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The small world of modern thrillers

The small world of modern thrillers

Plots used to be driven by real-world conflict, but now they revolve around domestic drama. It’s a trend that blights films and TV, from Sherlock to Bourne

Plots used to be driven by real-world conflict, but now they revolve around domestic drama. It’s a trend that blights films and TV, from Sherlock to Bourne

Nicholas Barber | January 11th 2017

There were an exciting few minutes during this week’s episode of the BBC’s “Sherlock” when it looked as if Sherlock Holmes was getting on with the job of being a detective. A client had come to 221B Baker Street with a mystery to be solved; Sherlock had deduced – well, guessed – that an entrepreneur named Culverton Smith (Toby Jones) was a serial killer; and he had devised an enjoyably ridiculous scheme to prove his suspicions. But then the writers performed one of their trademark rug-pulls. In the end, we learnt that Holmes’s main motivation for taking on the case was to shake Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) out of his depression. Then we learnt that it was Holmes’s long-lost sister (Sian Brooke) who had put him on the trail of Culverton Smith to begin with. The upshot was that the serial killing was more or less forgotten. Ultimately, the episode wasn’t about anything except Holmes and his closest friends and relatives.

There is something similar going on in numerous films and television series. The phenomenon has been called “universe-shrinking”. What happens is that the characters in a science-fiction or thriller franchise are initially sent off on adventures in the wider world. James Bond goes after Goldfinger, Doctor Who defends the Earth against the Daleks, and so on. But after a while that world grows smaller and smaller until there is nothing in it which isn’t connected to the protagonists.

The most famous example of this phenomenon pre-dates the current trend by four decades. George Lucas’s “Star Wars” saga introduced a hero, Luke Skywalker, who was a farm boy from the back of beyond. There was a great big galaxy out there that had nothing do with him – and that was what made the film so magical. The message was that even a lowly peasant from the middle of nowhere could rescue a beautiful princess and confound an aristocratic villain. But the sequel, “The Empire Strikes Back”, revealed that Luke was the son of that aristocratic villain, Darth Vader. And the third film in the trilogy, “The Return of the Jedi”, added that he was also the brother of the beautiful Princess Leia. A humble nobody’s rise to universe-saving glory was recast as a squabble over a royal breakfast table. 

When “Star Wars” was revived in 2015 with “The Force Awakens”, this shift from galaxy-spanning epic to domestic soap opera was taken to a laughable new extreme: its villain, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo, the nephew of Luke Skywalker and the grandson of Darth Vader. Meanwhile, Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) opened by debating the ethical issues raised by superheroes, but its final fight was about one character murdering another’s parents. And when the Bourne franchise returned last year with “Jason Bourne”, its amnesiac hero discovered that he wasn’t just a soldier who had enrolled in the CIA’s shadowy Operation Treadstone: he was the son of the man who had created Treadstone in the first place. Again and again, sprawling conflicts are being reduced to family feuds.

No example of this universe-shrinking is more heinous than the last James Bond outing, “Spectre” (2015). As conceived by Ian Fleming, Bond was a tool of the British intelligence service: a dedicated professional whose own background was irrelevant. But “Spectre” threw away that concept. Its big idea was that every one of the challenges faced by Daniel Craig’s 007 had been masterminded by his childhood chum, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Apparently, Oberhauser’s father had taken in the orphaned Bond, and little Franz had been so jealous that he became an international crime boss out of spite. And so it was that a franchise which used to hinge on cold-war terrorism became – much like the Austin Powers comedies – a slanging match between a pair of bickering brothers. If the two of them could have settled their differences with a game of conkers, they would have saved the rest of us a lot of bother.

It’s not too hard to see why such universe-shrinking appeals to screenwriters. Drama is fuelled by revelations, and there aren’t many revelations more momentous – or easier to write – than, “I am your father/sister/brother!” Giving the protagonist a personal involvement in the plot is also a simple way of raising the emotional stakes, as well as making him or her more sympathetic to the viewer. Most of us will never be lucky enough to blow up a moon-sized space station, as Luke Skywalker did, but we all know what it’s like to be angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling.

