It’s beautiful outside – the sun is shining, the air is filled with the smell of green things growing, and girls are down to their t-shirts. That must mean it’s time for the moviegoing public to collectively accept whatever half baked bullshit is fed to them by the movie studios – at least as long as it has things blowing up. This isn’t a new thing, but it seems like the willingness to go essentially autistic at the movies is getting stronger. I get angry emails when I pan a stupid film for being stupid. People actually get mad when they’re called out for liking shit.
‘I go to movies to escape,’ they say. That’s fair, I guess. Not everyone wants to go to the movies to experience art, truth, excitement, transcendence, to be immersed in another world, to be shown things that could never be seen otherwise. Some people just want two hours in the air conditioning. Wait, no, that’s not fair. There are very few people who I believe truly need to ‘turn their brain off’ at the end of the week, and those people lead countries or make decisions that mean life or death for thousands. Are you working all week in the juvenile AIDS ward? Let’s face it, if you’re working in a cubicle job all week you could probably stand to have your brain turned on once in a while.
Even beyond that, though, is the weird belief that seeing a film that has interesting characters, plots or themes is somehow going to give you a brain workout. Have people truly become so stupid that even following a storyline is beyond them on a Friday night? Are brains so atrophied that the addition of interesting characters – and please note, I’m not even making the radical request for realistic or believable characters here – would stymie audiences, leaving them reeling and confused and unable to enjoy the next gratuitous explosion?
People say that summer movies are like roller coaster rides, that they’re ‘popcorn films’ (and that last one is actually supposed to mean something, although I don’t know what it is. I ate popcorn while watching Schindler’s List), and that we should somehow have a different set of rules when judging them. Let’s leave behind the fact that the ‘popcorn film’ season now stretches from April to October, eating up most of the film year. Ignoring that, we’re left with the idea that a movie doesn’t need to be a narrative form at all – that a montage of non-connected action scenes, if spectacularly staged enough, is enough to satisfy.
Suddenly we’ve come around the other side of the world. The ‘popcorn film’ people are actually die-hard avant garde types. They’re looking to make a new experimental cinema, one removed from narrative structure and totally based on movement and sensation. Incredible!
If only that were true. The reality is that the cry of ‘It’s only a popcorn film!’ has gotten louder as the very quality of that sort of film has declined. Hollywood is on to you guys, and they know that they don’t have to work very hard anymore. You’ll lap it up if the ad campaign is snazzy and if there are enough set pieces. What’s amazing about the five year development of Mission: Impossible 3 isn’t that they went through so many scripts, it’s that they went through any at all. The movie could have easily been made with a two page story breakdown and lots of storyboards for the action scenes. It has almost no connective tissue holding those scenes together, nothing for us to place our interest in. What that means is that the action set pieces, now devoid of tension or audience emotional investment, must live or die on spectacle alone.
What we’re headed towards, propelled by the defenders of ‘popcorn movies’, are compilation films, the big screen version of those live action stunt extravaganzas you see at theme parks. I wish that this was a joke, or hyperbole, but it does seem to be the direction big action films are headed – if they don’t die out first. I’m actually crossing my fingers for that one; I like a good action film as much as the next guy – hell, I was so glued to Predator on my seat-back TV on my last flight from California that I didn’t even realize we had landed – but nobody’s making good action films. Instead what’s being made are lowest common denominator films; movies which cost more money than ever to deliver less than ever. It’s depressing to see people defiantly proud of liking things that are stupid, that are shoddily constructed, that are not meant to be even quickly pondered or thought about once leaving the theater.