With a special "long trailer" in theaters and out on the web for Elysium (a tactic I'm coming to associate with films that are an uneasy sell for mainstream audiences, but more on that later), there's some rather weird fan backlash circulating. Not to say that fan backlash is by itself some exotic circumstance -- look at how much of that we got for Man of Steel -- but the way it manifests in each case is weird. In this case, it's something to the effect of there being nothing original here, that director Neill Blomkamp is just repeating himself anyway, and that he isn't all that and a bag of chips in the first place.
I find this attitude bizarrely parochial, the kind of popularity-contest and my-dad's-bigger-than-yours thinking that dominates too many online forums.
If Blomkamp makes a good movie, a genuinely good movie -- he has before, and I hope he has again -- what difference does it make if he's doing so by incrementally refining a set of ideas he's been interested in all along? Granted, it helps for any creator to broaden their focus over time and try different things, but we're only talking about the second feature film in a director's entire career here. (Plus which, shouldn't we judge the quality of the movie by, you know, seeing the movie, and not by looking at the advertising?)
I also find it funny how people can examine consistencies between films in a director's oeuvre, and for one director (e.g., Kubrick) call that proof of genius but for another director (e.g., Blomkamp) cite that as proof of artistic stagnation. It's the old If X Had Made This You Wouldn't Be Praising It argument -- and now that I think about it, isn't attributing hypothetical behavior to the other participant in an argument a fallacy?
What that and other related phenomena tell me is how this whole business of deciding what classifies as "original" can be as arbitrary as any other part of our tastes. Not that originality itself is a non-issue, but that our perceptions about what's original are too easily colored by expectations.
Most people argue for Elysium and District 9 being original in the sense that they were not adaptations of material from another franchis. To me those were, and are, big points in their favor. Yes, even if that original script is made up of elements found elsewhere. In the end, it's going to be about how well those elements hang together and play as one, and what they add up to.
Maybe all this talk of what's "original" is a red herring, one which distracts us from having more substantive discussions about what's actually any good. There are many unoriginal products that are good, and many good things that are unoriginal. It helps to be both, but let's not act as if there's nothing to be learned -- or enjoyed -- in all cases.
That said, I will make one final defense against originality as a virtue: it works as an exercise, both for the creator and the audience, in seeing what else is possible. In that sense I am always that much more enamored of something that starts on as much of its own terms as can be had.
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