Do you remember 2016? I don’t know what you’ve been up to over the Christmas holidays, but let’s assume that you do remember, for the sake of argument. So, whether you’re a 2016 hater or lover, you’ve probably been to the cinema once or twice. It’s not too far-fetched to say that the consensus on 2016, life-wise, has been pretty shitty. But the movies—oh, the movies! Surely, there’s a small yet radiant twinkle of positivity to be found in all of the great movies that came out in 2016, right?
You’d be wrong. (Disclaimer: buckle up for an unhealthy dose of cynicism coming your way from this point on)
As a matter of fact, 2016 has been garbage in a lot of fields. Seldom have politics been this superficial, polarized or as unironically offensive. Sure, politics have never been top-notch entertainment, but we used to be able to get a good yuck or two out of it at the very least. No longer.
Music-wise, I think most people are ruefully aware of all the one-of-a-kind icons that we lost. Lord knows that we didn’t get anything back for them, not in the pop charts at least.
And then there was the thing with the American elections. Emotions were (and still are) running high, and the whole circus has left people tired. Jaded. Forworn. Other fancy terms that express a form of exhaustion.
And what do people do to escape the stressfulness of real life? That’s right, they get the heck out of real life and dive into the realm of fantasy! And justifiably so. Sadly, imagination isn’t a given for most people. Luckily for them, Hollywood produces and provides enough for millions.
But oh-ooooh. Looks like good ol’ Disney just drew up the bucket from the fantasy well—and well, the bucket came up near empty, it seems. Zoiks! The well of fantasy, dreams, and ambition beneath Hollywood has run dry! Whatever will we do in this most dire time of need? A short break for a not-that-nuanced allegory:
The men in suits peer into the bucket. The undrinkable sludge that was hoisted up looks back at them with eyes that say “Please, feed me! Have mercy!”. The men look back at each other, shaking their heads. The bucket is solemnly slung back into the pit. They ponder. Suddenly, a lightbulb pops up above one’s head, a lightbulb as cliché and predictable as the idea it spawns. The men in suits head down to the Disney farmlands, where the prize-winning horses of yore graze. The men wring their hands, chuckling with yellow teeth exposed. They take up their clubs and other blunt objects, and creep up behind the biggest and prettiest horse they own. With dollar-symbols bulging from their eyes, they start beating the horse, again, again, and again. There is no escape. With each hit, money sprays from the poor animal’s orifices until it is as empty and dry as the Hollywood well itself. After a day of pummeling, the sun finally sets. Panting, but still grinning, the men in suits stuff their pockets and pat each other’s backs. The chief acutely stops laughing and silently gathers the attention of the other men. Making a hushing motion with his finger over his lips, he points toward a different horse, a little further up. The next victim. The men suppress their giggles and creep off, pockets jingling. The night is still young, but the dead horse that was left in the men’s wake did not live to see it. Its name: Star Wars.
The above mentioned vivid rendering of 2016 is a bit crude, I agree, but there’s something I’m working toward, and that’s the following: sequels, to me, are causing the crash of originality. There has been an overwhelmingly positive reaction to all big new cinema hits over the past couple of years. Just look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making around $716 million a movie, if not more. A positive reaction, of course, means not only a satisfied audience, it also means big financial success for the industry! And as the marketers do their trick, a formula is created to systemize and uphold this success. The name of the game is rehashing, and the aim is to pick up old brands and previous box-office hits and make new movies out of them. It’s as if all your imaginary childhood friends are back in action! In 3D.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen this formula shape itself into the most efficient one possible: pander to the most superficial denominator of the fandom, and keep the money coming in. We’ve seen reboots and rehashes of all kinds of 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s franchises with Robocop, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Powerpuff Girls, Godzilla, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, The Mummy, Ghostbusters, a plethora of superhero flicks, and the list goes on. While some of these films turned out to be critically acclaimed, I don’t necessarily reckon that to be a good thing. Reviving old brands instead of thinking of new ones shows how originality isn’t the goal anymore—something which is crucial to a genre such as fantasy, most of the movies I just listed being a part of that. At a certain point, the imagination isn’t necessary anymore. The contexts have all been established; all that changes is the look, and sometimes the actors. And don’t forget that it’s in 3D, so be sure to pay up that extra two bucks for a flimsy pair of glasses that doesn’t even have the cool red and blue lenses like they always did on TV, to add insult to injury.
