The glut of sci-fi and fantasy pictures showing on more than half the screens at your local cinema rolled off the belts following the Hollywood notion that these pictures sell broadly, that the artifice of their secondary worlds is conducive to characters and worlds intended to represent (and therefore appeal to) multiple sociological brackets in one picture.
This audience is no general public and cannot be fairly referred to collectively as the “masses.” The audience is composed of so many different publics, a mass of various tastes that major movie studios want to please all at once.
We’re no longer seeing many of the macho rock’em sock’em action films or the Reese Witherspoon rom-coms. The double-crossed-crossed-again thrillers have largely dropped the chauvinistic sexual games in favor of couching subterfuges in corporate and political contexts a la Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects (where any sexual enterprises incorporate a larger scale of sexual orientations too).
The list goes on, showing that a major measure of American demographics and market niches are not only changing their previous compositions, but also expanding the parameters of identity to include several more. How can Hollywood cater to so many tastes?
Sci-fi and fantasy pictures just such an answer. The bait was cast as the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter and Twilight franchises bred a couple of generations from youth into spending adults and those adults, composed of a wildly diverse American public, are just waiting for another high concept series to capture their dollars. Disney and Marvel have already cashed in with the fantasy sub-genre of comic-book heroes and look to add more Avengers, Iron Mans, Thors, Hulks, &c.
Saying that all these sci-fi & fantasy pictures will eventually lose traction with the public registers premature, almost like saying interest in television’s crime, courtroom and hospital dramas will decline. But what is sure: standards for storytelling dip to match the lowest-common denominator of base interests shared by so broad an audience.
Take Star Wars: Disney’s plans for post-Yoda Star Wars episodes seem just a touch out of touch with what makes a solid adventure narrative. It’s a proven box office contender-franchise despite protests of folks born prior to Episodes I-III claiming Star Wars was fouled as soon as “Liam Neesons” & Co. injected midichlorians into the damn thing.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” doesn’t necessarily apply to a possible expiration of interest in the Star Wars universe. Instead, the phrase marks the identity of the first Star Wars trilogy as something that doesn’t quite fit some of the current trends of the Hollywood blockbuster, that the original Star Wars was adventure first, lite-mythology second.
And it was exactly that identity-reversal, the reordering of priorities that bloated the prequels with more characters and cultures, with an imperative to build an expansive world instead of focusing on the story of its tragic hero, Anakin Skywalker. When Skywalker takes a decidedly nasty turn, slaying a camp of those Tusken Raider fellows, we’re not allowed to see what takes him there. He just does it. We’ve already seen these ugly suckers in A New Hope and we know Anakin’s willing to do anything to get rid of his silly man braid because we’ve already seen Darth Vader—there’s other worlds to build and visit, of course, so skip the hero and get on with the spectacle.
With a new trilogy of episodes, the Star Wars universe is set to go in “new directions,” to build its own mythology. Again. Of course, it might be a good popcorn time if they can restrain any world building impulses.
This world building reduces the screen time properly reserved for the hero (who we should experience the story through) in order to persuade the audience of the reality of a secondary world it stamps as counterfeit as soon as it tries to stop it from being so. It’s the lingering on rituals, cultural explanations that deter from the hero’s actual adventure, which the audience came to see in the first place.
Applying this kind of world building to cinema is not only unnecessary, but un-fun. Moviegoers have been trained well enough in movieness to no longer need the airline steward’s instructions and exaggerated hand motions. It flattens momentum and often only serves to restrict its internal logic, which it upends anyway. Filmmakers from the classicist Orson Welles to the French New Wave’s Jean-Luc Godard to the present period’s Paul Thomas Anderson all have a filmography that progressively loosens up considerably, a loosening that also correlates to a narrowing of emphases regarding what’s onscreen.
A focused attention in cinema doesn’t play to all audiences though so our expectations for strong narratives decays with the barrage of all these franchise films and our palette is so dulled something like Refn’s Drive or Affleck’s Argo comes along and gathers undeserved praise just for the sake of being cohesive. The standards for storytelling in cinema have melted and taken a lesser shape.