In Praise of Unoriginality

By  · Published on May 6th, 2014

A24/Walt Disney Pictures

Last year, Steven Spielberg postulated that sometime within the next few years, a series of subsequent major flops will, in effect, dismantle the blockbuster mentality that has dominated Hollywood since Spielberg himself became a well-known director. While this doesn’t look like it will occur anytime soon – certainly not in 2015 – it’s not hard to imagine that the culture industry of remakes, sequels, adaptations, umpteenth reboots and general unoriginality will one day go the way of the September 2008 stock market.

It’s happened before. When Hollywood attempted to compete with the rise of television, studios produced an onslaught of lengthy widescreen Technicolor historical pictures, all with massive star power and even bigger budgets. But this model of putting so much money into fewer individual films proved unsustainable, and now even massive hits like Cleopatra are remembered as flops in part because the stakes were so high and their productions were so troubled.

It’s hard to believe, but the series of epics that Hollywood produced during the 1950s and 1960s are a blip on the radar of Hollywood’s history compared to the exponential bloating of budgets and expanding of franchises now. We’ve been swimming in the Blockbuster Mentality since 1980 and it’s only intensified since. Hollywood has dug its heels in, only to continue reproducing the same existing properties – thus limiting both the imaginations of audiences and filmmakers – in a way that’s unstoppable unless a West coast economic catastrophe happens.

Well, at least, that’s the conventional wisdom.

For anybody interested in imaginative and inventive filmmaking, it’s easy to get depressed at the sight of Hollywood’s current state of being. But for the sake of argument, let’s play time travel and say Spielberg was absolutely right, and we now exist in a future where small-scale filmmaking (whether through theaters or online exhibition) now has a privileged place it hasn’t enjoyed since the early 1970s.

How will we look back on this current period, or even a season within it like the summer blockbusters of 2014? Will we see this time as overwhelmingly burdened by repetition and predictability as we now often critique it to be, or will we – as we so often do when we look back at movie years with the benefit of hindsight – be able to see past the noise for the few tentpole films that shined despite the clutter?

Perhaps this period won’t be remembered as much for a dearth of imagination as it will be recounted as a time in which Hollywood made films on a scale that has seen no equivalent before or after, and within that practice managed to produce some truly interesting works that combined popular entertainment with some of the artistry and insights that cinematic storytelling can allow.


Take Hunger Games: Catching Fire, for instance. As a blockbuster sequel adapted from a hugely successful series of YA novels, it’s as good a prototype as any for the blockbuster mentality that plagues Hollywood. The series’ central conceit has even been accused of plagiarizing Japan’s Battle Royale manga and films. Nothing about The Hunger Games suggests an ideal case of cinematic “originality.”

Yet the highest-grossing film of last year was met with rather good reviews. Not only that, but the film staged an incisive critique of the particularities of media propaganda, all the while having an empowered female protagonist as its unqualified hero (and the first unquestionably female-led film to win the annual box office since 1973). Not to mention, Catching Fire is also a briskly-paced thriller about humanity’s most dangerous game, a trope not so much blatantly derivative as it is almost eternal.

Also take one of this year’s biggest hits so far, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The sequel and cog in the Marvel machine marked a seemingly unlikely tonal shift distinct from its predecessors, forgoing playful historical fiction about an embodiment of American exceptionalism for a story of domestic paranoia. The inventiveness present in the film is not due to some radically different approach to the superhero formula; rather, the film is a legible hybrid of the superhero genre with an Alan J. Pakula-esque paranoid political thriller.

Any invention on the part of Captain America 2 is not due to a complete rethinking of its subject matter, but rather a combination of existing storytelling frameworks that had been heretofore underutilized. Thus, something relatively “new” is manifested from a select arrangement of established storytelling materials. Along the way, the film managed to make some observations about the post-9/11 paranoia-industrial complex to the extent that it even implicated itself.

