min read

Stories of Old: Sincerity in Modern Cinema

Written by
Sanjay Menon
Published on
February 22, 2023

There’s no question that the movies have changed. From the various avenues of funding and distribution available, to the groundbreaking technological advances that make it all happen. It's only natural that the movies change as well. After all, movies, like all art, are a product of their time. But over the last decade, mainstream American cinema seems to have lost a certain "je ne sais quoi" that made it so engaging. Actually, that's not true, I do. It's sincerity. These movies seem to have lost the honest commitment and sincerity to the tone of a story that allows the audience to truly immerse themselves. A stone-faced sincerity that avoids a winking at the audience in an effort to win them over. Instead, chase trends and sacrifice immersion with little concern for the story, in an effort to pander to the audience. And in doing so, have grown complacent in their storytelling, and developed a few bad habits along the way. Some of these involve; the lack of conviction in a story and its characters., an overreliance on meta references and fourth-wall breaks, and the emphasis of messaging over storytelling.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first of which can be most commonly seen in the movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the last ten years. The impact of the franchise over the last decade is undeniable as they've come to be one of the largest forces in the cinematic landscape , redefining the modern blockbuster and theatrical experience for a whole generation of moviegoers today. So much so, that other attempts to replicate their success has led to a homogenization of mainstream American cinema. A phenomenon that is now commonly  referred to as the “Marvelization” of Hollywood'. And there’s a lot to say about Marvel movies. With one of the most common criticisms lobbied against them being their use of humour in a movie. All their films since 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron have been accused of shoe-horning comedy into a scene at the cost of dramatic tension. And for good reason. The brand of "tongue-in-cheek" humour that was once so subversive, has become yet another tired, old ingredient in the Marvel formula. Furthermore, the financial success of these movies have only encouraged this trend. With other  franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Venom and Justice League, following suit. It’s an issue that seems to plague blockbusters and family entertainment today.  And a look back at earlier big budget features like Jurassic Park, or even the Harry Potter franchise, will confirm that this wasn't always the case. The first couple instalments in both franchises skillfully balance  drama and childlike wonder in a way that's rare to come by. The movies maintain their sense of tension and immersion throughout. One could argue that this commitment to sincerity could also work against the filmmaker. Like in Jurassic Park: Lost World (1997), character Kelly Curtis Malcolm, the daughter of Jeff Goldblum’s character Ian Malcolm, is set up as having been a gymnast. In an attempt to pay this off, the movie has her use her gymnastics training to swing-kick a velociraptor off the top of a barn,  while hanging off a support beam.

For a more direct comparison, let's take the original Jumanji (1995), and its sequel-reboot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2015), for instance.  Both films share the same basic premise. A magical game called, Jumanji, that traps its players in dangerous situations, which they must survive in order to finish the game. It’s a simple but effective hook, that paints a clear goal (finish the game), a strong antagonist (the game), and some high-stakes (life or death). All which work effectively in the 1995 adaptation. In the film, Robin Williams, as Alan Parrish, captures the trauma and anxiety of a child who was trapped in the game for over twenty-six years. And has grown cynical as a result. The pain and loss his character suffers as he learns that the world he once knew is gone, reminds us of the threat and dangers of playing Jumanji. Whereas, Welcome to the Jungle, maintains the same life or death stakes, with one caveat; Jumanji is now a video game and not a board game. Based on this, each character trapped in the game is now given three lives each. The device allows for some funny moments that involve each character dying as they try to familiarise themselves with the rules of the game. But this also means that each character has the luxury of dying a few times, before they’re eventually down to one life. And the movie lacks any tension, as characters stumble through set-piece to set-piece through sheer luck, mostly unscathed. Not to mention, none of the characters ultimately suffer any long lasting consequences as a result of the game. Instead, each character learns a lesson about how there’s more to them than each of them realise and the movie calls it a day. A conclusion to a story that would’ve worked just as well, had it all been a dream.


