Future blockbuster hype: the lost art of living in the now

We all enjoy speculating about future movies, but can this distract from the films already out now, James wonders...

When World War Z broke out in 2013, it all happened very fast. Brad Pitt and his family were just driving along, slowly inching their way through a traffic jam in the Philadelphia streets and suddenly – zoompf! The zombie apocalypse just came out of nowhere.

Rabid rakshasas started ripping all vestiges of modern western civilisation to shreds, attacking people who were simply going about their regular daily business. From there the whole planet is revealed to be falling to hell, Brad Pitt and fellow survivors of the viral uprising engaged in continent-crossing combat to repel the bloodthirsty hordes and find a cure for the contagion.

For Pitt’s character, though, the turning point was that moment of realisation back in the Philly gridlock, back in the driving seat of his family’s SUV. I can’t precisely recall the dialogue but I can remember what he was thinking because I was reading his mind. His first thought was “Gotta protect my family!” because Pitt is a family man. The second thought was, “There’s grave danger here, and it’s possibly going to be the end of humanity! Holy Space Monkeys, is this the end of the world?!”

The third thought – and this one really stings – was “Damn! If the world ends we won’t get to see Avengers: Infinity War!” I’m just glad that both Pitt and all of us made it through the World War Z of 2013 so we at least had a chance of getting to May 2018 for the first of the two major ensemble movies that will define the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three. 

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Funnily enough, something similar happening in the not-dissimilar I Am Legend – a doomsday vision that occurred in 2007 and wiped out the Earth’s population six years before World War Z set about doing it over again. There was Will Smith walking all alone through the ruins of New York City with only his dog Samantha for company. It was daylight, so none of the Darkseekers (infected mutant hemocyte vampire-like horrors) were around to bother him.

Right there in Times Square – abandoned, empty, overgrown with weeds – Smith looked up at the marquee billboards advertising the musicals, consumer products and upcoming movies of a bygone, obliterated era. He saw the iconic Superman ‘S’ logo framed within the familiar winged Batman sign. And then he said, “Awwww, hell no! I never did get to see Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice!”

He was really, really looking forward to Batfleck. He was all clued up on the upcoming slate of Justice League-associated spin-off movies and had scoured every single article to get further details of the multiverse masterplan and glimpses of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. He had his diary all booked up until 2019 but now, nothing. Just the daily routine of surviving in the wake of the pestilence and trying to make it on his own, with only his dog, a few shop window mannequins and old DVDs from a disused rental store for comfort. (Including Batman Begins, but Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is now old news as far as cinematic Bat-cycles go.)

The curious cameo appearance of Dawn Of Justice promo material in I Am Legend really hammers home a critical point. All these things that we are really looking forward to may not come to pass. The future is unwritten and even if it is written it is subject to extensive rewrites and severe script-doctoring. The future is fragile and can be drastically altered in the twinkling of Tom Cruise’s eye. See Edge Of Tomorrow – or, in fact, any good time-travel movie – as a sample of how one individual’s path towards the ultimate destination (death) can shift and change depending on just one single move.

Death, indeed, is the only certainty in life. (Taxes are not certain, though they eventually caught up with Wesley Snipes and Nicolas Cage. I mean, Starbucks, Amazon, Facebook and several other major corporations get by without paying taxes, right?) Death is inevitable and is for the most part unscripted so it can come at any time, completely out of the blue.

Like Brad Pitt or Will Smith in their respective disaster flicks, we might suddenly find that contagion is sweeping through our society, ravaging our population and razing our cities. And then you and all your loved ones are dead or dying and that’s very sad – possibly even sadder than the tragic thought that you’ll never get to see the Thor: Ragnarok flick in 2017.

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The Grim Reaper, Hades or some other macabre personification of Death could strike you down at any moment. Tomorrow or, in fact, later today you could find yourself being attacked by an unanticipated mega fire-tornado, crushed by God’s giant foot, annihilated in an impromptu hostile alien invasion, senselessly massacred by banditos-gone-loco or accidentally shot in the face by John Travolta. They are possibly all more likely than you dying of Ebola, but that could happen to. There’s a thin line between life and death and you and I may not have much time left. I hope we do, because I’m not finished yet. Stay with me, please.

On a less morbid note – and turning to the people making the movies and not those watching them – you may not actually end up seeing the hyped future movies because the industrial powers-that-be may not actually be able to produce them. History is littered with tales of projects that got canned before, during and sometimes even after production.