But I suspect that there is more to this trend than narrative expedience. The new spate of universe-shrinking, of plots driven by personal animus, could well be a sign of how narcissistic our culture has become, and how desperate film and television studios are to please fans who are obsessed by their favourite characters. But it’s also a symptom of globalisation: now that studios are so reliant on overseas sales, they don’t want to risk offending foreign markets. It’s safer to be personal than political.

Whatever the reasons, I’d much rather see Bond and Bourne righting wrongs that had nothing to do with them. Boiling down every plot to the protagonist’s own coterie makes their adventures seem like petty, private matters. It isn’t just the fictional universe which is diminished, but the nobility of the characters within it. Surely, one measure of heroism is to put your life on the line for a cause which doesn’t affect you personally. Fighting for or against your own family is all very well – but I’d expect better of Sherlock Holmes.

6 Readers' comments

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xuelan2 - July 20th 2017

There are parts of your argument which I agree with. I think big and small screen tend more and more to shy from adventure and stick to the personal. There is also clear flattery or avoidance of insult to other countries. But not all of your argument holds together for me. For instance, I have always thought of Star Wars as a Greek tragedy in the making. Almost Oedipus-like Luke kills his father and the audience is led to thinking about a romance between him and who turns out to be his sister. This intro-spective and inter-related plot line where it all builds up to something personal is not a new thing created by a narcissistic modern culture, it has been the cornerstone of drama for millennia. These are classic stories, classic plot devices. If it is not personal, the twists and turns are less heart-rending. I think the bigger problem is that they are often executed sloppily-- i dont mind a subtle predictability. But many shows etc. throw logic away in favor of drama which leaves the stories incomplete.

Robert - May 20th 2017

Why is "be[ing] angry at a parent or resentful of a sibling," or reduction to the family triangle and family intrigues, called "universe-shrinking"? In their book on Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari called it by its correct name: "Oedipal intrigues." What explains this chronic allergy to Freud and Freudian terminology, to the point of using quite literally meaningless circumlocutions, when describing precisely Freudian phenomena? Does psychoanalysis still represent such a threat? Or is it rather that Freud's observations have today become so naturalized, and the pathologies he diagnosed so unremarkable, that we have lost the impulse to name them?

Smurfdear - May 14th 2017

I'm inclined to disagree. I think what you're referring to is themes, rather than a shift to narcissistic plot lines. Jurassic Park, for example, was a family film, therefore catered to family themes of acceptance, conflicts and resolutions. There are plenty of films and TV series that don't run family themes, or if they do, its subtle. Personal lives of characters adds depth to the character, adds believability and aspirational value, otherwise why would we watch someone we have no interest or investment in? - February 25th 2017

I wouldn't argue with the premise. At the very least a slew of shows [for example: NCIS/Hawaii50/CBS Cop genre] have extremely annoying torture-the-team-member&audience with grade-school inter-organizational emotional drivel in place of semi realistic emotional interactions. If police were at this heightened level of intra-organizational dysfunction, emotionally charged about non-work issues, constantly interfering with each other's personal lives, at each others throats, wouldn't they all suffer from PTSD? Perhaps the goal of these obnoxious interactions is to invest the audience by giving them PTSD. Seriously quit torturing the audience and the cast. <Not dismissing the very real aspects of PTSD, not trying to make light of a serious condition>

KevMendonca - January 18th 2017

This isn't a recent phenomenon. One of the first lessons of screenwriting is that the final act should turn the global threat into a personal one. James Bond was never just saving the world; he was saving his latest paramour. It's the reason why the cliche about sequels/third acts is, "This time.... it's personal!" The issue with the latest films/series is that they've painted themselves into corners and familial connections are the easiest out. How do you get Captain America and Iron Man to fight once they've figured out the bad guy's plan? A more egregious example, how do you get Superman and Batman to stop fighting? Jason Bourne was never solving problems that didn't have to do with him; he was always searching for the answer to who he was. But once you answer that question, how do you bring him back into the world? As for Sherlock, the current belief that serialized TV is better than episodic TV probably led them down this path. Once they dispatched with Moriarty, they needed a new Big Bad and they went with the easiest answer. - January 12th 2017

Mr. Barber, I believe your article is guilty of some poor logic. One could just as easily argue that globalization causes vapid blockbusters. Global ticket sales increase total revenues which leads to bigger effects which lead to more blockbusters etc. etc. An explanatory variable that explains both outcomes - character driven shows and blockbusters - is useless.