Destroy All Monsters: You Can't Make A Sequel To An Experience
Ball Droids and Gyrospheres have dominated my twitter feed for about a week - everything is very round right now. We got trailers for Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens last week, the first real looks at both, and inasmuch as I certainly did enjoy seeing them, I am wondering again about their likely successes; though not as movies or financial propositions this time, merely as experiences.
I wrote recently about experiential filmmaking and have mused generally about how it may become the natural extension of our current big-screen blockbusters. In experiential filmmaking - which I'd define as a movie where the experience of watching the thing itself is part of how the film entertains you, because its filmmaking technology supports the storytelling in a new or unfamiliar way - two major prototypes in my lifetime have been Jurassic Park and Avatar. Star Wars was probably a third, but I was too young to know the difference.
(We didn't get an Ava2ar trailer this week, but we did get Jim Cameron assuring us that the movie will make us shit our pants. Great!)
Jurassic Park was not the first film to employ CGI creatures, but it was the breakthrough point for that technology, the first time a major motion picture delivered something on a visual level (in that case, realistic-looking dinosaurs) that was only possible with that verisimilitude thanks to new technology. As such, Jurassic Park was meta-text; it was a movie about going to a theme park to see dinosaurs, which we all went to see in order to see dinosaurs.
Likewise Avatar was not the first film to employ digital 3-D, but it was the first to marry the technology to the experience closely enough to create a simulation effect. People complain about Avatar's storytelling being too basic and in so doing, miss the point; not that the storytelling was unimportant to the experience, but rather that the storytelling was kept archetypal so as not to interfere with the audience-identification mechanisms that were being pushed forward by 3-D.
I was one when Star Wars came out; I presume that audiences who went to see the film in '77 had their brains rewired by a new way of seeing, just as I did with Jurassic Park and Avatar, but I don't know for sure because it never happened to me. (Ditto 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz and Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory - but let me know if you were there for those.)
I can assume that motion-controlled starfighters foxhunting each other through space also created an experience for its audiences as much as it told them a story. This would mean that Star Wars' initial bench strength came from its being a wholly new event in moviegoing, equal to its value as a piece of mythic storytelling.
Star Wars sticks out of this group, too, because it has of course had extremely successful sequels; arguably it created the franchise model as we know it today, and is now in the process of definining the mega-franchise model too. But the sequels of Star Wars were built on storytelling (though your mileage may vary), and not on an attempt to repeat the experience of seeing the Millennium Falcon jump into hyperspace for the first time.
Jurassic Park, on the other hand, has not had successful sequels. The Lost World and Jurassic Park III made their degrees of money, but neither successfully recaptured the audience experience of seeing the dinosaurs for the first time, because of course, they couldn't, short of using a memory ray. (Perhaps there's some open space there for the next technological advancement in filmmaking: memory-ray filmmaking. Watch Jurassic Park again, for the first time!) The net result is that they're generally looked at poorly. It's true that people will forget but you said and did, but never forget how you made them feel.
Watching the Jurassic World trailer grind on - at around the exact moment the new super-engineered evil dinosaur showed up, actually - I realized I just didn't give a shit about the movie after all, because I didn't give a shit about the plot of the movie. I was excited to see Jurassic Park up and running, full of jumping crocodillasaurs, and better-rendered brachiosaurs and gallimimuses in direct visual call-backs to the first film. But I know I'm not going back to Jurassic Park again, because I can't. The visual technology has not changed, and the story shell itself - Something Goes Wrong At Jurassic Park - has been done three times already.
I think a lot about what James Cameron's Avatar sequels could possibly be like; I learned long ago never to bet against the man, so I have no reason to think I won't enjoy them, but they will certainly be the moment where the rubber will hit the road in terms of the audience's investment in Avatar as a story, as opposed to an experience. All the High Frame Rate photography in the world won't allow Ava2ar to duplicate Avatar's trick; we've been to Pandora, and it's as real to us as it's going to get.
If he takes the tale itself in a new and interesting direction, Cameron's fine; we may shit our pants yet. But rely on the technological showmanship that made Avatar the highest-grossing film of all time and the project will fail. (In this regard, Cameron was lucky that there was no way even a studio could come up with a realistic premise to sink the Titanic twice.)
And ultimately, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the granddaddy of all experiential sequels, even if it brings no new technological experience to the fore upon which to market itself. It's an experiential sequel because arguably, the intent here (at least for my age group; I am well aware that any proper Star Wars movie is primarily built for kids) is to directly stripmine my/our nostalgic reverence for all things SW and sell me tickets to the instalments of this mega-franchise for another couple of decades in perpetuity.
That's why the Force Awakens trailer (not unlike, I insistently point out, the prequel trilogy marketing) so dogmatically touches upon only elements of the Star Wars universe with which we're already warmly familiar: not just the Millennium Falcon, but variations on Stormtroopers (slightly redecorated to account for the jump in continuity), lightsabres (trilogy one, one blade; trilogy two, two blades; trilogy three, WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!), and the planet Tatooine, whose status as an outland ball of dust that nobody goes to has now officially been revoked.
The point is, aside from Ball Droid, it's all very specifically crafted to be exactly what we're already fond of in the Star Wars universe, because the name of the game is nostalgia in its entirety. JJ Abrams took a gander in this direction a couple of years ago with Super 8, which played out a fever dream of (again, my generation's) collective fondness for the 1980s films of Steven Spielberg to sell us tickets to a movie that was not, from a storytelling perspective, a functioning document.
But it sure felt like the real thing, at least in fits and starts; enough so that we got out of the theatre aglow with memories of being a 12-year-old with a camera back in the era of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, long before we realized just how little of a memorable story the movie had actually told us.
That's the key, the secret lodestone: the fact that the experiential element will trump everything else if done correctly, and sell those tickets in perpetuity. It's a better power source for this money-making engine; there's very little radioactive decay. Hell, they're getting four Jurassic Park movies out of our vain hope that we might, someday, feel the same way we did the first time we saw the brachiosaur grazing on that hill. We won't: but we keep going to the park anyway.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.