When we want to feel entertained or inspired, or long for an escape from reality, we might feel inclined to sit in front of a giant silver screen in a darkened room and watch people do things that we aren’t likely to ever do ourselves. What we see helps us reflect and think, and can even challenge us to live beyond our wildest potential.
This used to be possible, but it’s been awhile since a trip to the movies could make these things happen. It’s tragic that misrepresented novels and lethargic sequels to classics that defined the innocence of our youth constantly bog down the box office with disturbing déj√† vu. Adding to the tragedy is a new generation of moviegoers who sit with wide eyes, unaware that their first cinematic experiences are becoming all the more jaded with each flickering frame onscreen.
Hollywood, it’s time for a change.
Movies aren’t just movies anymore, but franchises for movie studios. Franchises require multi-movie contracts, merchandising, and advertising to keep the cream rising and staying at the top of popular culture. Somewhere along the line-it can probably be traced back to the Star Wars trilogy of the 1970s and early 80s-filmmaking became less about storytelling and more about selling the popularity of storytelling’s aesthetics. Studios had to sell Luke Skywalker, not his heroism.
Franchise films may be fun, but most are predictable and cater to specific demographics. Those who read the Twilight Series already knew what happened to Bella and Edward before they bought their Eclipse tickets the same way comic book geeks had a general idea of what kind of trouble Tony Stark could get into in Iron Man 2. While they brought in tons of money this summer, they didn’t attract anyone who wasn’t already excited to see them.
By the end of the summer movie season, only Christopher Nolan’s Inception could offer a truly artful cinematic experience. It made nearly as much as Eclipse at the box office without selling itself to an audience prior to its release.
Stacked against its competitors, Inception shouldn’t have played at the local multiplex with the likes of Eclipse and Toy Story 3, but rather at extravagant film festivals where it could be shown off like the dogs at Westminster. Unlike its competitors, it made the impossible seem plausible. It was a glimpse of the magic Hollywood had been missing.
Inception transcended not just because it was entertaining; its greatness was the result of Nolan’s approach to storytelling. Nolan and his writing partners are famous for writing their films around particular themes-including both Batman films, a franchise that Nolan wasn’t initially comfortable in resurrecting.
A theme is the very basis of storytelling, the well into which writers and directors draw the waters of their movies. A theme is original every time it is attempted because themes are abstract. That is how Nolan can make two movies in his career that share the same theme-both Inception and 2000’s Memento deal with characters who struggle to maintain a clear sense of reality-and are entirely independent of each other.
Themes often get lost these days, with many of the summer movies becoming campy sequels (Iron Man 2), adaptations of books (Eat, Pray, Love), or hollow vehicles designed to reignite an actor’s stagnating career (Tom Cruise’s Knight and Day, Ashton Kutcher’s Killers). All the aesthetics of movies-the vampires and werewolves and talking toys and Scottish ogres-become popular because of the themes they illustrate, and that’s why this summer’s movie season flopped. Themes should drive movies, not the pieces used to advertise them. Audiences got one without the other.
Though it eventually developed into one of the biggest movie franchises of all time, Star Wars is more like Inception than Eclipse. All three of the original Star Wars films tell one connecting story, but each individual film is borne out of a different theme. The franchise films of today lack that individuality while striving for that same structure, and won’t shine over time the way Star Wars has despite their popularity. Even if Eclipse’s writers had a methodology in penning the movie, it wouldn’t have mattered-audiences had already been so bombarded with advertisements of the franchise that they wouldn’t have noticed a theme anyway.
Going into the theater for the first time, viewers didn’t really know what either Inception or Star Wars was about. Neither Warner Bros. nor Twentieth Century Fox had much to sell audiences other than mystery.
Because of this, there was considerable risk involved for both studios. The problem with writing original work is that there is no guarantee audiences will like it. It is much safer to write a film based on something that is already popular-a franchise film- even if its quality isn’t very good. Too many dollars are at stake. It doesn’t matter that Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, and Eclipse brought out waves of fans. It doesn’t even matter that the films now rank on the all time domestic box office records list. Studios didn’t sell stories this summer, but vampires, werewolves, and Iron Man. What happens when people get sick of seeing vampires and werewolves? What happens when there are no more Twilight films to make? What then?We’d better hope studios haven’t lost faith in movies like Inception and Star Wars.