Friday, September 16, 2011

Insomnia at the Dream Factory

Hollywood has, apparently, run out of ideas. Really. A visit to your local multiplex over the next year or two is likely to be a horrendous case of déjà vu as remakes of Footloose, Point Break and (it is rumoured) even a 3D retread of Top Gun appear to underline the current depth of the film industry's creative profligacy.

I'm not, however, knocking the prospect of an eager young director attempting to breathe new life into an old story: Chris Nolan's Batman reboots have been amongst the best movies made in the last 20 years, but haven't attempted to remake, script-for-script any of the Dark Knight's previous celluloid outings. Sequels and prequels are also fine, if they add to a story arc. But what good could possibly come from redoing Footloose, a dreadful Kevin Bacon vehicle to start with, made worse by Kenny Loggins' theme song?

"Beyond improvement" may be superlative praise in other application, but in the case of Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow's FBI-meets-surfing-parachutists heist caper, which starred Keanu Reeves at full width of his legendary acting range, improvement would be beyond hope. There is worse to come with Colin Farrell taking on the Arnold Schwarzenegger role in Total Recall. While most of us would see the benefit of a thespian upgrade to the original, do we really need it?

Like endless sequels of Die Hard (run for the hills - a fifth is coming), Terminator (another rumoured - possibly featuring Arnie as an angry cyborg from the future hunting down divorce lawyers) and, yawn, another Beverly Hills Cop, there must be a slew of thirtysomething producers who clearly had their heads buried in Sesame Street during the 80s. Have they simply failed to notice these films have already had their time? Why else are we likely to see Red Dawn being remade with the Russian invasion of the original's premise replaced by Chinese soldiers landing on American soil.

The mainstream film industry long ago stopped being anything of any wholesale artistic integrity. Today it's just another FMCG business. Focus groups and demographics determine content and drive the mass production of sequels, franchises and the inexplicable rise of 3D, a medium no one - as far as I recall - asked for, and yet no visit to the multiplex today is complete without being handed a pair of imitation Wayfarers to enjoy the "enhanced reality".

“The studios have lost their nerve,” a senior movie executive told The Times this week. “There’s original writing out there. What’s lacking is the balls to give it a chance. That’s why you’re being fed sequels, superheroes and remakes.”

Some of this commercial risk aversion isn't particularly new, of course. The so-called 'Golden Age' of cinema was all about exploiting the box office pull of marquee names. But like so many aspects of the entertainment industry, creativity is being usurped by homogenous predictability. I know mainstream cinema subsidies more interesting, eclectic filmmaking; I understand that for films of the quality of The Godfather, Schindler's List, Apolcalypse Now! and Taxi Driver to be made we also need Pirates Of The Caribbean and its brethren to fund them. But how long can a cash cow be milked?

This brings me neatly to yet another home video release from the Star Wars series: when junior school resumed for the Autumn term in early September 1977, the classroom chatter was dominated by how many times everyone had seen Star Wars over the previous six weeks.

Long before we were overloaded with convoluted back stories, CGI-infested prequels and the revelation that the first three films were actually the last three, we had an entertaining movie. Star Wars quite unashamedly nodded to the swashbuckling Saturday morning matinees of George Lucas' youth, coupled with Second World War epics like Guy Hamilton's Battle of Britain. It introduced us to the surround sound experience, with the famous opening scene - now used excessively in science fiction - of a large, rumbling Imperial battlecruiser filling the frame from, apparently, behind the viewer. It was an incredible experience.

In 1977 there was no mention of "A New Hope", The Empire Strikes Back or Return Of The Jedi. But just after the first sequel appeared, the new medium of home video started to take off, and all of a sudden, Star Wars became Episode IV: A New Hope. In the years since, the original three films have been re-released theatrically, on VHS, on LaserDisc (technology dear old Philips first developed in 1969) and on DVD a number of times.

Now, as if our video shelves don't have enough copies of the whole sequence, not to mention all the other paraphernalia and Lego we've been peddled over the last 34 years - the inevitable Blu-ray Disc box set is being released today - Star Wars: The Complete Saga.

Blu-ray, perhaps the final suck at the optical disc teat, has given Hollywood a vital lifeline to plunging home entertainment sales. Those truly fussed by the additional quality the medium offers, have embraced the medium enthusiastically. But with online movie distribution clearly the way forward - offering both HD quality and the convenience of not having to find shelf space for all those movies you buy but only watch once - Blu-ray is likely to be the last instalment of a movie franchise in its own right.

I'm sure Blu-ray releases of the Star Wars sextet will be hugely popular. I'm sure the HD picture quality will be spectacular, perhaps to the extent where the viewer pays more attention to the cinematography than the wooden script of The Phantom Menace. I'm sure the 6.1 DTS sound will add crispness to Ewan McGregor's scenery-chewing dialogue in Episodes I-through-III.

But, knowingly drawing accusations of being an old fart for saying this, nothing can recreate the first time that spaceship appeared from Row Z, the sound swelling over and around my head, and a truly unique movie experience, about a galaxy far, far away, kicking into gear.

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