I was watching the Doug Walker’s (A.K.A. the Nostalgia Critic, That Guy With the Glasses) Top Ten Movies I Hate But Everyone Else Seems to Like (I meaning he). He had some controversial picks on both sides, but one thing kept coming up that I thought was interesting. There were several movies on the list like Avatar, Cars, Gladiator, With Honors, District 9, and Moulin Rouge.
What he remarked upon was how many people keep saying that these movies are original and innovative, when they’re not. I agree, and I thought, is this really a problem?
Granted, not everyone knows everything, and the kids who saw Avatar, Cars, and District 9 may not be familiar with its predecessors in either literature or film. But are adults are thinking this? They must really be ignorant not to realize that Avatar is a direct lift of Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and Pocahontas. District 9 starts as a documentary (This is Spinal Tap) and moves into Transformers/Independence Day style action. Gladiator = Ben Hur. And Moulin Rouge is every romance movie in the world mashed together (including all the stupid tropes and cliches) and set a breakneck pace to disguise that fact.
But don’t make a mistake — I don’t care that these movies have unoriginal plots, it’s that people think they are original. I think the biggest problem Doug Walker and I have with these movies isn’t that the plots are reused, its that they use cliches. Cliches are elements so overused they’ve become uninteresting and predictable, trite and obvious. You know how Avatar and Gladiator is going to end because you know how their predecessors ended. That’s the problem with using cliches (and why writers say not to do it).
But what these movies offer is innovative styles. Avatar obviously used tremendous CGI (although I agree with Doug Walker that it wasn’t incredibly lifelike, but I find that with any CGI). District 9 used several different styles from shakycam mockumentary to shakycam reality drama to survival/horror to big budget action movie. And Moulin Rouge has Baz Lurhman’s signature medication-induced frenzy. That’s why I like (some of) them, and it’s a valid thing to offer the audience. You can like a poorly written movie if it has something else to offer.
But don’t confuse its goodness/funness with being original and innovative. Avatar‘s story is not original. Moulin Rouge‘s story is not original (didn’t even use original songs). Cars‘s story is not original. Gladiator‘s story is not original.
True, you can’t ever say that any story is truly original. Things are lifted from here and there. We call these tropes. But if you use the same collection of tropes that another story does, you have no business reacting badly if someone calls your work blatantly derivative.