Risk aversion is destroying modern movie making in the USA

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com


This byzantine plot sprawl has been in full effect this year. Avengers: Age of Ultron lost many round about the point the villain heads off to a South African shipyard in search of something called Wakandan vibranium. Promoting the film, writer-director Joss Whedon acknowledged that keeping all the narrative plates spinning for his six-man superhero team, plus all the side players, had left him “a little bit broken”. Terminator Genisys director Alan Taylor, faced with the collective “eh?” over his recent convoluted overhaul of the Schwarzenegger classic, made a spirited attempt in interviews to break down the film’s supposed seven interweaving timelines. But if his film had worked, he wouldn’t have needed to.

Pacific Rim screenwriter Travis Beacham says he first noticed this “pet peeve” with the advent of the Marvel films: “It’s a very literal complexity, it’s not an emotional complexity. It’s very point A to point B, we have to get the talisman to stop Dr Whatever from raising an army. Very pragmatic stuff that doesn’t leave a lot of room for character.” He compares Jurassic World to the original Jurassic Park: “In the first film, there’s only a handful of major sequences: the T-rex attack in the rain, the velociraptors in the kitchen. But because there are so few, you can really spend some time with them, and let them unfold. The latest one is this wall-to-wall sequence of events, and there’s not a lot of suspense.”

What happened to the industry in the intervening 20 years? In the rush to give restless, spoilt-for-choice modern viewers value for money, the studios are making their blockbusters in an ever more feverish climate. The past decade has seen, in the struggle for prime spots on the movie-going calendar, the rise of release dates locked in years in advance. In order to hit those targets, production schedules have little room for deviation; finished scripts often lag behind the key special-effects sequences, which are devised early so mockups around which actors can be directed are ready when shooting starts. Screenwriters, says Pearce, are often left to link the showpieces as best as they can.

“Because of that, you get these kind of labyrinthine machinations to desperately weave in character motivation, geography and the practical aspects of getting from one scene to another.”

“People are so in the white-hot crucible of terror of making the movie,” he continues, “It’s very difficult for them to take a step back and look at the story at a macro level.” This often results in a storyline that’s hectoring but lacking in any emotional through-line; the kind of rickety plot-slalom that in the case of the interminable Transformers films, batters the viewer into a state of “weird, robot-based PTSD”.

Then there’s the added burden of clumsy exposition needed to make the thing work, often introduced at the behest of the studio executives.

“It is an industry that at its higher levels is motivated by fear,” says Beacham, “And often before there’s a reason to be afraid … In my experience, very few people walk out of a movie. You have them for two hours, and you’re free to explain or not explain whatever you see fit.”