As we approached the New Year I asked a couple of members of my family what the best film they saw in 2016 was. A few answers were given, but the general consensus was the there had been quite a few ‘pretty good’ films this year – Arrival, Eye in the Sky and Spotlight to name a few – but nothing overwhelmingly special. It took a few minutes into this conversation for a film even released in 2016 to even get mentioned – the question, “Was Whiplash released this year?” was asked (no Dad, that was 2014…) – and it really got me wondering where this seeming lack of great films had come from and what that said about the state of the film industry.
When it came to it, I struggled to answer my own question. There were plenty of times I saw really enjoyable films this year, but nothing that I would rush to recommend over one of my old favourites. I settled on The Nice Guys as my 2016 pick – funny, original and a film I could watch over again, but it wasn’t a patch on films like Whiplash, Boyhood and Drive that we have been lucky enough to witness in recent years.
Looking at the Box Office figures for 2016, the lack of ‘great’ films can be explained instantly. The top 15 films include: Finding Dory, Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, Deadpool, Zootopia, Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts, Moana, Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond and X-Men: Apocalypse – that’s 4 sequels, 2 spin-offs, 2 remakes and 4 films that aren’t necessarily sequels but do belong to a sequential universe. Just three of 2016’s biggest films are entirely original and I wouldn’t mind betting that The Secret Life of Pets was a big enough hit to warrant its own sequel…
There’s certainly nothing wrong with a sequel/spin-off/reboot/cinematic universe – I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy a number of these films, but it does seem to be getting a bit ridiculous now. It boils down to an argument at the core of what cinema is, is cinema an art or is it a form of entertainment? I think my point is that it can be both, and the best films are exactly that; take Arrival as the example, Denis Villeneuve created a film that had artistic qualities – stunning to look at, complex but rewarding to understand – yet didn’t do this at the expensive of being entertaining. A wide audience enjoyed Arrival and I doubt they would have done so if it had just been a ‘pretentious piece of art’. In the 21st Century, a great film should be something that audiences rave about long after the credits have rolled on social media, not just something that they see and think, ‘well that was pretty easy to watch and kinda similar to the last one in that series’.
Where does this leave us, then? It’s obviously correct to presume that studios prioritise commercial success over technical virtuosity and at the end of the day, they’re probably right to. To the studios, filmmaking is a business. A film could be an artistic masterclass but if it does not make money then the studio will not bother using their money in that way again. There’s no longer anything breathtaking about seeing the same Superheroes fight similar villains over and over again, but pumping money into these superhero universes is a guaranteed way to make a quick buck, taking a risk on an up and coming filmmaker with what seems like a unique script is not. My message therefore, is not that there’s an easy solution to what I see as a lack of originality, a lack of fresh ideas and quite frankly, a lack of real excitement within the film industry, but that there are certainly ways around regurgitating the same, safe stories over and over again. It’s all about ensuring that the films can stand-alone just as well as they can contribute to the ‘universe’ surrounding the film, whether that’s a literal cinematic universe or a vast fandom that demand answers and merchandise and the key to this is most certainly a good script, no complacency and no fear of breaking away from the traditional storylines of a franchise or certain type of story.
There are things to be optimistic about – I have never been so excited for a film to be released as I am for La La Land to grace our screens here in the UK yet 2017’s biggest ‘hits’ look to follow this seemingly unoriginal pattern. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited for Blade Runner 2049, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Star Wars Episode 8, but I just wish there were more Se7ens and Whiplashes being made rather than remakes of films that were fine as they were (*cough* The Mummy *cough*) and sequels to obviously tired franchises.
I’d be interested to know what other people think about the ideas I’ve raised here, leave a comment or drop me a tweet.
Twitter – @aliceohare_