Popular media is full of ‘sameness.’ The movie theaters are filled with superhero and Star Wars films that carry the same essential tone, filling their worlds with a recognizable setup of personal drama intersected by a society damaging threat in which the drama is softened by punctuated humor. Snark and sarcasm, weaved into the original Iron Man film and heightened through the Avengers film and the writing approach of Joss Whedon, are among the most defining features of Disney owned properties.In video games, war games tend to iterate on themselves without evolving, bringing little new in the way of narrative.
Worse, there’s very little that shocks. Highly CG enemies are common, demons and alien space threats are reduced to boxing matches between CG opponents, and movie, television, and film are created by committee. Business executives finalize story decisions based on feedback received from focus groups. As a result, the current environment is conducive to stories deemed ‘safe.’ Even Marvel Films was, until just a few years ago, guided by a central approval group that gave a thumbs up or down based on what they felt was marketable.
Yet many of the most memorable media of the past 20th century is the result of a single vision either put to paper or film. Cult films have a permanent place among fans who can now connect like never before through the power of the internet. Consider the following films from the 70s and 80s and even early 90s.
Rock and Rule, a rock musical featuring a group of humanoid rats living in the post-apocalyptic future in which an aging Mick Jagger-esque rock start tries to summon a demon by which he can become a god, a demon that can only be destroyed through the power of love and music.
Labyrinth, a musical fantasy film in which a spoiled babysitter with an overly active imagination has to make her way through a labyrinth filled by bizarre creatures and overseen by the David Bowie played Goblin King in search of her kidnapped baby brother in a coming-of-age story.
Cool World, an animation-live film hybrid about a cartoon woman who seduces her real life animator to have sex with him so that she can become real and featuring a dying Brad Pitt whose sexual encounter with his cartoon girlfriend cartoon gives him an afterlife in the cartoon world.
Video games, while unable to carry their premises because of a lack of technology, still rested on weird and bizarre premises.
Blaster Master, a game in which your frog disappears into the underground and you follow to rescue him only to find he’s been mutated into an eldritch horror by underground aliens that you have to fight using a mobile tank whose origin is never provided.
Astyanax, a game where you play a boy from the real world who daydreams too much, gets sucked into a fantasy world by a fairy named Cutie, charged with saving this fantasy world by saving the princess Rosebud but during which your fairy companion sacrifices herself and is later resurrected as your high school girlfriend by the princess.
Even mainstream developers had strange premises. Metroid features a descent into the underground of an alien planet to hunt a life essence sucking creature called a Metroid being bread by space pirates led by a gigantic cyber organic brain known as the Mother Brain.
Even books were weird, though novels remain less susceptible to the mainstreaming forces of television, game, and movie directors. Pick up The Lord of the Rings again and say it isn’t weird with a straight face. It’s a fantasy epic that takes meandering tangents into the lives of characters like Tom Bombadil, a representation of the planet that existed before the first evil arrived in Middle-earth. On the other hand, pick up At the Mountains of Madness or any other Lovecraft book and you’ll find yourself in a descent into eldritch horror full of primordial evils without explanation.
The larger point is that even when a movie or game was disappointing, and there are many on this list that were, the odd premises and attempt to bring something unusual to life made it memorable. Cool World is a film strictly for a niche audience and Astyanax is never a game that will get a sequel. On the other hand, when the execution was there, the story went down in history. Metroid continues to receive sequels to this day, many of which try to capture the same unsettling vibe of the first few games, while Labyrinth is one of the most beloved Jim Henson films of the 80s – even if it was unsettling.
That’s a concept that writers have shied away from in recent years – the feeling of being unsettled. In the ever ongoing attempt to expand markets and draw in as many readers or viewers as possible, stories have been less willing to brave the weird and strange. Even the strangest enemies remain safe. You won’t find many heroes beating their enemies through the power of music anymore, and the villains will often fall into safe classes of CG.
That’s not to say that the weird and strange isn’t entirely gone. Stranger Things proved that people till want stories that are creepy and unsettling, with a feeling that things are unsafe. Characters die in Stranger Things that don’t come back – something films in the 80s were willing to do that modern films are not, unless the entire point of the film is to be a war or slasher movie. This series involves weird government experiments, a parallel dimension inhabited by a violent mouth faced creature, and a psychic girl that can explode people’s’ heads.
Another example of the weird from a different perspective is the current revival of theclassic anime show, Fooly Cooly, which is set to start broadcasting in June. Revolving around an alien girl who seeks a cosmic power by using her dimension spanning powers to pull robots and guitars out of people’s’ heads, Fooly Cooly features battle with swinging Gibson used to destroy multi armed gun totting androids. Oh, and the size of those guitars is representative of the male penis and the central theme of the show is coming to terms with puberty and the complex sexual interactions that come with that.
Writers are always looking for a larger audience, but that pursuit cannot be conducted at the expense of pursuing bold and interesting ideas.
Sometimes that exploration will pay off with a classic, and at other times it will turn into a dud appreciated only within niche audiences. But better to brave the new and remarkable than to turn in safe rehashes of the same material time and time again. It’s fine to present well-worn tropes and plot lines, but do it well, and be willing to put your own spin on things. Don’t write by committee, but by vision, and challenge the common perceptions of what sells. There’s an audience out there for the wonderful and the strange, you just have to find it.
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Bonus! One of the defining songs from Fooly Cooly: Ride on Shooting Star.
And some creative backgrounds from innovative films.