Thursday, February 11, 2016

Bad Sequel/Remake (or Even Just Plain Old Bad Film) Warning Signs

So, my article on when sequels go bad is in the can and I’m scratching my head, looking around the pop culture landscape, and looking for something to strike my fancy as a topic. Playing in the background, initially on to just drive my wife insane, is Phantom Troublemaker & Beau Brown's 37 hour epic podcast Masters of the Universe Classics 2015. Mixed in with toy line talk, why not to spit take on a touchscreen computer, how not to clean that spit take, and bad lunch choices; Phantom & Beau momentarily cover how Mortal Kombat was a solid, enjoyable movie while Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is a movie you should run screaming away from.

Oh, there’s my topic. We’ll start with those films, but we’ll hit some others along the way.

I saw Mortal Kombat in the theaters, I bought it for my movie shelf as soon as it hit VHS, and I upgraded to DVD fairly early in the building of my DVD library. I really loved that film. It’s a solid, colorful martial arts action film with large dashes of fantasy and a hell of a lot of good fight choreography. I saw Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in the theaters as well. That pretty much ends the string of events for where I went with it after that. I hated it. Thing is, unlike with the first film, I was worried going into it that the film was going to be a letdown. Why was I worried? I was worried because I’d already learned some of the key warning signs to look out for when a film, original or sequel, may be about to go bad.

Everything You Liked about ‘X’ is Gonna Bigger, and There Will Be More of It!

This is not just a possible red flag announcement for bad sequels, this can be a sign of a just plain old bad movie. You can find this mindset in the most professional of productions, but it’s the mindset of an amateur. Everybody making movies is (hopefully) a fan, so you’ll always have fans making films. That’s not a bad thing. But there is sometimes a difference between a filmmaker who happens to be a fan and someone with a fan mentality making a film with little thought given to the actual fundamentals of filmmaking.

Say what you will about Paul W.S. Anderson, and many people do, but the man at least has an academic understanding of how certain things in film need to be constructed. As such, with the help of a reasonably well paced screenplay he turned in a solid, watchable, and enjoyable film with Mortal Kombat. There was an hour long special- and I’ve been annoyed over the years about this not showing up as an extra on a disc -running on TNT before the movie came out that looked at the work that went into crafting the story, creating the look of the world, choreographing each fight so as to have a unique flavor based on the characters involved in the fight, and the overall mythology they built behind the scenes that was never touched on in the film but was used as the guide in creating the sets, the fights, and the rules of the world shown on screen. It should how much thought they put into every aspect of the film. For what many critics were writing off pre-release as a silly film based on an overly violent video game, they put a lot of thought and work into everything that eventually went up on the screen.

The film was to many a surprise hit. It was the #1 film at the box office in its first three weeks in theaters, and it grossed only $5 million less at the domestic box office than the media critics’ darling released earlier in the year, Braveheart. Between the movie’s success and the following for the game, there was little doubt of a sequel. Two years later it proved it wasn’t worth the wait.

While we weren’t seeing the same level of making of showcases for Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the film was still getting coverage in the entertainment media. Unfortunately, the coverage was unintentionally filled with warning signs.

Where the talk around the first film was about how much work and thought went into creating every aspect of the world we saw on film, the talk about the second film from director John R. Leonetti and others involved was all about bigger, louder, and more. I actually saw several interviews where the director, writers, and others said the goal was to take the things people liked best about the first film, the wild fights and action scenes, and make all of that bigger in the second film while throwing even more of it in. Where the first film basically had two major bad guys, Shang Tsung and Goro, the second film would have more big bads for the heroes to fight. We’d also have more heroes and more recognizable characters from the games. Everything was going to be about more, more, more except for the runtime which was less.

