So, I watched “American Ultra” and at the end of it, found myself a bit confused.
Now, unbeknownst to me I guess there was some controversy about it when it came out last year, and that it’s writer Max Landis tweeted some complaints that took the audience to task for not ‘getting’ the original idea or ideas that American Ultra was all about.
And when you talk about the word ‘original’ in Hollywood terms – you have to realize, and what Max points out – is that ‘original’ in Hollywood doesn’t mean new or unheard of – it means ‘non-IP’. So the title of this post, Original Ideas? is a play on that – because really, are there any new ideas? All writing and all stories will have their roots in something else, or are derivative of something else…
I like Max, I think he’s bright and insightful and ‘gets‘ what drives our fascination with characters and stories that are larger than life – stories and characters that are super or heroic or action oriented. I’m sure he has a good understanding of other types of characters too (like Heathcliff or John Nash or James Hunt), but the film American Ultra and what Max’s oeuvre is, deals mainly with these heightened-reality type of characters and situations.
What got me started on this post was the very end scene of American Ultra. And as the film has been out for over six months, I don’t think I’m spoiling it for anyone. I think the ending undermines the entire premise of the film and almost all the characters undergo a 180 in their arcs – resetting them and in a sense, betraying them and the audience.
I wanted to see if anyone else had the same feelings and did some looking about and came across the review from Red Letter Media‘s Half in the Bag vlog episode #94 where they take the film to task. They talk at length about problems they had with the film and also about Max’s twitter response to it failing at the box office.
I also came across another episode (A Conversation with Max Landis) on their youtube channel – a couple of months after the review of the film, where they actually sit down with Max and talk about the film and their review of it. It’s awkward and uncomfortable in places – as you would expect, but it was great that Max took the time or surprised them with the challenge to have a discussion about it face to face. Now they talk a lot about how movies fail or succeed in this episode, so its a interesting insight into the process of what Max was complaining about in his tweets – how marketing can make or break a particular film.
They make a point to talk about how trailers for films are crafted and how the underlying score of the trailer needs to be something familiar that audiences have heard before in order to ‘capture’ their attention – otherwise, no one will go to see the movie. And its hard to argue against that. If a sci-fi movie makes bank at the box office – you can bet three, four, five or ten years later, the score/soundtrack of that movie will be played in trailers for other sci-fi movies – or action movies. How many trailers use the instantly recognizable Inception ‘bwwwrrammm‘ they talk about in the clip? At least 10.
They also talk about how the process of film-making adds or detracts from the success or failure of a film – because, even though you may have an “original” idea – its never going to stay that way – as Max states: “on this film 15% of the script was changed, on others I’ve written up to 70%” (paraphrased). Which is of great interest to me as a writer and creator myself with things in the works.
But before I go any further, let me talk about the moment that made me scratch my head and which, ultimately, led me to be a bit let down by the film.
There’s a great through line in the film in which the lead character, the stoned cold killer/ultra agent played by Jesse Eisenberg is working on a comic book or story that involves a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee/gorilla called Apollo Ape. Obviously this is a Landis device (as he is a huge comic book fan) and there’s some nice dialogue about the comic and its obviously a metaphor for the character Esienberg plays, or at least possibly his repressed memories – its his shadow self, because the ape in the comic has adventures and wastes bad guys and has narrow escapes and so forth…
Anyway, what intrigued me about the film was how the head of the program that created Mike Howe (Esienberg) – going against everything we’ve come to accept in films about how the CIA deals with asset’s it no longer finds useful, i.e. exterminating them with extreme prejudice – has actually taken steps to see that he is protected or at least left alone. To me, that was kind of fresh and unique. What? The CIA actually cares about the people they subject to cruel and bizarre experiments in an effort to create the perfect super soldier/killing machines the world needs?
And so that was pretty neat – until the very final sequence of the film.
I’m surprised they didn’t mention it in the review or in the conversation with Max because it really made me shake my head and go “What the…what?”
So, in the beginning we have this fresh take – highly trained agent, off the reservation and hiding in plain sight, who through the course of events regains his memory, unlocks skills and abilities that allow him to thwart the ‘bad’ CIA after him, save the day and the girl and then is taken back into custody – but then what happens?
We see that he’s re-recruited or re-activated and has been put right back to work doing black op wetwork for the CIA. And through the animated cartoon end titles we see that Mike has transformed into Apollo Ape and is having adventures and wasting bad guys.
Maybe it’s just me – but it really seemed to do a 180 on the set up. A CIA section chief who cared more about her asset – is transformed into a frightened subordinate who gives him up in order to save her own skin, and how accepting Mike is of the situation and who leaps into it with vim and verve – characteristics he was devoid of the entire rest of the film. It seemed tacked on and silly.
What it felt like was something that was added after the completion of the main film because test audiences or studio execs wanted something else – to have an upbeat ending. To show Mike in a ‘heroic’ light rather than just a directionless rogue element that laid waste to the rest of the failed ultras of the program he went through. It also smacks of a “just in case we get tapped to do a sequel” feel. Because, bottom line, all the studios are looking for the next big thing, the next big IP, the next thing they can milk for six sequels, a TV series and so forth.
Maybe that ending was one of the elements that got American Ultra panned at the box office – or at least panned by those who saw it in the theater. Maybe not – I mean the guys talk about how hard it is to capture lightning in a bottle when it comes to crafting a successful film. So many factors go into it.
As the ending wasn’t address by the RLM guys or Landis himself, I guess they were OK with how it played out – or they were so done with it by that point they didn’t feel the need to talk about how odd or off putting it was. Maybe I’m wrong about the ending.
As a writer I’m intrigued by that kind of thing – what was the decision making process that led to the ending being filmed? Was it always in there from the start? Was that part of the 15% that got changed, according to Max?
What’s great though is the discussion that was sparked by the act of someone sitting down, penning a script – that then got greenlit, made into a film, released and then panned – and then dissected and trashed in reviews – but ultimately led to a thoughtful and thought provoking segment about the creative process.