2017 In Film

This year, for the first time, I kept a list of every film I saw at the cinema. Because I always get to the end of the year and think “I know I saw some good films this year, but what were they…?” And now I’ve got the data, I may as well analyse it a bit…

In 2017, I saw 78 films. (And two live theatre broadcasts, Amadeus and Follies.)  I feel that’s a little lower than usual: there were several big franchises I simply didn’t bother with, either through boredom or because of their insistence on casting known abusers. On the other hand, I now have an unlimited cinema pass, and there are several movies I saw because they were basically free, movies I might not have risked money on in previous years. So it may just even out.

Splitting them down roughly into my preferred genres, that’s 26 science fiction, fantasy and horror (including superheroes), 25 action, adventure and thrillers, and 27 other genres (mostly arthouse drama, to my slight surprise!)

Five of the movies were animated, with Captain Underpants and Paddington 2 the stand-outs in this rather small field. Twenty were sequels, prequels and other franchise continuations. Of the ones that weren’t sequels, ten were adaptations of books, video games, myths and legends, and other pre-existing material. Seventeen of the 78 were biopics or true-life stories.

It was a great year for British film, especially films about the countryside and the peculiar stresses of living and working there: God’s Own Country, The Levelling, and the London noir City Of Tiny Lights stood out. A Monster Calls was a difficult watch, but an extraordinary one, and Lion was surprisingly gripping and emotional.

Overlooked gems from the other side of the pond: Loving, The Founder, Battle Of The Sexes, American Made, and Mudbound were all excellent. I had issues with Atomic Blonde and Wind River, but they had a lot going for them nonetheless.

From further afield, Okja, Your Name, The Nile Hilton Incident and In Syria (aka Insyriated) were terrific genre movies that proved popular cinema doesn’t have to be in English.

The well-received movies that just didn’t work for me? Blade Runner 2049, Suburbicon, La La Land and Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 didn’t light any fires, alas.

Movies That Were A Lot Better Than I Expected And I Really Enjoyed? Split, Geostorm, and Beyond Skyline all provided solid entertainment.

And my big movies of the year? Very much the same as everyone’s, I fear. Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Moonlight, Logan, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, War For The Planet Of The Apes, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi lead the field.

On to the next crop…

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The Last Jedi and Reinventing Franchises

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

I don’t think Rian Johnson wants us to be in any doubt about his approach to the Star Wars universe in The Last Jedi. This is not your father’s Star Wars. Nor should it be – for the same reason that Sherlock and Elementary are not identical to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Stories exist to be reinvented, to reflect their times, to reach out to new audiences.

There are many excellent articles out there on why it was necessary and right to depart so radically from audience expectations, and how the movie achieves its emotional impact, but I’m going to take a look at it from a screenwriting POV. I think The Last Jedi is an object lesson in how to reinvent an existing franchise – and with more movies and television being drawn from existing material, that’s a skill we’re all going to need.

So what can we learn, as writers pitching to take control of a franchise, from The Last Jedi?

(SPOILERS, obviously…)

Characters are not interchangeable. Rey is not Luke, and Kylo is not Anakin Skywalker. The characters of the new trilogy may fulfil similar plot functions – gifted hero, tormented villain, hotshot pilot, amusing droid – but plot function is only a starting point, a shorthand to indicate intent to the audience. It’s who the character grows into that matters –

Because who the character grows into shapes the story. If Rey was Luke and Kylo was Anakin, then inevitably they would just rehash the same story again. It’s how they differ and who they choose to be that propels us into a fresh, unpredictable story world, because –

Your job is not to tell the same story again. Which is really all I need to say on that point…

The new outweighs the old.  A lot of fans clearly wanted these movies to be about Luke, Leia, and Han. Of course that’s understandable. Every time we fall in love with a character, we want to know everything about them. But that’s not necessarily an impulse that writers should indulge. There is such a thing as too much information!

Characters play their role in the story and then move on. Dragging them awkwardly back into the limelight and constructing a new crisis for them can actually cheapen their original story.

Instead, the new characters must drive the story, and the old characters provide a canvas against which they make their decisions. Poe must decide whether to be Leia, or lead a different way. Rey thinks she’ll be a hero like the ‘legend’ Luke Skywalker, and Kylo fetishizes Vader’s strength: but they’re both forced to confront their own strengths and weaknesses and grow to understand that they can only ever be a better version of themselves.

The story doesn’t know who the hero is. It’s easy to assume, as a writer, that everyone in your story world accords the central characters the same importance that you so. It’s also fatal to your narrative.

Look at the complaints about Vice-Admiral Holdo not explaining her plan to Poe. “If she’d only told him, everything would have been fine!”  Problem is, that complaint assumes that Poe is the most important character in the scene – that is, it assumes the POV of the audience.

In fact, Holdo’s operating according to the rules of her world. A mere pilot doesn’t have an automatic right to know his senior officers’ plans, especially in a combat situation, and with a tracker on board the ship that suggests possible traitors. She’s acting completely logically – and if we feel cheated, it’s because we’re according Poe an importance he  doesn’t actually have.

(The brilliance of this particular plotline is that it mirrors Poe’s emotional journey. He too thinks he’s the most important person in the room, and has to relearn his place and his role in order to truly lead. Nice piece of writing there…)

There are exceptions, of course. Many people in a Sherlock Holmes universe have heard of the great detective. But no one is going cut Mulder & Scully slack during their investigation just because it would be convenient for the story. Your job as a writer, then, is to find a way to place the characters at the centre of the story, so you can tell it easily, without everyone else assuming their importance…

Most great story universes are funnier, goofier and more child-friendly than you remember them being. All those people whining about Poe keeping General Hux ‘on hold’ to delay him? Did they never see this scene?

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Every story has a range of tones, from the humorous to the serious. Some stories have a wider range, or lean more to one end of the spectrum, but there’s always variation. Without it, the audience becomes numb to the story, exhausted by unbroken seriousness or bored by constant frivolous comedy. Make sure you’re bringing that whole range of tones with you, or you’re not being fair to the story universe.

Know where the heart is, and how to reproduce it. The heart of Star Wars isn’t space battles or dark lords or farm boys becoming heroes. The true heart is simpler and purer than that: love, hope, friendship, quietly doing what’s right even when it’s going to get you killed.

Bring that with you, and you can kill the Big Bad without ceremony, subvert the bad guy’s redemption scene, make the legend a washout and the apprentice already beyond training. As long as the heart is solid, the world remains recognisable. And if you understand the heart, you understand the universe, whatever else you change.