The screen opens to a desolate wasteland. Remnants of some great city can be seen in the background. Humanity is all but extinct with only a few bands of wandering humans scavenging the wasteland. If you’ve paid the smallest amount of attention to Hollywood, you may have noticed a trend in sci-fi. To blow-up the world and show what happens after.
Whether it’s in the form of a YA dystopian society (The Hunger Games, Divergent), dystopian sci-fi with humanity fighting a never-ending war against some threat (Terminator: Genisys, Oblivion), or a nuclear/environmental fallout (The Book of Eli, Mad Max: Fury Road). Right now, the popular thing to do is blow-up the world and see what happens. There are many theories you could come up with about why this is so. That’s not why we’re here today. I want to go in the other direction.
These dystopian sci-fi films like to put the protagonists in a world where humanity already lost. To showcase the struggle of living in a world that’s harsher and more savage than our own. At the same time, it showcases the inevitability that our world is going to die. At some point, Hollywood got very depressing about humanities future. So what happens when we aren’t?
You get films like Tomorrowland and The Martian. One was a flop while the other is one of the biggest films of 2015. Let’s start with the flop. Tomorrowland had plenty of issues. These mostly revolved around the narrative and the often conflicting dialogue structure. However, while the ending could have been reworked to be less sappy, it gave us hope. It aimed, somewhat ambitiously, to demonstrate the power that one person has to change the world. Echoing many of the same sentiments that today’s scientist (see Neil Degrasse Tyson) tell the scientist’s of tomorrow.
Honestly, Tomorrowland works far better as an animated film in my opinion. It targets a broader younger audience that is quickly showing that positivity is the way to go. An audience that grew up during the golden age of animation plus the families that have young children that enjoy animation would be far more receptive.
The Martian has a different approach when it comes to optimism. Set in the near future (2035 or 2047) where the world is not only still in one piece but we have reignited our journey to the stars. Here you have one man stuck on Mars whose only goal is to survive. What is so engaging about this film is the display of the indomitable human spirit. Sure, there low times in the film where Mark Watney, our protagonist, hits more than a few setbacks. Things explode, fail to work, and just plain go wrong. However, he and NASA never give up.
Here again, you have a future where humanity isn’t on the way out but thriving. A story where humanity comes together for the greater good. Not only that but The Martian is more science than fiction. Any problem is solved with scientific know-how and the resources available. Where most movies might create some nifty plot-device to solve a problem, the characters are forced to use the resources they have available to them that would most likely actually be available on a similar Mars mission.
What I’m getting at is there is a place for the optimistic sci-fi drama. Where humanity is able to avert whatever disaster is looming regardless how big or small. An important distinction I want to make between this and say your superhero or run of the mill action adventure is the basis in science. You have regular people who have struggled and put in the time to learn something that inevitably saves themselves or even the world. It is much more of an earned victory.
Is this the beginning of a new trend for sci-fi? Maybe. I sure hope it is and look forward to more.
Disney is doing something very interesting with their intellectual properties (IP). I don’t know if there is a strict plan in place nor do I know if this is an actual thing. However, it’s a pretty smart move if Disney is basing movies off their past films and attractions..
What it comes down to is mining their already pre-established IP’s. This idea comes in two parts. First, is their return to their classics, mostly their animated classics, to make live-action adaptations. Second is their exploration of their Disneyland attractions.
To start off with their live-action adaptations, the least interesting of the two, is actually a very smart business move. Hollywood seems to run on remakes and reboots these days. I mean, wouldn’t you want a piece of a potential $12 billion dollar pie? When you go looking into this subject you begin to find numerous articles explaining why it seems there is nothing new in Hollywood. That’s because a) it is a safe investment and b) we as an audience want more of the same.
This is why actors who do well get payed more, because studio execs know that we want to see them. Nothing wrong with that but it is the reason why we suddenly have 3-4 Chris Pratt movies to look forward to in the coming years. Movies and IP’s work the same way. When there is a character or story that is largely liked by the majority, why would someone make a movie starting from scratch. To be honest, I am okay with this. You want to do a new interesting take on Winnie the Pooh, then go for it! As long as it is it brings something new, like make Christopher Robin an evil genius who goes up against Calvin and Hobbes. Never gonna happen but this has actually made the rounds on the internet.
