Restriction: The Thorn in the Side of Modern-Day Blockbusters?
The latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, has been described by many as the most polarising of the forty-year-old franchise. Whilst I liked the film for the most part (you can read my non-spoiler thoughts here), I understand why some disliked the film. The man to blame for this polarisation is none other than the writer and director, Rian Johnson. Well, there is the raving and implosive Star Wars fanbase to blame too, but that is an article for another time.
Most aspects of the film that were disliked by audience members, especially the way in which Luke Skywalker was written (which even actor Mark Hamill has voiced his distaste about), came at the hand of Johnson. Yet, I find it difficult to blame Johnson entirely. He faced the same problem that most writers face when creating a blockbuster for a studio like Disney: that of restriction. However, it could be argued that Disney gave Johnson a little too much freedom with The Last Jedi. The director, whose previous works consisted of independent, non-franchise films such as 2012’s Looper, has never had to write a sequel for a movie that he did not direct. One of my main criticisms levelled at The Last Jedi was its tonal clash with The Force Awakens, its predecessor, as well as aspects and questions raised in The Force Awakens being omitted entirely from the sequel. Yet, if Disney had force Johnson to address those aspects in The Last Jedi then we may not have gotten the movie that Johnson wanted to make but one that fits suitably with its predecessor. What if J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, had gone on to direct The Last Jedi like he shall be directing the yet untitled Episode IX? Would it ride a crescendo of darkening tone that will culminate in Episode IX? Only time will tell if The Last Jedi will become the awkward middle child of the trilogy, unable to fit in with that which came before and after it, but one thing is certain: Johnson was restricted by Abrams vision of what the new Star Wars trilogy should be.
It is a problem that plagues many modern-day blockbusters. Look at this year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (what a terrible title for a movie). It certainly has director Guy Ritchie’s fingerprints all over it, yet a lot of criticism surrounding the film is that it was trying to set up a film franchise and extended universe off the back of the film, opposed to simply telling one coherent story. 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suffers from the same problem, with half of the film dedicated to Newt Scamander, the film’s lead protagonist, finding the beasts and the other half setting up the next four movies. Ritchie and David Yates (director of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) are both more than capable directors with many successes to their names, yet both are restricted to building up the future instead of telling a story in the present. Unsurprisingly, both films were distributed by Warner Bros., the same distributor of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which suffered from the same problem. Of course, the only fault with these films is not the restriction placed upon their directors, yet with less time spent setting up future films, more time could be spent on resolving basic issues with the films.
Some could argue that a little restriction never hurt anybody, however. We all know that without editors and co-creators some writers (I’m looking at you, Steven Moffat) can run a tad bit wild (read as: they tend to fuck everything up). Marvel used to have a problem with being too restrictive concerning their directors and the films needing to have aspects of the cinematic universe ham-fisted into them, with Alan Taylor, director of Thor: The Dark World (arguably the worst of the Marvel Cinematic Universe), going as far as to say that his experience working with Marvel was ‘particularly wrenching’. Yet, it is fair to say that they have come a long way since their 2013 habits, allowing directors much more freedom. Yes, each of their films follow the cookie-cutter Marvel formula (villain shows up, hero get their ass kick, heroes learn a lesson, villain is defeated) but at least they’re a fun- if forgettable- time that are generally met with praise. Taika Waititi’s style is all over Thor: Ragnarok, which was foremost a comedy over an action flick, and you could have mistaken Spiderman: Homecoming for a film by John Hughes, director of well-renowned coming-of-age 80s films such as The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. These were choices made by Waititi and Jon Watts (Spiderman Homecoming’s director) that Marvel supported, resulting in two successful films that felt contained within the gimmick that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They do not have an identity crisis like the latest Star Wars trilogy.
Do you know what is even juicier though? Films with no restriction. I will stick to blockbusters for the sake of the article. My favourite film of the year, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, faced no reported studio interference or restriction and was well received by audiences and critics alike. It was slick, stylish and relied on nothing but thrills and good storytelling to construct a brilliant film. Wright came from leaving a project he had worked on for ten years, Antman, because of Marvel’s restrictive grip at the time, and was able to make the film he deserved to make. Similarly, and despite being the only sequel to Ridley Scott’s well-loved 80s film, this year’s Blade Runner 2049 was very highly acclaimed. It was able to honour that which came before it but not let it restrict the film, taking the universe in which it is set to whole new heights and exceeding the original. In addition, Blade Runner 2049 was able to tell a self-contained story and not worry about setting up a future franchise. And, like The Last Jedi, the film had a different director to its predecessor in the form of Denis Villeneuve.
Sometimes a little restriction can help. Marvel are on a streak of pretty good films that all feel like they are contained within one universe despite their different tones, and maybe with a little more restriction The Last Jedi would be more consistent with its predecessor. Though that restriction can often leave them feeling a little bland and unambitious. Hopefully with flops within the film industry, such as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, happening studios and distributors will become a little less restrictive. However, with fantastic, unrestricted movies such as Blade Runner 2049 going unsupported by audiences and making less money than projected, that seems slightly unlikely. My take? Support those standalone blockbusters before Disney buys the world and ceases pure creativity within the filmmaking industry.