Are Movie-Makers Punished When They Try to do Something Original and Interesting?

I took the last week off and caught up on a lot of movies I’d been meaning to see, but it’s led me to a kind of disturbing conclusion.

First, I watched Cloud Atlas, which I absolutely loved. For some reason, I thought it would be silly and inaccessible, but I ended up thinking it was one of the best movies of 2012 (despite the distracting prosthetics, which didn’t really work, although I totally get how they fit the theme).

I also loved the big, challenging “point” of the film: that evil will always exist, it’s never going away, but that we need to fight against it anyway, though it might not really make any real difference.


I also watched Upside Down, starring Kirsten Dunst. It actually reminded me a lot of Cloud Atlas. It’s the story of lovers from two parallel worlds … well, hey, please just check out the trailer:

I know, right?

Upside Down isn’t as good as Cloud Atlas, and the reviews were harsh (it’s 27% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). It ended up flopping in theaters. But the fact is, it’s a gorgeous movie to look at, and the premise is just wonderfully original and audacious. I had my quibbles with the film, but overall, I enjoyed it.

And did I mention was a fantastic, original premise the movie has?

Finally, I saw Man of Steel.

What. A. Terrible. Movie.

It was literally everything I hate about Hollywood movies these days: lots of explosions, massive plot holes, and absolutely no good reason to exist.

Unlike Upside Down and Cloud Atlas, there was nothing fresh about it at all.

Honestly, I just found Clark Kent (and the movie) to be confusing. His dad tells him, “It’s really, really important to keep your identity a secret, even if it means letting me die! But oh yeah, one day be sure to reveal who you are.”


This “Superman as outcast” theme is actually very interesting to me, but it wasn’t developed at all apart from one or two scenes. And, of course, by age 33, Clark Kent still hasn’t revealed who his is — even as he, sometimes anyway, tries to help people, at least if the disasters happen right in front of his face. And they do. A lot.

So if Zod hadn’t come along, would he have never “come out” as Superman?

Oh, and if you’re going to do a non-linear plot, do a damn non-linear plot! Don’t sort of do it just to be cute.

So let’s recap: I saw two movies (Cloud Atlas and Upside Down) with fascinating, original premises reasonably well executed, and they both tanked.

Then there was one movie (Man of Steel) that could never in a million years be anyone’s idea of “original,” but it was based on classic, beloved superhero, so it’s going to end up being one of the biggest hits of the year, spawning a whole bunch of even-more-unnecessary sequels.

And don’t me started on last weekend’s wild, break-out success of Grown-Ups 2.

It’s almost as if mainstream audiences put the bar much, much higher if a film project is “different” or original in any way. Sometimes they’ll go, but only if the movie has widespread acclaim — if it’s basically perfect in every way. (And sometimes they won’t even go then!)

On one hand, I get it. I like my “popcorn” movies too. And I’ve been known to rail at length over pretentious, self-important arthouse films.

But the paranoid writer in me is starting to think that mainstream audiences are basically repelled by the truly original stuff. They mostly just want the tried-and-true — all the things they’ve seen a zillion times before.

This isn’t an original observation, I know. But if it’s true, and if the studios have finally figured it out, it means that mainstream movies are virtually never going to be original or interesting again. It certainly explains why so many studio movies are so incredibly shitty these days — why they’re mostly just remakes, reboots, sequels, and rip-offs.

Someone talk me down and tell me I’m wrong — that the failure of The Lone Ranger or the existence of Inception proves that hope is not lost, that audiences are smarter than I’m giving them credit for. Or maybe it was always thus, and artists and writers have somehow managed to survive anyway (for the most part).

Because after last week’s movies, I’m feeling kind of pessimistic.

In the meantime, do me a favor and check out Upside Down, okay?

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4 Responses to “Are Movie-Makers Punished When They Try to do Something Original and Interesting?”

  1. Mike b. 17 July 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    I finally saw Cloud Atlas a couple of weeks ago and liked it too. I keep up on movies and have never even heard of Upside Down, moviedoms best kept secret? And yes, yet another Superman movie. What the world needs now. Haven't seen it yet but guess his well publicized hunkiness was not enough to carry the movie. I did like the last Spiderman tho and thought it was better than the first 3 combined so reboots don't necessarily have to be awful. What about your movie Brent, any release date yet?

    • bhartinger 18 July 2013 at 10:07 pm #

      It cost something like $60 mil but barely got a release. Very sad.

      I don't think I'll see the next Spider-Man movie. I might be done with superheroes completely. ;-)

      There should be news on the release very soon, but nothing just yet…

  2. Bo Attwood 27 July 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    Hate to not talk you down but I think you are dead right. That's why I'm attracted to independent and foreign films more and more. I loved Cloud Atlas. It's one of the few movies I have ever gone to the theater to see more than once and even dragged friends and family members with me. Can't wait to see Upside Down now that you have recommended it!

    • Brent Hartinger 30 July 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      It's not a perfect movie, but I thought it was pretty darn interesting. Let me know what you thought… ;-)

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