Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Movie trilogies: part three mayhem

If you look at anything long enough, patterns emerge from the background tapestry of Life. There was a day when Cro Magnons looked into the sky and saw constellations ... when people looked into their spent teacups and discovered they could read the leaves ... and out of this simple and logical progression came the pseudo-science of market analysis. Eight minutes later, your ancestors could have been forgiven for running back and forth "doing a Doctor Smith," bleating, "We're doomed, doomed," until someone whacked them upside the head with a handy two-by-four. (Incidentally, Garry Oldman was great in the part. Seriously, what an actor.)

So, if you look at the whole, wide, thrashing ocean of movies -- as a realm, you understand; not any specific movie -- for long enough, you start to see patterns.

Like... Hollywood loves trilogies. And ... Part One is almost always The Best. And ... all the Part Threes seem to go ballistic.

Don't get me wrong: I love an action movie. The big action sequences are fantastic, especially in this age of CGI, where anything is likely to happen, and probably will if nobody exercises a little artistic or editorial restraint. The days when plot elements had to make sense -- or at least obey the more mundane rules of physics, such as gravity and inertia -- are gone, and unmourned.

However, the average age of the normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill moviegoer is 14. Therefore, when movies are designed and executed to make a profit over their nine-figure budgets, they're targeted to ... tweaked for ... the fourteen year old, whose adolescent bum is the most usual form of bum found on any seat more or less in front of a big screen.

I've been asking myself if the average age of the audience might be the cause of Hollywood's current trend. I call it the "Top That! Syndrome." Basically, the symptoms are simple. No matter what you did in the previous movie, the next one has to out-do it.

So, Part One could afford to set up the characters, backstory some of them, expand on the screen presence of others -- with comprehensible dialog, and other qualities which are expendable in the future segments. This installment will still need massive effects and whacked-out action, because without these elements the film is going to bomb so badly, there won't even BE a second or third movie.

But Part Two is born under a cloud: it's a TTS baby, contracting Top That! Syndrome in utero. It has to be bigger, faster, wilder, funnier, bloodier ... and the audience will love it.

However, TTS has a phase where the patient will have a close encounter with disaster, a near-death encounter ... a phase that could easily be terminal, unless teams of specialists can drag it back from the brink, and resurrect it. And virtually all Part Threes come into the world teetering on the brink, because of Top That! Syndrome.

Some survive: Return of the King could only follow the book. Everything that could be done to top The Two Towers was done, but the framework for the material had been laid down decades before, so there were several pacing points, parts in the denouement where one could draw breath -- absolutely enforced scenes where the action had to stop!!

Most Part Threes are not allowed the benefit of these pivot points, where the characters stop running, shouting, shooting, fighting, crashing, whatever. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ... Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ... and even Revenge of the Sith is dangerously close to falling into the same category.

The entire movie has been converted to action sequence. All of it.

Surprise: I actually enjoyed these movies. You just have to get into the spirit of the mayhem, and there are times when I can. I also know that movies like Tomb of the Dragon Emperor were aimed, fair and square, at Mr. Average Moviegoer, age 14, complete with the popcorn, candy and acne, in the front row. These movies hit the bull's eye, and make a ton of money.

But (and some of you are going to be looking for a blunt instrument to throw at me for this) for myself, I far prefer The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Mummy, and old Fellowship of the Ring, the very first X-Men episode, and ... so on. Those where the action STOPPED occasionally; when people talked to each other, rather than yelling at one another over the roar of the oceans and engines and hurricanes.

By now, the news that Johnny Depp has signed for a Pirates of the Caribbean Part Four is old news. But I'll add my two cents' worth right here. Since they finished the original storyline, maybe they can go back to Square One, start over, and come up with a movie that has something more like the pace of Curse of the Black Pearl. Because ... I hate to think what will happen if the TTS is not arrested, retarded -- perhaps even cured. (Is it curable? One hopes so!)

The other bit of news that's old, now, is that Johnny has also signed to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger, against George Clooney. This will make interesting viewing! I wonder if they're going to do it 1950s twee (like the TV show), or if they'll have the nerve to tell the Old West like it was, historically ... dirt and fleas and racial discrimination and all. The movie could have a sting in its tail, if they do it right ... have George rescue Johnny from a lynch mob intent on murdering him for being born an Injun, for example... Hmmm.

Like the rest of the audience, I love action scenes; I'm just not wildly enthusiastic about having the whole movie converted to action. A nice blend would be preferable. Like ... Vertical Limit, and maybe even The Peacemaker, and Max Max, and Troy.

Lately, when I hear that there's going to be a trilogy spinning off a movie I really liked, I tend to groan quietly, because the probability is, the whole thing is eventually going to go haywire. It doesn't always happen. The Zorro movies haven't gone (yet) to a Part Three -- but Nostrakeeganus, he predicting they will. It'll be (!) Son of Zorro, in another five or ten years, when Antonio's and Catherine's celluloid kid is old enough to put on the mask. X-Men: The Last Stand was frenetic, but only borderline whacked out (it's main problem was, it was under-cooked: it should have been a half hour longer, with a great deal more in it ... but the developmental material was obviously ditched to push the action sequences closer together to get Mr. Average Moviegoer revved up in the front row. Damn).

Two of the current Hollywood franchises worry me -- because I liked them both. Iron Man is one of my favorite films, and to my mind, the best comic book movie yet done. The words "sequel" add "trilogy" have been uttered, and part of me is groaning.

The other franchise that worries me is already 66% of the way trough to the terminal phase of Top That! Syndrome ... Batman. The Dark Knight was furious, frenetic, full of comic violence and cartoon horror. Contrast it with the previous movie, Christian Bale's first outing as the Bat. The fact is, few people liked the first movie, Batman Begins (I was one of the few; I loved it ... it was realistic. Woah. So, naturally, audiences stayed away in droves and movie critics pounded it. Makes sense, right? The action sequences were in proportion, and stopped for long enough for characters to be constructed.)

Now, apply the symptoms of TTS to The Dark Knight ...! To Top That, what comes next? Oh ... dear.


GDad said...

You could argue that by Part Three, the characters have been pretty fully fleshed out, so character development is allowed to take a back seat.

Mel Keegan said...

gdad -- absolutely, that's the reason they can afford to go fairly ballistic in Part Three; and as a writer I appreciate this. As a viewer (and I think, maybe, I'm getting old!) I sometimes wish the plot would just slow down a little bit. Speaking of getting old, I have yet another birthday coming up, same day as you guys vote. Depressing, isn't it?!

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