Thursday, July 4, 2013

High Concept Hilarity

By Jay Stringer

Firstly I should say I have a pet hate. I can't stand it when people criticise something they haven't seen or read. People will declare that "Mr X is a terrible writer," or "Ms Z can't direct," or "That film sucks,"but when you push a little closer you find they haven't read the thing that Mr X has written, or seen the film that Ms Z has made.

I can't stand that. In all honesty, I find it dishonest. I try to make a living from writing, so I feel I owe other creators -especially writers- a certain level of professional respect. So, given how much I dislike that school of criticism, I'm about to tread a fine line.

I have no issues at all with the quality of PACIFIC RIM. I can't have. I haven't seen it. I have no comments that I can make on whether it's a good film, but I do want to talk about the way these films are marketed and the culture of accepting it. If I do start to read like I'm attacking the quality of the film itself, slap me.

Here's a conversation I had with a friend this week;

FRIEND: "Seen the trailer for PACIFIC RIM?"
ME: "Saw one before STAR TREK"
ME: "Really? All I got was that giant robots are fighting giant monsters."
FRIEND: "What more do you need?"

And here, somewhat related to the theme, is a conversation I had with another friend a few years ago when I was complaining about what a bad film TRANSFORMERS 2 was (and I will criticise it, because I paid to go see it);

ME: "I hated it. No structure. No story. No internal logic."
FRIEND: "You paid to see a film about giant robots fighting. Were you expecting a story?"

And so here we are again.

PACIFIC RIM could turn out to be a great film with a gripping story. There are many people whose tastes I trust who will be seeing it, and i might add it to my list if they report back on it being good. The thing is, they will have done a job that the film's marketing team don't seem to feel they need to. They will have convinced me of the films quality.

On the part of the studio and the marketing team themselves, they seem to think that just shouting "GIANT MONSTERS FIGHTING GIANT ROBOTS!!!!!!" is enough. And, you know what? It seems that they're right. Any time I voice an opinion to the contrary I'm starting to get people who think I am the strange one. That second conversation, the one about Transformers 2, does seem to be becoming representative of how we make these decisions. I'm the one who is strange for expecting a story when I pay money to go and see a film that someone was paid thousands to write.

High concept and one line pitches are nothing new. We've all seen them, and all used them.

It's like JAWS but in a JUNGLE. It's a HAUNTED HOUSE movie in SPACE. It's like ALIEN but on a boat. It's like DIE HARD but on a BUS. It's like THE TERMINATOR but with the number TWO after it. It's like your MUM but BETTER.

But am I the only one feeling that we're now getting further and further down this road, and that things like story no longer matter? Am I wrong, and it's always been this way?

And furthermore, when I come out of these films and then moan about the lack of story, I get told that I simply "don't like fun." Have we lowered our expectations so much, that "fun" now means "crap?" (Again, that is aimed at the films I have seen.) This culture of "switching your brain off." I'm pretty sure that if I switch my brain off, doctors will come into the room, shout out the time, and write my name on a certificate. To look at my list of favourite films is to see quite a few films that I would consider 'fun.' RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. BACK TO THE FUTURE. GHOSTBUSTERS. These are fun films. And for each of them there are moments when you need to suspend disbelief, when you have to trust the narrative over trusting external logic. But the films earn those moments. That no longer seems to be a consideration. We've accepted that "fun" means people getting paid thousands and millions to make films, that we then pay a percentage of our weekly wage to go and see, that don't have to make any kind of sense or have any kind of story. I don't find that "fun."

But I'm off topic. I'm not trying to talk about the films themselves so much as the way they are sold to us.

Is my generation to blame? The kids who grew up in the 80's constantly mashing things up. The decade when action figures had exploded, when TV series were now made simply to sell those toys. When we would run around the playground arguing about who would win in a fight between He-Man and Optimus Prime and also testing the theory out with plastic avatars? When we could argue about who would win in a fight between Freddy and Jason, and if the Terminator could take out a Xenomorph? Many of these things were turned into comics that people my age lapped up. And, in turn, some of them have been films. People my age our now writing movies, they are now selling and advertising them. So maybe it's all our fault.

