BOURNE AGAIN? RESISTING THE REBOOT

Are you planning to see The Bourne Legacy this weekend?  As much as I’d like to muster some enthusiasm to see the series Bourne Again, I find the trend to reboot movie franchises so dispiriting.    As a screenwriter, I recognize how rarely Hollywood now dares to shoot an original story idea.    The economics of the industry (and audiences’ viewing habits) mostly reward sequels.   I discussed this ongoing reality with the Vice-Chairman of Paramount Pictures, Rob Moore.   Here is a quick peek into studio strategy, rooted in filmgoers’ patterns.   They’re giving us what we want.

The financial risks have risen to such startling levels that filmmaking has become a blockbuster-only game for the studios.   From John Carter to Battleship, the stakes (and failures) have been spectacular.    But when a series connects with audiences, like Twilight or The Hunger Games, Hollywood can’t afford to end them (even when the source material has run out).    So original ideas are stretched so thin they nearly snap.    While the epic scope of The Lord of the Rings fits comfortably into a trilogy, we fear how a single Hobbit novel will soon be stretched into three movies.

Which brings us back to Bourne.   I have made peace with Hollywood sequels.   And I am open to following some characters like James Bond across continents (and cast changes).    While I may prefer Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan to Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton, I can still embrace the pop appeal of Bond’s conventions over time.   (Is it the gun, the cufflinks, or the sexism that ties them together?)   So why am I reluctant to switch from Matt Damon to Jeremy Renner?   Both are equally talented and intense.  The trailer for The Bourne Legacy looks engaging.  And Tony Gilroy knows how to craft a satisfying thriller.  The prospect of Damon and Renner facing off or teaming up in a future Bourne movie is enticing.

Perhaps I am turned off by the overall concept of a reboot.   It is not rooted in creativity whatsoever.   The rebooting of Spider-Man and Bourne is a simply a question of economics.   The contracts for franchises begin with three editions in mind.   So the salaries for Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker or Matt Damon as Jason Bourne are stepped out ahead of time, rising over the first film and two sequels.   When the contract is up and it is time to renegotiate, the studios find it far easier to restart or reboot with a new creative team.   So Sam Raimi steps out as director of the Spider-Man series or Matt Damon is no longer Jason Bourne.

While I enjoyed what director Marc Webb did with Andrew Garfield as The Amazing Spider-Man, I find it yet another slight to authors trying to craft original ideas.   Hollywood would much rather give us warmed over Spider-Man than something like Life of Pi.  Kudos to producers like Dean Georgaris taking the long road to get such passion projects to the big screen.   So I will refrain from the temptation towards Bourne 2.0 and funnel my enthusiasm (and dollars) towards the brave new worlds envisioned in Cloud Atlas.

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • http://www.psalmistandcolumnist.blogspot.com James

    You make some good points. I’m curious: how does the recent Batman trilogy fare to your ideas? Is a reboot arguably necessary if the source material was not previously given full justice in its film adaptation (e.g. Joel Schumacher)?

    • craigdetweiler

      Great question, James. I would consider the Dark Knight trilogy as working from a separate source–Frank Miller’s re-imagination of the Dark Knight. I don’t mind it when we go back to earlier sources–Jane Austen, Snow White, etc–with a fresh take. It is when the sequels are rebooted with only an eye on the bottom line and contracts drive the creative decision-making.

  • http://www.thejohnfox.com John Fox

    What do the Bourne identity, Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas have in common? They were all drawn from blockbuster books. So the notion that these are “original” stories isn’t really true. Hollywood is relying upon a massive book fan base to attend the films. To find a truly original story you have to dig deeper than that.

    I agree about avoiding the new Bourne identity. The books were a trilogy, the movies were a trilogy. When the books run out, it’s a sign that the franchise is going to get crappy very soon.

    • craigdetweiler

      Good point, John. But at least there is some risk-taking involved–untested stories for the cinema. As you indicate, when we’ve tapped out the source and still insist upon drawing water from a dry well, the industry is in a precariously barren place.

  • http://www.twitter.com/Gigasnail Paul

    Blake Snyder said it best with his Double Mumbo Jumbo rule, “audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie”. Another Bourne movie would be fine but I won’t bite if this new guys also got altered DNA suspiciously like spider man. And put what ever creative team you want in front of Cloud Atlas but like John Carter, the movie will flop when audiences have to comprehend both ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (+32 mil and +10mil respectively).

