by Derek Johnson
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Watching the Future columns.]
As the summer draws to a close, I realize that the movies that surprised me the most during this steroid-enhanced release season possess little in the way of genre tropes (though both touch on fantasies of some kind or another) and often uneven quality. I speak of Steven Soderberg's scattered yet still interesting Magic Mike and Adam Shankman's often lame-brained yet infectiously charming musical Rock of Ages. Please note I say "surprised"; neither overcame their deep flaws, made all the more obvious by their soap-bubble surface depth and the charisma of their leading men as devalued as the euro. But Soderberg's meditation on vacuous strippers and the even more vapid women who love them cuts deeper than expected even as it proves that it's really only skin deep, while Shankman's Velveeta paean to 80s pop culture proves that Tom Cruise might be able to save himself by taking the Shatner route of self-parody. Hey, it worked for him in Tropic Thunder.
So no, I wouldn't call these great movies. Even acknowledging them as "barely good" feels overly generous. If it hadn't been for the press passes I received for either, I doubt I would have attended the screenings at all. Yet both diverted my attention enough to allow me some enjoyment in a summer overrun by careless product, and stand out because, regardless of the quality of other fare, they at least were not sequels, the next chapter in a series, or reboots.
Sequels have always been a mainstay of cultural history. Sophocles must have outlined the first act of Antigone before the first scene of Oedipus the King finished dress rehearsal. And I'm certain the Muse spoke to Homer the tale of The Odyssey before the ink of The Iliad dried. Looking at works in more recent history, avid readers find Tom Sawyer dropping a shingle reading "boy detective" over a door in his second adventure, Captain Nemo setting up shop on his Mysterious Island, and Yossarian and Milo Minderbinder come to terms with the closing chapters of the Greatest Generation. But genre exacerbates sequels to an almost ridiculous point, turning the most exotic, and for that reason beloved, locales into destinations as familiar, and therefore as safe, as theme parks, the most alien, and therefore fascinating, into old friends. One cannot blame readers for wanting more of the same, but that sameness, stretched out to multiple volumes, never fully satisfies. The intoxicating stew of Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars or Frank Herbert's Dune tastes like thin gruel after John Carter of Mars and Chapterhouse: Dune.
As in genre literature, sequels and series fill cinema history. From King Kong to Godzilla, from Dracula to Frankenstein, science fiction movies regularly dip back into the pop culture well for more adventures featuring rubbery monsters destroying Tokyo or yet another variation of Bram Stoker's classic character once again perforating the swan-like neck of a Mina Harker clone. Occasionally studios blend their properties to see what comes of them, though the pairings at times strain the viewer's patience and credulity; perhaps stranger pairings than Abbott and Costello meeting the Lon Chaney's Wolfman and Boris Karloff's Mummy exist, but I can't think of them. Still, when they work, the results proffer cheesy fun (Destroy All Monsters; King Kong vs. Godzilla). Usually, however, the results, no matter how interesting they might sound (who among the skiffy brethren hasn't at least considered sitting through Alien vs. Predator, regardless of quality), inspire the kind of projectile vomiting Linda Blair made famous in Peter Friedkin's classic shocker The Exorcist.
All well and good. But something happened a dozen years or so ago that caused a worrisome trend: sequels started dominating the box office more and more to the point where a typical summer witnesses a virtual stuffing of the box office. True, The Avengers impressively redefines the comic book movie, and the operatic grandeur of The Dark Knight Rises, for all of its faults, at least aspires to the kind of greatness from which most other releases shy away. Unfortunately, most of the efforts clogging the multiplexes wind up being forgettable at best (I had to look through my notes to remember that yes, I actually did see Men in Black 3) or leaving one to wonder how a specific series still draws an audience; maybe some moviegoers needed another chapter in the Ice Age saga, but I doubt the grosses for Ice Age: Continental Drift deem additional installments necessary.
What happened was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and the rise of the prequel, and subsequently the reboot.
As with sequels, prequels are neither recent phenomena nor exclusive to science fiction and fantasy, though one need only peruse the science fiction section of Barnes and Noble to find an uptick in authors penning tales taking place before the main action of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy or, again, Herbert's Dune. It seems wise; who wouldn't want to know what occurred before the beginning of the story? Understandable though the impulse may be, in practice they seldom work because they are backstory. The Phantom Menace fails in part because how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader compels less interest than the dynamic that plays out between Vader and Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy.
Despite this, and despite the middling critical and audience reception, the movie and its sequels not only raked in huge amounts of cash but also ushered in the era of movies taking us "back to the beginning" (from successes like J.J. Abrams's Star Trek and X-Men: First Class to disasters like Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.'s The Thing), and in some cases pressing the reset button. These reboots wipe clean a series' previous history in favor of fresh actors, alternate directors, and new approaches. Certainly some series benefit from reboots -- Batman Begins washed the bitter aftertaste of Batman and Robin from moviegoers' collective memory, and Casino Royale allowed James Bond to make mistakes and demonstrate why people in his profession can't show real emotions -- yet often they seem pointless, or worse, insulting. The Amazing Spider-Man discarded so much of what made Sam Raimi's contributions to the cinematic webslinger that it made Peter Parker look rather stupid, while Prometheus so rewrote the Alien franchise that the actions of its characters insulted the intelligence of those who enjoy thoughtful sf.
And we can expect more in the future. Captain America and Thor both will perform additional superheroics in the wake of the success of The Avengers. Columbia Pictures announced a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man. In November, the twenty-third James Bond movie Skyfall hits IMAX screens around the world, and Peter Jackson once again takes us to Middle Earth, turning J.R.R. Tolkien's slender tale The Hobbit into a three-picture series.
It's enough to leave even those who love genre with burnout, and to make us run to questionable strips of celluloid like Magic Mike.
Derek Johnson's critical work has appeared on SF Site, SF Signal, and Revolution SF. His first novel, the erotic thriller, Murder, Most Likely, written in collaboration with SammyJo Hunt, is forthcoming from Rebel Ink Press. He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.
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