by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, July 1, 2013


If our current summer movie season had a theme - I know, I know, it's only been a couple of months, yet already one has started to shake itself out - it might be The Summer Of The Unofficial Remake, Whether Its Makers Care To Admit To It Or Not. Of the season's biggest studio releases, at least a dozen of them - Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast And Furious 6, Man Of Steel, Monsters University, World War Z, White House Down, Despicable Me 2, The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., RED 2 and The Wolverine - seem cobbled together from the spare parts of previous films. Most, obviously, just happen to be sequels and/or prequels to popular franchises (or, in Star Trek's case, a sequel to the reboot prequel). But that's no excuse for the amount of literal scene-stealing going on now at your local multiplex.

The saying goes, of course, that there's nothing new under the sun. And this is true, to a point (as David Bordwell astutely says here, even box office behemoths like The Godfather, Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark took previously-established Hollywood genres and made them bigger and better). I've even written about films that take entire plots from other films and try to pass them off as their own - a dispiriting trend in Hollywood, and one that seems to be growing more common by the minute.

Iron Man 3, for instance, takes the same basic plot as Pixar's The Incredibles and surrounds it with entire scenes and sequences from virtually every action/adventure picture ever made. The Hero Riddled With Nightmares Of His Own Haunted Past scene, the Sidekick Wounded In The Line Of Duty Spurs The Hero To Action scene, the Villain Attacks The Hero At His Home When He Least Expects It scene, The Precocious Child Helps Our Hero Learn The Error Of His Ways scene, the Girlfriend You Thought Was Safe Actually Turns Out To Be In The Clutches Of Evil scene, and, lest we forget, the Monologuing Bad Guy Leaves The Hero Alone To His Devices So Hero Can Plan His Own Elaborate Escape scene - they're all here. It's as if the folks at Marvel handed their director, Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black, the world's most expensive paint-by-numbers sheet and told him to fill in whichever colors he wanted, as long as he stayed inside the lines. Luckily Black's crackerjack signature wit helps save the movie (the line, "Don't shoot! Seriously, I don't even like working here. They are so weird!" gets the biggest laugh of the summer so far), because otherwise IM3 is cookie-cutter franchise filmmaking at best. Then again, it's already grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, so maybe familiarity does breed bigger box office returns.

Paramount's Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand (which stands at a relatively paltry $450 million), seems to be alienating hardcore Trekkies precisely because of its many references to the crown jewel of the franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Characters from that 1982 classic reappear (or appear for the "first" time, depending on your POV), dialogue is quoted almost verbatim, and a "shocking" death toward the end reverses TWOK's most pivotal scene - a questionable choice, to be sure, but one, I think, that pays off in the long run.

Without giving too much away, consider: The screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof lays out two clear character trajectories: Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), who must learn to temper his emotions and put the needs of others above his own, and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto), whose emotional reticence threatens to alienate him from his friends. The burgeoning bromance between these two characters has always been the defining relationship of the Star Trek universe, only here it's given a deeper dimension. Spock discovers his humanity just as Kirk rediscovers his, and isn't that the basic appeal of sequels - to watch these beloved characters live and learn from each other? J.J. Abrams' 2009 rebooted Trek actually made my multi-genre'd Best Of Decade list back in the day, so it was a kick to revisit the world he'd (re)created.

Speaking of (re)creation, you wouldn't think the latest big-screen incarnation of Superman would engender so much controversy, but the $200 million-budgeted, Zack Snyder-directed Man Of Steel has done exactly that, polarizing audiences since its June 14th debut. Yet despite all the neck-breaking and collateral battle damage that's gotten everyone's panties in a bunch, no one seems to notice that MOS plays like a veritable Greatest Hits assemblage of comic book/fantasy movies old and new. First and foremost, it's a virtual retread of Supermans I and II, charting the origins of the Big Blue Boy Scout and his eventual confrontation with General Zod. Act One of the movie bears a striking resemblance to Batman Begins - the hero's journey peppered with flashbacks to his troubled childhood (not surprisingly, David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan scripted both movies). A scene in which Clark Kent tells his adopted father to mind his own business recalls a similar scene from Spider-Man (2002), and likewise results in the death of a major character. A garden full of pink-ish Kryptonian embryos seems plucked from The Matrix. Zod's plot to drill through the earth's surface is swiped from Star Trek (2009), and later, Superman's bout with a tentacled alien tripod comes straight out of (you guessed it) The Incredibles. Even the climactic Metropolis melee has been played out countless times before (though, admittedly, never quite at this scale), from The Avengers to Transformers to, yes, Superman II.

I could go on. Most concepts these days, as a matter of fact, can be summed up in a simple sentence (i.e., "Monsters University = Revenge Of The Nerds... for kids!" or, "White House Down = Die Hard... in the White House!" or, "R.I.P.D. = Men In Black... with dead people!") and are likely pitched to studio executives in roughly the same way. The trailer for Disney's The Lone Ranger, meanwhile, suggests something far more problematic. Here it is again, in case you missed it:

Okay, so it's hard to gauge a movie's plot from a single two-minute preview (The Lone Ranger opens Wednesday, July 3rd), but here's what I can gather: Two brothers and their posse are ambushed in the desert by bad guys. One brother survives, and is nursed back to health by a mystical warrior, who trains said brother in the ways of all things crime-fighting and justice. Said warrior even coaches said brother to hide his identity by wearing - gasp! - a mask. Much gunfighting and frantic horse-riding ensues. Does any of this sound familiar? Well, it should:

Keep in mind, the origins of The Lone Ranger have pretty much been set since the 1930s, so technically it's The Mask Of Zorro that came after the fact. What bothers me is that the screenwriters - Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (who, by the way, wrote both films) - don't just use the same basic premise. They also crib some of the exact same emotional beats. This bit, for one, with the mask:

Or the fact that both villains' schemes have something to do with precious mineral ore:

The Lone Ranger takes this Zorro fetish even further, with a couple of lifts from Mask's 2005 sequel, The Legend Of Zorro. Ranger's primary antagonist (William Fichtner) and Legend's secondary one (Nick Chindlund) have apparently never washed their hair or heard of a toothbrush:

Both films center around the construction of a new railroad, and feature at least one sequence in which our hero rides on horseback atop a speeding train:

Each character even manages to escape certain death - by jumping down to a lower compartment, just as the locomotive enters an approaching tunnel!

This can't be a coincidence, can it? Though Elliott and Rossio were initially tapped for Legend Of Zorro, they were ultimately replaced by a pair of up-and-coming writers instead - Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who would go on to pen Transformers, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Could this curious bit of scene-stealing be Elliott and Rossio's revenge for getting kicked off the earlier film? (All four writers share co-story credit on Zorro 2.)

The point of this post, I should add, is not just to gripe and groan about the dispiriting state of Hollywood trends. Nor is it to lessen your enjoyment if current films. It helps to understand, though, the context of what you're looking at. So what if there's nothing new under the sun? At this point, that's pretty much a given. A better question might be, what is our current crop of blockbuster filmmakers attempting to do about it? Are they trying, at least, to twist the familiar tropes in ways we find refreshing and new? Or are they simply trying to pull the wool over our eyes, hoping we won't notice or care?

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