sequels to date.
Here’s a re-blog of an article I wrote for the excellent http://www.sothetheorygoes.com website. It’s arguably a better researched article than I usually turn out and the original can be found here.
OVERCOMING THE MONSTER
As an avid cinemagoer and fan I watch a hell of a lot of movies. I am aware that Hollywood film releases rarely contain original screenplays due to the massive flux of literary, journalistic, radio, televisual and comic-book adaptations. Moreover, there are reboots, remakes and re-imaginings of older and, in the case of the recent Spiderman releases, not-so-older films too. I have even noticed another trend where on top of the usual remakes there are a number of films which are unofficial remakes of other films. Does this mean originality is finally dead in Hollywood and is now cannibalizing itself to produce product. Or, has it always been that way?
I want to explore the nature of storytelling, mythmaking and modes of classic Hollywood film production to consider whether there is a trend toward unofficial remakes in the current filmmaking era. I will examine cultural theory and film history to decide whether filmmakers are knowingly copying other works but hiding their intentions; or subconsciously replicating past cinema works while emulating both the historical traditions of storytelling and the classical Hollywood mode of film production. I will look at some recent film releases to further reflect on such theories.
The blockbuster or big budget spectacular has been a major business tool of Hollywood production since movies. In his book Blockbuster, Tom Shone points to the 1970s as the beginning of the blockbuster summer movie era with films such as Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), making huge money and beginning a business convention which continues today. However, there has always been huge behemoth product coming out of Hollywood with the likes of D.W Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone With The Wind (1939), Cleopatra (1963) being examples of big-budget spectacular produced down the years. As such the blockbuster is as much a genre in its own right as opined by Shone and also Peter Biskind in his book: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood.
The summer blockbuster film release is clearly a huge money-making enterprise on behalf of Hollywood studios. Indeed, according to a recent Indiewire article films such as The Force Awakens (2015), Avatar (2009), Avengers: Assemble (2012) have together made over $2.5 billion dollars in at the box office. With the Marvel and Star Wars universe or franchises ever increasing their reach across galaxies far, far away it is important to note that the new Hollywood is still following the classical Hollywood system in regard to mode of production.
In their book The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Staiger, Thompson and Bordwell, a Hollywood film derives its’ competitiveness from a standardized norm and differentiated delivery. Film genres take place between the dialectic of standardization and differentiation which allows films to be produced along a conveyor built quickly and more profitably while some innovation generates differentiated elements to enable successful marketing of the product. For example, Ford produced and continued to produce a lot of the same model motor vehicles but change the colours and extras to differentiate the product. Likewise, Hollywood produces a hell of a lot of action, superhero and blockbuster films but in using different actors, directors, composers and source materials they are able to blind the audience to the storytelling structures and plots being used.
But is this a mode of production considered lazy, unoriginal, uninspired or even plagiaristic? Possibly, yet it seems to make sense that Hollywood studios, while risking a hell of a lot of money on their blockbusters, standardize their product and use what has worked before to protect their investment. While some of us would like to see David Lynch given $200 million to direct a Marvel Universe movie, his idiosyncratic vision of the world would be such a leap of differentiation it would possibly – like his adaptation of Dune (1984) – create a potential box office bomb. Even a brilliant director like Edgar Wright was considered not “house style” enough for the Marvel film Ant Man (2015) and left the production due to the oft-quoted “creative differences”.
Is it fair to accuse Hollywood studios of unoriginality or even plagiarism? Are writer and filmmakers merely following the rules of the world? I mean according to Christopher Booker’s text The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, there are in essence only a limited number of narratives including the: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Comedy, ‘Rebirth’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Voyage and Return’. Booker echoes too the studies of mythologist Joseph Campbell who argues that the ‘Hero’s Journey’ or monomyth is the common template of most stories. Christopher Vogler followed on from Campbell’s extensive work in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writer arguing that most popular stories can be narrowed down to a series of basic structures and archetypes.
Thus, we could argue that originality is in fact impossible and Hollywood blockbusters, as well as following the classical Hollywood model of standardization and differentiation; are simply passing on the traditional and mythical structures which hark back to the cave drawings of our ancestors, Greek myths and those wonderful stories in the Bible. Let’s have a look at some examples of recent blockbuster films which echo the theories of mythic storytelling, concentrating specifically on those that could be considered unofficial remakes of previous films.
