World Building of the Apes
I’ve had just about enough of the term ‘world building’. Like so many of our bloated, box-office juggernauts, it's grown too big.
'World building' has become a vogue term leveraged to rate the quality of a thing. It has been commodified, used to sell, sell, sell the idea of a piece of art. It's a crutch by which big, commercial entities can create an appeal of their pop art. Every film that comes out wields the ‘world building’ of it’s product.
Where did this all go so wrong? When did we turn world-building into a feature used to sell, no different than bragging about your Ford F-150 boasting a ‘Best All-Class Safety rating’. Why did we forget the beauty of world building was always more about the ride?
What we now call building a world was once a beautifully understated, nuanced thing. We knew it by the tingle it gave us on the back of our necks, insitgiated by a feeling of awe and wonder. It was a thing that couldn't be told to you. You knew it in your bones and felt it in mind.
'World building' was part-and-parcel with what all great fantasy or science fiction creators could do. Like an architect, they took things from our imaginations and made them real. They didn't build things - they imagined them for us.
Now it feels like nothing is imagined but instead reverse-engineered. Spotify has figured out how to turn our music into an equation, re-jig the parts, and give music studios the tools to literally build the next radio hit. Studios like Marvel have broken down their characters in such exact detail, they apply that structure time-after-time to box office success (have you seen Dr. Iron Strangeman?).
Maybe we should blame Disney, or Pixar by extension. Pixar has long touted it’s ‘Pixar way’ core values for being the driver of it’s success. Pixar created a template that was so exact, it became a rinse-and-repeat process to great success.
And don't get me wrong, many times the term is fair. But it's terribly derivative and self-serving. It describes the forest by ignoring the sight of the trees. It siphons down all the powers of imagination and creativity into a single, marketable term.
Ask someone what the 'world' of Game of Thrones is and you'll receive some patchwork, simplified explanation that probably mentions dragons and zombies. The reality is far more complex than that. For starters, few mention that the initial concept for Game of Thrones was based on history – the War of the Roses. George R.R. Martin imagined a version of jolly, old England in which royal families waged wars to determine succession to the throne. The Starks are the Yorks and the Lannisters are the Lancasters (fun game to play as it relates to the possible outcome of A Song of Ice and Fire: look up who won that fight). Hell, Martin even based The Wall on a very real wall: Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to keep out the tribal population in what we now call Scotland.
Instead, you get ‘It’s a medieval world where royal families fight for the Iron Throne with dragons and ice zombies!’
This Friday, one of the great 'world builders' of modern cinema, Christopher Nolan, releases his least 'world buildy' film in some time: the World War II rescue-drama, Dunkirk. Last week, a most easily defined 'world buildy' picture was released: War For the Planet of the Apes. It's been difficult to reconcile how those two films can be categorized under one umbrellas, but they have.
In society, we want so badly to remove the stigma of categorization yet we push harder than ever to do just that. Why do the same to our films? If we resist the urge to see our films through the lens of 'world building' it will allow us to see all the aspects that make these films truly unique. Films are not world-building. They are film-making.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.