Arts in Review

An elegy for the movie industry

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Hollywood cut its own legs off the day it realized just how much money there was to be made cranking out remakes.

The U.S. economy avoided a complete meltdown and despite growing unrest at home and abroad people have money to spend, so sure, they go to the movies. Huge production companies with brand power and recognizable names behind them shell out the big bucks for Dwayne Johnson or Johnny Depp. If it’s a classy flick they shell out even bigger bucks for Robert De Niro and Helen Mirren.

And somewhere deep within the machinery of Hollywood, between copyright lawyers pushing the 3D format because it’s more difficult to pirate and focus-group meetings aimed at deciding which male lead moviegoers most identify with, somebody realized, “Hey, you don’t need a new story to make a new movie. Just take an old story and make a new movie.”

And if you think this level of cynicism isn’t warranted, just look at the movies currently in theatres: Wonder Woman, another in a series of superhero movies; Guardians of the Galaxy 2; Baywatch, a reboot; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (the fifth Pirates movie); Alien: Covenant; and The Mummy.

It’s as if they’re daring us to spend our money. We can picture the archetypal Hollywood big shot impatiently tapping a desk on the umpteenth floor of a high-rise as nervous writers (or worse yet — interns) cower behind each other before reluctantly offering up their latest ideas, which are, of course, shot down in favour of an idea the big-shot financier is already familiar with. Oh, a superhero picture? Yes, those sell. Those are good.

You have to hand it to Hollywood. It’s smart, viewers are either old enough to remember the original films and likely to buy a ticket out of nostalgia, or young enough not to have seen the original and therefore experience the remake as its own entity.

I loved Alien. The original movie came out, almost surprisingly now, in 1979. I can sit down and watch it and be just as impressed as I was when I first saw it in its entirety on one of those science fiction-only television channels. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley carved out a space for female leads in what had up until then been reserved for mostly male protagonists, defining the the sci-fi heroine. That scene where the alien first bursts its way out of John Hurt’s chest is so iconic it’s become a trope. But the best thing about Alien is that, unlike its successors, it set out to be a horror movie, not a science fiction thriller. Prometheus, the 2012 prequel to the 1979 original, sought to bring in more of the suspense that marked the original film as a classic, but ended up falling prey to the biggest of Hollywood’s faults: it only served as a springboard from which another sequel spawned.

The Mummy is a different story. Nobody asked for a Mummy reboot, much less one starring Tom Cruise. And considering it’s the first in a series of movies that will “revive” classic horror characters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (each with their own film slated for production in the coming years), it’s not surprising that the film feels incomplete and uninspired.

For example, The Mummy makes use of Tom Cruise in the least imaginative way possible by pretty much lifting his Mission Impossible character and dropping him off in the Middle East. The first couple of minutes in the film present viewers with main villain Princess Ahmanet’s introductory story (and to the director’s credit it’s not the worst thing in the world), but it incorporates everything from Ancient Egyptian palace intrigue to, inexplicably, British crusader knights hiding jewels in England.

Sure, we have to build up interest in the backstory to a movie on a topic as outplayed as evil mummies, but there’s a better way to do so than just jumping from one shot of an easily-recognized landmark (Giza) to another (London).

Alien: Covenant doesn’t hastily set up its story only because it’s the same story every other Alien movie has told: explorers find a creepy old planet that screams “Don’t open these weird eggs!” and proceed to open the weird eggs, dooming their entire crew except for their one protagonist. Even Michael Fassbender’s appearance in the film couldn’t save it from the oblivion that comes hand-in-hand with the fact that its story is exactly the same story that we got in 1979. Except without the cool “nobody can hear you scream in space” aesthetic.

These forced sequels, self-indulgent as hell and most of the time completely unnecessary, somehow manage to capture our imagination despite what I suspect is a lingering cynicism shared by people who simultaneously think to themselves, I’ve seen this movie before, why am I seeing it again?

Both Alien: Covenant and The Mummy share the same ending. No, it isn’t the same narrative ending, but it serves the same function: it sets up yet another sequel. Since they’re competing with Marvel’s endless barrage of summer blockbusters, it’s understandable that production companies might choose to go the way of releasing films whose sole purpose is to propagate themselves further, sowing the seeds of their sequels while keeping the audience from experiencing a compelling (or new) story. But if that’s all that Hollywood has to offer, then it makes sense that more and more independent filmmakers are being lauded as frontiersmen (and women) for simply daring to tell stories not already well established in the public consciousness.

And, with films like Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea gaining attention from the Academy’s biggest self-congratulatory endeavour, it surprises me that so few films which stray from conventional narratives are made available to the public. Just as an example, Trainspotting 2 was only available as a limited release in select theatres, and even though it is itself a sequel, its narrative is one that covers characters on the fringes of society (or at least on the fringes of the presented society that has saturated entertainment in the past).

We all like to watch movies that are, for lack of a better word, “fun.” Movies that don’t require us to think critically about our own position in the world — movies that are distractions. That’s fine. But if we become so engrossed by our distraction entertainment that we fail to notice when it permeates most of the entertainment we consume, then that distraction becomes a problem.

Don’t go watch The Mummy. Don’t go watch Alien: Covenant. I’m not going to tell you to read a book or watch art-house movies, but I will say this: You get what you ask for, and the most effective way you have of speaking is with your wallet.

Want to see more interesting stories on the big screen? Don’t watch the next Avengers either.

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