Sunday, June 17, 2012

Coloring Outside the Franchise

(This is a spoiler heavy discussion, particularly with regard to Super 8, Cloverfield, (um) St. Elsewhere and Prometheus. You've been warned.)

There was a moment as I was watching Super 8 -- an enjoyable enough homage to Spielberg-style sci-fi adventures from the 1980s -- that I thought maybe J.J. Abrams had something up his sleeve, something that would have blown my mind if it was true.  "Did Abrams make a Cloverfield prequel without telling anyone?!?"  In today's age of a thousand websites devoted to dissecting the minutiae of every movie still, every comment by the director (or star, co-star or set caterer), every viral campaign launched (whether real or imaginary), could it be that Abrams slipped one past the goal keepers???  The sheer audacity of the idea excited me far more than the otherwise forgettable movie itself.

At the root of my suspicion was the distinct similarities between the Cloverfield monster (top) and the Super 8 alien (bottom), and I wasn't the only one to notice it.


Alien Species Wiki
Alright, so maybe the "similarities" aren't so "distinct" but go with me here for a minute.  Now, for reasons I'll explain further down, it's highly unlikely that Abrams would've tried to pull this off.  Yet, it struck me as at least probable, given how cagey Cloverfield is about the origin of the monster that destroys Manhattan, as well as Abrams' own Tarantino-esque tendency to weave elements from his various movies into each other.  The rumors were prevalent that Abrams himself took the airwaves to debunk them from up high (in perhaps the most disappointing of ways):
Once the "Super 8" alien could be fully glimpsed as it wreaked havoc in a small Ohio town, some observers noted a similarity between the creature and the alien in 2008's "Cloverfield," which Abrams produced. As he explained it to us, there is a link between the two creatures, but not one that has any storytelling impact.

"The only connection between the creature in 'Super 8' and the creature in 'Cloverfield' is that they were both designed by the same guy, Neville Page," Abrams said. "They actually look very different, but they both have two eyes, a nose and a mouth. So, in that regard, it also looks a lot like Laurence Olivier!"

That answer puts to rest any suggestion that "Super 8" and "Cloverfield" exist in the same universe or that the "Super 8" alien's actions in the 1970s somehow impacted the other alien's later actions in "Cloverfield." When we asked Abrams if there is a same-universe connection between the two flicks, he said, "No."
 So the "mother of all Easter Eggs" turned out to be, instead, the result of a designer cribbing off his own style from a movie that came out only a few years beforehand.  Sorry, I know it's a tough job, and I couldn't design an alien worthy of my parents' refrigerator let alone  a major studio film.  But come on, when enough people think the two creatures are related that you have to make a public statement debunking the idea, maybe you could have, I don't know, given the new alien antennae or a third eye or something.

But the idea stuck with me, of how cool it would be for a movie to share a universe with an earlier movie without being a direct sequel, yet doing more than winking and nodding to those quick enough to catch the references.  I know I just defined the spin-off, which is hardly a revolutionary concept. identifies at least eleven types of "spin-offs", and even identifies an example from Shakespeare.  Moreover, anyone who has studied biblical literature knows that spin-offs and "in-universe" storytelling are definitely nothing new.  Hell, even Jesus gets in on the act.

Still, I think there's a difference when it comes to "in universe" stories that share a tangential but important relationship with the source material yet also exist on there own.  To give an example, Angel is a "spin-off" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it's no stretch to say that Angel is simply the natural extension of the overarching Buffy-narrative. If Joss Whedon had decided instead to tell a story of a non-demonic law firm in L.A. and its occasional encounters with Wolfram & Hart, or perhaps a Cheers-like romantic comedy set entirely in Caritas, it might be closer to what I'm talking about.

As a counter-example, Stephen King is notorious for interweaving his characters and elements from one book into the other, to the point that many of his readers are convinced that all of his books exist in the same universe.  Thus, a "swords and wizardry" tale set in medieval times exists in the same universe as a modern day apocalypse, as does a psychological thriller about domestic abuse.  And then there is the Tommy Westphall Multiverse Theory, which states that all (or nearly all) television is nothing but the imagining of Tommy Westphall, the autistic character in St. Elsewhere who -- it is revealed in the last episode -- conjured up the entire show while staring at a snow globe.