Even outside of big studio adaptations, most films carry an encyclopedia of references that they build from, thus suggesting that creativity lies in what one does with existing work, rather than giving the illusion of manifesting things out of thin air. Perhaps it’s time to think about movies outside of the binary between original and derivative, and to instead see these things as always working together in ways that are more complex than a list of prospective sequels might suggest.

Contrast my previous examples to two of this year’s most challenging and bracing films released thus far, the types of which often receive praise for originality: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. The aura of audacity produced by these films exists most evidently in their distinct uses of tone and style, which also draws comparison to an existing canon. Like the previous examples, Under the Skin and Enemy are based on existing literary material. And the themes they evoke have precedents well beyond the film text or their “original” source material.

Under the Skin uses the metaphorical power of an alien hidden in plain sight to do a sort-of-anthropological study of what makes us human by examining ordinary objects, events, and settings as strange, foreign creations from an “alien” perspective. Similar generic themes are evident elsewhere in sci-fi, including The Man Who Fell to Earth (both the Nicolas Roeg film and the Walter Tevis novel).

Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal in ENEMY


Enemy, meanwhile, is a film whose themes explore the very subject under discussion here: it is a story about a man who finds out he is not unique, and the film is fittingly one of several adaptations this year that explores this theme (the English translation of Enemy’s source material by Jose Saramago is “The Double,” the title for both Richard Ayoade’s upcoming double film and its roots in Dostoyefsky). Of course, filmic object and literary source are not, and shouldn’t be, the same thing, and the greatest praise leveled at both films has principally surrounded those aspects where they’ve deviated from their respective sources: Under the Skin’s isolation of its narrative to a solitary female protagonist, and Enemy’s fucking insane ending.

This is not to throw my hands up in the air and exasperatedly declare that Nothing Is Original, but to ask what aspects about the production of art, media, and entertainment we obscure when we so often fetishize originality as an ideal in filmmaking. Perhaps it’s worth seriously considering the idea that derivation is a major, if not the major, source of human creativity – that it is within the realm of existing works of creation that the creative mind most often plays. The problems plaguing filmmaking across all tiers have never been originality, but inspiration: what is ultimately done with existing tools.

Transcendence, after all, was technically built from an “original” screenplay, yet there’s nothing about its supposed originality that makes it an inventive or insightful film. Creative derivation can produce The Dark Knight and The Grand Budapest Hotel just as easily as it can justify The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the next Zach Braff movie.

Would it be controversial to suggest that the most obvious tier of derivation, that which is practiced by Hollywood, is not inherently antithetical to creativity? To play devil’s advocate, what if we have not reached the nadir of Hollywood’s clone factory, but instead seen its apex, the contributions of which will be more evident when we have the selective benefit of hindsight?

Sure, after the summer box office season began with the release of a film as sloppily assembled as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, it’s hard to make the case that Hollywood is doing something truly interesting with its greater concentration of resources in a small selection of properties. After all, there are recurrent, structural problems with the blockbuster mentality as evidenced by Marvel’s multi-studio stranglehold on big budget filmmaking. Such films often feel manufactured by studio notes, limited by supposedly coherent cinematic multi-verses, impotent in their ability to demonstrate stakes through numbing grand spectacle, present supposedly thrilling narratives in which stakes don’t actually exist, and give film critics some rather unique challenges.

But I’ll be damned if, every now and again, disingenuously or not, there isn’t a giant studio movie that manages to use its formula in order to say something considerably more insightful than one would expect about myriad relevant subjects – not as a strange aberration, but as a tradition of using accessible filmmaking toward more thoughtful ends. And while I might nostalgically long for that brief, most beloved interim between Hollywood’s big-budget phases during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I certainly can’t say that today’s multiplex monopolizers are qualitatively inferior to any collective slate of summer movies since 1980. Blockbuster fatigue aside, some still maintain the potential to surprise when you look at the movies themselves and not the dispiriting calendars they occupy.

But regardless, let’s recognize creativity not in terms of where it came from, but in terms of what it does with its unavoidable precedents.