This lack of conviction in a narrative is only further aggravated by the rise of metafiction in the last decade. Especially thanks to the success of movies like Cabin In the Woods (2013), The Big Short (2015) and Deadpool (2016). And the rise of animated shows such as Community (2009),  Rick and Morty (2013), and Bojack Horseman (2014). In the best cases, these films build on similar movies of the past and educate the audience on the medium. Like Cabin In the Woods, Deadpool, Knives out (2019) and 21 Jump Street (2012). Or can be experimental in nature, often fusing a few storytelling techniques to create an unconventional narrative. Like F for Fake (1973), Close Up (1990), and Kill Bill: Vol 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004). This is largely accomplished through self reflexivity i.e. reflection on one’s own artistic process, or the use of fourth-wall breaks and. And at its worst, these tools are used as a crutch to make up for a poorly constructed narrative. Like the excessive use of celebrity cameos and fourth wall breaks used to help drive the narrative along in The Big Short. Or a cheap attempt at a laugh by taking shots at the lowest hanging fruit in the film or genre. Like, in Jurassic World, when one of the park’s control room technicians implies the first park was better because they didn’t need genetically modified creatures. A feature that just so happens to be one of the key elements of the new park and this movie. It’s a technique known as "lamp shading". A writing trick where characters question the logic, plausibility or quality of the piece, only to proceed to play out the rest of it as intended. In this case, the cheeky nod is meant to insulate the creators from criticism by getting ahead of the audience and appealing to their sentiments.  The exchange rarely gets a laugh and pulls the audience out of the film by forcing them to think about the original film.  Like, when every solo Marvel project since The Avengers (2012) makes up an excuse for why the Avengers aren't there to stop the world-ending threat.

A consequence of a generation so consumed by its media that it can’t help but regurgitate some of it back as a form of shorthand to communicate.  

In the case of familiar IP's, references to the source material are also often used to pander to the . We usually see this in the form of an homage or an easter egg. Movies with cheap moments of fan service used to tap into people's feelings of nostalgia like Free Guy (2021), Space Jam 2 (2021), and Ready Player One (2018). These sort of stories are like being crumbs of cake when you're hungry. Satisfying in the moment, but you're bound to leave the table hungry.  And this is only one of the few consequences of this trend. In some other cases, these references comment on tropes with the advantage of hindsight. Like Disney’s, Frozen (2013), which has a scene where Elsa questions Anna’s decision to marry a man she just met. The moment pokes fun at the tradition of whirlwind romances in the studio's fairytale catalogue. And acts as a teaching moment for young viewers about the conventions of the genre. But more often than not,  they are used to get a cheap laugh at the expense of their predecessors. Deadpool, Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022), and Matrix: Resurrections, fall into this trend. Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), has a scene like the one in Frozen that pokes fun at the fairy tale adaptation in Disney's catalogue. In the scene, Vanellope Von Schweetz meets a group of Disney princesses who find out she’s a princess too. But unsure of her claim, they bombard her with a barrage of questions to determine if she is in fact telling the truth. But, in the process, each princess proceeds to reveal a defining trait, or a distinct part of their story. When Ariel asks if she made a deal with an underwater sea witch, who took her voice in exchange for a pair of human legs, Vanellope replies, “No, Good lord! Who would do that?”, horrified. The extended scene is played for laughs as it highlights the problematic elements of the stories of the past. But little effort  is made to place the disney princesses  (except for Vanellope) in their time, or in a cultural context of their own. Instead, the pace of the film is slowed down to simplify their timeless stories and demonise them with soundbites.  All from the moral high ground of 21st century perspective. This trend of cinematic homages and intertextual references seems to be a result of prolonged media saturation. We do it all the time, when we text using gifs or communicate using memes. It’s how we are and how we think. And now it’s become a part of our movies. A consequence of a generation so consumed by its media that it can’t help but regurgitate some of it back as a form of shorthand to communicate.  

Get Out

And what are they saying? Well, that depends. The 2010s have been a tumultuous time in recent history, with a variety of social movements cropping up from “Occupy Wallstreet” to the Black Lives Matter” movement. The rise of the MeToo movement in 2017, and the success of movies like Hunger Games (2013), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Wonder Woman (2017) led to a demand for more female-driven narratives. Movies like Fruitvale Station (2013), Get Out (2017), and Blackkklansman (2018), examined the black community’s struggles with systemic racism. Largely as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement which began in 2013.  The mainstream struggle for LGBTQ rights paved the way for more queer stories, like The Imitation Game (2014), Carol (2015), Moonlight (2016), Call Me By Your Name (2017), and Fire Island (2022). Movies like Snowpiercer (2013),  Interstellar (2018) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), explore our relationship with the environment. Her (2013), Ex Machina (2014), Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Ready Player One (2018) explore our relationship with technology.  And it goes on and on. The best examples of messaging in films pose a question. And meant to be thought provoking. Think, Get Out for its subtext. Or Blade Runner 2049 for its restraint. And Her for its tenderness. The worst of them tend to verge on propaganda, feeling preachy, heavy-handed in their execution.

The new adaptations simply serve as a way for the filmmakers to acknowledge the arguably problematic elements of the classics. They fail to recognize the conservative nature of the stories themselves. And the live-action adaptations can't stray too far from their animated counterparts, at the risk of losing fans of the original.

