A thought occurred to me while watching The Bourne Legacy the other day. That thought was, quite simply, This movie makes no sense. I don’t just mean in the sense of, “Wait, how did he know that vital piece of information when he wasn’t in the room when it was revealed?” either. The latest installment in the Bourne series happens to ignore narrative logic altogether, preferring to forgo such traditional concerns as “character motivation,” “character development” or “character arcs” in favor of… Well, I’m not entirely sure what, to be honest. Action, perhaps? Visually spectacular chase sequences involving motorbikes?
That a big action movie can pretty much entirely flunk Storytelling 101 may not be the biggest surprise in the world to people, but what struck me about The Bourne Legacy wasn’t just that it failed to tell a story successfully, but that it didn’t even seem to try. You see, The Bourne Legacy lacks the two things that you expect every movie to have: There isn’t a beginning, and there isn’t an ending. Thanks to some clumsy sleight-of-hand about two-thirds of the way into the movie, the antagonists up until that point disappear from everything that follows, replaced by a stand-in bad guy from out of nowhere who drives (literally) the climactic chase sequence. The replacement villain is ultimately defeated, which gives the movie some sense of conclusion, but entirely ignores the fact that nothing has changed from the midway point of the movie as the credits roll, and the ultimate bad guy of the movie — the corrupt U.S. Government agency behind the programs to create super-soldiers — is left to menace another day. Almost every plot remains unresolved, almost every explanation unmade. Who is Aaron Cross? You don’t really have that much more of an answer after watching the movie than you do from watching the trailer. He’s Jeremy Renner’s latest competent action hero (see also: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Marvel’s The Avengers); that’s all you need to know.
Stranger, still, is that the movie’s lack of story is apparently not a problem for most people. Not only did the movie debut at the top of the box office this past weekend, but the movie’s critical notices (which have been amusingly split) include praise for its momentum, its “turn-your-brain-off” qualities, and the sheer breathlessness of the experience of the film. As Tim Robey of the Daily Telegraph puts it, “Caveats come later: while it’s pulsing on screen, you won’t want to be anywhere else.” The critics at the screening I went to seem to agree that summer movies aren’t about story, but about spectacle. As long as you have enough memorable scenes of special effects or action in there — for example, Jeremy Renner wrestling a wolf, which he then goes on to punch in the face — then people will want to see it.
This isn’t anything new, of course; I’m sure that everyone could reel off a list of blockbuster movies that have left them scratching their heads in confusion afterwards. (When I asked for suggestions of movies that made no sense on Twitter last week, I was flooded with responses including, but not limited to, all of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and “everything Nic Cage has done since 2007″). You could be tempted, though, to imagine that this summer was been a highpoint for nonsensical movie making, whether it’s illogical climbing sequences in The Dark Knight Rises, confusing time-travel in Men in Black 3 (“Men in Black 3 doesn’t end with flimsy logic,” explained Entertainment Weekly. “It ends with anti-logic. It feels like the natural endpoint for contemporary blockbuster filmmaking”) or, of course, 8,000 miles of anti-science in Total Recall. That’s likely just the end result of immediate exposure to the stupid, however. All it takes is a look at the most successful movies of recent years to realize that, well, maybe logical stories aren’t exactly what the people want, after all.
And yet, if we don’t enjoy big blockbuster movies for their stories, why do we enjoy them? It’s a difficult question to answer, because for every possibility, it’s relatively easy to come up with an example to throw it into some doubt. For example, if you push the idea that perhaps it’s the actors and their performances that lure us into the big summer movie of the year, you only have to be pointed in the direction of the Transformers movies, with paper-thin portrayals from the likes of Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox, to suggest otherwise. But then, you might argue, perhaps it’s the special effects and visual overload that makes us show up at the theater time after time; after all, Transformers may have its faults, but the films look amazing, right? Except, of course, if it were merely eye candy that people wanted, then why were such visually spectacular movies from recent years like Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World failures?
The secret ingredient, I suspect, is comfort. It may sound counter-intuitive to describe such movies as The Bourne Legacy, The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers as “comfortable,” exactly — aren’t they all meant to be edge-of-the-seat experiences, after all? — but that’s exactly what they are. The overwhelming majority of successful blockbuster movies are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, giving us exactly what we both expect and want with the minimum of fuss, and using characters or concepts to which we as an audience already have some form of attachment. Even once you throw out the sequels, prequels and reboots of existing movies, you still have all of the movies based upon toys we played with, comic books we read or television series we watched as children. There’s definitely an argument to be made for this comfort-led approach: The audience gets to know what to expect from their entertainment before they pay for it, and the studios are making less of a gamble with their investment in developing and making the movies, because, hey, known quantity and all that. Less cynically, of course, there’s an opposing argument to be made for the value of pleasant surprises and new ideas, but in almost every clash between culture and commerce, it generally pays to be cynical, sadly.
Viewed from that perspective, the success of The Bourne Legacy makes far more sense. Even for those who haven’t been paying attention to the Bourne series up until this point, there is a lot to find familiar in this latest installment. Not only are there familiar faces throughout the movie — Look! It’s Hawkeye from The Avengers and that guy from Fight Club who was the Hulk before Mark Ruffalo! — but each one is playing a character so undefined as to be easily recognizable in their genericism without the writers needing to lift a finger to define them. Almost everything about the movie is so unoriginal as to feel as if it’s come from another movie; the fact that there’s no real connective tissue or narrative through line to connect those scenes almost becomes unimportant in the face of the accidental nostalgia and emotional connections they evoke. It’s not that The Bourne Legacy is a good movie in and of itself, perhaps, but that it reminds people of enough other good movies that they still manage to find the viewing experience worthwhile. (Plus, you know, wolf-punching.)
Let’s say that The Bourne Legacy‘s primary appeal is its similarity to other movies. It raises a question that will thrill studios and filmmakers as much as it’ll terrify cinema purists: How long until we get a movie that just does away with any pretense at story altogether? I’m not talking about a “best of” sequence like the 1970s compilations of sequences from MGM musicals — although, come to think of it, there probably is a market for a “That’s A Never-Ending Montage Of Chase Sequences, Punches and Frowning” movie — but something more akin to an even more over-the-top Jackass, with elaborately stylized stunts and scenes beyond the scope of that show’s extreme “reality.” Imagine it: scene after scene of big-name actors in fantastic, CGI-ed locations in a series of set-pieces that continually amaze, shock and awe the viewer without the need to connect with anything that’s come before or comes after. Freed of the constraints of having to make sense, more energy could be poured into this particular mutant haiku of cinematic spectacle, making every new sequence something for the audience to be thrilled by, something for them to cheer for.
Worryingly enough, I can imagine that concept working, and sooner rather than later. Our understanding of what a film should provide, in terms of story, has been shifting slowly for years. The notion of trilogies or longer franchises removed the need to (re-)introduce characters at the beginning of every movie, and now The Bourne Legacy has demonstrated that audiences are perfectly happy to do without any kind of climactic movement to tie up threads and close out movies, as well, as long as the right action beats are hit. All we need now is for someone to find success with a movie that dares to ignore the idea that we should be following the same sets of characters throughout an entire feature, and we’ll be well-placed for the next evolution in cinema as a mass-entertainment medium. Oh, we can moan and complain about the destruction of the medium and devolution of our attention spans, but, really? Deep down, we’ll probably be grateful. After all, weren’t the fake trailers the best part of Grindhouse?