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‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ and Movies Like It Are a Dying Breed

Drew Goddard’s latest film is an admirably big swing based on an original conceit, but it feels increasingly rare

The cast of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ 20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

At the risk of stating the obvious, the main goal of every movie is convincing people to see it. In recent years, some studios have become particularly good at accomplishing this goal, thanks to a couple of hacks: the reliance on previously existing, big-name IP and the creation of cinematic universes, in which buying into one film includes buying into however many other movies exist in the franchise. Movies with original conceits that don’t exist in massive universes, however, still depend on traditional marketing in trying to achieve that main goal. Therein lies a tricky balancing act: The trailers and posters have to tantalize enough and provide enough information about a given film to convince a prospective moviegoer to purchase a ticket, while also keeping the most important developments close to the vest in order to retain the movie’s suspense and quality. Keep things too obscured, no one sees the film; give too much away, no one enjoys the film.

Bad Times at the El Royale, out Friday, is the most prominent recent example of this dilemma. From director Drew Goddard—the writer behind Cloverfield, The Cabin in the Woods (which he also directed), World War Z, and The MartianBad Times is a film with nonlinear plotting and an abundance of twisty turns, exactly the kind of project that’s best viewed with as little pre-information as possible. To that end, the marketing for Bad Times has been cryptic, leading many to ask, “What is this?” and many more to simply fixate on one particular shot of Chris Hemsworth flaunting his objectively impeccable abs. Outside of that shot of #HemsAbs, Bad Times is a difficult sell.

But here’s some reassurance: Despite what its name portends, Bad Times is good. Just as Goddard deconstructed horror tropes with Cabin in the Woods—repackaging horror fans’ propensity for bloodshed and tossing it back in their face with a meta-narrative that was equal parts terrifying and hilarious—Bad Times plays on the genre tropes of pulpy crime thrillers and Quentin Tarantino movies. A group of strangers convene at the El Royale, a formerly prosperous lodge on the California-Nevada border that has fallen on hard times after losing its gambling license, and, as these stories typically go, nobody is whom they claim to be. All of the characters on this fateful night are running away from demons or harboring big secrets, and the characters’ convergence at the El Royale—a hotel that is also not what it seems—breeds chaos, high jinks, and, of course, violence.

The baser thrill of Bad Times is learning who these mysterious strangers—a group that includes a priest (Jeff Bridges), a smarmy vacuum cleaner salesman (Jon Hamm), and a hippie who signs the hotel guest book with “Fuck You” (Dakota Johnson)—actually are while they, often violently, bounce off one another. Given the film’s isolated setting—almost everything takes place in either an El Royale hotel room or its main lobby—Bad Times often feels like a stage play, albeit one that frequently hits rewind so we can revisit scenes from the perspective of other characters to better understand some of their motivations.

The film wouldn’t work without a great cast, and Goddard has an ensemble of talented character actors who bring their A-game, as well as a breakout performance from Cynthia Erivo, a Broadway star making her feature-film debut. The cast is so stacked that there’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from Nick Offerman and The Good Place’s Manny Jacinto, who doesn’t even get a line of dialogue. And of course there’s Hemsworth, playing a Charles Manson–esque cult leader whose selling point to followers is his charisma—and the fact that his shirt is usually completely unbuttoned.

Put simply, Bad Times is worth checking out. It remains to be seen how many people will do that, though.

Bad Times, from 20th Century Fox, is an increasingly rare beast. The 10 highest grossing movies domestically in 2017 were sequels, reboots, remakes, or an extension of a previously established cinematic universe. The same is true so far for 2018, with the only exception being A Quiet Place. This is Hollywood’s new normal, which makes Bad Times feel like a film plucked out of the old model of the ’90s.

The movie industry is currently a recycling factory; Disney, the most successful studio in the world, has simply resorted to remaking its movies, only in a different medium. This fact of moviegoing life has largely been decried by critics and film enthusiasts. “The Hollywood remake backlash is a staple of movie-consumer culture,” The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote in 2017. “Whenever a studio decides to redo a well-known movie, reaching for what looks like low-hanging fruit, fans of the original — and fans of originals, period — wonder why producers can’t be more creative and leave the classics alone.” But despite the considerable backlash, it’s not hard to see why this shift—toward not just remakes, but sequels and extensions of cinematic universes—has occurred in Hollywood. Batman v. Superman is objectively bad, but made $330 million in the States and over $870 million worldwide. Meanwhile, major studio gambits on original conceits—stray hits like Baby Driver, A Quiet Place, or a Christopher Nolan movie notwithstanding—have failed. Consider 20th Century Fox’s capital-W Weird 2016 flop A Cure for Wellness, or the remarkably unsuccessful adaptation of a European comic, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was such a financial failure it basically tanked its own company. Critics may bemoan the IP-reliant world we now live in, but no one is speaking out with their wallets, the only thing that matters to studios.

It’s not that all IP-reliant projects are inherently bad and all original concepts are inherently good. For every movie as terrible (albeit entertainingly so) as Venom, there’s a legitimate Best Picture nominee in Black Panther. And just because an idea is original doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile—may we never forget Paramount’s Monster Trucks. But with nearly all of the biggest box office hits in recent years heavily leaning toward preexisting IP, the scales are tipped, and movies like Bad Times are at risk of being swallowed completely. It certainly doesn’t help that Bad Times already faces an uphill climb, entering the box office during the second weekend of smash hits in Venom and A Star Is Born, and opening alongside a presumptive Oscar nominee in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Bad Times is ideal counterprogramming, and it and movies like it ought to be appreciated as such, but even bolstered by likable actors like Bridges, Hamm, and Hemsworth, the movie might not be able to break out in such a crowded space.

And that’s a shame. Not only for the reverberative effects of another original project turning into a sunk cost, but because Bad Times is a worthy, distinctive film. The guests at the El Royale might be going through hell, but watching the chaos unfurl around them merits a check in, with or without the sweaty #HemsAbs as window dressing.