A couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend and I sat down for a nice romantic night in watching Jurassic World. Romance, indeed. What I assumed to be a follow-up on the original story of Jurassic Park, instead turned out to be an over-budget, Mercedes-crammed 21st century cover of the 1993 adventure movie. I wanted it to be an opportunity for a fresh new approach to a genre that has recently become derivative, bloated with product placement and filled with bigger plot-holes than the mystery of the bullet that shot Chris Penn in Reservoir Dogs. Movie making was once considered an art form, a transformation of ideas from paper to moving image, a means of communicating beautiful ideas, movements and conversations that mean something; it now lies seemingly in tatters; rehashed, reshot, re-released on Blu-Ray, rejigged into 3D but why?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest the possibility that the want for money and success has stifled the creativity of screenwriters and movie production companies, with up-and-coming writers and actors striving for success and wealth, at almost any cost (there still emerge stories of artists who have been reduced to “using the casting couch” in order to get a legitimate employment opportunity in Hollywood); but it doesn’t highlight the cold reality of the fact that many Hollywood companies have become afraid of taking the risk of trying something different. They’ve become too scared to hire new, promising talent to direct, or write, or star in, something wildly different. It’s too risky.
Distributors like Paramount, Fox, Universal and Dreamworks have seen their collective revenue drop staggeringly since the beginning of the recession, which has seemingly forced them to seek safety and shelter in the good old, tried and trusted trick: remakes. Telling the story again, with a fresh angle, usually with something as simple as updated technology, as was the case with the recent remake of Carrie, which utilized modern tech such as smartphones and Youtube popularity to shame the lead into using her violent powers, rather than the apparently outdated methods of teenage bullying like simple name-calling and tampon-throwing. Although it fared well in box office takings, that ‘safe option’ of retelling the story with a post-modern spin didn’t work for MGM as far as ratings and accolades went. But that last part doesn’t matter to MGM. They made the movie; they made the money.
But sometimes the studios do take a chance on a fresh idea, and it does work out favourably, hiring brand new talent and letting them run the show, so to speak. Last year’s hit, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was a relatively small-budget affair, but was a winner at the box office and won several Academy Awards. Even the lesser-known movie hit from last year, Whiplash – directed by Damien Chazelle and opened to limited release – gradually found a larger audience, eventually winning favourable reviews and recognition across the board.
But it’s obviously not going to work like that for every movie, distributor and actor.
Coming back to the lamentable Jurassic World: yes, it did stupendously well in the box office (currently the third highest-grossing of all time, AND the highest-grossing film of 2015); but that’s because the Jurassic franchise is long established, easy to market to all ages (T-shirts and collector’s items for people over 30, cool toys for the children), and, most importantly, requires big name actors to carry the so-called gravitas of the story.
Except for the fact that it doesn’t (Bryce Dallas Howard’s career deserves better). The story is the EXACT SAME STORY from the first movie. Universal Pictures could have taken the daring move to hire a new, or possibly established (Vincent Ward or Joss Whedon spring to mind) writer to come up with a completely original plot. But instead, they instead took the safe route of just doing a remake, almost shot-for-shot, with 21st century CGI, 21st century stars, and, inevitably (the bane of every Hollywood production in the last 10 years): product placements.
That is how the distributors are pumping money into these movies. Whether the movies succeed or fail on an artistic level is now immaterial. The production’s funding must come from somewhere, and it’s coming from advertising. Companies want their items associated with amazing adventures and brilliant heroes (never the villains and/or car accidents the heroes may get into, I note), and want the viewer of the movie to associate the brilliant adventure experienced onscreen with the inevitably brilliant product that’s being hawked alongside the usually formulaic plot.
Jurassic World sadly fell victim to this scheme of using precious plot development time for ‘advertising space’, with thousands of people all using the latest Samsung smartphone (apparently in this fictional universe where Health and Safety concerns are thrown to the wind in favour of a dinosaur-petting zoo, Nokia and Huawei don’t exist as mobile phone manufacturers. Also, nobody has a phone older than 3 months old…). Furthermore, every vehicle in the movie that isn’t a junker, or that crashes and gets the occupants killed on its impact with a dinosaur, is either manufactured by Kawasaki (the lead’s motorcycle, featured on the DVD cover in rip-roaring action) or Mercedes-Benz, who seemed to include an addendum in the licencing contract where every shot of their vehicles absolutely had to look like catalogue shots.
One final point on this issue with movie-making. I have a question for you, dear reader, to think about: when was the last time you watched a movie that didn’t have the Dell logo in it at some juncture in the movie?
But even when the distributors do muster up the courage to go all out, hire a lesser-known director, lesser-known writers and lesser-known actors, they can’t help but fuck it up, all in the name of bringing in that extra buck. Most recently, I witnessed this occurring with the unnecessary Marvel-Fox retelling of the Fantastic Four comics. The movie opened with promise; a solid plot, believable characters (played by relatively new actors), new ideas, and importantly, little-to-no advertising of big companies. Focus was set squarely on the story and the people involved in it, but then at the 55-minute mark (I suspect this is the point when the movie’s director, Josh Trank, was fired, and Fox took over), the movie took a left turn at the traffic lights, in favour of pointless explosions, empty characters and Dell PCs everywhere in sight. Trank publicly distanced himself from the movie upon release, signifying a certain level of interference on the part of Fox and/or Marvel, which is oddly familiar to me. Again, that last part doesn’t matter to Fox or Marvel. They made the movie; they made the money.
One of my favourite movies that also went through the ordeal of distributor interference prior to release is the 1992 movie, Alien³. David Fincher, then an unknown director, years before Se7en, Fight Club and his most recent success, Gone Girl, was shoved aside by Fox (yes, them again) during the movie’s production in favour of the movie bringing in more money. They did this by sloppily editing what footage existed of a story that could have been promising into a muddled financial and artistic failure that essentially killed the Alien franchise, to the extent that the film and its follow-up, Alien Resurrection, are about to be erased from history by the upcoming Blomkamp movie.
Yet another money-making effort to cover for the disaster that was the last money-making effort. What’s the bet that Fox will once again shove Blomkamp aside at the last minute, and throw together something flashier, with an empty plot littered with futuristic Samsung phones, 3D Dell PC screens and flying Mercedes-Benz coupes? Only time will tell if Fox can let Blomkamp take the reins on his own this time.
Based in Cork, Doreen is an activist, writer, graphic designer and self-styled “feminazi cunt who is taxed as a non-essential item.” You can follow her on Twitter here