Am I alone in wanting to have someone pitch to me as if they take me seriously? Am I alone in wanting to at least think that the marketing people credit me with a brain and with some interest in story or character? It does seem that the marketing people are right. That this is what "we" are happy with.

So, once again, I have no beef with the quality of PACIFIC RIM. It has a very good Director. It has a strong cast. I believe some of the influences come from Greek myth, and I'm a big fan of those same myths. It has every chance of being a good film. But that also seems to be entirely incidental. The marketing is not interested in whether or not it's a good film with a compelling story. And, it seems, the people I speak to who are excited about it tend to leave that as an afterthought, too. It's just the film about GIANT MONSTERS FIGHTING GIANT ROBOTS. Eh.

PACIFIC RIM has a chance of being a good film. It's by a good Director. It has a good cast. But none of those seem to be the selling points.


Scott D. Parker said...

I'm a bit of a fence walker on this. For me, I didn't pay any attention to Pacific Rim in print until I saw the preview. Then I realized it was Giant Robots Fighting Giant Monsters. Ah-ha! That was enough *to get me into a theater.* At that point, however, I'll see how it lies.

Saw Lone Ranger last night. Tons of bad reviews, but I thought the film was fine, had some funny moments, had some slow moments, but seemed to follow a through-line from beginning to end, A to Z. Sure it probably could have been trimmed down, made a more streamlined film, but part of Hollywood summer movie making is length as well as spectacle: Hollywood wants to make sure you get your $10 worth. It's almost as if TV is where the high-quality drama-type stuff is nowadays, leaving movie houses for kid films and spectacle.

Oh, and I haven't seen Transformers 1, 2, 3, or however many there are.

Bryon Quertermous said...

I think you're right, though not for all movies just a certain kind of movie. When you spend $250-$300 million to make a movie you need to get as many people in the seats as possible to keep your job. Those kinds of stakes demand lowest common denominator marketing.

If they play up the giant robots fighting part they know they will get a ton of people who only care about explosions and also a good number of smart people with high standards who also like explosions. But if they market only to the smart folks with high standards they'll lose most of the others who only care about explosions.

There are plenty of other movies where the marketing is more subtle or wittier or smart about playing with expectations but those are movies with smaller budgets and smaller expectations.

Also, to be fair to the average Joe, movies like Battleship or After Earth where they don't try at all to give a good story have failed miserably.

Jay Stringer said...

Good point on the change being led by the rise in budgets. The more the studio has to lose, the more they'll pitch to the explosions.

I wonder what that says about US, rather than about the studios, but thats a question for another time...

Dana King said...

I agree completely. I used to watch trailers to find out which movies I'll want to see. Now, more often than not, the trailers poin me away from movies in which I have no interest, for the reasons you cited.

John McFetridge said...

I think what it says about us isn't for another day, it's what your post is about.

We're consumers. That's all we are. The fact that we're looking for "something more" in a movie about giant robots and monsters tells the studios all they need to know about us.

Brian said...

A few days ago, I saw the new Superman movie, Man of Steel and the trailer for Pacific Rim. After the trailer I decided it was another Transformers and I didn't need to see another mindless smash-um-up.

Meanwhile I settled in with my pop and popcorn for the smash-um-up I'd paid for.

First the good. The CG in Man of Steel is incredible, probably the best I've ever seen. The acting is good, and the thread of the story makes sense, probably more to those of us who are well versed in Superman lore. I saw a lot of the elements of Superman history and I enjoyed remembering them. I especially enjoyed Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as the Kents.

Unlike the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, I didn't learn anything new about the main character or about the way he felt. I'd hoped I would.

Then the action took over the film. Superman has his enemies completely destroy Smallville, Metropolis, half the Indian Ocean, and a space satellite. Of course it only took a day or so to everything back in order so Clark Kent could take his job as a stringer on the Daily Planet. Destruction without consequence. Since nothing was made of the aftermath, I must assume the destruction was only to excite the audience.

In the end, I found the movie to be cotton candy. Tasted good at the time, but disappears quickly.

I'm betting Pacific Rim will be similar.