By Will Clemons
Popular forms of media, including movies, TV, and video-games, are a turbulent and brutal ocean of ever-changing trends and fads. The most popular media one week is forgotten the next. No matter how good a show is, it can be lost in the sea of Kardashians and Walking Deads. For this reason, it makes sense that a company would want to use every bit of product recognition from their intellectual properties to make profit. The question comes then, at what point should you let go and stop relying on the populous to keep buying merchandise just because it has Star Trek etc. in the title?
Ever since the inception of television and more importantly movie theaters, directors, producers, and other executives have utilized sequels, prequels, and spin-offs to coast off of a property’s influence and predominance in the culture of the time to sell tickets and gain more viewers. For years, nostalgia has affected the creative process for writers and other creators and may inhibit certain freedoms of a director to change how a movie, TV show, or game is produced. This gives the customer a tough choice between originality and consumerism of a product.
At the Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan, J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, sat down with Chris Rock during a panel and the two talked about film making. During this conversation, Abrams said, “we very consciously — and I know it is derided for this — …tried to borrow familiar beats so the rest of the movie could hang on something that we knew was Star Wars.”
In the end, his words make sense. It feels hard to remember a point where Star Wars didn’t have a constant hold on pop culture. Seeing as the movie came out in 1977, I obviously wasn’t alive before the intellectual property (IP) existed, but since it’s inception, the franchise kept a growing viewer base. To market executives, this proves to be an incredibly voracious group of potential customers of merchandise. It’s popularity allowed a huge Star Wars market to open up and for the creation of toys, books, comics, spinoff movies, TV shows, lunchboxes, action figures. There have even been whole conventions based around the movie franchise and everything it’s associated with.
Eventually, the great reservoir of seemingly endless money runs dry. Sure, Luke Skywalker is still a household name, and many people can quote numerous lines from the movies, but DVD sales start to dip,and less people are buying figures of every single character to complete their collection.
Now a problem arises, because it appears the cash flow is dwindling, and companies need a new way to make ungodly amounts of money. They could go with the risky new movie that nobody’s ever heard of, or they could just create a new Star Wars movie, using a brand with great public appeal and recognition. This is the precise reason that we have seen quite the revival of franchises from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and even early 2000’s. Think about it: we have a new Star Wars movie, more Star Trek, a remake of Ghostbusters, more Lord of the Rings, yet another Jurassic Park and even a new Transformers.
Not even television is safe. Programs like Teen Wolf, a movie that was originally made in 1985, have seen a resurgence in the new show under the same name, and not to mention the endless Scooby-Doo remakes.
It appears that nostalgia has become a major factor in the production of media. Though, as stated before, it makes sense. A bunch of used-to-be kids are now adults, and are more than eager to dote on all their favorite characters once more. Who wouldn’t take advantage of this? The plot doesn’t even have to be new; just look at the Force Awakens. We have an orphan who grew up in a desert planet, who meets a robot who leads them to other characters who are related to a wide-scale rebellion. This character then joins the rebellion and ends up beating the big baddie and saving the day. Disney and Lucasfilms literally used the same plot twice. For example, when the acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert went back over the movie, he said, “The new leads in “Episode VII” are interesting enough, but the film’s main problem is that it never provides them with a worthy, original story to justify going back to this universe.”
A big question that appears when referring to reused story structures in these forms of media is whether or not these products have any artistic value. In recent years, many more critics and consumers have accepted the fact that movies, at least, are a form of artistry, with the most exceptional examples taking great care and patience to execute. So when one sees the trailer for Fast and the Furious 8, one has to take a step back and wonder whether or not Felix Gray is taking into consideration character development and proper plot structure. Maybe that’s a loaded question with that specific example, but most mainstream movies that tend to hit the box office hard inhibit the same qualities. Those being easy-to-understand characters and plot, with little depth, and a fast pace to keep people interested at a basic level. These qualities don’t always represent a shoddily-made film or even one without true heart put into it, but many times it’s quite questionable.
Compare Fast and Furious to the recently released Kubo and the Two Strings. While lacking a bit plot wise, it excelled in using color, lighting, camera angles, fitting music, and a well-written script to not only explicitly portray the events of the story, but also hide symbolic secrets to better explain the characters, personalities and goals. Critics, such as Sandie Angulo Chen, found it to be foundationally outstanding. They described Kubo as being “gorgeously animated and stirringly told, LAIKA Animation’s hero’s journey is an epic tale of courage, the love between mothers and sons, and the magic of a good story.” All of the following are usually hallmarks of a well-produced film that has a substantial amount of effort involved, but Kubo also managed to include some great set design for it’s stop-motion animation, providing some of the best looking stop-motion of all time. It’s movies like this that really show how Hollywood’s best and brightest truly do have passion to produce a film beyond that of making money. Kubo’s director, Travis Knight, has a real value for artistry in his productions.
Now, back to the big question, is there a point where reusing plots of past movies to utilize nostalgia for larger profits becomes unacceptable, and is there any artistry in doing so? The answer one will commonly find is that of a respect for the inherent effort required to make a movie, yet an understanding that using a big brand name to sell a movie shows a value of industry over artistry. While not bad at a basic level, it usually allows producers and directors to cut corners for finances’ sake.
In the end, a movie is just a movie; enjoy it or despise it for your own reasons. Even if you couldn’t care less about it’s existence, it’s important to understand your reasons for doing so and accept that others have differing opinions. Any movie can be symbolic, deep and beautiful depending on how far you want to go off the beaten path of the writer’s intended meanings. The writer’s opinion of how a story should be interpreted shouldn’t affect your opinion. Just stay aware of what you are watching, and you will find yourself enjoying many movies much more than you could. Or you could hate them more. None of my business.