Hollywood, We Have a Problem

Boulder Weekly | November 29, 2005
Duh, can Hollywood movies get any worse?

Discriminating audiences are forced to ask that question after enduring a shockingly bad year that started with Electra and Constantine, hit the skids with Dukes of Hazzard and Lord of War, sunk further with Sin City, Kingdom of Heaven and Bewitched, and fell again in the fall’s Elizabethtown, Jarhead and The Legend of Zorro. Like a majority of marquee 2005 movies, Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm was, in short, grim.

Box-office numbers are significantly down from last year, continuing a trend that must be alarming to the Hollywood suits and bean counters. The typical big-budget studio release wasn’t simply mediocre this year; it was downright miserable. Even Steven Spielberg’s fearsome War of the Worlds was a battle between eye-popping production values and a myopic script.

In Hollywood’s ongoing war between intelligent design and dumb and dumber writing, the latter is way ahead on points. As movies continue to downgrade into giant video games, questions of coherence and transcendence become irrelevant. The demands of “extreme” youth culture must necessarily push for more thrills, more action, more speed. No longer are books and plays the wellspring of movies; rather, it’s the amusement park ride, and preferably one rated PG-13 that has some T & A.

Has the world become so banal and boring that audiences need these junk-movie fixes to feel anything? One could come to the defense of these movies and argue, with Aristotle, that they siphon off anti-social urges. But these sorts of movies aren’t creating a better world. In our fast-paced, over-stimulated, TiVo and cell-phone civilization, speed and consumerist instant gratification have become the greatest good. The common good has sold out to private entitlement.

Movies reflect this trend, and deeper than one might think. In so many films, it’s the privileged individual who counts above all else. The Harry Potter juggernaut--books and movies--raises the kid wizard to near messiah-like stature. Harry is the Baby Boomer child par excellence--treated as if he were more special and gifted than anyone on the planet. Despite our democratic pretensions, Prince Harry is coddled as if he enjoyed the birthright of a king, and a pagan one at that.

These regressive, anti-democratic themes echo through native-born blockbusters as well. In Batman Begins, one of the year’s biggest hits, the caped crusader returns to Gotham City to reclaim his birthright and billion-dollar fortune. No man of the people, Batman is a noblesse oblige superhero whose enormous wealth gives him the resources to deliver Gotham’s blind and helpless huddled masses from an axis of evildoers. Holy supply-side economics. Let’s hope Congress permanently repeals the estate tax.

One could reasonably argue that the gist of these superhero sagas is contrary to any concept of popular action. Spider-Man, The Matrix series and the new Star Wars trilogy are all consumed with elite saviors gifted with abilities far beyond the reach of the rest of us. The vicarious helplessness we are intended to feel in these movies has its roots in the futility we feel towards our own society, which increasingly appears as a towering Mordor-like monolith that has rendered voting as empty as the inside of Frodo’s magical ring.

The movies have reacted to this powerlessness, not with engagement, but with escapism. Audiences continue to stuff the Hollywood ballot box nine bucks at a time, and more for their monthly cable bill. Yet even the last Star Wars episode--a.k.a. Revenge of the Stiff--featured Anakin Skywalker making his pivotal perp walk to the dark side. It’s as if all the bright optimism of the 1970s Star Wars had been eclipsed by George Lucas’ concession that today’s lure of evil has been become too strong for even the “chosen one.”

As luck would have it, we were saved from James Bond saving the free world this year. Pierce Brosnan hung up his tuxedo and turned in his Beretta for good. Russell Crowe, who rocked Rome in Gladiator, put up his dukes in the neglected Cinderella Man when he wasn’t throwing telephones at hotel clerks. Peter Jackson, the once and future king of The Lord of the Rings, is returning in December with King Kong. Who will save New York City from the eve of destruction this time? I’m betting on Hollywood smoke and mirrors, not Homeland Security.

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