Remember when Tim Burton was making Superman Lives with Nic Cage (tax catastrophe) suiting up as Krypton’s most famous son? Remember when Quentin Tarantino talked excitedly about how he was going to make a Vega Brothers film or Kill Bill Vol III or a war movie called Killer Crow or The Hateful Eight (the last one is now on the go, but looked in peril for a while back there when the script leaked onto the internet)?

Beneath the Magic Kingdom – buried not quite as deep as Walt Disney’s cryo-chamber – there’s a vault that contains a minor mountain of abandoned Disney and Pixar projects. (If you want to know more about some of them you can read this excellent article looking back on House of Mouse animations that never made it to screen). Altogether, these select few examples remind us that there’s a difference between saying you’re that you’re going to do something and actually doing it.

It’s true that “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley” (or “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” if you prefer). It’s the case for Mickey Mouse, that man Walt Disney and all the rest of us as well, and has been since the Dawn of Time. (You should see the original blueprints for this Universe. Oh my souls, all of this was meant to be so much better.)

As far as my own personal plans go, I’m not completely sure about the future at all beyond the next few months (in fact, probably the next few weeks or, indeed, next week). The idea that the structures of life are stable and that the trajectory of time is entirely predictable is a misguided delusion (unless you’ve somehow ended up with a jaded, uninspired screenwriter). You and I may muddle on without anything exceptional occurring or, alternatively, we could suddenly find our lives turned upside down, just like the characters I’ve already alluded to and the majority of most lead movie protagonists.

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If you really need further examples, look at what happened to bored Tatooine-based farmboy Luke Skywalker when two particular droids entered the picture. See how the traditionally-unadventurous Hobbits of Middle Earth got dragged into a whole series of unexpected journeys and unlikely fellowships for reasons beyond their control.

Until it happened, young Peter Quill definitely had no idea that he would be abducted by Ravagers and dragged to another galaxy (an amazing galaxy that he would one day become a guardian of). Oh Dae-su of Oldboy – locked away in solitary confinement for fifteen years with no explanation – is another particularly grim case study who’s good to think on. He was only allowed to watch old kung fu flicks in his maddening imprisonment, and ultimately that served him better than worrying about all the major league new blockbusters he was missing out on.

It’s quite rational – and, in fact, realistic – to believe that huge upheaval, outstanding surprises and unforeseen occurrences can occur. (Indeed, “Anything can happen in the next half hour!” as the opening titles of Stingray sagely remind us.) I’m open to that idea and am willing to embrace it, because it will make life more interesting and probably make shocking change more bearable if and when it happens. I don’t want to be one of those irritating characters who has to spend half a film spluttering out irritating lines along the lines of “I can’t believe this! This is impossible! I can’t believe this!” over and over to show just how surprised I am.

Consequently, I’m not putting much stock in long-term plans and, concurrently, that affects my outlook on the movie scene. Right now I’m in the ‘right now’ and am mainly focusing my attention and enthusiasm on films that are already out or that will be landing in theatres in December. Beyond that, I’m excited about the unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and a few other special prospects but I’m not concentrating on them.

At this moment I want to talk about Interstellar (still in theatres and relevant), Black Sea, the grand finale of The Hobbit trilogy and Exodus: Gods And Kings. I have seen one of those movies and will – hopefully, no guarantees – see the rest very soon so they’re on the current agenda. I don’t want to talk much about Star Wars VII or Avengers: Age Of Ultron or any other major blockbuster on the slate that’s due to finally slide off said slate any time after January. Looking around, I’m feeling very alone here, a man out of time because everyone else appears to be living in the future.

Know this – if you are one of those people living in the future and talking non-stop about far-future movies, I’m giving you the evil eyes (left eye, right eye and mind’s eye). I appreciate that that includes the writers and editors of this fine website and the readers who frequent this place and put down their own thoughts in the comments section. I appreciate that, on this issue at least, I’m existing in absolute opposition to all those cyber-souls on Twitter and other online spaces and the film industry itself.

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I appreciate that I’m just one individual person with an especial, perhaps unusual approach to movie-watching but, hey, I’m passionate about cinema and concerned about popular culture and social behaviour in relation to it. I’m worried that things are awry and would like to take this moment to shout against the crowd and all the hype about the blockbuster prospects on the horizon to say “Hey guys! LIVE IN THE NOW!”

