A Trope to Twist, AKA the Rise of “Meta-Movies”

GoosebumpsThe weekend before last I enjoyed watching Goosebumps on Netflix. A blend of comedy with thriller-horror, the film was weirdly delighting and a fun surprise for someone whose only entry into the series was Say Cheese and Die.

The premise was unusual as well; high school student Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move to Madison, Delaware so his mother can take a new job. Initially with no friends of his own, he bonds with his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). But concern for his new friend leads Zach to investigate her father, whom is the reclusive (to say the least) writer R.L. Stine, portrayed by Jack Black. His reason for hiding from society? Stine’s original manuscripts are gateways to unleashing the monsters he wrote. And when Zach accidentally unleashes them, Madison pays the price for his mistake.

Goosebumps is another addition to the growing genre of “meta-movies,” mildly self-aware films that make use of unusual source material in a way that acknowledges cultivated clichés and tropes, yet integrates them with care. These films are not parodies like Meet the Spartans or the Scary Movie series, but rather they walk a fine line between taking themselves seriously and having fun. The Lego Movie is another such meta-movie, telling the majority of its story before acknowledging its characters are, in fact, toys. Also Wreck-It Ralph, which portrays its eclectic cast of video games characters more as “actors” on a stage of digital lights. These films accept that telling a dramatic tale with the toys and games would difficult, and their approach vastly differs from other product-franchise adaptions like Battleship and Transformers which take themselves seriously (although the latter had considerable source material to draw from).

But products aren’t the only source of meta-movies. Entire genres too can fall in this category, such as with The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than avoiding them, Drew Goddard’s movie dives into the clichés, embracing and wrapping them around a “second tier” plot twist that changes the dynamic from traditional horror to a pre-apocalyptic tale. And it works very well.

An important distinction however is that they do not totally breach the fourth wall, but may create avatars for the audience and make them somehow integral to the story. For The Lego Movie, it was the child played by Jadon Sand and The-Man-Upstairs, Will Ferrell’s live counterpart. Goosebumps had Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee), while The Cabin in the Woods relied on Bradley Whitford and his team of voyeurs.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph differs however. It has no audience-avatar character, but still acknowledges that it takes place within a world hidden in the hardware, using props rather than a person to construct the stage and uses many gaming references to “speak” to and for the audience.

So where did the ideas for all these movies come from? A good question.

Goosebumps likely borrowed from The Cabin in the Woods, which was likely written based on critical reaction to patterns in horror films as a whole. The Lego Movie likely took a cue from Toy Story (which used a few brand toys but was mostly archetypal). Wreck-It Ralph could trace its origins to the Canadian animated show Reboot which in turn may have taken a hint from 1982’s Tron— all of whom take place within the hardware world.

These earlier films are not “meta-movies” but rather the forerunners, phenomenon that either immediately or in time altered pop culture as we know it. The ideological tree whose fruit gives us the very tropes to twist.

Still, the cats out of the bag and the pattern has emerged. Meta-movies are ultimately a kind of gimmick, a clever idea that will likely become more and more telegraphed until meriting retirement. But I’m not one to declare that any good idea should ever entirely be discarded. After audiences tire of them, the concept will probably be set aside until audiences forget they exist, before they make a resurgence. Just as Star Wars is the modern space opera and Indiana Jones is the archetype adventurer mixed from King Solomon’s Mines and similar but pulpier tales, no good idea goes unremembered for long.

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Awake, First, Only and Last Season

An ironic name, given its audience...

An ironic name, given its audience…

Yesterday night I saw the last episode of NBC’s Awake. I suspect that Fox spoiled me by continuing to renew Fringe despite the ratings drama, and thus I hoped that NBC might do the same. But they simply could not chance a second season of the intriguingly psychological police drama.

I’ve briefly covered this before, but Awake is the story of detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who recently suffered a car accident with his wife and son (Laura Allen and Dylan Minnette respectively). Each time he goes unconscious, be it sleep or otherwise, he wakes up in the “other world.” The two worlds are different enough; in one his wife survived but his son did not, and vice versa.

The differences do not end there. The world of his wife is tinged with an orange/red color, where he answers to psychologist John Lee played by BD Wong of Law & Order: SVU, and is partnered with rookie Detective Vega (Wilmer Valderrama).

The other world is a bluish green, where he has sessions with psychologist Judith Evans (Cherry Jones) and solves cases with long time partner and friend ‘Bird’ Freeman, played by Steve Harris. In both worlds he answers to Captain Harper (Laura Innes). But all characters exist, or have existed, in each of the realities.

The detective cases in one world always seemed to have unexplained details that related to the other. As Britten picks up on these details, it scares his partners and boss with his preternatural instincts for solving cases. Clues seemed to come out of no where. Cases get solved with speed that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame.

But all the while, there are details that make no sense to the case, building the clues in Britten’s mind. These bizarre and esoteric clues lead Britten to conspiratory discovers surrounding the night of his family’s car accident.

The show’s creators, upon finding out about the cancellation, attempted to end the show on a satisfying enough page. They did not have enough time to expand the story beyond a low level plot of a corrupt police drug operation. There was no conspiracy that explained Britten’s mental condition as I was first led to believe. That was completely his own doing. Instead, the show takes advantage of its twin psychologists to rationalize the unusual nature of Britten’s twin mindedness.

The plot aspects of each episode did not always make the greatest of sense. The alternate versions of certain suspects created confusion, sometimes without satisfactory reconciliation. I believe that even the show’s writers had a difficult time deciding how to best implement episode plots, and it showed.

But I enjoyed the well roundedness of each of Awake’s characters. No character annoyed me. Both the wife and son got considerable on screen time, and their irrationalities were rationalized by either Wong or Jones’ character. There was not time to really develop either of the partners Freeman or Vega, but their personalities and mannerisms worked well. I enjoyed Freeman’s concern for his partner and level headedness, and Vega mixed an excellent blend of rookism with common-sense regarding Britten’s antics.

The show’s conclusion was a rush to Britten’s metanoia. There were scenes of subtle, disturbing creepiness, such as when he spoke to his alternative self through a prison visit. The best scene had to be where Britten walked down the prison hall, while the two psychologists clashed and argued behind him.

Lee and Evans jabbed each other with their conflicting philosophies, like brain parents fighting over their child. Lee took on what could be described as paternal instincts, believing that Britten should have taken charge of his dreams and cast the other aside. The maternal Evans however, embraced and encouraged Britten, trying to let his mind naturally accept and heal itself. Given the second to last scenes of the show, it could be suggested that Lee’s denial of the otherworld was a desperate attempt to deny and save himself, a survivalistic instinct threatened by Britten’s fractured psyche.

The final scene of Awake hurt the show. Rather than embracing the blue/green world where his wife is dead, as hinted by a goodbye kiss between them, the creators decided to try and wish away the point of the entire show with, “It was all a dream! Your wife and son are just fine.”

Needless to say, such a whimsical approach to the ending kills the mood. As though the last twelve episodes did not matter in the least to the ending.

Despite this set back, I have to applaud the show’s overall innovation and originality. The show is technically a marketplace failure as it lasted only one season. Such first generation experiment often fail however. But the loss often creates artistic seeds from which new, better executed television can be developed, much like how Dark City inspired Inception.

Time will tell.