Last night I finally got around to viewing Star Trek: Into Darkness. The concentrated and multi-level awfulness of that film got me to thinking about how Hollywood - that is the American entertainment-industrial complex - is utterly without creativity. They have gone beyond scavenging and are now reduced to picking through the graveyards to devour the rotting corpses therein.
The Star Trek "re-boot" was in fact a caricature rather than a remake. Remakes can be done in many ways, ranging from parodies to serious retellings, but Hollywood is so far gone in terms of creativity, that it is only produce parodies of its previous work.
Ed Driscoll has discussed the decline of Hollywood before and it is partly through reading his takes that I've come to the conclusion that Hollywood as we know it is almost done. Those parts that remain creative (such as Mel Gibson or Clint Eastwood) have been driven into exile - or are so old that their days are numbered and it isn't worth the trouble to black list them.
Before going any further, I think it worthwhile to review the creative scope of Hollywood and learn how we got here.
The mass entertainment industry is little over a century old and from the advent of silent films up until the 1950s is what I would call the "First Wave" of Hollywood. It's a long span of years, but changes in the medium meant that the content was still fresh and vivid. Silent movies called for their own form of storytelling and when sound and then color arrived, still new ways were available to present the creative form.
If one looks back on the movies of those years, one finds works of incomparable and timeless genius. Some have argued that we have a skewed vision because only the 'great' movies have survived, but the fallacy of that is made clear when one simply compares the quality of today's Academy Award winning pictures with those of years past.
In a matchup of elite vs elite, the Golden Age wins by a rout.
This creativity had a lot of reasons, but chief among them was the openness of the era in the sense that filmmakers were largely self-taught, inventive and innovative. They had the virtue of doing things that never had been done before and this gave them tremendous creative power.
Even when they filmed derivative works (like Shakespeare), they did so in new and innovative ways, exploiting the camera to the fullest.
Movies continued to evolve and the challenge of television required bold steps to keep the public paying good money to watch stories they could now see on the small screen. From drive-ins to massive screens and 3-d, there was a technical attempt to gain the upper hand but the other solution was to push against the Production Code and the restrictions of the studio system.
In addition, a new generation of filmmakers were coming into their own - people who had grown up with movies and took a more systematic approach to the craft. These were people who began carefully deconstructing the great films and seeing why they worked. They treated film as a skilled trade.
The first real crop of these folks were the legendary 1970s rebels (educated in 1960s): Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and their contemporaries.
This was the Second Wave, where the movies now began deconstructing and dissecting the greatest moments of the First Wave. They produced a lot of crap of course, but also towering works of art in their own right.
Still for all the wonder of Star Wars and The Godfather, these were still derivative works. They were very good ones, but they were polished, often ironic versions of what came on before.
Indiana Jones, for example, was a straight-up throwback to the old adventure movies. The legendary comedies - Airplane!, Animal House, Blazing Saddles - these were also hilarious parodies of the previous period's films.
Those were the movies I grew up with in the theater and I enjoyed them tremendously.
We are now on the Third Wave, the people who grew up since then. Their "great" movies are those of the 70s and 80s, which are in themselves derivative. So they are now making a copy of a copy of copy.
They are essentially caricatures of what came on before. In order for a caricature to work, you have to know the original. In order for a caricature of a caricature to work, you have to go even farther back - and by that point the resemblance may be completely lost.
This brings us back to Star Trek: Into Darkness. This movie moves quickly and had a decent amount of wit and humor, but all of it presumes you know the back story. I won't get into too many spoilers, but the names of the supporting characters are introduced in such a way that fans familiar with the older films will immediately get the reference.
In fact, they are introduced with such drama that if one doesn't get the reference, the scene is wasted.
Airplane! is a great movie, hilariously funny, but it is also dated. A lot of the jokes don't work unless one knows who these otherwise serious actors are - or have watched From Here to Eternity. Even the scene with "jive" needs the viewer to get the Leave it to Beaver reference.
Now that's okay because Airplane! is a parody. It was billed as a comedy and it is brilliant. The world needs parodies - but not when every film is one.
That is where we now are. Every "franchise" film is chock full of ironic references that render the actual movie you are watching nothing more than a checklist of in-jokes.
I'm picking on Star Trek, but this applies to just about everything out there. Into the Woods, Wicked, Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy (which I liked, btw) - all of them assume you are too cool to take the movie seriously.
That is the great weakness of the parody. No one gets emotional when the doomed airliner is about to crash, or the frat boys at Faber are expelled. They are all part of the comedic ride.
Yet when characters in one of the Marvel or DC reboots faces adversity - say the apparent death of a friend or ally - the mood suddenly shifts to one of high drama. It's hilarious, but unintentionally so. There is simply no reason to care what happens to the Enterprise, let alone anyone on her because - like a 70s sitcom - nothing will have changed by the end of the show.
I read somewhere that dvd sales are cratering. I believe it - who would want to watch this crap a second time?
One of the best and creatively interesting films of the last 10 years was the epic 300.
It was fresh, new and totally compelling. I still watch it with pleasure.
But it came out in 2006. Since then the look, feel and even name has been recycled several times and each version gets worse. Oh, they try to capture the look, grit and gore, but they miss the actual point of the thing. The message and theme are lost.
That is the problem with modern Hollywood. They look at a movie like 300 and try to hire similar actors, use similar effects, and tell similar stories - and they fail because all they have done is produce an exquisite copy of a great movie.
One can argue that 300 shows Hollywood can still produce great movies, but it still can't compare to the Golden Age movies. It's good, but not that good. It is also only one decent film in a sea of garbage.
It is also worth noting that 300 was utterly trashed by critics and the Hollywood establishment when it came out.
Today I can look at the alleged best pictures and shrug. The only decent movies today are made by the British, who still retain a vestigal sense of drama and understand that male leads need more than washboard abs to be compelling.
I will end on a positive note (because I am an optimist): Television is getting quite good, if one steps outside the network bubble. Justified is brilliant and many of the micro-series' (shows with only a few episodes in a season) are excellent.
As the line between movie and television blurs, it may be that a new creative energy will emerge. We can only hope so, because establishment Hollywood has nothing left.