VOYAGE AND RETURN
The biggest box office hit of recent years is the JJ Abrams directed The Force Awakens (2015). After Disney paid an absolute fortune to Lucasfilms for the rights to own the Star Wars franchise it’s safe to say that there was no way the studio would be taking any risks on their product. Thus, in my opinion, JJ Abrams and his writing team took a safety first approach to the storyline by unofficially remaking the original Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). They standardized their product by using most of the same characters, settings, design, costumes, music and themes. Moreover, on the whole it follows the same “Hero’s Journey” and “Overcoming the Monster” models within its structure as at its core a plucky young “orphan” must rise up and defeat the dark side of the Empire. Conversely, the original Star Wars could be argued to have heavily borrowed its structure and archetypes from Akiro Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958). However, George Lucas’ epic space opera was so original in presentation and design one cannot reconcile notions of plagiarism.
A Force Awakens was only marginally differentiated with more diverse casting as the female leading character Rey (Daisy Ridley) took the Luke Skywalker role. The only main difference is her character was arguably more passive in the narrative compared with the dynamic enthusiasm of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. In remaking A New Hope, complete with a total-replica-ending culminating in the rebels destroying the Death Star, the filmmakers tick all the fan boxes yet with just enough difference in the details so as not to be accused of self-plagiarism. For me, however, A Force Awakens is not as credible a story as Rogue One (2016), which, while invoking World War II “suicide-mission” genre structures such as: The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Guns of Navarone (1966), had more original characters and differentiation and thus felt a fresher product.
Unofficial remakes or the echoing of known texts are rife in the blockbuster era. James Cameron’s environmentalist Sci-Fi fantasy Avatar (2009) has exactly the same “Voyage and Return” structure as Kevin Costner’s revisionist Western Dances with Wolves (1990). In both films our hero, a soldier, finds himself at first a prisoner and then falling in love with an indigenous tribe’s more natural lifestyle; ultimately defying the patriarchal and oppressive capitalist society from where he came. Both culminate in a thrilling battle at the end where our gone-native hero overcomes the monstrous enemy. Avatar, of course, differentiates markedly in presentation to Costner’s epic due to the incredible special effects on show but the structure and storylines are exactly the same.
Screenwriters have not just plundered cinema’s back catalogue for narratives. The original storyline of Marvel comic books The Hulk is an unofficial adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; with a scientist splitting his personality between man and monster following an experiment gone wrong. Marvel indeed are experts at absorbing literary texts into their works as Age of Ultron (2015) echoes the story of Frankenstein as Stark’s experiment wreaks monstrous havoc on the Avengers. Moreover one of the best Marvel films Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) uses the plot of spy thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975) as a springboard.
Of course, these are very loose interpretations, however, with Avengers: Assemble (2012) the filmmakers have, in my mind, essentially remade Kurosawa’s Seven Samourai (1954). Of course Seven Samourai has been remade many times as The Magnificent Seven in both 1960 and 2016, respectively. Indeed, in Avengers Assemble the plot of the villagers-in-peril being protected against a vicious foe by a rag-tag bag of gunslingers is mirrored by the Earth being guarded by the Avengers against Loki and the Chitauri. Even the beats of the story are similar with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) building his team in the way Chris (Yul Brynner) did in the Western version and Kambei (Takashi Shimura) did in the original. Overall, The Avengers is a terrific film, with a very solid narrative founded on the powerful structure of works released before it.
In summary, the unofficial remake is probably not a recent trend as I am sure further investigation will reveal more examples of this occurrence in Hollywood film production. The question remains though: is there evidence of plagiarism within the modern Hollywood blockbuster and cinema examples used? I would say there probably isn’t. Filmmakers today are generally following the age-old tradition of passing on stories and myths, combined with the conscious structural safety of following genre conventions and the standardization and differentiation models Classical Hollywood cinema established decades ago. Either that or they are following Quentin Tarantino’s lead when he says,
“I steal from every single movie ever made. If people don’t like that, then tough tills, don’t go and see it, all right? I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”
After the biggest budgeted fan film of all time was released last year with The Force Awakens (2015), I approached Rogue One (2016) with a sense of scepticism. After all, JJ Abrams directed Star Wars movie was essentially a block-to-block remake of A New Hope (1977) but this time substituting Luke Skywalker for a young woman, Rey, (Daisy Ridley) and Darth Vader for a younger more angst-ridden version in Adam Driver. Abrams spectacular epic delighted fans on emotional and aesthetic levels despite the sandcastle plotting, gaping story holes and illogical incompetence of the First Order. For example, why build a ‘Death Planet’ with the SAME weaknesses as the Empire’s Death Star? It did not make sense to me.
