Monday, 9 January 2012

The Silver Screen loses its lustre

In his 1982 anthology Skeleton Crew, Stephen King published a grisly short story called ‘Survivor Type’. This epistolary tale takes the form of a series of diary entries made by a heroin smuggler who find himself stranded on a tiny island in the Pacific. With nothing but a dull blade and a sack-full of smack to his name, Richard Pine goes to extreme lengths to prolong his survival.

Having broken his ankle trying to signal for help, Richard is left with no choice but to amputate his foot, so he uses the drugs as an anaesthetic and swiftly removes it before infection sets in. But his problems aren’t over, since there’s no viable food source on the island. So he eats the severed appendage. As the story progresses, Richard keeps dipping into his stash to dull the pain, and removing other limbs which he then consumes. Bear Grylls, I hope you’re taking notes. By the end of the story, he’s removed and eaten everything below the waist, as well as both of his ears.

I mention this, not only because this short story features more invention than most of Hollywood’s recent output, but because it’s a pretty effective metaphor of what the film industry has been doing to itself for the last few years.

Although some might argue that the dream factory is in rude health, thanks to a handful of imaginative independent titles, the reality is much more depressing. Constantly unleashing an endless tide of remakes, sequels, comic book adaptations, the dearth of creative thinking in Tinseltown has never been more apparent. I can only imagine how much Guy Ritchie must be kicking himself that, for all his efforts, his latest Sherlock Holmes adventure is once again doing battle with an Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel for box office supremacy.

In 2011, eight out of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide were sequels. Of the two remaining films, one was the big screen debut of The Smurfs. If that isn’t an effective summary of what’s wrong with Hollywood, I’ll eat a clapperboard.

The depressing truth is that, these days, an original idea is considered to be a risky proposition. When Christopher Nolan spanked almost $200m on Inception, the entire industry watched for the inevitable fallout. Plot driven, eclectically cast, and not based on an existing property or franchise, Nolan’s mind-bending thriller had the odds stacked against it from day one. Of course, he did have two aces up his sleeve – a major star in Leonardo DiCaprio, and some of the most spectacular effects audiences had seen in a long time. But let’s not forget that Inception is the exception, rather than the rule.

And don’t even get me started on 3D. James Cameron may have resurrected the long-defunct format with his breath-taking vision of a world populated by nine-foot blue giants, but the film studios just saw another opportunity to milk consumers for even more cash. Cameron spoke about immersion, using the technique to add texture and depth to his story. Every other film-maker (even the usually dependable Pixar) saw it as an opportunity to poke shit in people’s faces. Let’s all be grateful that Tom Six didn’t apply the technology to Human Centipede 2, otherwise that could have become a literal proposition.

With film quality at its lowest ebb in history, the commerciality of film has never been more important. And cinema chains are lining up to fill their own pockets too. On a recent trip to my local Vue multiplex, I found that the ticket sales office has been rendered obsolete – now you have to queue at the concession stand to even buy your entry into the film. And then you’re faced with a bewildering array of options that determine the actual ticket price. Having avoided any 3D screenings (and their £3 mark-up, plus glasses) I was asked whether I wanted regular or deluxe seating – to my knowledge, the biggest difference between the two seems to be the size of the cup-holder. Then I was told that the screening I wanted to attend was in the Vue Extreme screen. I asked the cashier to explain the distinction, and she told me that the screen was a bit bigger. Since there was no other option (other than leaving and coming back for an alternative showing), I still ended up having to pay a surcharge, for a regular seat to see a regular 2D movie. And it was still shit.

Blockbuster apologists might argue that one positive change in recent film-making has been the end of the old megastar era. Indeed, there are few film stars working today who can still guarantee a big opening. Which should, in theory, mean that we get more interesting casting choices. Unfortunately, studios have made up for this shortcoming by bringing back the ‘all-star cast’. This used to be a sure-fire way of guaranteeing bums on seats, as canny producers like Irwin Allen filled their disaster movies with A-list names, based on the assumption that audiences would happily sit through any old tut if it meant they got to see Ava Gardner crushed under a piece of falling masonry. Sadly, the all-star film is alive and well, only now they tend to come in the form of multi-strand romances, like Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and the truly appalling He’s Just Not That Into You. Of course, we also still have plenty of disaster epics to wade through, but the stakes have been raised to such a preposterous degree that even a film like ‘Knowing’, which destroyed the entire planet in an apocalyptic fireball, managed to raise little more than an eyebrow.

The problem is that directors now have an extraordinary box of digital tricks at their disposal. But (to paraphrase Jurassic Park) they spend so long working out what they could do, they neglect to consider whether they should. This horrendous state of affairs reached its apotheosis last summer with Michael Bay’s mind-bogglingly incomprehensible Transformers threequel. I can’t deny that the effects were impressive, but the film held all the appeal of watching three blenders gang rape a George Forman grill. Occasionally, a film remembers to get the balance right, using digital effects to support the telling of a story, rather then other way around. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a great example, but once again loses originality points for being both a prequel and franchise reboot.

Ah, the reboot. Hollywood’s way of throwing out the bathwater, and hanging onto the baby just in case. Alongside Joss Whedon’s all-star superhero mash-up The Avengers, and Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises, this year will also offer up two new superhero reboots, featuring Superman and Spider-Man. The latter promises to retell an origin story that was last filmed just 11 years ago. Elsewhere, the horror remake train also continues its drawn-out derailment, taking out such well-loved classics as Evil Dead, Poltergeist, Carrie, Child’s Play and The Birds in the process.

But don’t despair, there is a glimmer of hope. A couple of days before Christmas, it was announced that one impending remake had been indefinitely shelved. Citing irreconcilable issues with the script quality, Warner Bros grudgingly confirmed that they’d put a stake in the much-feared re-do of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. For once the fans were delighted, having argued all along that Buffy without creator Joss Whedon, would be like Julia Roberts without a shit-eating grin.

Finally, here was proof that someone in Hollywood understood what audiences have been trying to tell them for years. When it comes to complex narrative arcs, compelling characterisation and engaging story-telling, the movie business simply can’t compete with the quality of modern TV shows. In the land of TV, the writer is king. They create the concepts, select the cast, and in many cases, craft all the scripts. If Hollywood wants to experience a new golden age, maybe it needs to start looking for the new Joseph Mankiewicz, rather than the next Brett Ratner.

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