The book of Ecclesiastes tells us, ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.’ Even the idea that there is nothing new is thousands of years old. This week we’re going to look at why Hollywood appears to have run out of ideas despite being one of the most innovative places on earth. As the studios have become more desperate for something we haven’t seen before they are increasingly turning to governments for help. I explore how the new models of soft reboots and cinematic universes have been encouraged and supported by the Pentagon, and how this is helping create a dynamic whereby government agencies are increasing their power in Hollywood.
This article was originally published by Spy Culture.
Perhaps the first movie to remake an existing film was in 1904, and in true tinseltown style it was a remake of a film that had only been released the previous year. I am talking about The Great Train Robbery, a 12 minute-long silent film that inspired several inferior knock-offs but has gone down in history as one of the first great action movies. The film was so popular that when a gang stole £2.6 million from a train in Buckinghamshire in 1963 the event was called the Great Train Robbery. This in turn was referenced in films and TV shows, including Thunderball, and was adapted into a TV movie a few years ago. This is not to be confused with the Great Gold Robbery of 1855 which was the inspiration for the Michael Crichton novel and film called The Great Train Robbery.
So this is how a meme works in cultural and linguistic terms. It replicates, often being applied to new events or being given new meanings. So it is perhaps no surprise that the postmodern cultural turn, where formalism is just endless recycling and the truest aesthetics is one that places all the emphasis on audience interpretation, is a response to the new sciences of memetics and semiotics. The realisation that form could be endlessly replicated, each time bearing no direct relationship to its current meaning or its earlier meanings, was something of a shock to the critical establishment. The relativistic, subjectivistic response of postmodern critical theory was more a kind of PTSD than a genuine philosophical development. Even now, no one has truly tried to overcome that problem.
According to Christopher Booker, there are only 7 plots available to creative writers and they are endlessly recycled. They are:
1. Overcoming the Monster, 2. Rags to Riches, 3. The Quest, 4. Voyage and Return, 5. Rebirth, 6. Comedy and 7. Tragedy.
I will say, I don’t buy into this model, but it’s a good summary of most of the last 3000 years of Western storytelling, and hence of Hollywood’s contribution to that. I don’t think this applies to every film, but it does apply to a lot. One version of this theory is that this is because all humans endure the same fundamental psychological conflicts, and hence can only conceive of drama in terms of those conflicts. If this is true, even if it is just generally but not always true, then we can’t really blame Hollywood for its lack of originality.
To give you a sense of how some famous films fit into these scheme, at least as I understand it, Overcoming the Monster is pretty much every action adventure film, where there’s a bad guy or a bad thing, usually motivated by revenge, that has to be destroyed by the hero. George and the Dragon. Wonder Woman. Tomorrow Never Dies. Rags to Riches is so obvious that I doubt I need to highlight any examples but Brewster’s Millions and Trading Places are two of my favourites. The Quest is every murder or crime story you’ve ever seen, and quite a lot of other things too but the typical quest is the resolution of a crime. Voyage and Return would be everything from The Hobbit to ever ‘Summer Vacation’ movie ever. Rebirth includes rites of passage stories where people learn and grow, they become different, so that’s most high school movies and most romantic comedies. Comedy and Tragedy are almost too obvious to explain except to say that I think they are best when combined, such as in Fargo and other things involving the Coen brothers.
But then you get films like Starship Troopers, which is a blend of overcoming the monster and a quest, but it also undermines all that with irony and self-satire. It parodies the story it tells. To my knowledge, this is a genuine innovation in storytellling, disguised as a dumb movie about killing CGI giant bugs. So not all stories fit easily into this scheme, there is some genuine innovation out there. Nonetheless, I concede that almost all movies can be reduced to one or more of these basic narrative structures.
Capitalism and Addiction
In recent decades it has gone beyond simply telling lots of different stories with the same underlying structures. We are now in the truly postmodern realm of endless remakes, reboots, soft reboots, sequels, prequels and adaptations. This is primarily driven not by fundamental conflicts within the human psyche, but by capitalism. One of the things that became clear about home cinema technology, beginning with VCRs and going all the way through to Netflix, is that people who like something watch it over and over, wanting more of that same feeling it gives them. Of course, it’s a law of diminishing returns and you’ll never quite get the excitement that you did the first time, but I have rewatched some films 20 times or more and still enjoy them.
The market pressures created by home cinema on big theatre cinemas, combined with this realisation that you can just promise people more of the same and they’ll keep turning up, led to Hollywood all but abandoning the creation of new brands. Perhaps the first big sign of this was the Star Wars prequel trilogy, starring Natalie Portman’s midriff and the abomination that is Jar Jar Binks. Those films incorporated many of the same narrative structures we’ve just discussed but that wasn’t their problem. They made use of some great innovations in CGI but that wasn’t a fundamental problem. Boiling it down, the most fundamental problem is what George Lucas explained years later in an interview with Charlie Rose.
