When scouring the random friend postings on Facebook there was a note regarding the new Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles film that caught my eye. My friend’s status adamantly expressed his joy for the picture claiming that anyone who chooses not to see the film because they think it’s dumb should remember to “keep their brains in check while the movie rolls”. This is a popular thread of opinion that as one who cherishes cinema feels is an enabling excuse for lazy filmmakers to continue with their sub par work. Certainly a film regarding a group of teenagers who morph into turtles that have ninja skills to take down a helmet wearing bad guy with the aid of their mentor who is a talking rat is completely idiotic beyond comprehension. With that said it’s up to a filmmaker to take something that is dumb and attempt to create something unique out of it. The thought that a story teller treats his material as a disposable product devoid of any introspection is a waste of time both for the movie makers and their paying audience. Having not seen Teenaged Mutant Turtles: Out of The Shadows I can’t speak personally about my thoughts on whether the picture is a complete lack of effort from a creative narrative standpoint or not. The real issue is that audiences should hold any film up to a higher standard whether it is ludicrous in concept or not. Considering the film is being produced by Michael Bay I wouldn’t be surprised if TMNT: Out of The Shadows is as easily forgettable as a quickly consumed snack.
There are Directors who exist that can make overly simplistic movies into interesting films that the audience can appreciate for years to come. Take Guillermo Del Toro for instance. When Blade II was released it was an engaging take on a purposefully shallow script that was made memorable thanks to its unique mise en scène brought to the table by the same director of such imaginative works as Pans Labyrinth, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro’s usual style of gothic horror mixed with elements of romance oozed its way into a simplistic film that was about a vampire killer who goes on a quest with other vampires to kill level 75 blood suckers. The plot line was as shallow as a typical beat em’ up button mashing video game. Yet it was Del Toro’s style that made such a simplistic film shine. It mixed elements of horror through the titular villains (the necromorphs) that gave the movie its uniqueness. Although not considered a classic it still strikes my memory now and again as what could have otherwise been a forgettable film made partially memorable. It stood out above other blockbusters for its unique spin on an overplayed genre.
Another filmmaker who can be looked at is Robert Rodriguez. Mostly known for intentionally silly films, his pictures usually stand the test of time. His most famous example is From Dusk Till Down, a regular picture about a group of people trapped in a strip club in Mexico loaded with maniacal vampires. How does a film with such familiar bland elements make itself stand out? Mostly through Quentin Tarantino’s exclusive writing where each character is fascinating to see develop on screen. There’s the story of the two brothers Seth Gecko (George Clooney) and Richard Gecko (Quentin Tarantino) Richard is a sociopathic nervous mess who Seth has to keep under control protecting him no matter what deplorable acts he may commit because like many loving siblings he wants to keep his younger kin safe. The first half of the film plays like a twisted tale of brotherly love far beyond the guides of a vampire action picture. In all honesty the early part of the picture played better than its latter half where we finally wind up at the strip club filled with wall to tall first person shooter like action. What makes From Dusk Till Dawn so memorable is its theme of working together. The Gecko bothers wind up capturing members of a small family in order for them to reach the Mexican boarder. When everything goes south the captors and captives must collaborate in order to fend off the vampires. Neither families come to any sort of catharsis but rather a sense of understanding by directly witnessing the loss of each others loved ones through the blood soaked massacre that has endured. The sense of connection between the characters through Tarantino’s clever writing is what makes Rodriguez’s films stand out from other pictures with the same extremely low level of complexity. It is also worthy to note that Rodriguez and Del Toro both feature thematic personal elements within their films which is a classic trick that most filmmakers incorporate in order to bring a level of personality to their work. Rodriguez loves expressing his passion for his heritage while Del Toro is an aficionado of classic gothic imagery mixed into contemporary as well as period based settings. Their love for whatever genre they make is prevalent on screen unlike what many other commercial filmmakers incorporate in their work.