    • craigdetweiler

      The Blake Snyder quotation is quite apt, Paul. Guess the same thing applies to Abraham Lincoln and Vampires. I would like to believe that Cloud Atlas will work, but history is not on its side….

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  • Josh Braun

    I’ll agree that there are cynical aspects to reboots, and that the economics of Hollywood are stacked against fresh material at times. But I disagree that all reboots are the same. The new Spiderman reboot is deeply cynical—the reason for its being made so quickly upon the heels of Sam Raimi’s trilogy is that the rights to Spiderman were set to expire if they went unused, and letting them revert to Marvel—especially at a time when the value of Marvel superheroes was so dramatically on the rise—was unthinkable to Columbia Pictures.

    In the case of Bourne, though, “reboot” is a bit of a misnomer, as the filmmakers are building on the continuity of the existing franchise films, rather than scrubbing it. I actually have less of a problem with this—with the increasing complexity and popularity of many scripted television series, I think audiences have displayed a clear taste for continuity and the development of not just characters, but cinematic universes over time. I think it’s reasonable for films to try to give audiences that.

    If anything, I think the trilogy is the most cynical trend out there right now. While under the best of circumstances, it can give filmmakers the chance to tell a well crafted multi-part story, and when the trend toward trilogies started, I was initially excited. But more often than it’s meant studios instantly declaring even a modest one-off hit a “trilogy” without considering whether the material warrants it, thereby guaranteeing a minimum of two more mediocre films.

    • craigdetweiler

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Josh. Yes, there is a difference between Spider-Man and Bourne. Particularly in how Gilroy has created a new strand or parallel track for a new character and story to eventually reconnect with the original Bourne material. So it is a more complex reboot (which the creative team deserves credit for endeavoring to deliver).

      And yes, the mandatory trilogy has become a bit of a curse (which is why we have fears regarding the Hobbit). Perhaps the most painful example of a fall from grace was The Matrix series. So much love and respect generated by the first film was quickly squelched by efforts to resurrect it for more gain (and a largely unnecessary and unsatisfying story).

      I don’t blame filmmakers for wanting to cash in, I just get frustrated when the cash ins take slots that could have been apportioned to more original and risk-taking material (and yes, I understand that one cash cow can pay for plenty of risk-taking–I just too rarely see it happen).

      • Josh Braun

        And thanks for not harping on my poor proofreading. ;)

  • Billy Proctor

    I agree with what Josh says. ‘The Bourne Legacy’ is not a reboot. A reboot wipes the continuity clean in order to begin the story again from a narrative ground zero. This move was popularised in comic books well before films and TV began to adopt the method. So, ‘Batman Begins’ is disconnected from Schumacher’s dire films by begiining a story again in a quest for autonomy. Ditto ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘Casino Royale’, J.J Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ – which rationalised the erasure of continuity within the story itself as comic book series do. As Josh points out, the new Bourne film is carrying along on this trajectory by sticking to the logic of continuity. The term ‘reboot’ is fast becoming a buzz word that I think is being misapproriated at times. Recent articles suggest that you can now ‘reboot your wardrobe’ or your sex life; a recent episode of AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ stated that a notorious ‘meth’ drug dealer was rebooting his trade; Alex Ferguson is rebooting Manchester United and the US Congress needs a reboot (God knows the British government does!). I think these comments all have one thing in common and that is the strive to wipe the slate clean and begin again (although wiping the slate can only ever be achieved in a cursory fashion as we, the audience, are not rendered victims of amnesia courtesy of a ‘Men In Black’ style mind wiping device – although after Schumacher’s ‘Batman and Robin’, this could be a good thing!)
    What interests me here is how a word can mutate and become something else. I take Craig’s comments to mean that the Bourne film can be designated a reboot due to the fact that it was a dead franchise due to the fact that the story ended. Therefore, from this persepctive, it does indeed ‘begin again’. But I see it as a sequel – in that it comes after the third instalment – while some commentators label it a ‘sidequel’ or ‘parallel-quel’ due to the fact that it is unspooling at the same time as the third Bourne film.
    I sound geeky here – I am doing a PhD thesis on reboots so I hope that explains my passion. Perhaps nobody is wrong and everyone is right? But where would that leave us.
    It is about money – the ‘bottom line’ – but sometimes things need rebooting – sometimes, the audience wants to see a new Bourne (they definitely wanted a new Batman and look at the economic and critical successes of Bond and Trek). Recycling has been a feature of culture for centuries (really, centuries!) No-one ever claims that Shakespeare is getting a reboot or a remake even when it is true.


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