Nonetheless, JJ Abrams safety guaranteed reboot broke not only the internet but also box office records worldwide. It’s a safe and impressive spectacle with bland leads and a nostalgic mix of familiar and new characters. The action was breathless and pristine but the weaknesses in the story ruined the enjoyment of The Force Awakens for me. While it made sense to focus the narrative on the children of the original trilogy, and it was great to see Harrison Ford reprising Han Solo, I wasn’t as impressed by Abrams blockbuster as many were. Of course, compared to George Lucas’-rise-and-fall-of-Annakin-Skywalker-prequel-trilogy it was pure cinema gold.
Talking of prequels Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is just that – Star Wars: Episode 3.5 as it were. The action takes place after Revenge of the Sith (2005) but just before A New Hope. We open with Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic pursuing Mads Mikkelsen’s ‘farmer’, Galen Erso, on the planet Lah’mu. Krennic is an Imperial executive working on the Death Star and he requires Erso’s expertise to complete the work so kidnaps him, leaving behind his young daughter Jyn Erso, alone and abandoned.
As per many other stories in the Star Wars galaxy themes relating to war, family, loss, orphans and hope propels the characters in Rogue One. None more so than Felicity Jones’ grown up Jyn Erso, who inhabits her character with a credible depth and pain throughout. She has clearly had to fend for herself and has become world-weary for one so young, yet she is also tough and very handy in a fight. Against her will she is thrust into the rebellion fight and embarks on a last-ditch mission to locate the plans of the Death Star. Here the story harks back marvellously to the derring-do of WW2 movies such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). That was when I knew this was my kind of movie.
Accompanying Jyn are a ragtag bunch of characters who could arguably been given more backstory but are cast very well. My personal favourite was Donny Yen as Chirrut Imwe as the blind, elegant and formidable ‘monk’ and Diego Luna’s battle-drained rebellion officer who refuses to go down without a fight. With the plot thrusting along at some pace we still have time for reflection by the characters, especially from Luna and Jones. Meanwhile, on the dark side, Ben Mendelsohn gives an intriguing performance as a middle manager unable to grasp the power he so craves. Darth Vader’s scenes too were fantastically handled in my view and while initially jarring the CGI appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing was a curious treat.
Whereas JJ Abrams skilfully emulated the emotions of the original Star Wars films, Gareth Edwards (and apparently re-shoot director Tony Gilroy) really imbue a sense of menace and doom to the Rogue One mission. The stakes are incredibly high, and while we know the outcome, most of the characters are given enough purpose to make you care for them. From the stark landscape of the opening scenes to the stunningly bleak midpoint set-piece on the base facility of planet Eadu, pathos, shadow and death inhabit the film’s core. Indeed, it reflects the darker side of the franchise like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) so succinctly.
Of course, the story is all building to an incredible final act where Jyn and her crew seek those darned plans which are inconveniently kept in an impossible-to-breach fortress protected by battalions of Imperial Stormtroopers, droids and weaponry. As our heroes battle for their lives and the future of the rebellion, we cut breathlessly between the space dogfights we have come to love and the explosive conflict on the planet surface. Do they complete their mission? Well, you know the end; however, amidst the fast-paced action and special effects there is time for a sense of loss and a series of spectacular and heroic deaths.
Where, in my opinion, A Force Awakens was Disney playing it safe, this film takes a few more chances within the corporate conservatism of the movie market. While it has a darkness in its’ heart Rogue One still meets the classic Hollywood “standardization and differentiation” model which has served big business since the dawn of time. Overall this isn’t just a great Star Wars film but a brilliant movie too. It’s very much in the vein of Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), as it transcends the franchise while delivering a pulsating, heroic and emotional experience. While the canonized Skywalker arcs continue to concentrate on expanding the Jedi family tree, the stand-alone anthology series, of which Rogue One is the first, offer an opportunity to perhaps go darker and experiment with form, character and themes.