Friday, February 15, 2013

Reboots vs. Sequels

Over the holidays, I was treated by my very kind and generous aunt and uncle to a matinee of the first installment of the Hobbit trilogy.  I was also treated to an enormous tub of popcorn, far larger than I would ever be able to justify buying for myself.  I knew I was in trouble when it was thrust lovingly into my arms, but I was also naturally excited for some over-indulgence.  However, as the very entertaining film wore on, I realized I was being treated to much more over-indulgence than I had, at first, realized.  The Hobbit part 1 is a very fun and nostalgic return to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, but in many ways it felt a lot like my stomach after ingesting that tub of popcorn: bloated and over-stuffed.

You see, I look at the LOTR trilogy like a crescendo symbol.

The Fellowship of the Ring presented a very intimate tale of relatively few characters.  The scope of the story felt grand but it proved to be rather small compared to the behemoth that was to come, like the left side of that crescendo mark.  Two films later, the story had exploded onto a never-before-imagined scale.  Armies of hundreds of thousands of orcs crowded around office-building-sized elephants and stormed a giant CGI city, etc.  Don't get me wrong.  I love that whole trilogy dearly.  But, to me, the Hobbit should have been further back along that crescendo, more intimate and simple than the Fellowship of the Ring, not blown up beyond the scale of the Return of the King.

Alas, that's the nature of the Hollywood movie Franchise.  The name of the game is "Outdo Yourself."  It begins when a successful film (usually based off some previously existing fiction) proves to be a seemingly limitless diamond mine.  Then the screenwriters begin the long process of milking the cash cow for every conceivable story and special effect, constantly inflating a giant balloon of characters and subplots and such until it bursts.  Hollywood used to favor the trilogy (The Matrix, Spider-Man) but they have since left that idea behind, choosing instead to let their franchises grow and churn out sequels and prequels (Pirates of the Carribbean, the Bourne Whathaveyou) until they sputter and die and a reboot is necessary.

Ah, the reboot.  In the mid 1990s I used to watch a CGI cartoon show called Reboot.  I will not be writing about it.  However, that was how I first learned the term "reboot."  Since then it has come to be a very dear term to me.  It brings to my mind fond memories of such films as Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and J.J. Abrams' Star Trek.  In a reboot, the now-deflated balloon is thrown away and the series dramatically returns to the core themes of the source material.  A new director is called in.  New breath is drawn.  This is almost always a very good business move resulting in a very good film.  Why is that?  I believe one reason is that before the screenplay is even written the producers discuss the question "what made this popular in the first place?" rather than "where else could we take this?"  They take it home and home is good.  George Clooney's nipple-suit is tossed out in favor of a functional Kevlar suit of armor.  James Bond stops making puns and ridiculous gadgets and starts having real relationships with people.

In a way, the concept of a reboot is more like what happens in theater.  You can see ten different productions of Les Mis and you'll always have your favorites but you'll also always be interested in seeing how the latest production interprets the source material.  I would rather see more of that in film.

In The Hobbit, I was more interested in the beginnings of the Bilbo-Gandalf friendship than I was in the Pale Orc and I got way more Pale Orc than Bilbo-Gandalf.  I think Hollywood producers and everyday moviegoers would both be better served if we had fewer sequels and more reboots.  If more directors rotated in and out of the chair for a single franchise (as they did in Harry Potter) I think the audience would enjoy more of the soul of the characters, more of the central themes of stories, and better movies in general.

Granted there are exceptions.  Sometimes a good sequel like the Empire Strikes Back or Spider-Man 2 or the Dark Knight can knock it out of the park.  But more often than not, I think the small size tub of popcorn is plenty.  Let's get back to the heart of these stories.

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