Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pirates vs. zombies

The early 21st century was a big time for both pirates and zombies.

You could argue that Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later revived our interest in zombie movies in 2002, and then the following year, Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl made pirates hip again. (If they were ever hip in the first place.)

Why, then, have zombie movies been allowed to proliferate without seeming to owe a debt to either Boyle or zombie godfather George A. Romero, but every time we see a new pirate-related property, we feel like it's an attempt to ride on Pirates of the Caribbean's coattails?

These may seem like rather outdated thoughts, since there is neither a new zombie movie nor a new pirate movie acting as a news peg, but I've been thinking them because my son has been watching The Pirates! Band of Misfits every couple days since Christmas, when he got it as a present.

I quite enjoy The Pirates, which is a big step up from non-Wallace & Gromit Aardman movies like Chicken Run and Flushed Away, but I do recall thinking at the time it came out that it was a rather too-obvious attempt to capitalize on Disney's Caribbean-led pirate rejuvenation. Perhaps being a rival studio of Disney -- albeit a significantly less powerful rival -- made the inevitable comparison seem all the more inevitable.

But it was the zombie thing that caused me to judge that comparison unfair. Did Disney take out the patent on the pirate movie? Certainly not. People can and should make whatever pirate movies they want to make without having to bear the burden of owing something to Caribbean, a series that only really has one good entry. (I actually didn't see On Stranger Tides, but the critical consensus on it was not great.)

Certainly, zombie movies exist in whatever forms they want to exist. One of my more delightful surprises of 2013, for example, was Warm Bodies, which sees a teen zombie as its lovelorn protagonist/ narrator. On the opposite end of the spectrum there was World War Z, a surprise only because it wasn't terrible, in which the zombies are like mindless swarming insects. The zombie movie genre allows you to go off in all different directions.

And here's where we see the reason why zombie movies have exploded and pirate movies have basically disappeared from the landscape, not to mention the reason why comparing zombies and pirates in the first place was only useful to the extent that they had a revival around the same time. People continue to want to see zombies in both traditional and non-traditional forms, while pirates all assume more or less the same form. And that pirate form will always be unduly influenced by puffy shirts and affected speech patterns and other silly elements that leave the genre perennially associated with comedy and children's fare.

I do sometimes wonder, though, why we couldn't have seen other types of pirate movies. Why couldn't you have a pirate noir, where characters are double-crossing each other aboard a pirate ship, resulting in a suspenseful game of wits? Why not a gritty pirate movie done in a realistic indie style? Why not a pirate movie in the Quentin Tarantino mold, violent and funny and full of pop culture references?

I may be answering my own questions here.

While I'm waiting for these movies to materialize, I look forward to the seven or eight new zombie movies we are sure to see in 2014.

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