Siddh: I’m fresh from the cinema, having watched The Magnificent Seven, the latest in a long line of mediocre ‘Summer Blockbusters’ and Hollywood’s answer to tokenism. Throw in a character from most of the large racial groups in America, add one – count it – one feisty, brooding woman and an evil, moustached land-baron and let them duke it out in an epic, Wild West showdown.
And for the third time in the last few months, I leave the theatre feeling entirely… meh. The Magnificent Seven is the third reboot I’ve seen in 2016, after watching Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond (twice). And for the third consecutive time I find myself underwhelmed, disappointed and lamenting “how much better the original was”.
I’m not even one of those people who believes originals are always the best, far from it – retelling stories with different emphases is how storytelling evolves. But I don’t think there’s many who could argue that any of the above films are better than their predecessors. Why is this becoming so frequent an occurrence?
There are a few external factors that are always going to be at play when you reboot a film, nostalgia being perhaps the most prominent. No matter what you do, there’s almost certainly going to be a legion of fans who are disappointed with the outcome. The second problem is concept. Because you’re rehashing an old idea, you’re already making it difficult for people to be wowed and impressed by what you put out. They’re already familiar with the story and the world – and any innovations that the original might have put forward will no longer maintain their charm. For example, in the case of Star Trek, a modern audience is not going to be amazed by spaceships and sliding doors in the way that audiences in the 60s were.
But these are small problems that even the slightest bit of creative thinking can conquer. Just look at some successful retellings in recent memory – The Chirstopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avatar (though it’s not a direct reboot). These films all brought something new to the franchise. Nolan brought grit and realism to Batman (something that has since become vastly overused, but that’s the topic of an entirely different article) and made the ridiculous, endearingly-camp superheroes/villains of Gotham into believable, visceral characters. It’s not the only way to represent Batman, but it’s one, innovative way. Where Avatar shines is in its aesthetic grandeur and revolutionary visuals – the film that started the 3D craze. The Force Awakens also benefits from jaw-dropping cinematography, as well as a fresh new cast for a world we’re all very familiar with and a general feel-good factor. Of course, financial gain is usually the motivation behind any Hollywood film being made, but at least these films did something new and did it well.
So what’s going wrong in The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters and Star Trek?
The Soulless Reboot
The problem is that these three films, and a host of others, are soulless reboots. There is no creative drive or inspiration behind remaking the films. There’s no particular reason for them to exist. What do they add to their respective worlds or, for that matter, to our world?
They are, instead, the product of suit-driven-filmmaking; studios dusting off old franchises and throwing them back out to capitalise on brand value and a dormant fan base in order to make easy profit. Ghostbusters is the only film you could argue has something to bring to the table: an all-female cast. But it’s still soulless. It’s characteristic of bad comedy films where we’re told to laugh more often than we’re made to laugh. It’s the same jokes and clichés we’ve heard before, so we should find them funny, right? … Wrong! Here’s a film where we’re supposed to find humour in: a fat woman yelling about food, a black woman who’s ‘simple’ nature is supposed to be endearing and a kooky, crazy blonde scientist. I’m sorry, was this meant to be a progressive, feminist film? I’m not even going to get into the sexual harassment of Chris Hemsworth’s character (and no, just reversing sexual harassment doesn’t make it okay).
But not only is there a lack of heart in these films, there’s a lack of pretty much anything. They’re underwhelming in general – not particularly funny, not particularly thrilling, not particularly emotive. They feel soulless because it’s as though they’ve been made by machines and, perhaps more accurately, by formula. They’re a product of Three Act Structure droneism where just following the textbook method for writing films is what matters and the actual content of the film is secondary. “Insert joke here; insert meta-reference here; insert mild peril, followed by cocky remark here.”
Similarly, the characters are just plastic dummies stitched together from tropes of existing characters. There’s no attempt at building them into something unique; the studio is happy enough for you to recognise that X character is the hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside type while X character is the lovable screw up who learns to do something of note by the end of the film. There is zero engagement with who these people really are, what drives them or what makes them unique. Can you think of any character from any of these movies that sticks with you? That you would turn to your friend and say, “You know, you’re a lot like _ character.”
The problem is that less and less time is being devoted to character building and more resources are being diverted to other aspects of the film, namely action. Action is now, or perhaps it’s long been, the dominant genre. It’s hardly surprising when everything is made to suit the tastes of men. But increasingly, action is becoming an individual genre of its own without necessarily meaning to be. Films are less and less fitting the tag of ‘Action-Adventure’ or ‘Action-Comedy’ and just becoming ‘Action’.
