Copying is so cliché

Matthew Sharpe

There’s a searing topic of debate among filmmakers and critics these days, and it’s one that needs resolving: has the line between cinematic homage and blatant theft become too blurred?

Of the hundred highest grossing films of the last ten years, 75 of them are remakes, sequels or adaptations of source material, such as comics. Almost all the rest seem equally unoriginal and generic, tending to stick to very strict and predictable formulas.

This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon though – cinema has always used copying as a tool for creation, just to varying extents and degrees of subtlety. This might not always be a bad thing though. As film theorist Kirby Ferguson once wrote: “Copying is how we learn. We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain.” Essentially, the inspiration behind creativity is replication – altering and combining the old to form something new.

This was something that struck me as I was watching this summer’s remarkably similar yet predictably awful releases – ‘White House Down’ and ‘Olympus Has Fallen’. Same Presidential-themed mayhem, same groan-inducing tripe. When I delved further into less recent productions, I discovered just how deep the derivative rabbit-hole goes. Take the latest outings for James Bond and Batman in Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises.

They were both the third canonical act in a trilogy from a franchise that dates back to the 60s. They both dealt with the themes of resurrection and rebirth. And most interestingly, they both featured five damningly similar characters…

…the aging protagonist, who at one point seemingly dies, only to return triumphantly. He also struggles with a physical and mental breakdown, as well as childhood issues.

…the elderly superior or guardian of the protagonist who is nearing retirement, and urges the protagonist to be vigilant of their safety. At the end of the film, they are given a convenient way out, which signals the end of the character.

…the flirtatious occasional love interest for the protagonist, with whom he shares suggestive banter (among other things). She is feisty, but comes to the hero’s rescue at the last second.

…the foreign and mysterious secondary love interest, who works for the main antagonist. She dies, partly because she’s really irritating, but mostly because it allows for a self-contained and conveniently short love story.

I’m not suggesting that these films copied each other, merely that they adopt certain conventions of cinema and character that have been, and will continue to be, used repeatedly. Clichés, essentially. This is why there is an inherent hypocrisy in filmmakers’ claiming intellectual property theft for films that are essentially the same as the ones that inspired them. Creation requires influence, so why would you monopolise great ideas?

‘Star Wars’ is famously compiled of mythical elements from Joseph Campbell’s book ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’. There were many narrative structures there that could form the plotlines of a successful film, but it was only when George Lucas fully popularised these elements by combining them to create something new, that an era-defining blockbuster was made. Despite the unoriginality, it was the borrowing, reshaping and merging that allowed Lucas to create such a brilliant work, the success of which few would dare to question.

According to box office lists, ‘Avatar’ is the most successful film of all time. According to everyone else, it’s also the least original. Its unprecedented revenue is testimony to the power of a little imitation and recombining. The basic narrative framework has been stuffed with the plots from ‘Dances With Wolves’, ‘Pocahontas’, ‘The Last Samurai’, ‘Ferngully’, ‘The Last of the Mohicans’, ‘Dune’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and ‘A Man Called Horse’. The collective gross of all of these films is not even half that of Avatar’s.

However, the film industry is not as hopelessly trite as I might have made it out to be. Imagine if we re-released classics from the 20th century, such as ‘Citizen Kane’. They would still be considered classics, but they would be seen as very derivative. The reason for this is that they had a massive influence on great films that followed. They set templates and inspired ideas, which were then reworked. Think of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, for example. If it was released today, people would bemoan the concepts it seemingly borrows from other films, such as the 2011 masterpiece ‘The Tree of Life’. What I’m getting at here is that films inevitably reference one another. In order to continue making good, let alone great, films, we must pinch and modify the aspects of films that have already stood the test of time. So without a little copying, the medium will never progress.

Essentially, we shouldn’t complain about narrative plagiarism, because that is what cinema and, by extension, all art forms are about. You may think the films you watch are quirky, original and unique works of innovation, but they’re not. Deep down, when we examine their components, all films are the same. All popular songs use the same set of chords. All modern novels follow similar narrative beats and character arcs. There are, of course, exceptions, but my point is that, despite the sense of unimaginativeness, we should embrace this culture of copying. No film is ever made in vacuum, no film will ever be totally clean of references. And if there were be such a film – no one would understand it or like it.