The problem was that the studio just wanted films that had plenty of light sabres and Jedi mind tricks and other things that people recognized and that fit into a story they already knew. And the movies were pretty successful despite being full of one-dimensional characters, too much walking and talking and sitting on sofas and talking and standing by windows and talking and then overly choreographed light sabre battles and 20,000 CGI storm troopers. Opinion on them is very mixed, but they made a ton of money.
Off the back of this success, other studios started looking more and more at existing movies and franchises they had the rights to. We got tons of horror remakes like The Ring, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Wicker Man, The Omen. Most of these were terrible, but still turned a decent profit. Name recognition, and the expectation of a movie that made you feel the same way you did when you saw the original was enough to drive lots of people into the cinemas. Even Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake did quite well.
Others like The Italian Job and Gone In 60 Seconds were modest successes but failed critically, and it didn’t take long before Hollywood’s attempts at feeding our addiction started to feel old, and predictable. By the time of the remake of Total Recall – which has virtually nothing to do with the original film except the title – a star name and a pre-existing title wasn’t enough. The new formulas are soft reboots and cinematic universes – ideally a soft reboot that launches a cinematic universe.
The best examples would be Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Jurassic World is just a remake of Jurassic Park. It’s not quite a remake because it has a different title and characters and there are some references in the film to what happened in the original, establishing it as later chapter in the same cinematic universe. But it’s the same story, and pretty much the same film. It was, of course, enormously successful. Likewise The Force Awakens is just a remake of A New Hope. There are loads of allusions to the pre-existing cinematic universe, the Millennium Falcon and so on, but it’s the same movie we’ve already seen. It too, was enormously successful.
We’ve also seen Godzilla, Superman: Man of Steel and The Mummy – all reboots used to launch cinematic universes. They haven’t been quite as successful, largely because they are standard reboots, rather than soft reboots. They don’t already have a cinematic universe to be rebooted into, so their crowd appeal is diminished. Nonetheless the studios are making plenty of money and at least until people get sick of being given what they want, this is what Hollywood is going to look like for the foreseeable future.
How Desperate is Hollywood?
When it comes to return on investment there is no genre more potentially profitable than horror. Everyone is looking for the next Paranormal Activity or Blair Witch Project – low production budget, high box office returns. A studio can make back hundreds of times what it cost to make the film, and potentially launch a new series, like with the Saw films.
Studio efforts to find the next big horror movie have gone into overdrive. I recently learned about a competition where people make a two-minute horror movie, submit it and if they win the studio options it and might even turn it into a feature film. This was inspired by Annabelle Creation – which I have not seen but it’s a prequel to another movie I have not seen, which was directed by a guy who got the job by making a youtube short horror movie. This sort of competition has been done before, but this particular version is especially cynical and exploitative.
I think this is utterly pathetic – Warner Bros. have huge resources to employ writers and other creative people to come up with the next big idea. I could come up with five such ideas – they might be five bad ideas but honestly, creative ideas are not difficult to come by. How about a mutant frog possessed by the evil spirit of an executed serial killer is out for revenge on a small town, focusing on a family who’ve just moved into the area. You could have a nice little narrative arc where the kids didn’t want to move and at the start of the film are unhappy and fighting and bitching all the time, but the quest to overcome the mutant frog helps bring the family together. Starring Adam Sandler as the dad and a 26 year old glamour model as the supposedly 15 year old daughter.
It’s really not that difficult. I know that maybe my movie tastes aren’t to everyone’s liking but they could tweak that in the scripting phase, maybe it isn’t a frog because frogs aren’t as profitable to turn into plastic toys and other crappy merchandise. Maybe it’s a lizard or a snake or something else that’s not only easy to generate on a computer but also easy to turn into a plastic toy to put in breakfast cereal so your kids can choke to death.
I think they may have stopped doing that, after all those kids choked to death.
What I’m saying is that even within all the demands of product placement, spin off merchandising, the desire to create a series or even a cinematic universe, profitability, low-risk budgets – there is still plenty of room for creativity. The problem is that the studio executives themselves are not creative. They are, by personality type, uncreative, risk-averse people. This is the primary reason why we see some creativity in Hollywood, but always within the confines of the same narrow set of values.
Soft Rebooting the Pentagon
How does the Pentagon fit into all this? In 2008 Marvel released its first proper Marvel Cinematic Universe movie – Iron Man – and it was a big success, helping to launch the next big thing in Hollywood. Since then everyone has tried to jump on the bandwagon, and most of them teamed up with the Department of Defense to do it. Man of Steel, Godzilla and I’m pretty sure The Mummy had support from the US military. I will point out that none of these films were particularly well received by critics, with The Mummy in particular being widely panned. But Man of Steel and Godzilla, despite their flaws, still made a bucket of money and helped launch cinematic universes.
