Every now and then I get caught up with the stuff that passed me by in theaters, if only to see what everyone else is watching. To wit: Furious 6 and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They're the kinds of movies people (okay: me) describe as "well-made", meaning they do their job and send you home. They're not worth a full review, but Apes deserves some mention.
Apes was a strange mix: Bedtime for Bonzo, Flowers for Algernon, and one of the best animated performances ever put on film. I do admit that most of the second half is shot through with brilliance, especially when super-chimp Caesar is taken from his human ward and confined to a zoo. On the other hand, the brilliance of that part of the movie is deflated when you realize you’ve seen almost the same exact sequence in prison pictures from Barton Maclaine on down to Sylvester Stallone. It's the epitome of what I've come to call "just different enough."
In truth I don't think "just different enough" (let's call it JDE for short) is wholly bad, because it's often only through incremental changes that any kind of change comes at all. But one of the risks that goes with employing the JDE approach is complacency. It becomes too easy to assume the changes you've made are by themselves enough to have justified the project. The mere act of ringing incremental changes on something, even if they're inventive ones, isn't by itself enough to make the whole creation an innovative one.
I've touched on this before, but watching Apes put a new spin on it. I'm getting used to hearing people say things along the lines of "This could have been just another retread but it was much more than that!" when it comes to this or that remake of a property. By itself this kind of talk is innocuous, but after a while I notice it tends to replace talk of doing anything more genuinely ambitious or original. We've settled for less.
And by "we", I'm not talking only about audiences or fans. I'm talking about creators, who become more willing to accept providing their audiences with a slight retread on one of a whole gallery of existing, established, familiar material. I suspect they do this because it seems like the easy road to putting your work in front of other people. When all of them are getting nothing but steampunk vampire romances dumped over their heads by the 55-gallon-barrelful, the temptation to do something similar as a way to get noticed fast must be awfully strong. But the long-term effects of giving in are gruesome.
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