The Separation of Genres
If you don’t make the audience care for your characters and their journey how can you call your film an adventure? And if you can’t make your audience laugh how can you call your film a Comedy?
The idea of having a multi-genre film is that you get a film with depth – not just a film that’s doing the same thing over and over. And the idea of having an action-comedy or an action-adventure is that the violence, however trivial, is meant to supplement the other elements of the film. The violence is what our protagonist(s) are forced into, either by a tragic turn of events or a comical one. Yet, more and more, violence is becoming the key focus. Action has ceased to become a means to an end, but the end itself – it is no longer a last resort a character must take in order to overcome certain obstacles and fulfil their goals. Instead, action has become the main focus in the creative process and ‘stories’ are contrived to facilitate that action. Let’s talk about it in more literal terms.
The Magnificent Seven
What was The Magnificent Seven about? If I asked someone that question after they came out of the movie they would have said it was about “7 awesome gunmen who fight an unending horde of bandits in order to save a village.” And you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, what’s wrong with that? Sounds like a good plot for a movie.’ But read that sentence again; the entire purpose of the movie is to facilitate a gigantic blaze of bullets for the final 30 minutes. The rest of the movie is non-descript. It could be any gang of shooters fighting anybody for any reason. Now, how many people answered that question with “The Magnificent Seven is about a small village of farmers whose way of life is on the brink of extinction. Desperate, they set out to find an army to defend themselves, finding only seven noble warriors to help them in their fight for survival.” So okay, I made the second one wordier.
It’s been too long since I saw the original Magnificent Seven to comment, but I have seen Seven Samurai in recent memory (the Japanese original on which both films are based), and that is one of my favourite movies of all time. I dare you to watch that film and not give the second answer when I ask you “What was the film about?”
Seven Samurai is called Seven Samurai but it’s not ONLY about the Seven Samurai (was that 21 samurai?). Really, the film is about seven warriors teaching a group of peasants to fend for themselves. The film is three and a half hours long – an absolute sin in current Hollywood climate. Yes, it’s slow, but it’s mostly necessary to tell the story that needs to be told. There’s three acts – each just over an hour long and when you see what the film achieves by the end, you understand why it’s as lengthy as it is. You need an hour to properly grasp just how desperate the villagers are, offering the samurai their last morsels of rice as payment and you need to understand each individual samurai’s motivation for helping them. In The Magnificent Seven, we get flashy two-minute sequences with a smart quip at the end that doesn’t give you any insight into the mentality of each person – they’re just fighting because. You need that second hour to see the samurai build a relationship with the villagers, to learn to care for them and to see the village learn to believe in itself. You need that final hour to see the ‘action’ unfold – not to see a flurry of swords, but to see the painful resolution of struggle. The fight takes place over three days, I don’t think the fight in The Magnificent Seven takes even three hours. But you need to see the villagers at night – you need to see them plagued with self-doubt, fearful for their lives, deliberating if it’s best to just give up. You need to see them turn on each other, only to come together stronger in the end. Seeing the struggle and being told about the struggle are two entirely different things. Yes, it’s nice to see some cool action sequences, I want to see those in films too. But can they not be involving characters we are emotionally invested in?
The final scene of the Seven Samurai aptly sums up the difference I’m talking about. The main samurai – a war-weary veteran – who at the start of the film warns that he is, “Always on the losing side” is watching the villagers sing and dance to celebrate their victory. He turns to the samurai next to him, also an old war-veteran, and proclaims “In the end, we lost this battle too.” Huh? He gets in response. “I mean,” he continues, “the victory belongs to those peasants, not to us.” Then he turns and stares at the graves of the four samurai who fell in the climactic fight. It is this final, bittersweet shot of the film that encapsulates what the story is about: the complex nature of struggle, loss and hope. Is The Magnificent Seven really about anything, other than Denzel Washington being a badass? I’m not convinced.
Hollywood’s obsession with pace and bass-pumping-thrill makes for shorter, snappier films, yes. But it definitely doesn’t make for better films.
