We’ve entered a new age. It’s an age where stars and story no longer run Hollywood. Instead, everything is at the beck and call of the almighty franchise. Can this world be extended through multiple films? Are the characters likeable enough for audiences to follow? Can we plant information in the first film that will come back in later films? Is it a property a set of fans already care about and will want to see made into a series? The Hollywood machine is ever focused on properties. Building on top of identifiable ones, and creating new ones. But in this new landscape and even more devious kind of film has emerged: the pointless movie.
2012 has had its share of pointless movies. Wrath of the Titans, Battleship, The Amazing Spider-Man, Total Recall, The Bourne Legacy. Previous years have brought other pointless movies. But what is a pointless movie? What do I mean when I say that The Bourne Legacy was pointless? It’s a tough line. It’s almost a gut feeling, and depending on your reaction to the actual movies, you’re likely to disagree on a film-by-film basis. I guess the easiest way to explain it is that the pointless movie is that which fails to justify its own existence beyond a corporate decision.
Now, it’s not quite as simple as that. As I said, on some level it’s a gut feeling. For me, though, the usual trademarks of a pointless film are mediocrity and familiarity. It’s almost always the two combined. A truly bad movie is usually one that tries something and fails. A mediocre movie just exists. It’s there. It’s a shrug, which is already bad enough. For example, I’d say that Cars 2 is a pretty mediocre film. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t particularly like it. It was a shrug. That said—and I’ve had this argument before—I never felt that Cars 2 was pointless. That’s because it wasn’t purely bland in its approach. Question the corporate motivations for that film all you want, but the fact is, the filmmakers tried to do something new within the same series by making a spy-comedy. It didn’t work very well, but they tried. That trying alone justifies the film for me.
And the truth is, most filmmakers try. Even most crappy Hollywood films try. They might be unimaginative, or they might be boring, or they might just be really crappy and made by committee, but there’s usually a sense that somewhere along the line somebody tried to make the best film they could out of what they had. I wouldn’t call that ambition, but insofar as trying can be ambitious, most films do give a sense for why they exist as a film.
I can’t understand why the remake of Total Recall exists except that somebody somewhere thought people would recognize the title and want to see the same story again. Remakes can definitely do interesting things, and sometimes even be great. I don’t have much problem with the idea of remakes. Total Recall is the kind of remake that gives other remakes a bad name. It’s not that the film is bad, though essentially it is. The problem is that it’s at once mediocre, but also familiar. And not just familiar because it tells the story of the original film, but because it apes other films like Blade Runner and Minority report so heavily that it never has an identity of its own. It feels wholly derivative and wholly mediocre to the point where as you’re watching you begin to question why anyone bothered to make it at all. THAT is the pointless movie.
You see, it’s that feeling. It occurs to you as you’re watching the film. It’s not, “this is bad, why am I watching this?” No, it’s far worse. It’s, “I don’t understand, why does this movie exist?”
I felt that most strongly in two movies this year. The first was The Amazing Spider-Man, a film that I’d say is actually slightly better than just mediocre. In this case the familiarity was the biggest problem. I like the idea of rebooting a franchise like Spider-Man. It’s a character that can be used in all kinds of stories with all kinds of tones. I thought this new film was really going to try something different from Raimi’s films, and while it does have a different tone, the story beats of the original are repeated, and with less style; with less purpose. It felt purposely. Pointless. I walked out of the film feeling like my time had been wasted, not because the film was bad, but because the film had no reason to exist except to take my money.
The other film that bothered me was The Bourne Legacy. I was actually excited about this one! Any fan of the first three films knows that familiarity is not a problem. Each film basically follows a similar format, but somehow they still advance the story and delve deeper into the character of Jason Bourne. The action and style in each film also got better as the series went along. The Bourne Legacy was unlikely to match Ultimatum in my eyes when it came to pure action thrill, but I was pretty excited to see what Tony Gilroy would do now that he was fully at the helm. Apparently he didn’t care to do very much. The story still follows the Bourne formula, only it does so without style, without interesting action, without character depth, without a solid story hook and without any great motivation. It feels like the film is going through the motions. It’s familiar. But it’s familiar without any serious attempt at making that familiarity sing. It just kind of exists. The story happens just because it has to, and the characters do things just because the movie needs to be longer than 90 minutes, and it all kind of just sits there. All I could think was, “why does this movie exist?”
Of course, I know why these movies exist. It’s all business. It’s all franchising. Raimi and his actors can’t come back for another Spider-Man? REBOOT! Greengrass and Damon won’t come back for another Bourne film? NEW LEAD ACTOR! That’s it. Business-motivated filmmaking, but without any creative urge to make it feel like anything other than business. It’s the byproduct of the new Hollywood mode. The audience is treated like a bunch of wallets ready to open at the term “recognizable property” and the films are bland to match. The films are pure product, with nothing to back them up beyond that. These are the pointless movies.