Now, enter Prometheus, which has generated enough webpage ink that you'd practically have to go off the grid to avoid reading sci-fi and genre fans picking it apart.  (While I disagree in large part with the analysis by the excellent /Filmcast -- for the reasons that I expressed here in an email quoted by David Chen, a first for this blog! -- you could do worse for a thorough exploration of what many people seem to think were the film's shortcomings.)  For all the complaints about the supposed plot holes of this film (I'll leave it to reader to judge whether they're really plot holes at all) and -- yes -- the unforgivably stupid decisions by some of the characters, what I haven't read from anyone is how amazing it is that the film exists at all.

Why is that?  I can think of a few reasons:
  •  As I previously discussed, Hollywood is in love with sequels in a way heretofore unseen since maybe the days of the movie serials.  Each new summer blockbuster is pre-packaged as a new "franchise", and every aspiring J.K. Rowling out there is launching a book series to let Hollywood know that they can get at least a few sure-fire hit movies out of an adaptation.  But sequels operate under a clear set of rules, particularly when it comes to summer blockbusters.  The actors are under contract, the writers begin working on the next movie before the final trailer is cut for the first, and the story for the sequel is telegraphed one way or another so that the audience is primed and ready to fill the seats when the next installment rolls around.  To put it simply, you don't follow up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with a Mike Leigh drama about the blue collar travails of the stone cutters who built Hogwarts.
  • The Alien franchise is no stranger to sequels, and despite the diminishing returns of its progeny, you don't let a good franchise go to waste just because you don't have a compelling story to tell.  If you need an example, look no further than the sad trail of Fantastic Four placeholders.  But the strength of a franchise is its familiarity to the public.  It's the Happy Meal, it's the Nike swoosh, it's the pre-packaging that tells you what you're buying before you step into the theater.  Try to imagine the excitement at 20th Century Fox when Ridley Scott said he'd give them another Alien movie ... and the disappointment that set in when they found out that (a) it wouldn't be called "Alien 5", (b) it wouldn't feature Ripley, and (c) it would barely feature an "alien" at all?  This is the equivalent of Megan Ellison finding out that one of the two Terminator films she now gets to make will be The Miles Bennett Dyson Story, an inspiring tale of the invention of the neural-net processor, directed by James Cameron ... without an ex-California Governor or Terminator in sight.
  • Finally, universe building is a very delicate thing, and more likely to come off as cutesy or forced than anything approaching narrative integrity.  By way of example, if there is one common through line of the reviews that I've read of Avengers by comic book fans, it's the  respect and gratitude they give Joss Whedon for pulling off a coherent story at all with so many divergent characters to juggle.  Really, it's the juggling act of at least five directors and who knows how many writers, coordinating stories that stretch as far back as World War II and as far away as Valhalla without contradicting each other or stepping on each others' toes.  Compare the skillful interweaving that went into connecting Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America (whatever their artistic merits as individual films) with the flat, pointless shout-outs to Metropolis and Superman in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, respectively.  Or the X-Men's chronic inability to maintain continuity from The Last Stand to First ClassDaring to write an "in universe" storyline is to invite legions of angry fanboys to dissect every frame you put on screen for continuity errors, as well as heated debate over which movies - and which elements of those movies - are "canon."
What Ridley Scott has given us is not quite a prequel, not a reboot, but something that "shares the DNA" of the original Alien.  It's the backdrop, the story at the edges of the original movie. What Ridley has done is expanded the frame of the first film, never negating its existence or hand-waiving away all the mysteries of that story.  It wasn't a sly wink and a nod to the audience, breaking the fourth wall and dropping an Easter Egg for those who remember the original film.  Prometheus, for all its other strengths and weaknesses, is a movie playing outside the lines of the Hollywood franchise formula.  So criticize away over what the film doesn't do right -- the fact that it's "doing" at all is a minor Hollywood miracle.

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