Pacific Rim and the Culture of Rip-Off Vs. Homage
“This is not a rip-off, it’s an homage!”–Peter Swan (Liam Neeson) in The Dead Pool
Watching the special features on Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim this past weekend, I was struck by something the director said. Paraphrased, he told the design crew not to take any elements from previously-existing kaiju (such as Godzilla, Gamera and so forth), but to pay tribute to the spirit of those films. In other words, it’s a classic homage.
Now, bear with me on this. I’m a fan of Asian cinema, particularly the 80s and 90s classics such as The Bride with White Hair, Jet Li’s Once Upon a Time in China series, The Heroic Trio and its amazing sequel Executioners, and so forth. I’m not obsessive about it — there’s a lot I haven’t seen — but I know the high points.
So when I see something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, I see exactly what the lnfluences are. Except in this case, they’re not homages: they’re recreations of some of the exact moments from the films that influenced them, only couched so that you (the general American audience who’s never seen them before) will think they’re Tarantino’s or Ang Lee’s original ideas.
That, my friends, is a rip-off.
So what is ultimately the difference?
It’s the difference between sampling and actually creating music. It’s the difference between a collage made up of pieces of other art, and an original painting. It’s the difference between synthesizing your influences into something new versus simply recreating them (and claiming them as your own).
The culture of remakes, reboots, and the ghastly term “reimaginings” does not see this difference, which is why Ronald Moore can claim in his network pitch that with Battlestar Galactica, a remake of a 70s show that retained many of its concepts and designs, he intended to “reinvent the science fiction television series.” By all indications, he saw no irony or contradiction in the statement.
Pacific Rim is a joyous love letter to the giant monster movies Del Toro, and many of us, grew up with. It’s also, and this is crucial, its own thing, with its own mythology, iconography, and story. That, to me at least, is worth much more than any remake, reboot, reimagining, or rip-off.
So is Forbidden Kingdom Rip off or homage, I wonder? The main character clearly loves the movies that the world he has fallen into emulates and takes elements from. Some of those movies are mentioned by name, even. Others are not.
I think most of us would recognise a valid homage. Defining a rip-off is trickier. I’d argue that by translating a familiar story into a different cultural and historical context you are, in effect, re-inventing it.
For example, Dashiell Hammet wrote ‘Red Harvest’, a story about a private dick who’s hired to sort out to a fractious American town – which he does by pitting all the various factions against one another (including those allied to the man who hired him). Kurosawa took this idea, ran with it, and created Yojimbo. In his story a roaming Samurai warrior arrives in a small town and pits the various factions against one another. Sergio Leone liked the idea so much, he recycled the plot to create ‘Fistful of Dollars’ – which is pretty much a scene-for-scene re-make of ‘Yojimbo’. And finally somebody thought – why not set in depression-hit America? (the story’s original setting) and cast Bruce Willis in ‘Last Man Standing’.
Now the last film is by far the weakest, but the different settings mean that none of these various versions really constitute rip-offs and all are worth watching in themselves – although the sheer elegance of ‘Yojimbo’ tends to make ‘Fistful of Dollars’ look clunky by comparison.
Just sayin’ 🙂
It’s easy to overvalue originality. “Rip-off” has a negative connotation, but we already know the same stories are told over and over again. What’s the real difference between most epic fantasy plots? Not much. I prefer when a storyteller admits influences or predecessors; that stops it being plagiarism and lets us focus on what the homage/reimagining/remake did bring to the table. The original Battlestar Galactica was great, but Ron Moore’s absolutely brought new elements to the game and will influence other storytellers in ways the original BSG did not. By starting with a strong foundation based on a formula that works, the show could spend its storytelling energy in other ways. Everybody who uses the Hollywood Formula to write a script does the same exact thing. Rip-offs try to hide it. But legitimate, creative people are up-front about it. Why do we have to rue that?
I think there’s a huge difference between a rip-off and a homage, but the term rip-off doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative meaning, or at least not for all members of an audience. Heck, my guess would be most viewers of “Kill Bill” had little if any knowledge of the movies’ influences, though it was obviously influenced by other works. The director/author might have been outright ripping off another creator of art, but from the audience’s point of view, that might not matter, probably doesn’t matter. Now for critics and those in-the-know, that can be a totally different story, and we can look down our noses at whom we want. But as long as no outright plagiarism was involved (as determined by a court), I don’t see how the situation can be remedied in any realistic fashion.
And about “Yojimbo” and “Red Harvest” and “Fistful of Dollars” … all three were likely influenced to some extent or other by the 18th Century play “Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni. So, again, who is ripping off whom? Kurosawa’s court decision aside, there are no easy answers.
I hate to disagree, but Evan, you lost me at “it’s easy to overvalue originality.” True, everyone is influenced by something, and the BSG reboot was an interesting show. But the interesting bits were not the original bits. I mean, they took the setting, background, character names, and basic spaceship designs; that’s the heavy lifting of SF. What was left to invent? Character relationships and dialogue? Any competent writer can do that.
The “Red Harvest” chain is a particularly good example of showing how it should work: it influences “Yojimbo,” but Kurosawa created his own characters and settings to tell his story. Leone, at another remove from the original, did the same. Sure, it’s basically the same plot outline in both cases, but everything else–the heavy lifting–is unique to those films.
Whew. IMO, I should add. Your mileage may vary.
I would think that somebody who rattles off a few Hong Kong cinema staples at the top of his post would recognize a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an almost pure genre excursion rather than a “rip-off.” By the standard you seem to be using here, Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series would be a rip-off of the old Wong Fei Hung serials of the 1960’s.
In fact, the director who most influenced Ang Lee gets mentioned by name in his audio commentary on the DVD (I think maybe in the liner notes too, no less). I mean, those striking visual moments you recall had already been recreated, over and over again, for about forty years before Ang Lee got around to it. Those movies you mention are a great deal similar in that respect.
I guess we can write off Gene Wolfe because Jack Vance. And Jack Vance because Clark Ashton Smith.