While we don’t get that movie, which is a crime, we instead get the Transformers. It makes all the money, but for the wrong reasons. It’s colorfulness and explodieness (totally a word, you don’t even have to look it up) combined with its goldmine level nostalgia is a deadly combination. However, they are all literally the same movie. You could randomly mix and match scenes from all three (oh right there was a fourth) and still come out with a movie that made just as much sense. A lot of this also has to do with international markets but that’s no what where here to discuss.
The point is, Paramount has an IP whose last two movies each made over a billion dollars. Why would they say “well I guess we made all the money and should move on to that Winnie the Pooh bounty hunter movie”. That’s just a bad business move. They will keep making those movies until they stop making money and they will simply keep repeating the formula. That right there is where the problem is.
Instead of each movie expanding on the universe, we instead keep getting the same plot over and over again. The bad robots go after a robot artifact, the good robots partner with the humans to stop them, explosions happen, the good robots win. Instead of maybe making the bad robots win, killing off characters in a meaningful way, or anything inventive they just add more explosions and fight scenes.
On the flip side we have the Spider-Man franchise. Now before all 2 of you read this, hi mom, and begin to shun me just hold on. Each franchise has brought a new look at the character. While each entry has not been the best, each franchise has taken a different approach. We saw with Tobey Maguire a Spider-Man who was painfully socially awkward who transitions into adulthood. We saw him struggle with being a hero while still trying to be normal. That idea of trying to embrace our gifts to become something extraordinary.
Andrew Garfield gave us a Spider-Man who was always a hero, but who never had the tools to do something more. With his powers gave him the motivation to do more and be more. Not only that but he had to deal with the very real consequences of fighting deranged villains. The people he loves get put into danger and often die. Each iteration had its clear differences in style, metaphor, and plot points. I think where it all went wrong is they tried to go bigger than deeper. It happened at different points but they just tried to copy to a formula.
This is where Disney can succeed with its live-action adaptations. It is their own personal nostalgia gold-mine that they can now introduce twists on the very tropes they created. The best example is Maleficent. Instead of the prince bestowing love’s true kiss on Aurora, it is Maleficent herself bestowing a mothers true love to wake her up. It’s these kinds of things that Disney can do that other studios can’t, simply because they have been establishing their own tropes since Snow White. Now we just need a live-action Dumbo. (I am aware that this is now a thing but at the time this was a novel idea I swear)
Now the other side to this is the fact that they have more than just their animated films to draw from. They have Disneyland and Disney World attractions to also use. This is where the true brilliance comes in. Essentially, they have pre-made worlds to create stories for. Pirates of the Caribbean is the obvious one to point out. A simple ride that has spawned a series worth over $4 billion dollars. That’s a pretty penny for a ride that lasts about 15 minutes.
They have all of these rides and attractions that are nostalgic across a larger demographic that they are pretty much a blank slate. This is why Tomorrowland is particularly exciting. Sci-fi has been on the rise these past few years and has been turning very dark and gritty. Tomorrowland can bring us back to when sci-fi was about looking towards a bright future. A refreshing return to a more light hearted sci-fi. This would also compliment the original intention behind Tomorrowland‘s creation.
While it may have taken a moment for Disney to get their feet on the ground, we’re looking at you Haunted Mansion, they may have found their stride. The key I believe with these attraction based movies, is to keep exploring the world. In my mind, that was the big problem with At World’s End. It was merely a continuation of the last film using similar elements rather than bringing anything new in. Sure we got Calypso, but her presence felt largely shoe horned in at the last minute. With Stranger Tides, we got Black Beard, Mermaids, and ships in a bottle. Way more interesting stuff that left us wanting to know more.
This is what Disney needs to do with their attraction movies. Have some overarching plot but instead of just escalating each movie with established concepts, introduce new one to explore the world. The one that could have huge potential is the upcoming Big Thunder Mountain Railroad TV show. With a comic coming out this month based on the idea, they could go in a lot of different directions. The old west is usually presented as a place that has a lot of mysteries. Inherent mysticism that seems to infest the open plains. Only time will tell how it will turn out though.
What I am trying to get across is that Disney finds itself in fairly unique position. When remakes and reboots are the bread and butter of Hollywood, Disney has it’s own IP’s to pull from. As long as they update them with modern themes and keep things fresh with each installment, Disney can’t really fail.