One example I want to quickly hone in on is Godzilla, the 2014 version, a reboot that launched the MonsterVerse, by far the most appealing cinematic universe for me. The Pentagon did support the 1998 Roland Emmerich version but they don’t promote this much. They’ve even deleted an article from the Marine Corps Times website where they complained about being ‘demoted’ behind the Navy in the 2014 remake, and talked about their pilot dealing the killer blow to the monster in the 1998 movie.
This is the problem – the 1998 film was Emmerich’s attempt to make his own Jurassic Park, and also to make an American Godzilla. But the film is packed with wacky, ridiculous characters who almost all function as the comic relief. As a result the film isn’t frightening. At all. We’re never frightened of Godzilla, we never want to see Godzilla be destroyed, as far as we’re concerned Godzilla is the only thing livening up this two-hour episode of a mediocre sitcom.
So when the Marines kill Godzilla at the end of the film, at the second attempt, by shooting it with rockets from FA-18s, it doesn’t come off as a triumphant moment for the military. Tellingly, a couple of years later when the producers of Jurassic Park 3 came calling, they had an idea for US armoured planes to fight against small flying dinosaurs. Presumably having learned their lesson from Godzilla, the Pentagon said no and removed that scene from the script.
Fast forward a few more years and we got the 2014 version, where Godzilla is the hero fighting the giant bug creatures alongside the US military. Our other hero is a Navy bomb disposal guy. So there’s no big struggle between Godzilla and the US military, hence they avoid the 1998 problem entirely. However, they faced a different problem. The central character was just too interesting, and actually had a bit of drama to him, so in stepped Phil Strub to sort that out.
The upshot of this is that the character is almost characterless. His wife and child are completely stereotypical, by the books, incidental. They’re just some thing that’s somewhere in the story that doesn’t matter. Even though our hero is supposed to be trying to get home to see his wife and child he keeps running off to battle the giant monsters. By removing any drama about the character they ended up with one of the blandest heroes in the history of cinema.
And it isn’t just me who thinks so. If you check the reviews and ratings on IMDB even the people who liked it couldn’t stand the central characters – ‘The character development in this film is non-existent. Every character, from the wise but ignored token Japanese bloke, to the soldier’s wife whose sole purpose is to wait at home to comfort him, is a dull Hollywood cliché.’ ‘I don’t recall liking ANY of the characters… The main characters wife and little boy?? Added nothing to the story to be honest.’ ‘the couple of Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen are given the impossible task of creating interesting characters from the uninspired script.’ ‘The human story (about Ford Brody and his family) is quite weak and almost non-existent.’ ‘The guy from Kick-Ass plays a giant walking cliché. So do half of the Olsen Twins.’ There are pages of these comments, proving that sometimes the Pentagon’s involvement makes a movie worse for the audience, even from just an entertainment point of view.
There’s a dangerous dynamic at play here – the studios feel they are running out of new ideas so they go to the Pentagon to try to get access to a new location or plane or something else their audience hasn’t seen before. In exchange, the Pentagon’s script rewrites often remove any controversial material, making the film more bland and predictable. As a result the film does well financially but people find it boring and unoriginal, so the studios feel like they’re running out of new ideas and go back to the Pentagon. Or the CIA. Or NASA. Or the Secret Service or the White House or the State Department or the Institute for Creative Technologies or the FBI, DEA, Homeland Security.
That is to say, the Pentagon encourages Hollywood’s worst habits. They offer added production value, in exchange for deradicalising scripts and taking out all the good bits that might make audiences feel a different emotion or think a different thought. This contributes to the forces pushing against creativity rather than working with them to make the best entertainment possible. At every stage, from the remake phase to the reboot phase and now into soft reboots and cinematic universes, the Pentagon and other government agencies have supported and encouraged the studios. Over time this actually puts the government in an increasingly powerful position because the less creative Hollywood gets the more they feel the need to go to the government to get that little something extra. This is a self-reinforcing dynamic because the more the studios get used to depending on the government, the less creative they feel the need to be and so the more they find themselves in the position of having to turn to the government.
The same applies to foreign nations, next-generation consumer tech companies and others who can provide added production value and the hint of something new, but none of them have quite the setup the Pentagon does. I’m not saying this is a strategy the DOD have come up with to make themselves indispensable in Hollywood – for one thing they’re not the only way for studios to get something new and exciting. But it is the inevitable and quite predictable result of a Hollywood machine that fundamentally lacks risk-taking creative people at its heart, and of a military-intelligence machine that wants to use Hollywood for PR and propaganda purposes.