We've Been Failing Our Most Imaginative Blockbusters

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: people say they want original and fresh movies and, well, they seem to be lying.)How many times have you heard people complain about Hollywood not having any new ideas? In my case, it's "a lot." You hear it especially in the context of blockbusters, where everything's the third or fourth or ninth entry in a long-running franchise. But what this complaint misses is that original blockbusters (or attempted blockbusters) do get released, on a fairly regular basis. They're typically not significantly worse than many franchise films, but they're different. They're unfamiliar. And more often than not, they crash and burn at the box office.A recent example of this phenomenon is Alita: Battle Angel. Other recent cases include Mortal Engines, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, the last three Wachowski films (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, and Speed Racer), Pacific Rim, and even Warcraft. To be clear: I'm talking about big, blockbuster-scale movies aimed at worldwide audiences that are either entirely original or original to the live-action screen. Audiences outside Japan and the anime niche likely aren't familiar with the two-part Gunnm (based on the same manga as Alita), but Alita came out everywhere. Same goes for Valerian. Speed Racer is an adaptation of a TV show, but in live-action and with a huge budget. And so on.These movies speak directly to the kid inside us (inside me, anyway) who goes to the movies to get wowed by wild sci-fi imagery and ideas. They offer things we haven't seen on the big screen before – either ever, or at this budget level. The roaming cities of Mortal Engines, the hyper-violent cyborg combat of Alita, the kaiju-vs-mech nerd wish fulfillment of Pacific Rim, the soulful orcs of Warcraft, and the bugnuts art direction and action setpieces of Jupiter Ascending or Valerian all make a nerd's eyes go wide. They're the stuff of novels and comics that in days gone by would never be attempted as film adaptations – or that would have been left as unmade Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptations.Each of these films also has something that's a little weird, a little off-kilter, a little unexpected in a modern blockbuster. Mortal Engines had one of my favourite characters of last year in the form of Stephen Lang's melancholy undead automaton Shrike. Jupiter Ascending has anti-gravity rollerblades, elephant men, and Eddie Redmayne's delightfully operatic performance. Alita revolves, unexpectedly, around a violent, futuristic cyborg rollerblading sport, and features dogs so memorable I'll be surprised if the cinema of 2019 can surpass them.It's strange decisions like these that get me excited about cinema, about the fact that such choices can get made and make it all the way through to release. But it's these choices also that are often held up as some of the relevant films' worst elements. When people are unsure about how to react to something – in cinema and in the world – they tend to react negatively by default.Of course, all of these films (with the possible exception of Speed Racer, which is close to a perfect execution of its creators' vision) are deeply flawed. Sometimes those flaws contribute to the films' oddball appeal, as with Luc Besson's bizarre decision to case Dane Dehaan as a ladies' man action hero, or Alita's gritted-teeth self-assurance that it'll get a sequel. Other flaws are more tragic: Jupiter Ascending was clearly hacked down from a much-longer film, Warcraft suffers from a similar issue and some unfortunate casting decisions, and Alita's dialogue really lets down in a movie whose broader strokes are terrific. Nobody would claim these movies are perfect, but almost as few seem willing to even give them a chance to demonstrate their strengths.It feels weird, defending movies with nine-figure budgets as underdogs. That kind of investment represents significant confidence on the part of the studio, at least initially, and all the films I've mentioned have had well-established industry names attached to them. None of that makes them underdogs. They're underdogs because they don't come from a massive pre-existing franchise. They're underdogs because they take risks with the type of things they put on screen. And most of all, they're underdogs because they bomb at the box office.Of the films I'm discussing here, Pacific Rim scored the biggest domestic haul at $101 million domestic – enough to warrant a sequel, but not a hit by blockbuster standards. From there, the domestic takes drop: Alita finished under $100 million; Jupiter, Speed Racer, and Valerian all settled in the $40 million range, and Mortal Engines, the biggest bomb of the lot, grossed a mere $15 million domestically. Curiously, these movies tend to perform considerably better internationally than in North America, their foreign takes usually at least tripling their domestic. Sometimes – as was the case with Pacific Rim and Alita – that's enough to make the movies modest successes. But poor Mortal Engines couldn't even hit $90 million worldwide.Occasionally, weird films like these do succeed, but they typically succeed despite their strangeness, aided by extenuating circumstances. Aquaman, utterly jam-packed with ludicrous characters and visuals, as befits its protagonist's world, came with pre-existing appeal after Jason Momoa's Aquaman broke out in Justice League, not to mention the name brand of DC Comics. Mad Max: Fury Road, a spectacularly weird movie by most measures, also had a (similarly-weird) franchise behind it, in addition to being so damn good that word of mouth propelled it to its modest success. Avatar, slightly less-weird but certainly an example of an original sci-fi world and concept, was boosted by James Cameron's name brand (the trailer listed every film he'd ever directed, bar The Abyss) and its positioning as the first must-see 3D film, the film that proved the worth of the technology. Both are exceptions rather than the rule, and it'll be interesting to see whether whatever Cameron is doing with his Avatar sequels convinces people to come out and see them, over ten years after the original movie.So why don't people come out to see these movies? Sure, they're flawed, but not notably more flawed than any number of megahits. To a potential audience member, though, a movie that's from a known franchise is always going to win over a movie that isn't, even if they have equivalent marketing impact and Rotten Tomatoes scores. There's a reason franchise movies are often labeled "critic-proof." Critics only seem to matter when the movie's at a disadvantage anyway by trying something that hasn't been seen in cinemas before.Franchises – Marvel, Fast & Furious, Star Wars, and the like – often produce good movies, and sometimes even great ones, but nearly all franchise films are low-risk, delivering slight variations on their predecessors and using familiarity as a crutch. And they make bank! Most of the highest-grossing films of all time are franchise films. The public at large is, plainly, more interested in sequels than they are of new and unfamiliar things. Even franchise films often get derided if they step too far out of line. It's hard to innovate within the confines of a capital-B Brand™.So while cinemagoers often claim to want new ideas, the statistics and the history show that they don't. Hollywood is offering new ideas; the public isn't biting. It's impossible to take Star Wars out of the equation, given that it largely created this world, but one imagines how Star Wars would fare if it came in fresh to the current culture. Or The Matrix. The lesson that's been learned by studios over the years is clearly one of favouring well-known properties. But that's only because the audiences do the same.