We’ve talked about high concepts a number of times here – movies with an easily explained idea behind them to entice you to watch. I’ve been thinking on something like its opposite this week after finishing a quick watch of the excellent The Last of Us. The show is about a post apocalyptic world inhabited by fungus-ridden infected (zombies), where a man haunted by the death of his daughter must lead a girl across the devastation to safety. This isn’t the most basic recipe for a show – part of what makes the show stand out is its depiction of unique relationships among the usual zombie tropes – but it doesn’t have a particularly unique hook on the page: “lone dude has to team up to survive a hellscape.”
And in fact if I hadn’t played the game it’s based on and, more so, caught the first episode after trusted recommendations, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way for zombie fare with that little differentiation. Or maybe it’s zombies in general, since a whole subgenre of high concepts are just mixing the undead with another subgenre: zombie heist, zombie musical, zombie comedy. The Last of Us needing to turn my head a second time get me on board is not surprising.
I’m a high concept lover in general, with low-budget/hi-concept being one of my favorite modes of independent film. If I’m maybe a little more inclined than average to bite when a good high concept is dangled in front of me, I feel proportionally turned off by casserole concepts that sound bland or worse. Despite my love of Flight of the Concords, it took me a long while to get around to What We Do in the Shadows because it was hard for me to imagine an enjoyable “vampire mockumentary,” especially coming in the wake of a years-long vampire mania after the success of Twilight (turns out it’s pretty funny). I still, despite much enthusiasm for it expressed here, have not attempted the HBO series Barry because there is maybe no more dire premise to me than “hitman takes improv classes.” Apparently the show is worthwhile (or was at least up until its last season), but I can’t shake the feeling I’d be signing up for a well-appointed student film.
Stars can make high concepts higher: A man must stop a runaway train sounds good, Denzel Washington must stop a runaway train is appointment viewing. But they can conversely lower them as well. “Liam Neeson wants revenge” was an intriguing hook the first two or three times, now I’m less interested, especially if they can’t be bothered to come up with better titles than Retribution. Come to think of it, add “aging guy takes revenge” to the list, whether it’s Neeson, Jackie Chan, or Bob Odenkirk.
Your turn Solutors! What movies or show have the highest concepts that get your lowest interest? Are there ingredients (zombies, stars, filmmakers) that sour an idea for you?