The Originality Problem Part I

Every other movie that comes out is a prequel, sequel, reboot, remake or reimagining. Let’s face it, folks. Hollywood isn’t what it used to be.

Earlier this year, I saw the Academy Award-winning film “Moonlight,” which chronicles an African-American man’s coming of age and the struggles he endures, in theaters. It was, to be perfectly frank, a brilliantly crafted tour de force with everything one looks for in a major motion picture. But while the vivid visual imagery and dreamlike musical score took my breath away, it was the story that won me over in the end.

It was the story that allowed me to connect with the characters on an emotional level. It provided me with a better understanding of the day-to-day issues faced by African-American males and members of the LGBT community. Most importantly, it brought something fresh and original to the table, something I had never seen before or expected to see.

Fast-forward to last month. I’m bored out of my mind and flipping through television channels like mad when I come across a rerun of the Disney Channel Original Movie “Descendants,” which follows the offspring of Disney’s most iconic characters. Having nothing better to do, I decided to see if it was worth my time. It wasn’t.

There are several reasons as to why, but the main reason is that the story made no sense whatsoever. There was no obstacle to overcome, no sense of urgency. Just a heinously boring hodgepodge of song-and-dance numbers and shallow characters. But the actors aren’t at fault here. Neither is choreographer/director Kenny Ortega. The only person at fault here is Hollywood.

I know what you’re thinking. Why Hollywood? Why not Disney’s saccharine sweetness or the public’s constant need to consume entertainment? The answer is simple: Because Hollywood has failed to recognize something I like to call the Originality Problem.

There’s nothing fresh and new about films like “Despicable Me 3,” “Transformers: The Last Knight” or “Kong: Skull Island.” It’s just a tumbleweed of harrowing stunts and high-tech visuals disguising the fact that we’re seeing the same characters being thrust into the same life-or-death situations. Yet every year, we flock to the local multiplex and waste our hard-earned money on generic thrillers and rom-coms.

So why do we do it? To answer this question, we must first take into account three individual factors that, when combined, form the basis behind the Originality Problem.

  1. The public’s attachment – at least, of a kind – to the cast of characters they come to know.
  2. The public’s obsessive desire to see the A-list actors who repeatedly captured their imaginations in the past.
  3. The major Hollywood movie studios’ preference to sacrifice the substance – the narrative, the character arcs, etc. – for stunt sequences and special effects.

With regards to Factor No. 1, this attachment for fictitious characters – especially when it comes to characters in film franchises – is a result of our desperation to know what comes after happily ever after. Or, depending on what type of movie we end up watching, the not so happily ever after.

I mean, it’s happened to all of us at one point or another. We want to know if humanity moves on following the threat of mass extinction, if Snow White and Prince Charming stay happily married, if the cowboy finds what he’s looking for after riding off into the sunset. But even after the sequels answer these questions, we find we’re still not satisfied. We start craving another film and another and another until we find ourselves waiting in line for “Fast and Furious XXIII”.

Immediately following the release of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” for example, fans became eager to know about what happened to Tommy and Gina, the fictitious couple at the center of the chart-topping single. The eagerness eventually reached a fever pitch and prompted the singer-songwriter to return to their story while writing his 2000 single “It’s My Life”.

As a result of our craving for answers, we have become accustomed to watching the same characters get caught in the same situations when we can use our own imagination to figure out what happens next. We are so engrossed in all-too-familiar stories that we’re failing to tell the difference between one that’s well-written and one that’s poorly written. I’ll concentrate on this last statement a little later. For now, let us turn our attention to Factor No. 2 – our almost compulsive need to see the A-listers we’ve come to know and love.

I am of the opinion that this is a tactic used to divert the public’s attention from shoddy storytelling and awful acting. Consider the 2015 disaster film “San Andreas”. It received a 48% on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes yet grossed over 400 million dollars worldwide. And all because Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a professional wrestler whose acting career is built on stereotypical action roles, was cast in the lead role.

Despite the fact that the premise – a search-and-rescue pilot trying to rescue his family as a series of earthquakes level the West Coast – reeked of tedium, people went to see it. They went because they saw someone they were familiar with and were excited to see again. In my opinion, this type of repetitive behavior is frustrating because it demonstrates a preference for certain actors. This, in turn, creates a stereotype in the public’s mind, a stereotype that causes the meat and bones of any motion picture – also known as the story – to be neglected.

Being an avid cinephile myself, I’ve seen hundreds of bad movies. “Troll 2”, “A Cure for Wellness”, “Gods of Egypt”, “The Last Airbender”, “Jack the Giant Slayer”. The list goes on and on. The one thing these five movies have in common, however, is that the directors preferred to show off special effects (the style) rather than concentrate on crafting the story (the substance). What they failed to realize is that, without a story to act as the proverbial glue, the film failed to leave a lasting impression.

The story is, in my opinion, the single most important detail one looks for when watching a movie. It’s the only thing I look for when watching a movie. Because without a story, the onscreen proceedings make no sense. You lose the opportunity to connect with the characters. Or even care about them.

And that, dear readers, is the problem with Hollywood. Nobody cares about good stories anymore. Moviegoers only want to be entertained and movie moguls want to make a profit by pretending to entertain the masses.

But in asking the question I put forward at the beginning of this article (“Why do we waste our time and our money on overproduced, underdeveloped movies?”), we must first consider another question: How did we get to this point? If you want to know the answer to that question, tune in next week for Part II of this ongoing series on Hollywood and the Originality Problem.

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