To quote the elder Kevin Flynn of Tron: Legacy, “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man”. I feel very much like the Dudesque digital hermit many days as I navigate cyberspace and the neon-lit movie scene and attempt to avoid all this anti-calm and over-attachment to nebulous things that don’t really exist (or, at least, that don’t exist in a form that matters in the present).

I accept that I have a pretty atypical quasi-spiritual relationship to cinema, so you may not sympathise. I know that not many other people out there observe the same strict “no trailers” policy that I do. I know that if I start bleating and moaning about being unable to visit the cinema or log on to Twitter without being accosted by frivolous, spoilerfific content I’ll just come across as a prissy maniac who needs to get a grip. (I have no grip because gripping is attachment and Zen Buddhism is about letting go of attachments.)

With that in mind – and with all my evil eyes still fixed on you – I’ll move away from myself and bring the spotlight back onto the wider world. What happens when we’re overly obsessed with the far-flung future? We forget to live in the present and find our perspective distorted. It’s also feasible to reckon that we’re ruining things – in this case, films – for ourselves in the long-run and feeding some of the most unappealing aspects of the human condition.

I’m talking about things like our inclination towards potentially ruinous instant-gratification, our tendency to sabotage and spoil that which we love and our chronic impatience (‘Opening Christmas Presents Early Syndrome’, as no medical journal has ever called it). It’s my belief that all these far-advance trailers, teaser trailers for trailers, exclusive footage preview reels, early announcement of franchise plans and the in-depth analyses of all those things that follow are not good for us, movie fans and the moviemaking industry.

Firstly, tackling the studios themselves, I fear that filmmakers become victims of their own hype machine if they put too much effort into promoting films too early. So many blockbusters are being built-up that there’s inevitably going to be disappointment somewhere down the line. Eventually, one of the superhero super-multiverses being spawned will suffer and perish in the saturated marketplace.

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Lack of present day focus could play a key part in such a commercial catastrophe. The Amazing Spider-Man reboot cycle is perhaps a case a point as the quality of the two films we’ve already seen have suffered because Sony appears more eager to set up future spin-off arcs than making outstanding movies right now. That series is now a tangled web of confusion because it got too concerned about the future and now a full-fledged reboot of Peter Parker might be on the cards.

If you want an expert second opinion, Guardians Of The Galaxy director James Gunn’s recent concerned comments about Hollywood’s new obsession with a “flawed” shared universe model are pertinent (“carts before horses… trying to grow trees without a strong seed”). The ‘one game at a time’ ethos preached by so many athletes and sports coaches may be a wiser approach or, at least, attitude to bear in mind as the various competing studios work through their long-term franchise building plans.

Overfamiliarity may also come to harm these major events when they actually make it to theatres. I’m already bored of hearing about the aforementioned Amazing Spider-Man’s expanded universe and the DC multiverse set to grow out of Dawn Of Justice. It’s for this reason that I’m avoiding anything to do with the Star Wars sequels and the MCU until the time comes when they actually surface in cinemas. I am already invested in these series and on-board, so why spoil the surprise and the fresh exhilaration of the actual experiential moment by digging into all the spoilerific reports and advance clips available now?

The truth is that you don’t need to watch the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the exclusive advance footage of Age Of Ultron. You don’t need to work out the ins-and-outs of the developing Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC’s Justice League multiverse. You don’t need to waste the mental and physical energy thinking about these things and getting caught up in articles and online threads about things that aren’t going to appear for years.

If we’re too caught up in the future we forget to be present and live in the now. That’s movie mindfulness and more of an enlightened, Zen way of existing in this world of distracting pleasures and attachments which will only bring you suffering (according to Buddhist philosophy). Also, if we stop yearning for things that are out of reach right now we may treasure what we actually have – movies that we can watch now – all the more and not actually destroy the distant attractions by overhyping them so they can’t deliver on their impossible promise.

And after all, we may all die tomorrow in a devastating-but-amazingly-cinematic apocalypse, and then no one is seeing Star Wars: Episode VII or Dawn Of Justice or Avengers: Infinity War if Brad Pitt or Will Smith can’t save us. I hope we don’t die tomorrow, but I won’t worry about it too much. Maybe we should all just meditate and be at one with ourselves and the moment. This moment is all we have so while we’re here, we should live and live in the now.

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James Clayton is meditating right now, just like Walt Disney who is currently located a few levels beneath the vault containing all those Disney and Pixar projects which never made it to screen. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’s previous column here.

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