Franchise Fascination

MoviesI’ve always believed there is a place for so-called “franchise films” in the world of motion pictures, but a couple of recent installments have seriously made me doubt that belief.

Franchise films are rarely the artistic equivalent of individual pictures; they’re a lot like series television with better production values. The crux of any good story is the transformation of the protagonist. You can’t keep doing that over and over again; the underlying assumption is that the character isn’t the same person at the end as at the beginning. Franchises pretty much throw that out the window. Oh, they’ll sometimes toss in a little (strictly temporary) pseudo-development from time to time, but for the most part, franchises are all about plot; character is secondary.

A lot of these franchises started out as an individual film, but over the course of numerous sequels, they’ve largely forgotten their protagonist’s original development, or figured out sneaky ways around it. The original Lethal Weapon was an interesting study of two characters dealing with psychological crises; the sequels just concentrated on the action and comical elements. Die Hard was (at least on one level) about a man’s coming to grips with his own insecurities; beyond that, we were left with cardboard cut-outs. Dirty Harry dealt with the conflict between two often conflicting objectives: Protecting the innocent and upholding the letter of the law; afterwards, we had one-liners. Indiana Jones went through a profound crisis of faith in the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was initially cheated by making a “prequel,” then conveniently forgotten for the series’ final (I hope) chapter.

That’s not to say that franchises can’t be enjoyable, even if only on a purely escapist level. The Back to the Future films had no creative originality beyond the first film, but they were an exciting romp. The Star Wars films, though plummeting in terms of overall quality, are still visually stunning. There’s something comfortable about knowing what you’re in for, like getting together with a bunch of your old college buddies: You may not have a whole lot in common anymore, but it’s still fun to catch up.

And that brings us to two of the longest-running franchises still running: Star Trek and the James Bond films. I’m a little late to the party, but I finally got to see Die Another Day at a second-run theater; I saw Star Trek: Nemesis during its opening week.

It is so easy to kill a franchise (witness Batman and Robin or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace). And in this case, if any series deserved to die on the basis of their most recent outings, it’s these two. I’ll refrain from giving detailed reviews of either film, first because neither is still in widespread distribution and second, because I’m finding it exceedingly difficult to find much nice to say about them (and I try to keep my comments balanced).

The unofficial word is that Star Trek is dead. It looks like Paramount is planning to put it out to pasture, perhaps even canceling the currently-running television series Enterprise (though they’ve not made that decision yet). The rationale is that people are tired of Star Trek, as clearly evidenced by Nemesis’s spectacular box-office failure. I’ve enjoyed Star Trek — both on television and theatrically — for years, so maybe I’m bringing in a bit of personal bias, but wake up! You made a really bad movie! Whether or not people are tired of Star Trek is beside the point. Nobody wants to pay eight bucks to watch a laboriously plotted, poorly directed snoozefest in which your least offense is trying to pass off a “clone” who looks nothing like Patrick Stewart.

Die Another Day just stretches incredulity to the point of the ridiculous; nothing new in the Bond milieu, perhaps, but they usually make up for that by being exciting. There was just no tension this time around, no sense of peril, or even amazement. Villains with no discernable motives. Plot holes you could drive a truck — or in this case a stupefyingly ludicrous invisible car — through. Storytelling strictly by the (double-O) numbers, but even so, you’d think they’d be smart enough not to directly lift the villain’s hardware from their own franchise (i.e., the laser satellite from Diamonds Are Forever). And I don’t care if you’re Bill Gates, you’re not building an ice palace for a onetime product demonstration.

Unlike the Trek outing, however, Die Another Day did just fine at the box office. They’re already talking of giving Halle Berry her own spin-off vehicle. The same misinterpretation of reality, only this time, instead of dumping the franchise, they’ll be looking to recreate all the stupidity that “worked” this time around.

If that’s the case, then maybe next time, I’ll just stick with watching original ideas.


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