GEEK OUT! MAKING GEEK MOVIES – THE NEW NORMAL

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It is what it is.

Just wanted to make a couple of observations about where the geek movie industry appears to be headed as we drive on towards 2020.

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Nothing new under the sun

Original sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie content is virtually unheard of now. The studios have sussed that mass audiences want concepts that they recognise, bringing about the bizarre term ‘movie franchise’ into regular usage. The success of DC/Marvel superhero, young adult book and even toys/games adaptations (from Harry Potter to Maze Runner to Transformers) in recent times, have led to less and less original geek movies being made. For those interested, the indie movie scene is where cutting edge sci-fi is being produced (e.g. Moon, District 9, Ex Machina).

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The age of the soft reboot

Which leads us to the next trend – the soft reboot – for which we might have to thank director J.J. Abrams. What is a soft reboot, you may ask? Well, a ‘hard’ reboot takes place when a film story dismisses previous narratives as superseded by the rebooted storyline. A good example is The Amazing Spider-Man (with Andrew Garfield), a reboot of the Spider-Man trilogy (with Toby Maguire), which in itself will be rebooted again (!) in next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.

So… a ‘soft’ reboot does not eliminate the previous history but introduces characters, scenarios and concepts that basically duplicates those of the original film series whilst asserting that it is a continuation of the storyline.

Which brings us to the new Star Trek movies and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (both directed by J.J. Abrams). In the former, the timeline is altered due to the actions of the Romulan Nero and a convenient time warp/singularity, allowing Abrams to re-tell Trek stories with new (younger) actors. Which superficially sounds clever (and executed fairly well in the first movie) but the construct falls apart in Star Trek Into Darkness, where Abrams basically remade The Wrath of Khan full of scenes that made sense in The Wrath of Khan but lost all meaning within the context of the altered timeline e.g. when Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan identified himself in a manner that suggested significance, it came across as ridiculous because unlike in The Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek crew had never encountered Khan before!

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams took extraordinary measures to refer back to the original series i.e. a young protagonist living on a desert planet, a droid with a secret mission, an escape on the Millennium Falcon, a bar inhabited by weird alien creatures, and ultimately yet another Death Star. Presumably, Abrams (and Disney) had little confidence in a new Star Wars plot and decided to re-produce the original Star Wars storyline so that the audience could get more of the same. Well, a over $2b worldwide gross proves that Disney (and Abrams) were right about the audience. Wash, rinse, repeat and repeat again as these formulas are adopted by the likes of Jurassic World (successfully) Terminator: Genisys (not so much).

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The need to create mystery to generate fan theories/speculation

Speaking of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams sneakily utilised tricks he learned with his TV series Lost, to generate repeat viewers for the movie. By throwing in unsolved mysteries into the storylines (remember: the smoke monster, the sickness, the polar bears, the cryptic numbers) online fan discussion can be generated, creating immense buzz for the series. For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is Rey’s parentage, that is subject to much speculation, of course. That this is a deliberate ploy is evident by the whole flashback sequence Rey experiences after touching Luke’s light-sabre. Even more annoying is when Luke and Rey finally meet in the movie, no words are exchanged, leaving everyone in the dark. Mission accomplished as the online frenzy hits feverish heights. This is not good storytelling, this is a cheap shot at generating interest in your story.

Interestingly, Abrams had attempted this ploy with Star Trek Into Darkness, by lying about the identity of the antagonist, which he claimed was John Harrison and definitely, not Khan. But unlike in Star Wars, Abrams received flak for his tactics (deservedly) but clearly he has been refining this marketing strategy for some time now. The audience swallowed it whole for Star Wars. Expect more to come.

Every franchise movie is a set up for the sequel

Once upon a time, nobody really thought of movie stories as a series (apart rare exceptions like James Bond, and the pulp serials of the 30s) and movies were very much standalone affairs. Star Wars changed all that – when the movie become a massive money-making hit, only then did creator George Lucas begin to talk about a nine-part saga. Thus, writers need to consider plot lines in the context of (typically) three instalments – with the wildly popular adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy setting the pace – using key story points to set up future events.

However, what has happened since, is that the first part of a trilogy is usually a full-length set up for the sequel, leaving the viewer immensely unsatisfied by film’s end. Again, this is ineffective storytelling and yet has been employed on the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (again!), the Fantastic Four reboot and Maze Runner. Therefore, a sense that the movie is one long introductory exposition (with the requisite explosions for distraction) is hard to escape from.

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The need to create a shared universe for its own sake

This is a concept that was developed fully in superhero comic books. First introduced in the 40s with DC’s Justice Society and fine-tuned to the nth degree by Marvel in the 60s, the latter turned the concept into box office platinum with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Diverse film-makers ensure that the plots that they are working on will adhere to a consistent continuity. This would allow potentially lucrative cross-overs to take place. It’s hard to believe that it took Warners/DC as long as it did, but Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was the company’s first venture into the Shared Universe concept.

Watching Marvel rake in millions with the MCU, has brought envious glances from other studios. So… SONY tried to manufacture a Spider-Man Shared Universe (never got off the ground) and Fox would have done the same with their Marvel licensed properties but Fantastic Four’s tanking at the box office put paid to that idea. Reportedly, Universal Studios have the same ambitions. But their shared universe will be populated by monsters! i.e. The Mummy, Wolfman, Dracula, Frankenstein and the Invisible Man! Ridiculous but true.

Typically, Hollywood jumps on the bandwagon of whatever makes money. At the moment, the jury is out on whether Warners/DC, Universal and SONY/Valiant will be able to replicate Marvel’s mega-success with a shared universe.

… still there’s more …