The difficulty of establishing a new magical universe on a movie screen can be elevated to an art if the core of the genre is stayed true to: fantasy. Only a unique mind who can picture something unseen and continue to portray just that in a thrilling manner can produce a truly original world of fantasy, one that I would love to see. Sadly, there is not much originality that goes into these films. In fact, repeating what the source material did is praised, instead. The director is put on a pedestal, and is said to “really understand what the franchise is about,” while the fandom actually ends up watching movies incredibly similar to those they’ve already seen in a new jacket (“new”, of course, meaning the same jacket you once had, but just a tad more expensive and not of the right size anymore, almost as if you outgrew it before you owned it). Originality is thus replaced by rehashing, mistaken for integrity.
Furthermore, the industry cleverly taps into our most vulnerable places: our childhoods. The biggest manufacturers of our childhood fantasies are indeed the ones we are most prone to praise. We love our childhood movies, after all, and for that reason alone the belief is established that the studios who created these movies can do no wrong. But a quick look at a much beloved studio like Pixar, for example will show that they are not nearly as creative or original as they used to be. Since 2010 their movies have mostly been built upon rehashes, with more still in the works:
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Cars 2 (2011)
Monsters University (2013)
Finding Dory (2016)
Cars 3 (2017)
The Incredibles 2 (2018)
Toy Story 4 (2019)
The movies that weren’t sequels were the arguably lackluster Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), and then one big commercial hit, Inside Out (2015). With one original and successful movie in a span of nearly a decade, one would hardly call a studio like Pixar worthy of all the praise it gets. The quality of their animation, while still spectacular, is not even that ahead of the curve anymore compared to other animation studios (Dreamworks, LAIKA, and whoever made The Lego movie (2014)), like it used to be. Sadly, Pixar too seems to have picked up on the formula, and their films still steadily take spots on the Oscars list for Best Animated Feature every year, while the somewhat smaller, more original films (such as this year’s The Red Turtle (2016) or My Life as a Zucchini (2016)) take a backseat to the power of childhood nostalgia. Sure, the two aforementioned films might get nominated for awards, but the audiences they pull are significantly smaller nonetheless. The issue goes beyond a lack of originality in the big studio films—the acclaim they get for their unoriginality is harmful to the entire industry.
Perhaps the reason why these sequels work so well is because people desperately want their childhood to be pristine. There is a beauty about nostalgia that is held so dear by many of us that it blinds. Perhaps the popularity can be explained as a sociological matter rather than through an allegory that shows greedy businessmen beating dead horses. Internet has laid bare all of the outer reaches of fandoms and communities, and now, more than ever, has it become easier to be a part of a fandom. Being part of a group can be a powerful confirmation for your personal obsessions—be it your Hogwarts house, your hate for Jar-Jar Binks, or your knowledge of Disney-movie song lyrics. Why would you want to lose faith in a company or franchise when you and all your friends enjoy their products on a daily basis? Since the products from the rehashes are so dear to so many of us, the game becomes only more foul.
The only conclusion that I can draw here is a plea to the movie industry: please stop beating the horses we love, and bring us some new foals who can grow and live alongside the next generation. And to us moviegoers, please avoid supporting the releases of these big blockbuster rehashes, and go support some smaller films. If you want to escape from the sucky-ness of reality, you can. Just be sure to dive into the future of movies, and not the past. Otherwise, nothing is gained, and nothing is improved. Not reality, not fantasy.