It's been 30 years since Gary Kurtz and George Lucas split because Lucas wanted toys to dictate the storytelling in Star Wars. Since then, toy-driven movie-making has gone way beyond Lucas' grubbiest dreams. Here are the hallmarks of toy-centric storytelling.
And welcome back to Monday Hate, where we hate things because it's Monday.
So yeah, George Lucas couldn't even have imagined, 30 years ago, how low movies would eventually sink in their drive to get you to buy some toy tie-ins. He was a naive innocent back then, compared to the huckster he would later become.
And who could have predicted the insane extent of today's synergy between the toy biz and the movie biz? I'm not talking about the very excellent and story-driven Toy Story movies — I'm talking about Cinematic Ouevres that are Noticeably Designed Only for Merchandising. (Or CONDOMs, for short.) You can't even make sense of these films if you only think of them as vehicles for a story, it would be like watching a 3-D movie with only one eye. They only make sense as toy-selling vehicles. And now you have movies based on toys, which used to be the province of Saturday morning cartoons — in development, you've got a Stretch Armstrong movie, a Battleship movie, a Monopoly movie, and many others. But there are also plenty of movies that aren't based on toys, but might as well be.
So here are the hallmarks of a toy-driven movie. Maybe this list can serve as a sort of "spotter's guide" for the avalanche of merchandising-centric films to come.
1) The clutter. In a true toy vehicle, the screen is cluttered with as much crap as possible, because an inch of empty space on screen is a missed opportunity to sell another bit of plastic crap. Composition goes by the wayside, because drawing the eye to just one focus is a sin against commercialism. Thus every movie has to look like a tween's MySpace page circa 2005, with a million flashy jumpy things.
And with 3-D becoming the industry standard in the next few years*, it's only going to get more ridiculous, because (at least in theory) you can cram the screen with more garbage in 3-D because the important stuff will pop out. (Or we'll all get horrible nausea and cerebral hemorrhages.)
Lucas himself provides us with a brilliant example of how to over-stuff the screen with garbage, both in the Star Wars prequels and in the "special editions" of the original trilogy. (DVD Active does a really good job of breaking down the differences between the 1977, 1997 and 2004 versions of Star Wars, with screencaps.) In particular, you can see how Mos Eisley goes from a tiny frontier spaceport to a hive of CG activity including "hilarious" slapstick involving stray Jawas riding on a Ronto and being flung off. (You can buy the "Ronto and Jawa Beast Pack" for a mere $10.)
Here's the money shot comparing the original with the "special" version:
2) The PG-13 rating. Obviously one side effect of skewing your movies towards serving as IP for toy-makers is that you want to make sure they bring in a young enough audience to keep Toys 'R' Us bouncing. So when you see a movie like Terminator Salvation, which introduces 10,000 types of Terminators — many of which are only on screen briefly, you may incidentally wonder why a previously R-rated series has suddenly gone PG-13. (To be fair, though, storytelling is storytelling, and if your story doesn't require oceans of blood, then whatever.)
Do you remember half of these Terminators from the movie? Could you tell me what part the T-600, the T-700, the Terminator Resistance Infiltration Prototype and the tank Terminator played in the film? And the water Terminator and the motorcycle Terminator?
3) The random set pieces that showcase extra hardware or uniforms. So this is partly a disease of action movies in general, the set piece that just happens because there hasn't been a cool action sequence in about half an hour and the audience is probably starting to squirm. A lot of action movies very carefully have three big action sequences — one in the first few minutes, one about halfway through, and then the big final mega blow-out. But you can tell when the film-makers designed it partly with toys in mind, if the main characters have to change their costumes or get into a new piece of hardware for it.
Some recent examples of this are the "power suits" that our heroes don in the middle action sequence of G.I. Joe, which are never seen again. And the red "skydiving uniforms" that Kirk and Sulu and Olsen put on for the middle action sequence of Star Trek. (This is in addition to Kirk's cadet uniform and regular uniform.) Apparently there were action figures based on the skydiving scene, but they never came out. Here are unpainted versions, plus "Instructor Spock":
4) Too many random Z-list characters. You can really see this progression in the X-Men movies, which started out with a manageable number of mutants, and slowly built up the overcrowding until you needed augmented-reality goggles just to make sense of it. The main offenders, of course, are X-3, with the random inclusion of every other fan-favorite mutant for no particular reason, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine which took some awesome characters like Agent Zero and Emma Frost (and, yes, Deadpool) and shoved them through a meat grinder so that a few shreds of their flesh could appear in the film. What's weird is that as far as I can tell, there's no Agent Zero or Emma Frost action figures from this movie, but instead there are X-Men Origins Wolverine toys for characters like Colossus who aren't even in the film. It makes you wonder why people bother.
The absolute height of "too many characters, can't keep track" is, of course, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, which had about 3000 different Transformers on screen at any given moment. They've all got names, but I couldn't possibly tell you what they are.
5) You already know the entire "plot" months before the film comes out, because the toys and their packaging gave the whole thing away. This is really the clincher. When there are plot points and crucial reveals in a movie, that even the trailers and copious preview clips avoid giving away — but they're on display months in advance on the toy racks at Walmart, then you know that the toys are driving the boat.
Off the top of my head, the seekrit reveal that there are actual aliens at the end of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was given away ages in advance by various playsets and toys. Ditto for Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen. And I think there are a few other recent movies where big plot twists were given away by "toy spoilers," because the big reveal was something toy-worthy.
This seems like just one reason out of a whole bunch why big blockbluster movies are getting more idiotic — but we're just in the early part of a slippery slope, and toy-driven film-making is going to get more spattered with plastic. Five years from now, you'll look back on the summer of 2010 as a halcyon time when characters still mattered and story still came first. From here on out, the deluge awaits, and Stretch Armstrong will wrap you in his limitless embrace.
* Sorry, but it's true. 3-D is going to become more or less required in the next few years — if for no other reason than the fact that it's an experience that watching a movie on your flatscreen at home can't duplicate yet.
Avatar toy pic via JonWesleyHuff on Flickr.