Movies Stand On Their Own
It isn’t a matter of “should”.
When one goes to see a film, one sees that film. Just that one. No more.
Yes, there is the small matter of big stars. When one sees Tom Cruise, one thinks of Mission Impossible because he is such a big star, but as we learned from Wild Wild West, stars alone cannot save a movie from a bad story. The script has to be self-sustaining. Many a bad ’00s comedy included sections of the script reading “Will Farrell improvises something funny”, writing checks he couldn’t cash. Other films lean heavily on references only big geeks will understand, which makes a silly assumption about your audience being 100% geek, or it means you expect people to talk during your movie. Then of course there are directors whose style is deemed strong enough to sustain a lackluster script. The Lord of The Rings movies were great fun because they had decent scripts. Have you seen Meet the Feebles or The Frighteners? Not great movies, but made by the same director. It was the script that fell down.
While obscure references, directorial flourishes, and stars are often employed to juice a movie, no audience member can be expected to recognize a star, or know all the geeky references or anything else that leans on inter-textuality. A film must be its own piece of art to be good, and must be able to survive on its own merits, not those of the other films it recycles. Once and only once it can do that, should such extras be considered.
As I have written before, many franchises have begun to rot because rather than creating something new, they lean heavily on their existing oeuvre, or they try to whiz bang their way to success. While some synthesis is okay, the successful examples pull from other genres, like the original three Star Wars films, and the first Matrix movie. There is a difference between showing someone something the audience already knows because you hope they will like it, and showing them something they thought they knew, and making it new again by changing the context. It is the difference between homage (see: Jaws) and shameless copying (see: anything by M. Knight Shyamalan). That difference is borne out in nearly all the major movie franchises as they gradually make more and more expensive sequels that lack any of the magic of their fore bearers.
Take for example The Force Awakens. It leans heavily on the original films. When a friend of mine saw it without having seen the original films, she was bored stupid because none of the Easter eggs, upon which the film rests, meant anything to her. It rehashes every plot from the original trilogy, only worse. It tries to squeeze applause out of moments that do not deserve applause, by using gimmicks. It also has gaping plot holes that quite frankly, could have their own article.
Han and Chewie pause when the appear on screen, so the audience can applaud for them.
What’s the villains’ dastardly plan? Another stupid Death Star! Only bigger! Like a Hollywood sequel! It’s so postmodern!
When the camera swishes to the Millennium Falcon, if the audience doesn’t know what it is, it’s just some random ship and the moment means nothing.
If the Empire destroyed all the crystals used to make light sabers and the Death Stars back in Rogue One, then how is this new Hyper-Death Star being powered?
What does Poe do when he abandons his droid on some random planet with the most important computer files ever on it? He leaves it there only to discover it is safe later on when the rest of the rebels do. How did he know it would be fine? No one else did! Why did he leave it? The answer is: Because if he’d stayed then the movie wouldn’t happen.
What does the hero want? To find her family? To fix droids? To be left alone? To join the Rebels? This is never made clear, so the story doesn’t mean anything to her,or therefore the audience. She only engages in the story because a storm-trooper shoots at her. No amount of furrowed brows will fix that. If you took the Star Wars setting out of the film and set it in some random world (a western, a samurai movie, a Victorian romance), no one would have watched it.
This is by no means a problem specific to Star Wars, but Star Wars seems to be suffering from it very badly precisely because there’s so much riding on it that the film makers think they are playing it safe.
Also, the geeks have taken over the making of many of these properties. As a bit of a geek who has to rein in his geekiness, I have a theory about what causes geeks to have an impulse to make things obscure on purpose, the worst offense with regards to undermining a movie’s basic value as stand-alone entertainment.
Geeks are outsiders by their very nature. The original definition of “geek” is someone who will do anything to gain the approval of an audience. The first geeks were men and women who would eat live animals in Freak Shows (see? I avoided the urge to call it a ten-in-one!)
The modern geek derives his or her value as a geek from their level of knowledge of their subject that others do not share. To a geek, spotting the caul Adam Warlock is growing inside of in Guardians of The Galaxy is a moment of pride. You are smarter than the “norms” who don’t know what that thing is. Likewise, you may recognize every reference in a movie that makes such references, giving you a little more entertainment than the person sitting next to you.
Spotting and recognizing these inter-textual references aren’t a detriment to films. They also aren’t what makes a good story.
When I finally sat through Ghost Dog, spotting Gary Farmer as his character from Dead Man made me giggle, and I started thinking about how these stories were connected (see at left). This realization isn’t necessary to one’s enjoyment of the film. Also, I didn’t see any tangible connection that meant anything. If you know one, please provide it in the comments, below.
This is a good example of using inter-textuality well. The Force Awakens is not.
TFA benefitted from a massive promotional budget ($350,000,000) and being on more than one screen in nearly every multiplex in the world. It forced (pardon the pun) itself to be the must see movie. I would credit that with much of its success. A New Hope on the other hand, was not being shown everywhere, had a promotional budget much smaller than its offspring, and it made way, way more money.
The original film had a great story. It was completely new. It was well crafted. Even if all the inter-textual references were taken out, it would still be a great movie.
That is the recipe. There’s nothing complicated about that.
If film makers want their art to be well received without the benefit of nearly half a billion bucks from Mickey, then the focus needs to be on writing a good script that, were this film not about X thing people already know about, they’d still like it. Therein lies the bedrock of excellent art, and great entertainment.