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The Sequel Myth and the Death of Originality in Hollywood…

It seems that every other day somebody is taking the opportunity be bemoan Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy. The decision not to press ahead with Del Toro’s version of The Mountains of Madness sparked a similar debate a little while ago, and the success of films like The Fast & The Furious Five seem to be raising the topic once again as we enter summer. It’s become something of a mantra for film fans, quietly chanted and repeated, something that we can use to continually bash the studios over the heads with. And, truth be told, I’m tired of it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not challenging the underlying assumptions that such articles frequently make – merely the conclusion they always seem to draw. For instance, I accept that Hollywood Studios aren’t the most wonderful places in the world, and that they aren’t a fountain of all creativity and inspiration. I also accept that quite a large number of the almost infinite sequels, prequels and reboots suck in all kinds of ways. However, I think that making the argument in such terms belies the problem.

Yes, there are more sequels being made than ever before. But there are also more movies in general. Studios have been gently trying to nudge the Summer season to start earlier and earlier, in the hopes of cramming more films in. At the moment, it’s hard to point to a weekend this coming summer that doesn’t have a major release scheduled against it. Being entirely honest, and speaking as a film buff, it’s becoming increasingly impossible for me to see every major release, let alone the countless minor ones scattered around.

Third time's the charm?

However, the conclusion that such articles seems to be that the abundance of these sequels/prequels/reboots/trilogies/relaunches/etc somehow makes cinema a weaker place. The notion is that we can point to these as a root cause (or at least a blatant example) of how creatively stagnant mainstream cinema has become. Of course, this suggests that the past was some kind of iconic period, in which on classic films were released and distributed – and that it was only some time in the mid- to late-eighties that we discovered films could be crap.

There have always been crap films. We just don’t remember them, generally, because they’re not worth remembering – the exception being truly terrible films like Plan 9 From Outer Space. So when we talk about 1981 in cinema, for example, we talk about Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than Tarzan of the Apes. We just remember all the crap films from recent years because… well, they’re recent. I’d also argue that classic films have the advantage of being classic – a lot of modern movie buffs would be introduced to films like Star Wars or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly relatively early in their lives – to the point where they have a greater chance of making an impression, and staying with us.

Growin' old disgracefully...

I don’t subscribe to the idea that just because a film is a sequel or “unoriginal”, it means it’s a bad film. Look at all the classic films which serve as sequels, remakes, or reimaginings. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, The Magnificent Seven, Toy Story 3 – all sequels, and all absolute cinematic classics. I could continue the list, but I think there’s enough quality there to make my point. If you expand the list out to include adaptations (and films like The Silence of the Lambs and To Kill a Mocking Bird are included), the list only grows.

There are similar preconceptions about source material. I really dislike critics who are quick to dismiss “comic book” movies simply because they are adapted from a book with pictures and text, rather than a conventional novel. After all, comic books gave us classic films like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence – and, to be honest, is there anything more ridiculous in Cowboys & Aliens than in, say, Hanna?

Are they toying with us?

Many people might suggest that there are many more original films that are just as good. I’d probably agree, to be honest – if only because there are more original films produced. I’m not necessarily talking about the studio system, but independent and creator-owned films as well. Some are genuinely incredible pieces of film. Most are not. I honestly doubt that the indie or autuer circuit hits any more consistently than the studio-produced sequels or remakes. This is, after all, an application of Sturgeon’s Law in effect.

Here’s the thing, though – I think we have to abandon the seemingly unspoken rule that an “original” film is a good one by default. After all, The Fast & The Furious 5 is only a sequel to The Fast & The Furious, hardly a critical darling itself (indeed, Fast Five is getting stronger reviews). Will Twilight: Breaking Dawn be any worse than Twilight? Oscar seasons are as likely to present us with mind-numbingly vacuous and pretentious nonsense like Birth as blockbuster seasons are likely to present us with mind-numbingly vacuous and lowest-common denominator nonsense like Jumper. Were Salt and The Tourist standout films of last year? (Although the latter was indeed based on a foreign film.)

Can original films save us from this a-Salt?

It ticks me off when I read this frequent criticism because it’s a cheap shot. It is something that somebody says when they want to appear deep without putting in the effort. Good films are good films and bad films are bad films – there’s a lot of merit in discussing what contributes to the classification of such a film. Such discourse is hampered by narrow-minded concerns like wondering whether it’s a sequel or a prequel or a remake – it might be more interesting to discuss, for example, the level of freedom given to the writer or director, the amount of focus-groups the film got through to reach the big screen, the editing of the movie, or even the control granted to performers. Any of these factors has more impact on the quality of a film than the fact there’s a number after the name.

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4 Responses

  1. I think Tarantino once said that if the studio system produces one masterpiece a year, then they justify their own existence. Really, that’s all we can ask for. It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of mediocre independent movies crowding festivals.

  2. I kind of said this before, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with blockbusters, sequels, or movie franchises. Many of the films people look back on most fondly in past decades were big blockbusters. A lot of those films were, in fact, great. There have always been bad movies mixed in with the good movies. That’s not something that started in the 80’s. People just forget about all the bad movies in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. How many people would be willing to sit through a marathon of all the bloated musicals that came out during those decades? The King and I, for instance, is ghastly.

  3. There are plenty of bad originals as well, truth be told. One can only hope that adapted material ends when its source does (cough, cough, “Jurassic Park,” cough) and that solid original titles receive sequels that exist for creative reasons rather than money grabs.

    As you noted, Darren, I’ve already missed some big titles this summer because of crowded scheduling. I’m not sure how I feel about that…

    • Yep, I won;t get to see anything either. I’ve already written of Attack the Block as a “catch on blu ray” film.

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