Due to increasing pressure, Hollywood blockbusters are becoming increasingly homogenised – and it’s us that suffers.
In 1986, if the world was being attacked by aliens, all you had to do to save the planet was go back in time and get two humpback whales, so you could take them back to the 23rd century and stop humanity from being wiped out. You didn’t have to fight or kill anyone. It was simple, elegant and a nice get-out clause if your alternative to preventing Armageddon was life in prison. That was Star Trek IV, a brilliantly bold and original take on how to make a sci-fi blockbuster. At the time it was a box office smash, making more than six times its production costs; can you imagine a film like that making it past the pitching stage these days?
All blockbusters are becoming essentially the same film done over and over with different actors
“So you want to make a film where not killing whales is the key to saving humanity 300 years from now? Do the whales have the ability to travel through time? Do they carry machine guns or rockets or something?” Basically, it would be a no-go. Today, at least where Hollywood is concerned, science fiction just means monsters, robots, aliens, monster robots, robot aliens or alien monsters, any of which can be presented along with the appropriate amount of explosions and overkill.
The result of all this? If you read the argument put forward by Ryan Britt on Tor.com, then it’s simple. All blockbusters are becoming essentially the same film done over and over again with different actors. For Britt, calling “the majority of big franchise movies formulaic would almost be a compliment at this point, because it would denote some sort of basic originality”. Put in a more straightforward manner: every film has good guys fighting to stop the bad guys from screwing everyone over. Said fighting will, of course, involve lots of people dying in the crossfire.
With each film being, according to former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer, run like its own small business, albeit one with a hell of a lot more capital than your average small business, the pressure is on to make sure the end product works. As such, is it any surprise that studios stick to tried and tested methods that bring in the viewers? With Marc Graser in Variety factoring in the new competition from computer games (Grand Theft Auto V took more than a billion pounds in sales last year), film studios have to make sure they do things just right. Not just in production, but in terms of marketing and release dates, too. Doing well in one isn’t enough to save a good film if it does poorly in the other two. Dredd was poorly marketed and released in the middle of a month that’s traditionally an audience drought. It bombed.
Given all you have to factor in to make a financially successful film, is it any wonder there only ever seems more of the same on offer?
So given all that you have to factor in to make for a successful day out at the box office, is it any wonder there only ever seems to be more of the same on offer? Your trailers need to go straight for the jugular, so you put in the most eye-catching details, hence all the special effects. You want to bring in the widest possible range of audience. You make sure your film is family friendly and that it will keep the kiddies smiling, so you keep the plot as basic as you can – nothing more basic than good versus evil for Hollywood. Of course, you also want something that will generate a franchise.
If The Lord of the Rings can give us an extensive nine-hour-plus trilogy that still manages to leave bits of the book out, then the Hobbit can give us another extensive nine-hour-plus trilogy. Never mind that you have to add lots of new material in order to make the book stretch all that way. If you’re really successful, then your franchise becomes as self-sustaining as it is self-serving. You can make prequels and sequels to those prequels to fill in the blanks. Look at Star Wars, which has been riding a wave of cool ever since 1977.
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Except it becomes a vicious circle, where the only ideas that seem to work are ones that have been done before. Forget being creative or innovative. Instead, go and plunder all the source material you can find, including your own. George Lucas did it with the Star Wars prequels. Roland Emmerich wants to do it with Stargate and Independence Day. Even Ridley Scott’s doing it, following up Prometheus with a sequel to Blade Runner. Going back to Ryan Britt’s article, he sees all these films as being essentially the same, each one circling a collective drain through which not only creativity, but also clever plot devices are being washed away, in favour of films driven by shock and awe special effects.
When shock and awe becomes standard, it ceases to be shock and awe – might people change their allegiance to other mediums?
Eventually, though, when shock and awe becomes standard, it ceases to be shock and awe – aren’t people soon going to simply hit the collective switch-off button and change their allegiance to other mediums, such as computer games? When Britt describes the trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness as “the Big Franchise Film Epidemic”, he’s speaking of a virus that fills those it infects with a need to be as uniform in presentation as possible. Think of the situation with studios and blockbusters this way: You have a man who is drowning. You throw him a line, and then watch in disbelief as he cuts the line in his panic. Studios have to realise they can swim.
Take Star Trek IV. Its success lies in the fact that its different. Whether Hollywood manages to understand this before Steven Spielberg’s prediction of “an implosion where three or four of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground” is anyone’s guess. Though looking at the last few years, the odds on any change coming about are long enough to be a bet most people wouldn’t go for.
Featured image: Paramount
Inset images: Warner Bros; 20th Century Fox