Wednesday, November 27, 2019

In Laman's Terms: Important Takeaways From Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

I may have an obsession with box office figures so passionate that even Box Office Mojo's self-destructive revamp can't dilute, it must be said that box office has no correlation to the actual artistic merit of a motion picture. Box office figures are so much fun to pore off and geek out on, but they're a wholly separate conversation from determining whether a movie is good or not. Maybe that sounds obvious, but unfortunately, movie studios, the entities tasked with actually creating cinema, tend to conflate the two. To most movie studio heads, a box office bomb is immediately something terrible to be avoided while a box office hit is something to be replicated at all costs. It's why we have so many more Happy Madison comedies than Donna Deitch films, it's all a financial game rather than the more prevalent one being inherently better for the art of cinema.

This misperception of "box office=quality" from major studios means that all the wrong lessons will be learned from the box office failure of November 2019 titles Terminator: Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep. There's no way Hollywood ever learns to cool off on sequels, so that certainly won't be the takeaway from those two movies not doing so hot financially. Instead, Hollywood studios will likely be hesitant to greenlight two-and-a-half-hour-long horror films or action blockbuster sequels starring new characters. That's a true blue shame given how both Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep actually show off a number of qualities that more sequels could take a cue from.

Now, neither of these titles are perfect, no film is. But within both features, we can see how one can turn attempts to prolong the brand names of famous 1980's motion pictures into filmmaking that actually works well on its own merits. For one thing, both Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep aren't afraid to shift the focus of their stories over to new characters. Instead of regurgitating people we've already spent excessive amounts of time with, each of these sequels takes a cue from The Force Awakens and Creed in being baton-passing yarns where previously existing characters meet younger new protagonists who represent hope for the future.

Instead of just focusing on the past, both of these projects manage to show off a welcome embracing of the fresh and the new. To boot, both movies share the welcome quality of not being afraid to just pause and let the characters breathe for a while. This is especially true of Dark Fate, an action blockbuster full of explosions, car chases and even a duel between two mega-airplanes. Between all of that, Dark Fate carves out time for us to get to know the trio of lead characters headlining this project. Sarah Connor and company aren't just seen as ragdolls to be thrown around by CGI robots, they're people we can get invested in on a dramatic level.

This is especially apparent in a scene where Sarah Connor relays to newbie character Dani about how she's slowly forgetting the face of her deceased son, John Connor. Up to this point, Sarah has been the paragon of an unassailable action hero, so seeing Linda Hamilton effectively portray a poignant portrait of Sarah being this openly vulnerable just hits you right in the gut. The fact that Dark Fate is more concerned with exploring Sarah Connor as a character than it is in just doing a bunch of cheap callbacks to its predecessor is pretty much the biggest lesson future sequels should learn. For those looking for other examples of characterization getting more emphasis than lazy storytelling in a sequel, you can also check out fellow November 2019 sequel Doctor Sleep.

Writer/director Mika Flanagan forgoes doing just a simple retread of The Shining with Doctor Sleep. Instead, he creates his own engaging narrative (one built upon a book written by Stephen King) fixated heavily on following Danny Torrance's struggles with addiction and trauma. Those are heady subject matter for a mainstream horror sequel to tackle, but Doctor Sleep approaches both topics in a considerate fashion that makes it just as satisfying as a very grounded drama as it is as a horror film. Doing more adventures in the Terminator and Shining universe totally just sounds like another cash grab opportunity, but in the final products of Dark Fate and Doctor Sleep, we see movies that actually take chances to explore their characters and create their own distinct identities. Please Hollywood studios, don't let the box office shortcomings of these movies detract from their artistic merits and how they both show how to do sequels in a satisfactory manner.

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