By Paul Sawchuk
Is 2015 the first year when we really didn’t give a crap that we were fed sequel after sequel after sequel, reboot or adaptation?
Were we aching for original properties? There was no Pacific Rim, and the only original property to come out this year is The Hateful Eight, which is original in it’s story, but is a Quentin Tarantino film, so name recognition alone is going to drive expectations. It’s arguable that, in such a way, Tarantino is expanding on his own sort of franchise, so audiences are prebuilt in the same way they would be for a Harry Potter film.
We’re in love with expanded universes and long term cinematic engagements; so much so that we’re seeing our favourite worlds spill over into our television space. I’ve talked a lot about this during the year, so what I’d like to focus on is another shifting attitude with movies and audiences, one I briefly touched on last month with my piece on fandom.
We’re starting to see the wonder again. We’re escaping into movies and hopefully some of the negative fan-boy cynicism is going away. The world’s turmoil is increasing — or at least the media’s interpretation of that turmoil is increasing — and filmmakers response is to deliver us our heroes en masse. Let’s face it, we’re right in the middle of a “comfort food” phase with entertainment. But we don’t have to approach this with the same broad cynicism that most people use when talking about Nickelback or Justin Bieber.
Let’s take a look back and see what actually happened in 2015.
Stars don’t deliver anymore, unless they’re known for their craft, at least. Vin Diesel is huge… if he’s in a Fast and Furious film. Diesel’s foray into fantasy world-building films, The Last Witch Hunter was a critical and commercial flop despite Diesel and other name actors, including Michael Caine and Elijah Wood. Despite being a passion project of sorts, The Last Witch Hunter proved that you need more than just a name to draw audiences in.
What about Tom Cruise? Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation was a huge hit, but it could be argued that the M:I franchise favours an ensemble cast, still led by Cruise, and increasingly larger and larger set pieces. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you’ll have undoubtedly heard about the incredible stunt work, including strapping Cruise to the exterior of a plane in take-off. Matt Damon oozed charisma in The Martian, but he wasn’t the only one holding that movie on his shoulders, it was again an ensemble effort and a great film.
This has been happening for a while. Box office results of the last few years show that we need more than a star’s name on the marquee to draw us into a movie, and we hold higher standards to actors. This is not a climate where we would see Ben Affleck in Paycheck, such obvious cash-ins are (mostly) dead. The stars we go to have to deliver in talent, not just looks. Jennifer Lawrence, Bryan Cranston, Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Emily Blunt, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, even Chris Pratt, these are actors who we turn to because they have a decent amount of talent and versatility. Conversely, franchise films are the top of the box office despite former actors names.
You can’t just dress up Johnny Depp and hope people turn out for your film anymore. Black Mass wasn’t able to be saved by Depp’s showy performance, and even the fourth installment in the Pirates of the Caribbean featured Jack Sparrow in the lead role for the first time in the series to disappointing results.
The downside is that for all the talent on display, media outlets continue to manufacture racial and gender based debates, discomforting this tenuous mainstream climate of Hollywood filmmaking. Gender and racial lines were clearly drawn with many debates about “an all-female Ghostbusters” or “why is Johnny Storm black?” or the mysterious absence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey character from The Force Awakens playsets; these as well as an all-white best actor race at the Oscars in February highlight legitimate cultural concerns without a doubt, but we must also question media sensationalism alongside that, especially with Donald Trump’s inspired bigotry is in vogue.
With larger cinematic universes, ensemble casts and a prevalence for small-form storytelling alongside epic scopes, there is certainly a place to address these concerns in 2016 and beyond. It’s a shame that the men in charge think that we can’t handle Wonderwoman without Batman or Superman.
It may seem like a cynical cash-in to make sequels after two decades, but assuming this without looking at the actual films themselves is a bad idea. When George Miller was given the chance to finally make Mad Max: Fury Road after more than two decades, he toyed with the idea of rewriting it and making it a reboot. In the end, though, he chose to approach the new story with loose connective tissue to the other films in his franchise. As he said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Fury Road is: “connected in spirit. It’s kind of revisiting a familiar place for me. The films are loosely connected. Each one was made with different impulses, and this is clearly a postapocalyptic wasteland. The big attraction for me in these stories is that they effectively look forward to the past. Although we’re maybe 45 to 50 years after some apocalypse, we are really going back to the medieval Dark Ages – in the same way that the American Western allowed for allegory figures playing out morality tales in a landscape.”
