Reboot camp

In the desperate hunt for stories, adaptations are now all-dominant

On Cinema

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

To sit through the trailer reel in the cinema this summer is to be offered a series of films that look in some way familiar. Here’s Furiosa, described as “A Mad Max Saga” — a spin-off of a reboot of a film franchise. Here’s Borderlands, based on a computer game. Here’s Bad Boys: Ride Or Die, in which Will Smith plays, for the fourth time, a character he first portrayed in 1995.

Hollywood, desperate for stories, has always mined existing content: could that book or toy be filmed? Could that film be filmed again? Good ideas are hard to come by, so if someone else has managed to make one work, you’d be a fool to ignore it. In the fierce competition for eyeballs, something that comes with a built-in audience has a head start.

But adaptations are now all-dominant. Of the top 20 films of 2023, only two aren’t based on existing intellectual properties, and those are both cartoons. The highest-grossing movie, Barbie, owed part of its success to its enjoyable execution, but a great deal to the fact that an awful lot of people have owned pink plastic dolls.

That film’s co-star, Ryan Gosling, gets his own franchise this year in the shape of The Fall Guy, a reboot of an 80s TV series.

The Fall Guy

It’s hard to believe that there was a fanbase out there desperately demanding that this be brought back, but you can see that the idea of a Hollywood stuntman who uses his skills to solve crimes would be appealing, especially to a producer who knew absolutely nothing about stunts or crime-solving.

This is a popcorn movie where the hero — who rejoices in the amazing name of “Colt Seavers” — punches, rolls and crashes his way through a series of action sequences, and then the villain confesses. It’s carried along by the considerable charm of Gosling and his love interest, Emily Blunt.

Neither has their acting skills stretched. The stunts are fun, and the script has some laughs, even if it makes less and less sense as the film goes on. My teenager had as much fun as I did.

But I couldn’t help thinking about one of the films that made Gosling a star, Drive. In that, his character is a stuntman who uses his skills to commit crimes, specifically as a getaway driver. Both his performance and the film are the opposite of The Fall Guy: restrained and haunting. Still, this one probably paid better.

Watching The Fall Guy did crystalise my thoughts about a small British film, The Trouble with Jessica, that’s still in a few cinemas and will doubtless be streaming soon. It has a great cast and a solid premise: a couple are finally about to sell their house and get out of a deep financial hole when a friend kills herself in their back garden. Should they cover this up to ensure the sale goes through?

The problem with the delivery is that the film can’t decide if it’s a drama or a comedy, and each side undermines the other: if we’re supposed to care about this person, then hiding her corpse isn’t funny. The Fall Guy knows it’s a comedy, and it gives not a moment’s thought to the actual victim of the crime that Gosling is supposed to be investigating.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes

A rebooted movie franchise can be an opportunity to do something completely new. Of all of them, perhaps the Planet of the Apes series stands up best. The original 1968 film gave us one of cinema’s great twist endings, but its apes were, very clearly, actors in rubber masks. Fifty years of special effects development means the simians are now utterly convincing as they swing through the treetops.

For my money, the best of the series was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where humans clinging on to civilisation in the face of a killer virus try to find a way to live with apes who have been made more intelligent by the infection. Leaders on both sides are undermined by rivals who want war. It’s thrilling and intelligent at the same time.

In the latest instalment, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, many years have passed, and human intelligence has regressed, leaving our species mute and feral but still, fortunately, able to fashion bikini two-pieces out of fur.

Our hero Noa is an ape whose peaceful tribe is abducted by more aggressive rivals, led by the enjoyably bombastic Proximus. Searching for them, Noa meets Mae, a human with secrets.

There’s a decent quest tale here, but it doesn’t reach the level of the earlier films. Each of those worked on their own terms. This time the most interesting questions of trust between Mae and Noa are left unexplored. It feels, ultimately, too much like the film is simply a set-up for the next episode. Adaptations are eating themselves.

One completely original film hitting screens this month is The Dead Don’t Hurt, written and directed by Viggo Mortensen, familiar as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings. He acts in it too, but the star is Vicky Krieps, as a frontierswoman in the 1860s. It’s an engaging mix of Western, character study and doomed love story. But perhaps its strongest recommendation is that it won’t have a sequel, and it’s quite unlike anything else out there.

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