Thursday, March 17, 2011

Battle: LA and Originality

When I'm with friends talking about various films or television shows that have been released or are upcoming, or when talking about projects that we could be working on, possibly the most common question and debate to arise is that of originality. One person pitches a story and another responds with how similar it is to something that came out two months ago, and the idea is dropped. As students deeply interested in not only making movies but enjoying them, the concept of being original is a very strong one. It's somewhat ironic, really, considering how weak of a idea it seems to be in the actual Hollywood industry (but we'll save Hollywood vs. Indie for another time).
I was once reading a list of writing tips from an author and the only one of them I now remember is: Don't worry about being original; if it comes from your mind that makes it original. It's a great piece of advice that I find myself using a lot when defending recent Hollywood blockbusters like James Cameron's Avatar. Take, for a more recent example, the film Battle: Los Angeles, which I thoroughly enjoyed but has received from critics largely negative reviews, seen most in its, biased, Rotten Tomatoes review. It seemed to me that many of the reviews were bashing the movie because it was unoriginal, just another cliche alien invasion action-movie filled with explosions.

One review, from Wilson Morales of, stated the same things yet with a fresh undertone: "Battle: Los Angeles is nothing more than another fast paced, cliched action/sci-fi film but visually splendid and enjoyable." I wholly agree with Mr. Morales, and it was for these very reasons that I enjoyed Battle: LA and would even consider adding it to my Blu-Ray collection. I bought a ticket for what I expected to be a movie filled with marines I don't really care about getting blown apart from really awesome aliens, and I wasn't let down. Battle: LA is another alien invasion movie, but it is just as original as the others. The aliens were very well researched, developed, and portrayed, to the point of making me want to know more about them technologically and culturally. None of these things can be said for Skyline.
The problem with the idea of originality is that when a film is a massive success and seems to "define its genre" it creates a paradox in what its successors should strive for. Audiences flock to the theaters for District 9 and tell Hollywood that they are willing to spend money on alien invasion movies, yet Hollywood is not allowed to make "just another alien invasion movie." It's expected to make another awesome District 9 that is nonetheless not District 9. Rather than acknowledging that sometimes people like to watch a movie just for entertainment, too often it seems that every film is supposed to "redefine its genre." The same problem can be said of superhero films in this "post-Dark Knight era." People watch the trailers for Thor or Green Lantern and think low of them for being campy films instead of dark psychological character dramas like Nolan's trilogy. The simple fun of Spiderman and Spiderman 2 (not Spiderman 3, for obvious reasons) is now a taboo comparable to watching VHS tapes instead of Blu-Rays.
We studied the idea of genre in my film class and listed several different definitions for the term. First, it's just a way to classify movies. Beyond that, however, these classifications being about expectations of the viewer towards the story as well as of the studio towards what sort of audience to aim towards. Genre, be it a rom-com or alien invasion or superhero, carries narrative conventions that both filmmaker and film viewer make assumptions about. It is the responsibility of a film to both follow these guidelines while also straying from them in a creative-enough way to bring in box office numbers.
One of the interesting things discussed during that class, though, was how genre is defined. Are the conventions of film set by the studios making them or the audiences driving to them? As viewers, we show Hollywood what we want to see by flocking to Katherine Heigl movies and, in turn, Hollywood churns out mass amounts of romantic comedies where the couple meets, dates, argues, breaks up, and gets back together, maybe with an orphan child or funny black friend involved. All of these films follow the same narrative structure, yet pull in tens of millions of dollars. Are they each not original in the way they portray the genre? I say they are.
Where it concerns Battle: LA, I would argue that the pessimistic tone of the invasion, along with the well researched aliens, is what sets this film apart and makes it original, creative, and worth the ticket price. It's possible for films to reach this sense of pure, 100% originality as weird independent works, but most movies are not this. Most movies fall into a specific genre, or several. Being a genre film is about meeting certain standards that are, per the definition of standard, the same for all movies in that genre. If I see an alien invasion movie I expect to see cool CGI alien technology. I expect to see the military have shoot-outs with the aliens and, for the most part, lose, because that's the realistic portrayal. When we go to the movies we take these things for granted, though, and instead look for what makes it stand out. Avatar stands out because of its revolutionary visual effects. Battle: LA for its non-bias view of extraterrestrial invasion in the story. Movies can even be original solely because of the actors involved, which is probably the only thing separating one rom-com from another. Robert DowneyJr. is what sets Iron Man apart from other superhero movies.
It's bad form to call a movie unoriginal because it doesn't hold up to the high standards set by something like The Dark Knight. To say that every movie is supposed to be as groundbreaking is irrational. The face of a genre may be a single film, but the genre is not defined by a single film. Film genres are like living organisms that evolve over time to different environments. The attitudes of movie goers has gradually changed the personality of superhero films from where it was in 2001 to where it is now, as everyone awaits The Avengers. Sometimes genres cannot adapt quickly enough and die out, as is the case of westerns or Saturday morning serials, because they can no longer survive in the constantly changing sea of what people are willing to spend $10 dollars to see on the big screen.
Hence, as the writer whose list I was reading stated, every idea is original so long as it comes from your mind. If you come up with this cool idea for a short film that jumps around in time it may very well sound like LOST, but it isn't LOST. It's yours, because no matter how similar people are in habits or attitudes or willingness to waste money on a stupid movie, deep down we are all individuals that cannot be copied, and it is here that that creativity needed to even envision the beginning, middle, and end of a story comes from. No one can steal that from you.