It’s a novel approach, being at one time connected and not; it is mythic world building as opposed to a direct narrative connection. Jurassic World, too, approached its internal narrative differently. The film’s tone captures the wonderment and lightness of Jurassic Park’s earlier moments but soon after sombers. It’s light on the moralizing compared to its predecessors and favours action set-pieces over complicated story, but that’s what we wanted and it delivered. Instead of retreading what we’ve seen before, the storytellers crafted a story and a world that moved on since the events of the previous films. We didn’t just want to see dinosaurs on screen, there has to be an internal logic to the story. In Jurassic World, spectacle and story met half way.
Even the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot — all female or not — isn’t just forgetting that the previous films occurred, and even though this year’s Vacation re-quel was a cynical cash-in, it had the wherewithal to attempt the same type of world-building in its narrative. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, too, began its story decades after Return of the Jedi instead of retreading.
Sure, we can also gripe on the continued trend of splitting Young Adult based film franchises from three parts into four like this year’s Hunger Games: MockingJay Part Two, but at least it’s to the service of a story, even if it’s padded out a little. The current rumours about a set of prequel films, however, are more cynical. Gone, though, are the days of pumping out another sequel of a mediocre film with little effort. If we’re going to get sequels, I at least appreciate the effort in expanding on the world years later, approaching it with real-time and real-world acknowledgement despite the blatant nostalgia of it all.
Cinema hasn’t always been so democratic. Foreign artistic movements in the 60s to the 90s used to dominate and define what was to be considered quality cinema. The bar for awards worthy films wasn’t set by Hollywood.
Let’s return to 2009. February’s Oscars held a special moment for me. During Hugh Jackman’s mostly forgettable intro to the Oscars he straddled a model of the Bat-pod from The Dark Knight and sung “Just because it makes a billion dollars doesn’t mean it’s not sophisticated.” It was widely regarded that, despite Heath Ledger’s win for best supporting actor as the Joker (which will always be debated as such: Did he win it because of his death? An unfortunate but valid consideration), The Dark Knight was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. The next year the Best Picture category opened up to include not five, but now ten pictures including the box-office powerhouse Avatar, a $2 billion sci-fi saga-starter. It’s main competition was The Hurt Locker, which still borrowed heavily from foreign independent filmmaking tendencies and won out against Avatar. Interestingly enough, though, popular genre films that arguably would normally have been excluded from the five-film race like District 9 were included in the new race. It seemed very clear at the time that this was a direct response to The Dark Knight’s so-called snub.
It wouldn’t have been the first time a sci-fi/fantasy film had won Best Picture. The Return of the King won Best Picture in 2004 but it was more for the accomplishment of the series as a whole. An Avatar win would signal an almost direct connection between mainstream audiences adoration of a film and its critical “awards worthiness.”
Since the 2010 defeat of Avatar things have been quiet on that front, but this year there was Mad Max: Fury Road. It currently holds a 97% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, and has won several Critics associations and National Film awards for Best Picture. It is currently nominated for the Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Golden Globes, which usually provide a window into what the Oscars will feature. To have actually won several of these awards prior to the Oscars is a strong signal to its potential Oscar performance.
It also is another signal to shifts in filmmaking and audiences response to movies. Where foreign indie films once held the bar for what was considered artistic quality, current global economics, consumer viewing habits and film distribution have uprooted how films are considered for awards. This is also the first year that semi-major, even if independent, films have premiered on Netflix. The hub-bub that Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation caused with movie theatre owners is fairly unprecedented for a film that would likely have awards consideration.
This is not to say that Fury Road could win-by-default. That’s not the case. The case is that the academy of motion picture arts and sciences is full of members from many walks of life, and their votes count as much as Steven Spielberg’s would, but many of these people are like you and me in growing numbers with different tastes and interests.
Mad Max is a visceral powerhouse of a film and the best action movies of the last decade. Does that deserve awards merit? Right now it does, because the definition of “awards worthy” is in flux because of the people involved in the Academy as entering the Hollywood community becomes easier. Where will it go? Could we actually see a superhero movie take home the Best Picture statue in the next ten years? Watch the trailer for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War and tell me your eyes don’t well up a little more than they would for a blatant Oscar-bait indie that is designed to tug at your heartstrings. With online critics circles growing at a rapid pace as well as Academy Members of all walks joining the ranks, the former exclusivity of Hollywood is embracing geek-chic and eschewing the former pretentiousness of awards season. It’ll be an interesting ride.