Oh noes! All the tentpole movies that Hollywood released last weekend bombed!
The FRIGHT NIGHT remake bombed. SPY KIDS 4 bombed. The CONAN THE BARBARIAN reboot bombed. Studio executives are desperately trying to figure out why, if they’re not the ones who predicted they would bomb in the first place. No one wants every hit to be a horrible, history-whitewashing chick flick like THE HELP. Hollywood needs big, flashy franchises that everyone, especially the kids and guys want to see, preferably more than once, for the latter is how a blockbuster becomes a box office hit.
While Deadline Hollywood runs autopsy reports trying to get at why these movies failed, it has to be remembered that this is August, the time where summer is winding down and the big tentpole movies that the studios had their big bets on had already been released, back in late May to mid-July. August is the time where Hollywood releases the films they consider also-rans, the ones that that didn’t turn out as good as they had hoped (for nobody sets out to spend tens of millions of dollars to make a crappy movie on purpose), the ones they expect to bomb or do so-so. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has taken them by surprise by becoming an actual hit, probably the last of this summer.
There are all kinds of reasons for last weekend’s franchise attempts bombing: they were old concepts, they weren’t interesting to audiences, the trailers and marketing failed to make them look interesting. They just looked like the most generic old rubbish Hollywood always foists on us, so we stayed away. Of course, none of the studio executives will admit that they just put out generic product everyone is tired of seeing again. That’s why Hollywood is dying. Slowly, because they still have hundreds of millions of dollars they can burn through to try to stop the decline. You’d think they might take more risks on new ideas but that’s not how the corporate mind works. It prefers to stay in its comfort zone, which is like a sinking ship they refuse to get off of because they find the unknown seas too frightening to risk swimming in. They’re going to continue to find old franchises from TV shows, comics, even board games with no plots to try to entice audiences, but probably mess it up with generic movie versions no one wants to see. Not every franchise can be too-big-to-fail mega-budget critic-proof noise-fests like the TRANSFORMERS movies. Not every franchise gets to be made by a director with a real vision like a Christopher Nolan or Peter Jackson or Guillermo del Toro.
I keep track with some bemusement of Hollywood studios trying to remake Japanese manga and anime franchises. We’re entering the second decade of Hollywood trying to develop a live action remake of Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA now, with tens of millions of dollars spent on scripts, director and actor attachments that still had to pay out salaries in pay-or-play deals even if no film was made. There are a bunch of screenwriters, stars and directors have made a nice living off AKIRA in the last decade without ever shooting an inch of film. And each attempt does not address the fact that a US remake of AKIRA would not work. Leaving aside the universal themes of war, conflict, power struggle juxtaposed against personal conflicts, AKIRA is a specifically Japanese story in its cultural context: it’s loaded with symbols and allusions to Japan being the first and so far only country to have had nuclear bombs dropped on it, and its collective trauma that has become an inseparable part of its national identity following the Second World War. The vision of teenage biker gangs run amok in a society barely holding itself together, a secretive military trying to regain dominance and its attempts to control a weaponised power too dangerous to control are all tied to Japan’s own social and political preoccupations. What’s a Hollywood remake starring Brad Pitt or Leonardo di Caprio going to offer? CGI effects will look fake and less organic than the seamless anime style where both the people and effects look integrated. But what’s the point of putting a bunch of Americans in AKIRA? Does that make it easier for white people to relate to and make it more money at the box office? The original anime has done perfectly well with a wholly Japanese cast. What’s a US remake going to be other than an utterly generic apocalyptic SF thriller?
Another target franchise for a redundant Hollywood remake is SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, which was known in the West in the 70s and 80s as STARBLAZERS. There’s a struggle over the US remake rights to produce a live action Hollywood movie based on the assumption that since a whole generation of kids in the 80s grew up watching the English-dubbed anime series, there would be a pre-sold audience for a Hollywood live action version. The problem is, it’s already been done, not just in the recent BATTLESTAR GALACTICA show that pushed the space opera genre to a gritty everyone’s-a-bastard-under-siege level and there was a Japanese live action movie that opened in Asia last December that was a huge hit. The live action Japanese movie reveals the nationalist subtext of the story by showing the last bastion of humanity as a bunch of Japanese people. YAMATO has always been an allegorical fantasy about Japan regaining its nationalist pride as a besieged nation facing up to a vast invading force (ie America) after World War II. What’s a US remake going to offer when it throws in a predominantly white American cast and maybe turn it into an America-Under-Siege 9/11 allegory? BATTLESTAR GALACTICA already did that. If the remake decides not to do a gritty War on Terror allegory, it’ll be a generic space opera, which we don’t need anymore of. If Hollywood wanted to make a bit of coin on SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, they’d be better off importing the Japanese movie and giving it a limited run to see if it would make any money before committing to years of script development hell and trying to tie down talent while scrubbing out the Japanese nationalistic propaganda, but Hollywood tends to assume that Americans don’t want to see foreign movies, and reinforces that by keeping many foreign movies off the screens.
All this mining of known franchises is executives and producers trying to make their jobs easier by trying to choose properties that have been made successful by other people already. Not that this is new – as far back as the Silent era and the 20s and 30s, Hollywood has made movies out of plays, novels and news stories, but we’re at the point where they’re trying to pick franchises aimed at kids and pretending to remake them as mature and significant while still trying to appeal to a young audience that has gotten tired of the same old rubbish and are forsaking movies for the internet and games because they find things that surprise them there.
And now I hear they want to make a Hollywood movie of GHOST IN THE SHELL too, about a solid decade after the Wachowski Brothers already plundered its main themes for THE MATRIX. I could go on, but I shan’t. I’ve already spent too many words saying Hollywood doesn’t know how to pick new material anymore because they would rather pick old tired material and dress it up in a new frock.
Anyone who wants to see the SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO movie can order the Hong Kong DVD or Blu-Ray with English subtitles from YesAsia.
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