Why formulaic movies aren't necessarily bad

It’s one of the most iconic scenes in film. In the opening moments of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," a Star Destroyer slowly crawls into frame as a desert planet sprawls out below.

Nearly 40 years later, that scene is more or less repeated in “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” In fact, many scenes and story beats from "A New Hope" are reprised in the "Force Awakens" — some more subtly than others.

No matter the medium, be it movies, TV or video games, one of the critic’s words of choice when discussing sequels in said media is “formulaic." This word is often used in a derogatory sense, a sort of “second verse, same as the first” if you will.

This sort of formula is especially popular in video games and television. As for the former, coding and models can simply be reused for subsequent games in the series. For television, the half-hour format makes it easy to simply change the paint on the superficial aspects of the story and play it again, often with little consequence to the overarching story of a plot. This is so prevalent in fact, that the term, “villain of the week” was coined.

Back to movies though: Is sticking to a formula a bad thing?

Take for example, “Halloween 3: The Season of the Witch.” While John Carpenter’s “Halloween” is in and of itself a critical darling and one of the most iconic horror films of all time, the third entry isn’t as fondly regarded.

Why? To make a long story short, the producers behind the "Halloween" franchise decided to take a tonal shift away from the iconic Michael Myers character and make the franchise a series of anthology films. This was after two films with said character, mind you, so the audience had already grown quite accustomed to him. It was a risk that didn’t pay off and “Halloween 4” was, fittingly enough, subtitled “The Return of Michael Myers”. While I hold a soft spot for the film, and am not alone in that opinion, the contention held against "Season of the Witch" is totally understandable; it went against an established formula, after all.

People are creatures of habit. We like routines; they make us feel comfortable. Seeing a plot repeat itself gives us that feeling of routine. Relying on formula is also good for companies, as a business would obviously feel more comfortable in taking the safer option when continuing an intellectual property. It’s a retread of the predecessor to be sure and could cause the franchise to stagnate, but it is still a safer option than going completely off the rails.

That’s not to say a formula is always totally restrictive. If used properly, sticking to a formula can actively surprise the audience. "22 Jump Street" is such a movie, using the idea of “doing it exactly the same the second time” as a plot point in the film and playing with the idea of sequels being point-for-point repeats.

Formula is like a backbone on which the rest of the plot’s skeleton is laid down. All franchises have, at their core, a common theme or idea that should be apparent across all stories in a series. This is the point of a formula — to keep everything anchored together at the most primal level.

Formula is a tool for writers, and I think, on it’s own, it’s not so bad. The problem comes when said formula is used as a crutch rather than a backbone. While a series of movies should have a similar common root, whether it’s a character, setting or theme, it should not be a sequence of near identical stories with merely names switched around. When a formula is used lazily, such things occur.

Back to "Star Wars." While “The Force Awakens” had many call backs and similar shots to “A New Hope” it very much stood on its own two feet. The beats were there, but the way they were presented was switched around. Characters reacted differently to old tropes, events took different paths from a similar origin and overall the movie excelled because of it.

A formula is but a tool starting point to build something bigger and better than what came before.


Reach the columnist at drsmit19@asu.edu or follow @Maxx_Lazerblast on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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