  1. The question that must be asked is where is the line of being truly original with an idea and just simply ripping someone else idea off?

  2. You're right. There are cases where an idea is truly stolen, ripped off, and not their own. My argument refers particularly to those ideas that one comes up with, however, not ideas in general. If you think of it, it's from your mind and original. The difference is in origin and intention. It's a good thought, though. Probably a good topic for another post!


    I don't think calling a movie "unoriginal" is saying that it's not ground breaking. I do agree to what Furnish is saying to some degree though. I love me some romantic comedy, and i know exactly what's going to happen before i even watch it, but that's exactly why I watch it. and yes all the romantic comedies i like get mediocre reviews, but i enjoy them the most.

    i dont think every movie strives to be the best. most films made dont expect an oscar nomination. critics' opinions are only (imo) worthwhile when dealing with an compellingly "original" movie. critics still have to make a living so they critique all the rest of regular joe movies that come out.

    i think there is just a point where something gets old. like a joke that's been told too frequently. unoriginal ideas should have at least a fresh perspective or its just another money maker. film is art. and many a times movies are mindless. i watch romantic comedies when i want to zone out and be happy go lucky. its like the critics who have to make money, writers have to make money too, and the easy money is making something that's already been made and just adding a little paprika to the mix.

  4. Die Hard is an amazing action movie... some of what goes on is over-explained to an annoying/almost insulting degree and the movie isn't very kind to Europeans, but it's carefully made with fascinating, vibrant characters and beautiful and engaging action. Not a bunch of wacky camera garbage and boring car chases, but tense, desperate, witty *action*.

    I have yet to see another straight-up action movie that compete with Die Hard. They are all boring or much more insulting to my intelligence or lack characters with a shred of personality or flair. Die Hard is a genre-defining movie in that it's more exceptional, more exciting, and more of a joy to watch than movies similar to it.

    Now, why would I want to watch (pay $10 for, for heaven's sake!) some awful derivative Die Hard-lite that can neither compare to the standard set nor bring anything new to the table? If I wanted to see the same movie ten times, I'd just keep playing my DVD rather than paying money for sad, pale imitations. It's so frustrating to get the sense that those who made what you're watching lacked vision and originality and instead stamped some genre cliche bingo card and tried to pass it off as a movie.

    I love movies. I've seen a lot of movies. The more I see, the more demanding I get and the higher the bar is set for me. I love original movies. I love seeing new, surprising things. I hate, hate, HATE seeing the same things rehashed and retread and seeing those poor dead horses beaten over and over and over. It's a waste of my money and my time. I'm sorry, but if I can predict what will happen in a film within the first ten minutes because I've seen the movies it retreads and rips off from, then it's not worth my time and imo it's not worth defending.

    For what it's worth, I liked Iron Man better than The Dark Knight. Iron Man is slick, fun, and the pinnacle of popcorn/Hollyood/summer movie fun without being insulting. It's goofy and exciting and unpretentious and fun. TDK is kind of overlong and overrated and empty and BROODING and looses its luster the more you watch it.

    Also, I haven't seen Battle: LA but my favorite film critic has

  5. (late)

    I definitely agree with the guy on the left in that review. Yeah, sure, Battle: LA wasn't genre-defining, but again I don't think you should expect every film to do so. It had cliche moments but in the end it was awesome aliens in an awesome battle. A thrill ride, very fun to watch. For me, movies are to entertain. Every now and then one comes along that changes the game (TDK, Die Hard) but in between those I don't want a big character lesson. I just want to have fun. And, personally, while Die Hard is great, there are many action films for me that I would watch before it.

    Iron Man is all of those things, hence its success, and I think Iron Man was a type of genre-changing movie in terms of how Hollywood approaches the characters in superhero films. But I don't think you can compare Iron Man and TDK that much because they aren't trying to do the same thing. Maybe I shouldn't have said TDK was the face of superhero movies, because really TDK isn't that much of a superhero film to start with. It's more a character drama, an action movie. Bits of noir, even. I like them both, and could watch each time and time again.

  6. Why can't a movie be entertaining and fulfilling? I want both.

    What action films in particular? Maybe I just haven't seen enough. But I know I fell asleep during Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon was just "eeeeeeeeeeeeeh".

    I think they're comparable. They just took completely different approaches.