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With hit films, the surprise is that there’s no surprise

If the plot of the latest blockbuster seems more than a little familiar, that’s not a coincidence, says Rob Long
Rogue One will cover territory that is very familiar to Star Wars fans. Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm / AP
Rogue One will cover territory that is very familiar to Star Wars fans. Jonathan Olley / Lucasfilm / AP

If the plot of the latest blockbuster seems more than a little familiar, that’s not a coincidence

‘Everything has been thought of before,” wrote the German poet and author Goethe. “But the difficulty is to think of it again.”

Goethe clearly wasn’t thinking about Hollywood when he wrote those words. We in the entertainment industry have no trouble at all thinking of things again. And again and again, if there’s money to be made. And maybe a few more times, just to make sure the money well is dry.

When the promotional trailer for the newest instalment of the Star Wars series of films Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the internet, the story was remarkably familiar. A motley band of rebels sets about trying to destroy a powerful and terrifying planet-sized weapon, much like the original Star Wars film in which a motley band of rebels sets about trying to destroy a powerful and terrifying planet-sized weapon, and not so dissimilar to last year’s blockbuster Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in which a motley band of (yes, you’ve got it) rebels sets about trying to destroy a powerful and terrifying – brace yourself – planet-sized weapon.

I’m guessing that they succeed, though don’t hold me to that.

This isn’t really a criticism, of course. Ever since last year, when director and producer JJ Abrams took the reins of the Star Wars universe, fans have been eagerly anticipating his creative and engaging surprises. But he’s hemmed in by the limit­ations and the expectations of the Star Wars storylines, which centre mostly around light sabres, The Force, and planet-sized weapons. As Goethe might have observed, there’s only so much you can do with Star Wars.

That said, the constellation of Star Wars characters and ­myth­ologies are a richly complex tapestry compared to, say, the world of Baywatch.

Baywatch, as many of you will recall – and if you’re too young to remember that worldwide smash-hit of a television show, ask someone older that 35 to explain it – told the two-dimensional story of a collection of two-dimensional characters who served as lifeguards along the beaches of Southern California. Mostly the show was an excuse to show scantily-clad, though contextually appropriate, female lifeguards looking purposefully out along the surf­line of Santa Monica Bay. The show’s appeal ignited an international passion for surfing, bright red bathing suits, and the actress and model Pamela Anderson.

It was also responsible for the baffling popularity of its male star, David Hasselhoff, in Germany, and even more baffling, his second career as a pop singer.

The show has been out of production for over a decade, but as Goethe reminds us, the trick is to think of it again.

Baywatch is about to become a movie. Sometime in May next year, the feature film version of the television show will arrive in cinemas, just in time for America’s beach season. The picture will star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in roughly the Hasselhoff role, along with Zac Efron, Indian superstar Priyanka Chopra, and appearing in cameo roles, Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson in their former red-suited glory.

The one-sentence summary of the film’s story – what we insiders call the “logline” – suggests that the film will keep the two-dimensional and by-the-numbers traditions of Baywatch alive. Basically, it’s this: “Lifeguard Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and a brash new recruit (Zac Efron) uncover a criminal plot that threatens the future of the bay.”

If you close your eyes for a moment, you can probably play the entire movie for yourself, moment by moment. Mitch and the brash recruit will clash. Efron’s character will be called a “cowboy” and a “maverick”. He’ll be accused of taking needless risks. Mitch will worry that he’s become out of touch and old. There will be a romantic triangle. Mitch and Efron’s character will end up saving someone – probably a child – from watery peril by (spoiler alert) learning to work together. In between these moments will be attractive young people dressed for the beach.

It’s tempting, naturally, to sneer and cavil at these kinds of movies – not just Baywatch but 21 Jump Street before it, and the endless forthcoming versions of Star Wars personnel blowing up death stars – but there’s something reassuring, to audiences as well as media company shareholders, about the same-old same-old, especially now that the real world seems to be more alarmingly unpredictable every day.

But that’s always been what Hollywood has excelled at: delivering familiar experiences with satisfying (read: expected) outcomes, with mild variations in between. Love stories resolve themselves happily. Disasters are averted. The brash recruit and the older veteran clash, but come to respect each other. And the death star gets exploded, eventually, by the unlikely ­heroes.

There are more than enough nasty surprises in store in our daily lives, and all too many unexpected plot twists and turns. Goethe, fortunately for him, didn’t have to come up with an explanation for 2016.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: December 9, 2016 04:00 AM

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