That’s typically a bad sign for any film. Any time you hear major buzz for a film being almost nothing but talk about how it’s going to take everything fans raved about liking in that film, this film, and those films and amp it up while giving fans twice as much of it; that’s one sign you should start worrying. When your writer and director are pointing to the big action/scare/thrill/gore scenes that fans are singing the praises of in other films while promising to outdo those scenes in scale and quantity; that’s one sign you should start worrying. The reason you should start worrying is because these people likely don’t understand why what did work in other films worked as well as it did.  

When you ask the average movie goer what made some films great, you’re not going the type of answers that lend themselves to making a great film. This is not a knock on filmgoers. The people paying their money to watch a film aren’t (typically) sitting in the theater analyzing and dissecting every scene in order to figure out what makes the whole shebang work. Yeah, wannabee filmmakers and film geeks do, but these two groups do not make anything close to a majority of the audiences. Most people are watching a film just to enjoy a film.

As such, when you ask the target audience for a film like Mortal Kombat what they liked most about it, they’re going to rave about the fights. They’re not going to excitedly explain to you their great love of the quieter scenes in between fights that allows the film some downtime and the audience some recovery from the big fight(s) they just saw. They’re going to rave about how great the over the top villain was, not rave about the more subtle moments with the villains. It’s the same with horror crowds who will rave about the gore FX or the stylistic kills in a film. The visceral scares and the things that make them jump are what most of the audience is going to remember and talk about when asked about the film. They’re not going to sit there and discuss with you all of the moments in between those things that allowed them to relax and then be built back up for the next scare.

But you need those smaller scenes, the quieter moments and the character moments, to decompress. Sometimes you need those scenes just to space out the action or the gore or the scares so that the next moment of action or gore or scares will have the impact it needs. The average filmgoer does not and does not need to understand how or why this works, but the average filmmaker should. It’s not a good sign when a filmmaker is hyping an upcoming film by sounding like a seventeen-year-old talking to his friends while walking out of a screening of Splatter Death Gore at Blood Runs Mall.

Cramming in as many recognizable characters from a property being adapted to the big screen can also end up being a bad idea. With Mortal Kombat they kept the two groups of good guys and bad guys to somewhat manageable levels despite the game franchise’s rather sizable stable of characters. With Mortal Kombat: Annihilation they took note of the positive feedback from fans wanting to see more and overdid it. Mortal Kombat wasn’t going to win awards for characterization, but Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was a textbook case of why you don’t cram so many characters into your story you just don’t have time to make anyone new introduced in the sequel film more interesting or more defined as a character than Stooge #4 in the background. I think we’re all hoping Batman vs. Superman doesn’t have this problem.     

We Have the Technology and the Budget to do Things They Never Could!

No you don’t, and, even if you do, you shouldn’t always act like you do. You saw some of that in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, but there are other films where the prerelease talk was the equivalent of a giant, neon warning sign.

Salem’s Lot from 1979 is to this day a very solid, very effective piece of horror television history. Salem’s Lot from 2004 is not quite so much anything of the kind. After some nice promotional work had gotten me cautiously optimistic, the director came along and killed pretty much all of that cautious optimism in one interview.

Mikael Salomon decided to talk up the selling points for his 2004 miniseries by focusing on the FX. He gave token amount of time talking up the actors who had been cast in the film as well, but he seemed fixated on the FX. The first movie was not an FX spectacle to be sure, but it had some good pacing, some more than just solid performances, and some amazing atmosphere. Salomon apparently felt his movie was great because of FX.

He started the bulk of his discussion out by pointing out how many FX shots were in the first hour or so alone and stating this was more than you found in the entirety of the 1979 miniseries. He then went into a lot of discussion about how each FX shot was handled, shot for the scenes, etc. Had it been an interview with the head of the FX for the thing, the interview might have been less off-putting. However, this was the director trying to sell you on what made his version great, what made it as watchable or more so than the 1979 version, yet almost all he hyped was visual effects.

He probably did this because the thing had little else going for it. Some performances were solid, but there was little genuine mood and atmosphere to chill the viewer. Elements of the story came across as disjointed or simply fell flat in this version. It ultimately felt as if it was an attempt to make a more high-end FX actioner with a horror coat of paint than it felt like a horror story brought to life on the screen.

