So, there’s a subject that’s kinda-sorta come up across a couple of my more recent pieces, and that subject is, for lack of a better phrase, “successful bad ideas.” In a nutshell: I’ve had my low expectations proven wrong a lot lately.
Just look at Rise of the Guardians! On paper, it sounds beyond lazy. “What if Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny teamed up! To fight stuff!” Yet that movie’s a blast from start to finish, with smart storytelling and pretty decent characters. Ditto Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a movie whose premise said “stay away” but whose execution made me regret skipping it in theaters.
Maybe it’s just that I can’t tell what’s a good premise or bad one anymore. Even so, it’s worth taking a look at why these bad ideas work, when so often even the good ones fall flat.
I notice that the movies that sound “dumb” to me tend to fall under our contemporary “mash-up” heading. Jack the Giant Slayer, Jack and Jill, Rise of the Guardians, etc. Movies that can often be summed up with a “What if we did [famous story] like a badass action movie?”
For instance, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was literally inspired by two side-by-side book displays. On one, a stack of Abraham Lincoln books; on the other the Twilight series. This isn’t just an unrealistic premise. Unrealistic would be something like Die Hard: a cop gets caught up in an apparent terrorist attack on the building his wife works in. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is more like throwing buzzwords in a blender and seeing what falls out. It’s not a premise so much as it is a list of unrelated nouns.
By the way, I love this picture.
Previously, that author had written Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, a setup so banal that I have trouble believing anybody likes the actual book. And yes, I admit that I might be digging my own grave by saying that in this article. (That said, part of what I’m wrestling with here is how to tell whether something’s going to be worthwhile or not without sitting down and subjecting myself to Jane Austen and zombies at the same time. Someone tell me whether the book’s actually good in the comments. Deal?)
Because I liked that Abe Lincoln flick, didn’t I? That really did throw me for a loop when I saw it. I have no idea where that movie’s quality came from, since the author of the book comes off like a hack and Timur Bekmambetov turned in one of the most frustrating movies of the decade with Wanted. Yet, against all probability, the movie has a genuine reverence for the 16th President and a strong lead actor to back it up.
From what I’ve read, Seth Grahame-Smith did quite a bit more reading and thinking on the history and ideals in Vampire Hunter than he did for Zombies. So, I’d guess that’s where the substance of the story came from. Could be total speculation, of course.
But enough with the speculation. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter worked because, in some small way, it was genuinely about something greater than itself. At the end of the day, there really needs to be a reason for making and watching these things. It can be a character, a theme, a message, or something else entirely, but movies — even dumb ones — are at their best when they actually have something to say.
And if they don’t, then bad things happen.
Let’s broaden the topic a bit and go back to an example I used up there: Die Hard. The reason Die Hard is so beloved amongst film fans and regular fans alike is — well, it’s for a bunch of reasons. The movie’s filled to the brim with memorable characters, tight writing, economical direction, and everything else needed to make a thriller thrill. The BIGGEST thing it gets right, though, is making its center John McClane.
John McClane is the part of Die Hard nobody bothered to copy.* He isn’t a typical action hero. He’s not particularly eloquent or charming (aside from a few iconic one-liners). He spends a good chunk of the movie sitting around waiting for other people to come and help him. At the end of the movie, he DOES get the girl, but “the girl” is the same one he was already married to.
In short, he’s relatable. The kind of guy you’d likely root for in a job interview, not to mention a life-or-death action movie.
How many movies have included high-rise buildings, cool villains, zany comic relief, explosions, gunfights, and Eastern Europeans since Die Hard? From my count, just about all of them. Now, how many have bothered to actually spend enough time with the characters to get us to care about them the way we do about McClane? Far less, I’m afraid.
That’s how a movie with a ton of heart can spawn so many heartless imitators. You can fool audiences for a time with surface sheen and showmanship, but at the end of the day I bet more people remember the original Die Hard than the newest one, and the newest one came out earlier this year.
Likewise, Rise of the Guardians is a brilliantly produced movie, but the reason I had to write a post on it is because it’s actually about something. This “something” can be seen most clearly in one of the stronger moments of the movie. There’s a brief scene where Santa reveals his center, or his purpose, to Jack Frost. As he beautifully explains, it’s simply “wonder.” In that moment of genuine beauty, what had been a fun, inventive take on the character became something truly… well, wonderful.
To get to my point, what I’d really love to see is a little more sincerity and heart in our genre work. Not just movies. ALL of it. We’ve kinda let people sell us laziness recently. Zombies show up everywhere, Arkham City turned Catwoman into a bland sex object,** and Roland Emmerich’s blowing up the White House AGAIN this summer.
At the risk of veering slightly from my topic, Paul’s post on Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider struck a bit of a chord with me. One of the biggest reasons I haven’t made the switch from casual to hardcore gamer is the lack of narrative/thematic control present in the medium. I’ll be upfront and admit that I haven’t played through those yet, but Paul’s piece articulates a problem I see all over the place and it’s simply a more topical example.
Sure, games have the potential for greatness, but one of the games that seems to have most squarely hit the mark is Shadow of the Colossus. What makes it great is that everything about it, from the combat, to the exploration and the game mechanics, works all the way down to the thematic level. It knew its reason for existing, and it made sure you knew it too. If an acclaimed game like Infinite dilutes its purpose — or as Santa would say, its center — with a bunch of senseless violence, something is off.***
Especially when a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter aspires to be something other than a mindless hack-‘n’-slash movie.
It doesn’t matter which medium we’re talking about. No matter how ridiculous the concept may sound, if there’s a meaningful story and/or sincere character work, it has a shot at being something memorable — and for the right reasons.
So you people with GOOD ideas? You’ve got no excuse for slacking.
*Including a lot of its own sequels, oddly enough.
**Which is different than a sex symbol.
***I’m not trying to single out Infinite here, or say its accolades are without cause; I’m thrilled it’s finally out. It’s just here as an example to hang a discussion on. I could just as easily talk about Arkham City or Uncharted or whatever… it’s a pretty common, if sometimes tangential, issue in games.