Last Friday, a friend and I were feeling a little masochistic and so decided to watch a double-feature of Oblivion and Last Stand. I’m not going to say much about Last Stand because it’s just a really unremarkable film. It’s so full chock full of 80s action film clichés that it should have been billed as a Shane Black tribute film rather than Arnold’s comeback movie, but other than that, it was as uninteresting to watch as a vice-presidential debate.
But Oblivion, on the other hand, should have been called The Idiot’s Guide To How Not To Make An Action Film. Everything that is wrong with the modern big budget blockbuster summer tent pole movie was lackadaisically stuffed into this stupid waste of pixels. Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel both suffered from the same sickness that killed Oblivion while The Avengers was only saved from the same fate by Joss Whedon’s wit and sense of humor.
This is something that someone needs to whisper into the ears of powerful people in Hollywood:
The human brain is a pattern matching machine.
For God’s sake, throw out every copy of Save the Cat and start putting some unexpected beats in your stories. When even non-film buffs can predict what’s going to happen in the next scene, you’ve created a pattern in the global moviegoer consciousness. And don’t give me that crap about fulfilling expectations. Recognizing a pattern is the least rewarding experience a person can have in a movie theater. People delight in having their expectations jostled. The Shyamalam twist? Worked the first time. After that, people started watching the movie specifically to spot the twist ending. If Hollywood can’t break free of their Mad-Libs storytelling based on the creative infection that is Save the Cat, then studios are doomed to continue losing big money on big flops.
If you haven’t heard of it: Save the Cat is a book on how to write screenplays that puts page numbers to actual beats. It has become the lingua franca of moviemaking in Hollywood which goes a long way toward explaining why every damn movie looks the same now.
Spielberg and the other guy, what’s his name, Lucas, came out recently and predicted a box office implosion was coming. Their assertion was that with too many studios making big budget movies, the audience would get tired of them and stay away in droves. I don’t think that’s the problem. Had Into Darkness and Man of Steel and RIPD and Lone Ranger been good movies or, more specifically, if they had differed from one another in story rather than just set design, I would have happily paid to see all of them.
People don’t stay home and stream it on Netflix because it’s cheaper. This is AMERICA. We will pay any amount of money to be entertained. We stay home because we don’t think the movie is worth the risk. And lately, that has never been more true.
I’ve seen one good blockbuster this summer, came out of the theater with a smile one time, and that was Pacific Rim. Even though that movie is a Cat based film like all the others, it fulfilled a dream of mine that formed when I saw the trailer for Mothra at the drive-in as a child: to see giant robots fight giant monsters and not know that it was just guys in rubber suits. Clearly, not everyone felt that way – although, predictably, they’re digging it pretty hard in Asia.
Here’s the thing about special effects: They can only enhance storytelling, not replace it. And if someone doesn’t find that cat and put a bullet in its head very soon, we are going to see a tsunami of red ink gush out of Hollywood in the very near future.
And, lastly, what happened to Tom Cruise? When did he lose his ability to summon drama and just start reciting lines? In Oblivion, he looked tired to the point of weariness and acted like someone doing an impression of Tom Cruise running lines. I don’t generally watch his movies so I’m not sure if this has been going on for a long time or if he just had the flu while shooting Oblivion, but he might want to check in with a mental health… oh, that’s right.