In the age of widespread CGI, that’s become an even bigger issue. Whether it’s from a Stephen Sommers doing Van Helsing, which we all pretty much expected, or a Peter Jackson doing King Kong, which we maybe should have all expected, a lot of directors can’t seem to grasp the concept of not showing us anything and everything they think they can now show us just because they can. You can end up with visuals so comically ridiculous they throw you out of the film.

Back in the 31 Days of Halloween I wrote an entry about my favorite haunted house movie, 1963’s The Haunting. I’m going to reverse one thing I said then. Don’t avoid the 1999 remake at all cost. Watch both of them in the same week. The original is a showcase in the art of filmmaking. It creates some serious chills with pretty much no real visual FX work whatsoever. Jan de Bont’s remake is a textbook example of killing a film by using CGI/FX work to show the audience literally everything they could seemingly think of cramming into a haunted house movie. The movie became such a ludicrously over the top FX spectacle it almost became funny.

The other side of that problem is not using too much CGI, but using it in an unrealistic way. Pacific Rim and Godzilla had to use CGI, but both (much more so with Godzilla) did it in the best way they could. They treated their FX shots as if they were practical shots as often as they could. Gareth Edwards did an interview for Godzilla where he explained how no CGI shot in Godzilla would be done unless they could have done it in reality. CGI camera angles and shots had to be from the perspective of a film unit on the ground, on a crane, in a helicopter, etc. If they couldn’t figure out how they would have shot something in real life, they redid the CGI storyboard. The idea was to keep the audience perspective rooted in a sort of reality in order to avoid video game-like CGI shots that would throw viewers out of the reality they were attempting to make.

When your promotional materials or your director are hyping the amount of FX used more than anything else, that’s a huge warning sign. When you’re looking at a story concept that can be better done with good, basic FX or a reserved level of CGI FX than it can with wall to wall CGI, but the trailers and TV spots are nothing but that; that’s a huge warning sign. If all of your advertisements look like they’re selling a new PS4 game rather than a major studio film, that’s a pretty good warning sign.

Wait… Who is that Playing the Character this Time?

Changing actors in a franchise along the way isn’t always something one should view as a warning sign. There are any number of legitimate and behind the scenes reason-, ranging anywhere from actor unavailability to deaths -for a sequel to move forward with a bit of recasting. Hell, you can even change the lead actor, Alec Baldwin to Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy films being one example, where fans are equally happy with both actors or even happier with the second actor in the role.

But when you see a sequel film that’s following only two or three years after the previous film with multiple recasting in most of the major roles… That may in fact be a sign that pretty much everyone who read the script and had the option to take a pass thought it best for their careers to run like hell from the project. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is a perfect example of this with over half of the returning crew of main characters changing actors.

Stories differ as to why various actors were either unable to return or simply chose not to return, but, either way, it certainly didn’t help the film out any. Even if you have a serviceable script it can be killed by fan expectation of the characters they now know vs. the now entirely different take on the characters by the new actors and the entirely different chemistry between the actors. But the truth is, a film recasting most of its principle characters is more often than not a big warning sign that the quality level is about to go down in a big way.

The alternate version of this is taking the additional step of changing the character names in the script. When a film has a bunch of characters that come off like tweaked clones of the previous film’s characters played by new actors, you might be in for a less than fulfilling evening at the movies.

Now, none of these are hard and fast rules. There are even exceptions to any or all of the above scattered throughout the history of filmmaking. But the likeliest outcome of seeing more than one of these warning signs is adding a new film to your list of cheesy, guilty pleasure films, so bad they’re good films, or just plain old bad films you’ll pass up seeing again in the future.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was absolutely an example of the latter. But, damn, at least they managed to kick it up a notch on the soundtrack. So, hey, not a total write-off experience.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange. 

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