31/07/2011

action figure cinema

Future generations will inquire. Was it really a cartoon inspired by action figures or vice versa? Could it really have been a film series inspired by cartoons inspired by action figures in some grotesque alchemy of thought? Trembling, will the inhabitants of this future look into their neon-lined magnifying glasses, look into the mind-numbing morass of early twenty-first century culture and will they wonder what came first? The lunchbox? The t-shirt? The video game? The complimentary tie-in dinner set? Will they look into this culture and will it look back into them?


Simple though the answers may be to those of us living in the Now, I think we can rest assured that the future will be a dark gritty remake of the present day starring Steven Seagal as Steven Seagal and as such it may be less than endearing to the generation raised on Blade Runner. The rest of us will be but mere bit players in this fantastic future where Seagal's gaze alone will out-kill any gun. Awesome though that prospect may be, it will be a future largely lost to the particulars of the Transformers franchise. 

Yuck. I die a little inside whenever I use that word, franchise. It gives rise to the plague upon my mind that is the movie logic of Michael Bay guest starring Shia Lebeouf. Together they are the mind and face of action figure cinema in the summer of 2011. How do they do it? How do they sabotage the innate universal greatness of big ass robots fighting big ass robots to the soundtrack of urban destruction? 


Easily, that's how, that's Michael Bay answering the question no-one asked. That's what happens when the marketing and money men get their claws into what is admittedly a lightweight 'intellectual' property and still somehow manage to snuff the ever living joy out of it. Still, it takes talent or rather a concerted anti-talent to jinx the cinematic science of robot inspired devastation.

Now this isn't a dogmatic thing, the word franchise has its place like everything else in our glorious Lego set of life. The lingo of the fast food industry inspires within me only raging apathy with a touch of numbing rage. It's no greater blight upon the senses than anything else that corrodes the imagination within our high streets and department stores. But gene-splice it into the creative industries and the fan hits the shit. The results inevitably contain the sort of hollow, insincere wastes of mind space soon forgotten and never missed. 

The transformation of an idea into a franchise. It's a lesson in how certain concepts escape the minds of money and marketing. They live in a mindset where it is impossible to over-extend something beyond its natural conclusion. Thinking the unthinkable when it comes to assaulting the minds and wallets of the many, they go where few scruples go. In fact they reside there, forever lamenting the debt the world owes them for their lamentable gift. It is only a matter of time before we confuse cause and effect, before future generations consider Transformers: Dark of the Moon a successful adaptation of a lunchbox design and not the other way around.

Playing its part in this sordid machine of noise is an industry that will happily slap a movie title on anything remotely playable and call it a game. But unlike novelty cups, pens and contraception at least video games can occupy a plausible place within a franchises ever-expanding narrative right? Right?. Surely interactive entertainment of all things could transcend the limits of some pretty unambitious stories? Like tie-in novelizations, someone must enjoy them surely?  Why who doesn't want to play through all the uninspiring parts of the hitherto-unknown Star Wars universe? Apart from me that is.

Obviously a lot of people do. Let me play the part of the apologist for the machine for the moment and remind readers of the enhanced engagement such products offer. Now let's end the press release and remind ourselves of the microscopic place these things occupy in our experience of all things awesome. Unless of course you're of an age to consider action figures cool, which as we all know is anywhere between the ages of five and death. 

The Star based Wars are perhaps an even better example of the franchise effect at work. Take the nucleus of a good idea and smother it with inferior products. Quantum leaps in quality away from what made the source material fun, original, memorable even, we arrive at the point of deluge. The neatly-concluded, self-contained, wholly realized story becomes a quaint relic of its past. Everything has its universe, everything expands like a yeast of evil in an oven of despair. 

Not that building a universe around ideas is essentially a bad idea buts its become the default setting somewhat. Some ideas are more suited to it than others, comic book scenarios take to the idea well but even then with only variable success. But if the factories of culture are the dealers, does that mean the audiences who pay for it are essentially addicts of the awesome? Unwilling or unable to let it go, are we happy to perpetually hand over real money to enjoy more of the same? Or are we addicts for a reason? Is our popcorn addled with the tears extracted from the long lost soul of Michael Bay? Who knows?

This is the franchise beyond trinkets, this is the realm of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and reboots. Somehow, someway every story with an iota of mainstream appeal must become a 'saga' where the end is endlessly deferred to some future point in time. Selling story piecemeal to its audience, comics, books and video games become the previously untold stories that the world rarely demands and seldom enjoys. Video games based on films are usually soul-nullifying experiences and with good reason, because they play and feel like afterthoughts to films mostly dreamt up the same way. 

The video game industry contains its fair share of wankeloids too, those who dare to boldly go even further than film. For we have not reached the point yet where, having paid for a cinema ticket, you are informed halfway through the film that you will need to pay that little extra to watch a special scene that you suspect was originally part of the film anyway. This is downloadable content or DLC, a fairly commonplace turn of phrase in gaming today nonexistent just a few short years ago. Chunks of premium priced gaming mysteriously absent from that game you mysteriously paid £40 for? At least in the cinema you get the film intact. 

Eventually this process of fragmentation will lead us to the glorious future mentioned above. Where we will pay for each film by the scene, each book by the page and each game by every little aspect that can be stripped out and sold back to us at a grossly disproportionate price. Future generations will inquire, what was this thing we called an ending? Were we able to, we'd describe it to them in the only language that will survive the intervening years between us and them, in the language of robot violence, which as we know is the only thing that can truly bring people together. Then Steven Seagal will gaze burning holes of death into culture itself. The end.