On the Merits of Understanding Movies

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I was watching YouTube the other day (amid the controversy surrounding their latest cock-up, but that’s a story for another time). While I refuse to watch commercials for actual products, I tend to watch the movie previews all the way through just to stay up to date on things. And as I watched some girl pull herself through a narrow tunnel while being chased by a scary voodoo witch or something, I came to a sudden realization.

Movie studios don’t understand movies.

Let me clarify a few things here, because there’s a lot to unpack in that statement. I’ll grant that they know the basic mechanics. They seem to know how to put moving images on film. Or maybe it’s all digital now? I don’t know. I’m not a movie studio.

No, what I’m saying is that if you asked anyone what made any classic or great or even good movie deserving of its title, they would probably know. Not all the answers would be identical. People relate to movies in their own way. But it’s safe to say that most of their answers would be well outside the range of “completely missing the point.”

For movie studios, it’s harder to say what they get and don’t get, because they don’t directly comment on movies (except their own, usually to say that they’re amazing). So to get an idea, it’s actually best to look at sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and whatever other word they’ve come up with to disguise blatant cash grabs these days. I honestly think I heard “requel” somewhere along the way.

You’d be surprised at how often they completely miss the point. (Or maybe you wouldn’t, depending how many “Star Trek” movies you’ve seen.) It’s the sort of thinking that comes up with, “Hey! Let’s make a sequel to Caddyshack…but less funny. Just make sure there’s still some golf in it. And that gopher.”

And, repeatedly, “Hey! Let’s take the character people could barely stand for a few minutes from this movie and put them on screen for 92 minutes.”

Let’s take a look at a few case studies.

The Star Wars prequels. This may as well be the archetype example of movie makers not understanding the follow-up movies that need to be made. And while most of the blame falls on George Lucas and his dashing salt and pepper beard (albeit with less pepper in recent years), the problem wasn’t that his ideas were  stupid.

Or rather, that wasn’t the only problem.

No, the fault came when Lucas decided to tell the story of the failing Republic, Boba Fett, C-3P0, the Trade Federation, Clone Wars and basically everything and everyone in Episode 4 old enough to have shown up a few decades earlier. Why? Because the prequels had one story to tell – the fall of Anakin Skywalker and his friendship with Obi-Wan. And it completely failed at it.

Sure, there was a lot of other stuff going on. And I like a good space battle as much as the rest of you. But from the moment Episode 1 began, everyone already knew that the Republic and Jedi would fall, Palpatine would seize control, Padme would die but be in no real danger until after she had her kids and that Anakin was going to get absolutely destroyed in a fight somewhere near the end of it all.

What those movies needed to talk about was what we didn’t know and maybe throw in a few twists. Specifically, focusing on things anyone cared about. (e.g. Not who built C-3PO.)

I still remember sitting in the theater to see Episode 3 when a random stranger turned to me and said, “Oh, my God. If Lucas throws a curveball and makes Leia and Luke the children of Obi-Wan, I will (and I’m quoting word for word here) shit out my dick.”

Inevitably, Lucas didn’t have the balls, and that stranger would continue excreting solid and liquid waste from all the proper holes (so far as I know, anyway).

Star Wars: Episode 7. Now, let’s take things in the opposite direction. Let’s look at someone making a movie who knows exactly what the movie needs to be about. And given that it had a lot of bases to cover, I’m surprised this movie turned out half as well as it did.

Okay. So you need your nods to the original so people don’t just think they’re watching an entirely different series. Old, vaguely grizzled characters? Check. Only…as much as you’d like them to do everything and be the heroes, they can’t do everything. Otherwise we’ll be in Episode 9 wondering why we’re sending in the fresh meat to blow up the fourth Death Star when Han and Lando could just do it. New, interesting faces? Check.

Be familiar but give the audience something new? Check. Have classic hero-mentor relationships but add in new elements to the formula? Check. Put in Daniel Craig but find a way that I don’t want to look at his smug face? Miraculously, check.

I won’t belabor the point here because I want to focus on two upcoming movies that I think sort of missed the boat. Before you lose all interest and start playing games on your phone or something. This article has gone on long enough already.

The “It” Remake. Yes, I realize there’s been no official trailers yet. And I realize that thus far they’ve only released two actual production photos for a movie coming out in late 2017. But I’ve got my reasons for being worried. And to be fair, if history has taught us one thing, it’s that it’s never too early to start calling a Stephen King movie adaptation doomed.

My main beef is with the photo they released (the second, total) of Pennywise – the terrifying, sometimes-clown, sometimes-giant space spider that feeds on fear.

First off, who releases a picture of the horror movie villain a year before the movie comes out? This isn’t just revealing a monster in the first act. This is a monster walking around in the theater and greeting guests before the show.

(And no, the fact that he’s terribly designed didn’t help matters much. Ahem.)

 it-twitter
“If we all float down here, then nobody does!”

Second off, the design suggests they’re trying to make him look all Gothic and scary. And that would be fine. Except that “It” wasn’t a movie about an evil space clown going around scaring and killing people. It was a movie about people being scared and getting killed that just so happened to feature a clown in it.

The distinction here was that there wasn’t a clown running around stabbing people to death. He waited in the shadows and gave children nightmares and made eyeballs appear in their drinks or whatever to feed on their fear. If you want a movie about killer clowns from outer space, they made a movie about that already.

You know, “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory.”

“Blair Witch.” I feel like the people making the “Blair Witch” kind-of-reboot-more-a-sequel are in a contest with the people who made “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” to prove who understood the first movie the least.

Which is really a pointless contest. It’s like getting in a dunking contest with Superman. “Book of Shadows” is going to the most terrible anything in most contests it enters.

Now, does that automatically mean it’s going to be a bad movie? No. In fact, if the original proved anything (aside from running with a shaking camera being a recipe for disaster), it’s that ideas out of left field can be surprisingly good.

In fact, most of the early reviews seem to be very positive. I think I’m just just naturally skeptical of sequels that look entirely different than the original – a fear cultivated by watching “Book of Shadows” and the hours afterward I sat wondering why a just God would allow this to happen.

Still, if it’s trying to be a non-found-footage movie, it’s a weird way to continue the original plot. And I’m not sure the audience has the suspension of disbelief necessary to believe that it’s more found-footage when all the original actors have done their rounds on the late night talk show circuit. In short, this is one of those cases where it could be a good movie and a bad sequel at the same time.

Like “The Chronicles of Riddick” was a very passable movie but a strange follow-up to “Pitch Black.” A counterpoint to this is the bad movie that’s more or less the sequel you’d expect, in the vein of “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.”

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