Star Wars, The Revenant, and The Hateful Eight: is original film making dead?

Hail Caesar! was great, but it’s badly outnumbered by formulaic Hollywood rehashes.

Back in the day I used to travel. A lot. As director of international strategy for a major corporation, I spent much of my life on planes. I actually once flew from Chicago to Milan for a one hour meeting, flying a red-eye out and the Concorde back. On those rare occasions when I was home, my wife and I’d watch a rented movie together after bedding down the kids. Much of the time, about halfway through the movie I’d realize I knew what scenes were coming next, even though I hadn’t seen the movie before.

Eventually, we figured out what was going on. I’d get on a plane, have a quick whiskey, pull on my eye shades and settle down to sleep. But frequently, I’d wake up at some point for some reason, and I’d watch whatever movie was playing while I tried to get back to sleep. When I woke up the next day though, I wouldn’t remember these brief periods, or the movie I’d watched. That is, until I was on the sofa with my wife, driving her crazy and ruining the movie by saying, “And now she pulls a gun out of her handbag….”

Even though I don’t fly around the world any more, I’ve watched a few movies recently and I’ve got that same old “haven’t-I-seen-this-before?” déjà vu thing happening.

Worst of the bunch, by far, was Star Wars. I have a lot of friends who loved this movie, and I’m damned if I can understand why. The only suspense in the movie was whether we’d have to watch a wrinkled and gray Harrison Ford kiss a wheezing, decrepit Carrie Fisher. (Thank god we didn’t.) Yes, the first Star Wars was a fantastic movie—I saw it seven times, but not so good that we needed a remake forty years on with the same actors, the same premise, the same plot, the same setting and the same dialogue, for goodness’ sake. This thing was like a reunion concert for a ‘70s band. They played all of your favorites, but they couldn’t hit the high notes, were too fat for the leather pants, and looked ridiculous when they tried to dance.

The Revenant wasn’t much better. It’s a vehicle, I get it. Its sole purpose is to win Leonardo DiCaprio an Academy Award. He’s a fine actor whose craft I admire even though I don’t want to, so give him the award already. However, don’t make us watch this movie. It’s nothing more than a remake of the Robert Redford movie Jeremiah Johnson with better cinematography and special effects. No wait, it’s worse than that. It’s a remake of Jeremiah Johnson infused with every cliché about that time imaginable, from ghost-like Indians to a dirty-faced Leo mumbling his lines. The only suspense in the movie was the opening scene where the hero and his son go wading around a swamp hunting a moose, but that suspense was all about “they’re wading in 33 degree water up to their knees—is this movie going to be about hypothermia?” Well, no, that’s not what it was about. It was about two hours of a dirty-faced DiCaprio wading around in more freezing water mumbling stale lines.

Hateful 8 was better. It’s a Tarantino western, complete with his usual crew—Sam Jackson, etc. and his usual over-the-top violence. Like all Tarantino movies, it’s extraordinarily clever, and like all Tarantino movies, it’s an homage, although it took me a while to figure out what it was an homage to. Usually, Tarantino tells you up front what he’s doing. Django was a tip of the cap to spaghetti westerns. Kill Bill was a bow to “Chinese boxer” movies. This movie, though, is a little more subtle. I was about halfway through it before I realized it was a remake of the Agatha Christie book Ten Little Indians (originally called Ten Little Niggers, sadly enough). In that book, ten people who have done bad things but escaped justice are marooned on an island where they are killed off one by one—by poisoning, by hanging, by stabbing, etc. Tarantino’s version has eight horrible people stranded in a stage coach station in a blizzard, where they’re slowly killed off one by one. It’s a rip-off, but at least it’s an entertaining and fresh rip, unlike Star Wars and Revenant.

These three movies beg the question—is original movie making dead in Hollywood? Not at all. Over the weekend I saw Hail Caesar! by the Coen brothers, which is fresh, witty and laugh-out-loud funny. And it’s fresh even though it’s about old Hollywood. Get it? It’s a movie about Hollywood clichés that isn’t clichéd. That’s because the characters and the plot aren’t retreads. The material is, but the plot is non-formulaic and the characters vibrant and idiosyncratic. A quick example: When the lead character gets a ransom note for his kidnapped star, we expect a long and drawn-out bit on negotiating with the kidnappers. Nope, instead he gets the money from petty cash and we get a bit about how to get one hundred thousand dollars in an elegant alligator briefcase.

We live in a time of referential art, where every writer and filmmaker communicates with a wink and a nod to what has come before. We get that, and it’s cool. But there’s no need to put us to sleep while you do it.

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