I tend to be behind the times with respect to pop culture. Given my interests and my aspirations, that probably isn’t good. I took some time to indulge curiosity and watch a few movie trailers for coming attractions today. I confess that I had no idea what was slated for release, so forgive me if I’m talking about old news as if it’s current. But then, doing so is perfectly in keeping with Hollywood’s model for movie making.
Several weeks ago, I was walking by a local movie theater with a friend, and I stopped in my tracks and dragged her in front of the marquee and asked her to look down the list and take note of the pattern. At that time, every movie that was showing save one was a sequel, remake, or part of an existing franchise. And that one exception was just a romantic comedy that in all likelihood followed the exact formula of all of its predecessors. Even the things that don’t carry familiar names sometime appear to build on a franchise.
Observing this week’s trailers, I find that in some instances, film makers succeed in building new appeal into arguably trite concepts, but all too often they attach a dollar amount to something unoriginal and go no further than that.
Paranormal Activity 3
As I said, I have no idea what’s forthcoming on the pop culture scene, so I managed to be surprised to see this trailer on the current list. I thought the first sequel was a silly effort at capitalizing on a title that the studio didn’t believe in in the first place, but made an unexpectedly huge profit on, yet I found the film entertaining on its own merits. It demonstrated a capability for bringing a moderately larger budget to bear on elaborating on the mode of presentation that made the original film so effective. It was by no means as good as that low budget, high-concept original, but it was somewhat visually and atmospherically impressive, as I basically expected of it. What I did not expect, because apparently I am still as naive as a child, was a storyline that leveraged in small roles by the characters from the original, and established an unnecessary and ultimately detrimental prequel to the first film. Somehow I had gotten the impression that the studio was going to do the smart thing and make a sequel that created a franchise on the basis of the visual content and overall character of the films, rather than a conjoined cast and story arc.
The strength of the first Paranormal Activity was never its plot. The story was little more than an escalating series of events, and it was the vicarious experience of those events that made it frightening and engaging. The dialogue about the entity having followed the Katie character throughout her life, and other allusions to her past were interesting, but they did not need to be explained. To the contrary, they simultaneously added elements of mystery and vague explanation, which tied together the various occurrences, but by no means drove the film forward. Paramount Pictures should have recognized that they had a film executive's wet dream on their hands - a franchise to which plot is irrelevant, even to highly analytical people like me. The strength of the film was the creative and intimate presentation of its content, and further films should have carried its name on that basis, rather than on the basis of sharing characters, including an invisible demon.
Why is film and television so averse to the idea of creating conceptual sequels, as opposed to direct ones? Do they think that audiences develop loyalty to franchises on the basis of a personal relationship with the characters, rather than, say, on the basis of their enjoyment of each subsequent film in the series?
I remember when the Fox television series 24 premiered in November of 2001. It was heavily marketed for the gimmick of presenting each episode as one real-time hour in a day that was to span the season. That was so strongly emphasized that it seemed that the show wasn't strictly about about a counter-terrorism operation or anything else. It was about the day during which it took place, and audiences were expected to be interested on the basis of the unique presentation of the sequence of events. That is, that was expected to be the source of interest for two or three episodes, after which Jack Bauer, his family, the soon-to-be president and other identifiably participants in the storyline were the only thing that was expected to bring the audience back next week and next season.
But I recall thinking that that show would have presented an excellent opportunity to introduce new characters and news situations with each season that the show was renewed. If we were allowed to continue thinking that the reason for the show was to present each tense hour in a fraught twenty-four hour period, it might have provided a marvelous opportunity for the studio to offer the audience fresh new material each year under the same brand, while saving money by not having to pay increasingly large salaries to an established cast on a successful show. It might also have made the continued use of the twenty-four hour narrative device markedly more plausible. Instead, we got eight seasons of increasingly familiar and increasingly absurd situations faced by the same Kiefer Sutherland character, each of whose active adventures seem to take place over the course of one sleepless twenty-four hour period.
I still think that show was a missed opportunity to break with the orthodox practice of always keeping as much of the same cast as possible in sequels and renewals, but that wasn't so obviously preferable an option as is the case with Paranormal Activity 3. We don't need to see the characters of the first two films as children. The original storyline will not be benefited by further stripping it of the intrigue of unanswered questions, and trying to add content earlier in the overall story in the hopes that it will be even scarier only serves to make the later events seem dull and almost routine. It would automatically be a better film for leaving these characters behind and letting some other family experience paranormal activity somewhere.
The tired formula of sequels has gotten us accustomed to the ridiculous tendency of the same things to happen repeatedly to exactly the same people, but if there's one franchise-defining series of events that should be common to more than one set of characters, its the act of recording a bunch of weird goings-on in an otherwise normal suburban home. That can scare us no matter who it happens to, and it's more likely to do so if we aren't perplexed by questions about why over the course of twenty years, an entire family that is plagued by recurrent supernatural activity never calls in a bevy of professional exorcists, or goes to a university or media outlet with their absolutely copious amounts of irrefutable video evidence of malevolent ghosts.
The Amazing Spider-Man
I'm still fascinated by the idea of a series reboot coming only ten years after the first entry in the original series. I think this new film looks terrible. After a minute and a half of overreaching melodrama surrounding foundational plot points with which we are already well-familiar, the only genuinely original content that we're introduced to is a special effects cluster fuck that is supposedly intended to wow us visually and make us beg to fork over extra money for 3-D glasses. But since I first saw blind faith in computer generated magic showcased in The Matrix: Reloaded, I've been continually frustrated with the common belief among film makers that they can replace entire segments of a film with animated sequences and expect it to meld seamlessly with footage of real people and locations.
I can be wowed with pure visuals, but this trailer did not cut it for me, and regardless, I need some other reason to see the movie, and I'm certainly not getting that here, especially given the line they thought would provide an excellent final punch to the trailer at the moment that the image of a computer-generated Spider-Man was revealed: "We all have secrets - the ones that we keep from others, and the ones that are kept from us." If you think about it for half a second, that means nothing. It means less than nothing in the context of a Spider-Man story.
I cycled through several reactions to this trailer as I was watching it. It is visually compelling from the start, due entirely to cinematography and editing, and it does a fine job of building tension through a skillful use of music, before we have any idea what we're watching. But at about fifty seconds in, I am convinced that what I'm watching is a preview for a new take on The Amityville Horror. It's that tried and true plot about a house that is so haunted by its dark legacy that it unseats the sanity of its new occupant. The similarity grows for thirty seconds up to the confrontation of the protagonist with the image of a perpetrator that looks just like him, but then this film leaps in another direction by saying that they actually are the same person and making the protagonist's conflict curve around uncertainty about what is real.
It remains grounded in an extremely familiar concept - the house with a repeating history, which terrorizes a tight-knit family, the struggle of the head of household to retain (or perhaps forfeit in this case) sanity. There is still that shouted emphasis, "There's something wrong with this house!" It builds on established tropes, but it may just build on them in creative and satisfying ways. I'd be interested to see this film. It may give me hope that Hollywood is capable of being original within the context of its love of repetition. But I worry that the best it can be is the exception to the rule.