Star Trek Beyond
What we see in Magnificent Seven is a preference for action over story. In Star Trek beyond we get a preference for action over character building and theme. What is the central, underlying theme of Star Trek Beyond? The villain and the battle for the space station are (or should be) secondary – what characters need in a movie, especially characters we’re already familiar with from previous movies, is internal conflict. In a good movie, characters will be grappling with themselves and the villain is ultimately just a physical manifestation of one side of that dilemma. Go back and watch a good ‘Action’ movie and you will see that the villain’s actions and philosophical perspective help the hero come to a realisation of their own, usually what they don’t want to become. Star Trek tries this… but not very hard.
Early in the movie, Kirk tells Bones that he feels he has no reason for doing what he does. His father joined Starfleet “because he believed in it”, he “joined Starfleet on a dare”. That line was thrown in on seemingly every trailer, everywhere I went, so I assumed, when I sat down to see the movie, that we would see a deeper exploration of this idea… but no. If you watched the trailer, you got as much insight as to Kirk’s ‘dilemma’ as anyone who sat through the entire movie. He never delves deeper into this thought, never really figures out what drives him, nor explores his relationship with his deceased father. Spock, similarly, gets the news that Ambassador Spock (his future self in the timeline of this story) is dead. Though it’s a fitting tribute to Leonard Nimoy (may he rest in peace), it is barely delved deeper into. We’re supposed to content ourselves with a few throwaway lines where Bones and Kirk tell Spock that he’s needed on the ship… So? Of course you’re needed on the ship, you’re frigging second in command. Is that all you’ve got? Why not an emotional realisation that his bond with Kirk is deeper than captain and subordinate, that the Enterprise is closer to being his family than anyone on Vulcan ever was? Why not an argument, internally or externally, where he tells us why he’s so desperate to go back and help the repopulation effort, other than ‘it’s what he’s supposed to do’. You broke up with the woman you love for this, let’s see how torn you are – how much it means to you and how much the weight of the expectation is bearing down on you.
Let’s say you’re in the creative room, planning out the movie. You have 20 minutes in the middle of the movie free to use. What would make the film better, make it stick with the audience after they left the cinema? A 20-minute action sequence involving a gun-battle on the shipwrecked Enterprise, ending with the whole vessel flipping over? OR two 10 minute sequences where Kirk and Spock each talk us through their emotional conflict, how they’re both feeling lost and debilitated by the individual pressures and stresses they’re under; something they can overcome together later in the film. All too often, the decision is being made to go with the former. Maybe you disagree with me, but I really want to see more of the latter.
Especially when the theme Star Trek attempts to put forward is togetherness. That is what the main baddy, Krall, played by Idris Elba tells us… or starts off telling us then drifts off into some random tangent. When he meets Uhura, he tells her that humanity’s unity is what makes them weak and she defiantly argues to the contrary. So why not show this in effect? Yes, at the end of the film everyone is on team Enterprise again but are they at any point actually torn apart? Are they actually divided at any point? Is their togetherness tested or exhibited in this movie? There’s murmurs of it in Spock and Kirk’s mind but it never actually comes to the surface. To make matters worse, Krall then contradicts himself when the ‘big reveal’ happens and it turns out he was a former commander in Starfleet… shock, gasp! And Starfleet abandoned him… meaning they didn’t have unity? So he goes on a warpath to destroy a space station because he wasn’t given unity, the thing he’s been claiming makes humanity weak all along…. Okay?
Whatever the flaws of the original Star Trek, it was always very cerebral. Any fights that took place were usually thirty-second long punch-ups in the dirt where William Shatner just KOs some scumbag. The main focus of the episodes were always some sort of philosophical theme. Each new planet would represent a new race, a new way of thinking, a bizarre way of life… and when Spock, Bones and Kirk came into contact with the problems of these worlds they each had a unique response to the situation, influenced by their perspective and the type of thinking they represented. Spock was logical, Bones was impulsive and emotional and Kirk was the in-between: The Superego, the Id and the Ego. I can’t help but feel like the rebooted Star Trek characters are just superficial parodies of themselves.
Sigh. I’m not going to go into why the new Ghostbusters is bad because it’s hard for me to empirically explain why it’s not funny, other than that it’s just the same shit it pretends to be better than. Sufficed to say, my strong feelings for its mediocrity are probably evident.
Instead, I’m going to take a pause for now, because I’ve ranted plenty and you’ve read more than enough words already. However, if you’re somehow still interested, I want to explore this idea further and talk about where I believe this trend started and how it’s become what it is today. So look out for Part Two in the near future.