Nice premise, shame about the film

on Thu, 11/17/2011 - 15:08
While religions are busy explaining why bad things happen to good people, Movie Reviews is preoccupied with why bad things happen to good film ideas..
Imagine conceiving a film premise, gestating it for the required period, and then squeezing it out onto the page, a mewling, puking bundle of possibilities. If it’s franchise-friendly enough, brand-recognisable enough, or, just plain good enough, it may even end up being made.
That’s the dream isn’t it? Having audiences the world over fiddle with their rustling sweet wrappers and surreptitiously checking their mobiles in front of your little idea.
Except, by now it’s not just your idea is it? It’s been swallowed by a hulking great movie and now rests somewhere inside its digestive system surrounded by layers of fatty actor, producer and budget tissue. Between conception and unveiling, your idea has become a film, and no matter how strong your premise, sometimes that film ends up a bit shit.
More often than not, the great film premises wasted by dodgy scripts, flat characterisation, or incoherent stories are from the sci-fi genre, and for good reason. Sci-fi takes more risks, and is home to more of the great “what if?” premises than any other genre.
Andrew Niccol’s recent sci-fi In Time is a great bad example. Set in a future society where time is currency and humans are genetically programmed to stop ageing at 25, In Time has potential up the wazoo. Potential that’s squandered for the most part by an intriguing premise being turned into a tediously repetitive chase movie pushing a message so one-dimensional it would cause even sixth-form Marxists to balk.

The paint-by-numbers Marxism isn’t the real problem with In Time. If anything, the film’s broadly painted capitalism allegory is a welcome addition to the apolitical vacuum so many teen-aimed films exist in. When Justin Timberlake’s character isn’t lusting after and buying a ridiculously expensive car which pulls the props out from under the film’s ‘capitalism is evil’ message, he’s at least trying to disrupt the division of wealth rather than getting wasted or mooning over his girlfriend.
The real problem with In Time is that the world it creates merits more probing than afforded by the film’s Robin Hood meets Bonnie and Clyde plot. Well, that, a script overly fond of time-based puns and some acting (not from Timberlake) that’d serve more purpose being splintered up for kindling.
What it proves is that an engaging film idea needs an equally engaging plot to succeed. It’s not enough to conceive of an interesting “what if?” universe, then insert a generic action movie into it. Rick Deckard didn’t just wander around the world of Blade Runner doing commando rolls and getting into car chases while the notion of what it is to be human wafted nebulously around him, he and his actions grappled with the complexities of the question at hand.
I don’t mean to single Niccol out for criticism as a filmmaker - with the beautiful Gattaca under his belt, he’d have to do much, much worse than In Time to deserve anything of the sort – but his latest release sums up a host of films which aren’t at all bad, but feel as if they’re nowhere near as good as they could have been.
This year’s Apollo 18 is in the list. The film took a promising sci-fi horror idea – the nasty alien reason mankind haven’t been back to the moon since the seventies – and blew it. Some of the blowing it was achieved through technique (found footage doesn’t have the impact it once did), but most through the film dragging its feet for so long nobody much cared whether the astronauts were eaten by space spiders.
That’s a fairly useful yardstick against which to judge a film’s success right there: is the audience invested one way or another in whether a character is eaten by a space spider? If not, you might well be in turkey town.
Peter Berg’s high concept superhero movie Hancock had fantastic promise: imagine a superhero nobody looks up to, bitter, alcoholic and lazy, and who doesn’t much want the job. The comic or dramatic potential of that premise was sky high, if only Berg and co. had put both feet in either camp. The resultant mixture of comedy and melancholic moping was underwhelming at best. Another one for the “nice premise, shame about the movie” list, then.
Some great premises which become less-than-great films are luckier than others. Some aren’t left to moulder away in the discount bin, but are recognised for their promise and find life in another mode.1992’s Joss Whedon/Fran Rebel Kazui Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a film even sufferers of the most severe cases of Whedeonitis can’t admit is much cop was picked up, dusted off and turned into one of the smartest long-life fantasy dramas to grace television (two if you count Angel).
Should literary adaptations be counted in the missed opportunities pile? There’s no reason why not, especially as one of last year’s biggest “sounded great but oh dear” releases was from the bookshelf.
Had you told people in the mid-nineties that Tim Burton was working on a version of Alice in Wonderland, my guess is excitement would ensue. Perhaps I’m generalising, so I’ll rephrase. Had you told me in the mid-nineties that Tim Burton was working on a version of Alice in Wonderland, I’d have happily daydreamed about the prospect and doodled Burton-esque spirals over my GCSE Maths book all day long.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is both terrifying in its imagination and characters, and rare in its depiction of a child on an adventure with no friendly faces, kindly wizards or faithful companions. Alice has to figure shit out by herself in a world which makes little sense, follows no discernible logic, and where people continually lie to her and let her down. It is, in that respect, one of the most depressingly accurate coming-of-age stories in literature.
Who better to capture that sense of being small, lost, and an outsider in a world you don’t understand than Tim Burton? After Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, the uncanny scares and delights of Wonderland should be right up his street. And then, and then… well if you saw it, you know what happened.
That magically promising premise of Burton meets Alice went spiralling down the plughole in favour of an action tale peopled by friendly dogs and faithful compadres. No menace, no edge, just a happy clappy Disney picture with some Burton-esque curly fronds in the background. If trademark foliage and Johnny Depp is all you can bring to Lewis Carroll’s delightfully insane creation, then perhaps… actually, scratch that. The Depp just about tips the balance. We love a bit of Depp, us.
There are countless other examples though, from sci-fi Splice, which promised a great investigation of parenting and Frankenstein-ish ethics, then buggered it all up by writing characters for whom you feel zip because every decision they make is batshit-crazy. There was The Island, whose premise, let’s face it, was only decent because of its shameless thievery. Another adaptation, The Time Traveller’s Wife, tripped up on its own tacky sentiment so often it ended up a bruised lump of a film (but with a cool premise). At least Steven Moffat managed to salvage the central concept of that last one to rework into a great multi-series storyline in the BBC’s Doctor Who.
So what’s the conclusion of all this bemoaning? Two tenets: 1) a great premise isn't enough to make a great film, and 2) execution counts for a lot. See that last point chewed over in our forthcoming "Nice film, shame about the premise" feature. We've got two words for you: black, and swan.