The X-Men's Last Stand: New York Magazine On The Economics of Why You Are Unlikely To See the Original Cast Again

New York magazine has a fascinating feature this week on the shift over the past half-decade in the movie industry from big budget films marketed around big ticket stars to big films marketed around familiar, branded stories and special effects.  The result writes Claude Brodesser-Akner is that fans are never likely to see again the combined cast members of a major box-office success such as X-Men Last Stand since the stars simply cost too much.


Instead, with a franchise and brand established, Marvel and Fox Studios re-launched the series with an "origins" story X-Men: First Class.  New actors, less pay, but still big box office, hauling in $55 million over the weekend in the U.S.  

Marvel, of course, plans a second Wolverine movie but in this case Hugh Jackman is the lone actor getting a big pay day as opposed to a half-dozen from the original X-Men films. And as Brodesser-Akner describes in the article, Marvel's upcoming, star-studded Avengers film saves money by limiting the screen time of big salary stars like Robert Downey Jr and maximizing the screen time of Thor played by still emerging star Chris Hemsworth and Captain America played by the still culturally nascent Chris Evans.

Here's two of the key nuggets from the New York article:

"I wouldn't even pitch an original idea anymore," says Christopher McQuarrie, who, lest we forget, won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1995 for The Usual Suspects. Most recently, he wrote the Wolverine sequel at Fox. "What [studios] want is — through no fault of their own — a piece of pre-existing material that's survived some sort of a litmus test, like a graphic novel. It's kind of ironic, because the number of copies that a graphic novel has to sell to be wildly successful in no way forecasts what or how a movie is going to open. But it creates a visual template on which the movie is based. Someone in marketing can look at that, and say, ‘We're selling this.’ An original piece of material is a complete gamble."

And if a cast gets too expensive, well, Hasta la vista, baby! Reboot or prequel-ize, refresh the brand, expand its universe, and, most important, bring in cheaper actors who won't gobble your profits.

....

“The reason why they didn’t make another X-Men after The Last Stand is that it would have been too expensive,” insists Last Stand’s director, Brett Ratner. “For that matter, that’s why another Rush Hour 4 probably won’t get made, either: It’d be too much to pay me, Chris [Tucker], and Jackie [Chan] to come back.”

Fox declined to comment on its development, but a studio insider familiar with the development of X-Men: First Class agrees with Ratner's assessment, explaining, “The success or failure of these movies is in the back-end participation.” If you pool the paychecks of First Class stars James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult, they likely don't add up to what it would cost to get, say, Mark Wahlberg, who usually commands $10 million and 8 percent of the gross.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
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