So, it’s no surprise that the recent attempts at messaging in most blockbusters have fallen short in their ability to connect with the audience. This is especially evident in the recent live action Disney remakes. Their attempts to rebrand some of the Disney classics into stories of female empowerment , although admirable, managed to miss the mark. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, portrays Belle as a bookworm who's scolded by the headmaster of an all boys school for teaching a young girl how to read. Not that anything comes of this thread. The young girl doesn’t go on to receive a formal education, nor does Belle open a school of her own. The headmaster of the all boys school doesn't quite learn the error of his ways either. And Belle still has to marry a prince to ultimately reach a position of influence. The new adaptations simply serve as a way for the filmmakers to acknowledge the arguably problematic elements of the classics. They fail to recognize the conservative nature of the stories themselves. And the live-action adaptations can't stray too far from their animated counterparts, at the risk of losing fans of the original. All creative decisions fall at the mercy of the original and all attempts at messaging are inherently set up to fail. 2020's Mulan is  a great example of a failed remake that strayed too far from the original. As a result, most of the time, the few changes made are purely cosmetic and make no difference to the narrative, other than pad the runtime. And it’s not the only one. Dumbo (2019), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Charlie's Angels (2019) to name a few, are also guilty of the same missteps. There’s no question that the themes and messages addressed in these narratives are important. And as a result, they deserve to be handled with care. A message movie can be effective when the message evolves organically from the narrative. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Disney’s Zootopia stand out as recent examples of films with messages (race and prejudice) with the potential to alienate audiences but managed to captivate them instead.

On the flip side, there is an equally valid concern regarding the censorship of any such messages in movies, to appease foreign markets. More specifically, China. It's no secret that the Chinese film market has been fertile ground for Hollywood blockbusters over the last decade. With grosses sometimes equaling that of the domestic market. All thanks to an agreement between both governments where China agreed to import 34 American films a year. As a result of which, there's been an increased attempt by studios to cater their films to the Chinese market. This has led to an increased partnership between Hollywood and China over the last decade. Which largely involves more movies being shot in China (Looper). More studios partnering with Chinese companies on productions (F9). And a rise in the inclusion of actors from mainland China (Moonfall). And this level of influence can seem harmless, and even like good business. The relationship gets troubling, when these same studios have to face Chinese censorship laws and are incentivized to avoid tackling narratives that the censors might find problematic. Thereby, engaging in their own in a form of self-censorship. All in the name of increasing their returns. Even 2016’s Doctor Strange chose to change the ethnic origin of a Tibetan character in their adaptation to Celtic. All to avoid invoking the wrath of the Chinese government and their economic sanctions. Much like they had back during the release of Martin Scorsese’s, Kundun back in 1997. Even Michael Bay, a filmmaker whose films are notorious for their American military propaganda, has fallen victim to this trend. In Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) , the American government and law-enforcement agencies are portrayed as being ruthless or diabolical. While the Chinese government is portrayed as being calm, reserved and effective. As a result, Hollywood, a once bold, innovative machine that produced the likes of, The Jazz Singer (1927 ), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Star Wars (1977), Jurassic Park (1995), and Toy Story (1995), is now declawed, de-fanged, and reduced to a submissive house cat. And to what end? Hollywood’s attempts to appeal to the foreign market has only led to diminishing returns. Like with the decision by studios to cast major stars from China, which has come to be seen as an empty gesture by Chinese audiences. Largely due to the fact that these actors are often cast in small and inconsequential roles that bear nearly no effect on the plot. To add to that, China’s own domestic film industry has grown exponentially over the last 10 years. This, coupled with the end of the bilateral agreement in 2017, caused the shares for foreign ticket sales, including American films, to drop from 36% to 16%. And with the rise of streaming, domestic sales haven’t fared much better either. So, if these movies can’t seem to generate ticket sales both at home and abroad, one has to wonder, "Who are these movies for?"

Star Wars: A New Hope

These movies are inspired by trends, informed by algorithms and made to appeal to everyone. And hence, no one. They appeal to us at the most superficial levels, often tugging on our sense of nostalgia or echoing our own opinions back at us. They're so fixated on catching the next trend that they forget about the one aspect of a movie that is and always had been truly universal. The story. And movies have the ability to transform these stories into a magical experience. It's what's drawn people to the medium since they believed there was an actual train coming at them during the infamous screening of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) back in 1896. A story has the power to both educate and entertain. And communicate complex ideas to their audience. All it requires is a little sincerity and conviction. It's what defines many of our classics, allows them to survive trends and stand the test of time. The trend isn't the problem. It’s superheroes now, and used to be cowboys back then. But they found a way to use the myth of the cowboys to reflect on Americana and American history. And they could just as well find a way with superheroes too. All it takes is a little faith in the audience to take the leap. A little courage to resist pressure. And a little more effort to give the audience something to believe in. After all, trends come and go. But a good story is, and always has been, timeless.

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