Moving beyond Mexican Directors making vampire movies one can look at Stephen Sommer’s remake of Terence Fisher’s 1959 The Mummy. Sommers transformed what once was a B grade horror film into a *clever* updated action adaptation of the same material released in 1999. In a quick summation of why that picture worked so well is simply – the character’s are engaging, its plot a fun unique take on an old Hollywood monster movie genre, the score is memorable, the jokes hit the right notes and you leave the theater remembering the film for more than merely the action scenes. Unfortunately Sommer’s phoned in his intellectual effort with all of his follow up pictures including The Mummy sequels, Van Helsing and GI Joe: Rise of The Cobra. Surprisingly the best example of turning childish material into something of a higher standard comes from a kids cartoon show. I lift this example from YouTuber The Nostalgia Critic (Doug Walker). When comparing the two versions of the Sonic The Hedgehog: Animated Series Walker illustrates in his unique analytical Looney Tunes like style how one show displayed an absolute lack of effort to the other which consisted of an insurmountable amount of creativity based upon such intellectually limited material. For those who don’t know, Sonic The Hedgehog is a video game character who runs extremely fast while collecting coins. With the aid of his sidekick Tails (a fox who uses his tail to fly) the two must stop the evil Dr. Robotnic from turning innocent animals into robots. Not exactly the most complicated plot to say the least. The original incarnation of the animated series displayed not even the bare minimum requirements of what one must do to make a presentable cartoon series let alone a dynamically written narrative. The characters including the backgrounds looked like the random scribblings from a bored high school student. Anything resembling an actual plot line was nonexistent. The over-exaggerated voice acting coupled with the obnoxiously loud sound effects/score would even annoy its target audience consisting of children. Within the same year Sonic was rebooted into yet another animated series that took such a brainless concept into an intelligible kids cartoon featuring an almost Orwellian like dystopia for its setting. Conflict was prevalent. The antagonist was intimidating and the story was dynamic. It’s amazing how such creativity stemmed its way into a show that was spawned from the same material that many would consider to be unadaptable due to its un imaginativeness. This is what an artist does. Due to perhaps a rushed timetable of release the show was not viewed by many resulting in its cancellation.
If something as goofy as evil vampires, revenge stricken mummies or talking hedgehogs with the power of supersonic speeds can be transformed into something that is impressive then why do we not hold something like Michael Bay’s adaptations of 90s cartoons up to the same standards? Why do we not want an actual film made out of something that could impress an audience with its original spin? If a filmmaker chooses to not even attempt to make something different from familiar material whether it be original or not then he/she is being a lackluster craftsman. The saddest aspect of this defeatist state of mind is that even filmmakers who do have talent can be discouraged from actually trying to do anything unique. Even Michael Bay has elements of talent. I thoroughly enjoyed The Rock for the absence of condescension you can usually find in Bay’s other works. That’s not to say I think he’s a phenomenal chronicler by any nature. All I’m saying is the man can make a decent film when he wants to. Unfortunately most of his films contain the very elements that exemplify the lowest traits of filmmaking. Whenever one of his films are made we are never invested in his stories nor his characters because all we are doing is waiting for the action to happen. Even Bay himself has stated that he makes films for teenagers thus his work is critic proof.
If we accept movies as merely simplistic entertainment or “teenager films” then we are making both ourselves and our youths accept substandard storytelling when in actuality audiences are smarter than this. Case in point The Dark Knight Trilogy. If audiences simply liked movies that were designed to not make them think then they would have been content with Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Yet they weren’t. Why? Because they felt like they were being talked down to. Batman was a popular character with original dark roots and an interesting story arc that could translate itself into dynamic commercial cinema. In walks Christopher Nolan. A young brit who has made independent pictures like Following and Memento both featuring the mentality of a filmmaker that knows how to make films that are derived from classic cinema. A true artist with a commercial sensibility. A man with a brain who does not simply hash out scripts for a quick deadline. Nolan provided a tangible believable lived in world for Batman that audiences appreciated. Something that a Michael Bay, Jon Turteltaub, Simon West, Paul W.S. Anderson or Jerry Bruckheimer could not have created.
Audiences enjoying seeing their most popular comic book characters adapted into stories that feature a little thing called *emotional investment* proving their hunger for cleverness. A Transformers story can provide such investment as can a Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles film. It all depends on how it is executed. Obviously something as outlandish as Ninja Turtles isn’t a fair comparison to something like Batman but at the it’s important for audiences to be conscious then effort can be put forth in creating something with a different take no matter the material. You can ask the following when watching a film. What can be done differently? How can a film about crime fighting turtles actually surprise an audience with a compelling plot or interesting characters? Moviegoers have the knowledge to demand more. It all comes down to where the cash is going to be forked out. If something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice can suffer a 49% second week drop in the box office due to a lack of positive opinion then the same can be applied to movies that are seen as just dumb entertainment. Taking things to an even more current route how do we expect the World of Warcraft film to perform at the box office? Seeing as those who play the game take its story seriously I believe audiences will not want a poorly told variation of its source material. We aren’t stupid folks. We can do better than this. If you hold flying super heroes up to certain standard where you won’t give it a certain amount of money because you think it wasn’t done properly then you can apply same the logic to any film you dismiss as “simple entertainment.”