Why Making Big Pharma a Movie Villain Typically Fails - VRGyani News and Media

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Saturday, September 11, 2021

Why Making Big Pharma a Movie Villain Typically Fails

As the Netflix action movie Sweet Girl begins, Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) and his daughter Rachel (Isabel Merced) lose dear wife and mom Amanda (Adria Arjona) to a terrible bout of cancer. Her demise is cemented when a treatment that could cure her is jacked up to an unfeasible high price by the fictional pharmaceutical company BioPrime. Just after she passes, Ray sees BioPrime CEO Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) defending the company on CNN and talking about all the good it does. Enraged, Ray calls up CNN and immediately tells Ray about Amanda’s demise and promises to kill him.

This opening, and a subsequent scene where a Vice reporter tries to tell Ray that he’s cracked a conspiracy involving BioPrime wide open, establish that Sweet Girl will be taking on Big Pharma. This term refers to the entire pharmaceutical industry and has, in the modern world, been defined by controversy for, among other problems, the prices of medication, adversely influencing politicians, and its role in the opioid crisis. There’s certainly a lot of reasons why one would imagine Big Pharma would be a great target to make the enemy of your movie circa 2021 in the same way shady government institutions made for fascinating enemies in 1970s political thrillers.

Unfortunately, Hollywood features that try to tackle Big Pharma as a villain tend to always wimp out rather than delivering truly scathing indictments of real-world problems. Interestingly, many of the recurring issues in how these movies approach Big Pharma as an adversary are exemplified by the storytelling shortcomings of Sweet Girl.

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Shortly into Sweet Girl, Ray finally confronts Keeley at a gala and the two eventually engage in a scuffle. Considering this skirmish is between Aquaman and Doug from The Hangover, it’s apparent who's winning this fight. By the end of this tussle, Keeley is dead and now Cooper and his daughter have to go on the run. From there, the only real obstacle left in the world of pharmaceuticals is chairman Vinod Shah (Raza Jaffrey). After Shah is disposed of in a dimly lit confrontation on a bridge, the only adversaries left for Sweet Girl’s protagonists to fight are assassins and shady politicians.

This right here is already a warning sign for how Sweet Girl approaches tackling Big Pharma. This major pharmaceutical company could’ve been any shady organization ranging from Cobra to HYDRA considering how little pharmaceuticals end up having on the overall plot. A hitman baddie straight out of a Jason Statham movie doesn’t really capture authentic details for how pharmaceutical companies torment everyday citizens. Those problems emerge in terrifying mundane forms like withholding important medicine, not in forms that involve Jason Momoa lunging off of hotel balconies with nefarious goons.

Sweet Girl isn’t interested in saying anything profound or even just reflecting the harsh realities of a modern world where so much of American society is defined by the needs of rich pharmaceutical executives. It’s just a topical buzzword the script can slip into its generic father/daughter action thriller, all while ignoring the real costs that Big Pharma can have on people. To delve into specific territory, including how Big Pharma negatively impacts people of color and other minority populations, would be too dense for a movie involving Momoa running people over with construction equipment.

Of course, Sweet Girl isn’t alone in these faults. The cinematic landscape is littered with movies that involve Big Pharma baddies that could just be any generic villain. The 2020 action film The Old Guard, for example, features Harry Melling as Steve Merrick, an obvious Martin Shkreli knock-off. While it’s neat to see Shrekli being used as the mold for a blockbuster movie baddie, The Old Guard’s eventual plot also doesn’t effectively utilize Big Pharma. Merrick’s plot to kidnap the immortal lead characters and exploit their superpowers would work as the evil plot of several generic X-Men foes. It doesn’t even feel remotely connected to what kind of evils Big Pharma has been accused of in the real world.

Here and in other modern projects that involve Big Pharma, a weird problem emerges too where there always seems to be only one big pharmaceutical company in the world. BioPrime is the only major medicine company brought up in Sweet Girl and the organization run by Melling’s antagonist in The Old Guard appears to be all off on its own. Whether intentionally or not, these and other films end up suggesting that these companies are anomalies, they’re “one bad apple” in the world of pharmaceuticals. That runs counter to the real world, where the terror of Big Pharma is linked to just how rampantly widespread its influence is.

Then again, those evils, which tend to occur over a long period of time, just wouldn’t work as well in popcorn-munching action films like Sweet Girl. Films like this are told with an obligatory need to wrap everything up with a tidy bow at the end, which proves counterintuitive to telling an accurate yarn about the problems associated with Big Pharma. In trying to cram this urgently relevant sociopolitical issue into a predetermined box, films like Sweet Girl end up using Big Pharma as just an attention-grabbing attempt to seem relevant rather than for more thoughtful means.

Now, nobody is expecting a single film, let alone a Jason Momoa Netflix action movie released in late August, to solve an issue like Big Pharma. But it is disappointing to see a film like this unable to express proper rage at the actual horrors of this ongoing problem. Instead, the name “Big Pharma” is just slapped onto vaguely defined evil forces that could exist in any genre in any era. Nothing is tying them to Big Pharma beyond the occasional line of dialogue. In aiming for universality, these titles can’t even live up to the bare minimum task of recognizing the realities of the situation they’re engaging in.

Even more intimate dramas that grapple with the impact of Big Pharma have a tough time thoughtfully tackling this topic in a manner rife with specificity. This includes projects supposedly design to shine a light on the victims of Big Pharma. In her review of the feature Crisis, which explores the human fallout of Big Pharma’s hand in the opioid crisis, Kristy Puchko of Pajiba remarked that one of the film’s greatest weaknesses was how it “regards those most impacted by the opioid crisis—addicts—as tragedy props or obstacles for the good guys to overcome.” To treat these individuals as people would require confronting the complexity of the disease known as addiction. Projects like Crisis just don’t have time for that.

This same issue extends to other titles like Hillbilly Elegy, which has no time to give Bev (Amy Adams) any extra dimensions beyond her addiction. Heck, the film even lays the existence of her addiction exclusively at the feet of Bev instead of recognizing it as a symptom of larger problems associated with Big Pharma. It isn’t just action movies full of fights that come up short in confronting Big Pharma. Even low-key dramas tend to simplify the issue and reduce the victims of Big Pharma to caricatures instead of delving into the horrifying nitty-gritty details of this problem.

Looking at how problems with tackling Big Pharma extend to so many different genres, one would be tempted to say there isn’t a proper way to confront something like Big Pharma and its consequences in cinema. Maybe it’s the sort of industry best served by documentaries or longer-form narratives where the finer intricacies of the issue can be the centerpiece of the proceedings rather than, say, Momoa duking it out with an assassin on a train. Then again, movies for decades have been able to explore complicated real-world issues that are affecting moviegoers when they leave the movie theater. Why should the specter of Big Pharma be any different?

Films need to step up and improve on the likes of Sweet Girl when it comes to framing Big Pharma as a villain or depicting the consequences of Big Pharma’s actions. Surely we can only go up from cinema of the recent past.

KEEP READING: 'The Old Guard 2' Taps Victoria Mahoney to Direct Sequel



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