It’s summertime and the news on the blockbuster film front has not been good. Reviews of the big budget studio behemoths describe them as big, noisy, manipulative, and really bad. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest in their quest to reach the largest numbers of available teenagers. Pearl Harbor, a movie so scorned by reviewers that some of them probably wished that the Japanese sneak attack had been on the Hollywood hills, will make over $200 million. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, whose acting is reputedly on par with that in the video game the film is based on, made almost $50 million in its first weekend.
Okay, this sounds like the start of another one of those high-toned “what happened to the movies” essays. How Jaws and Star Wars (aka Steven Spielberg and George Lucas) killed off the golden age of moviemaking in the 1970s, replacing it with a system where a film must make mega-bucks in its first weekend of release or be relegated to videotapes being shipped to Azerbaijan or Bolivia. A world only an imaginary critic like Roger Manning could love.
I was lamenting this when a friend informed me that it was rather elitist to trash all the mass-friendly hits without having seen so much as a single frame of any of them. How did I know that things were so bad? Confronting this challenge, I offered a solution. What if we were to go and watch as many of the blockbusters as we could? In one weekend day. Within the confines of a single multiplex theater.
What follows is what we learned at the movies.
Saturday morning, Tinseltown North Theaters in Pflugerville, Texas. It’s really quiet in a giant theater complex early on a Saturday morning. The hired help is still blurry-eyed from the night before. The carpets-at-a-Motel-6-smell is almost overwhelming.
9:30 a.m.–Dr. Dolittle 2 ($106.2 million grossed in 7 weeks)
Our first sequel of the day. A TV-style sitcom rife with bathroom humor. Remember the Eddie Murphy of Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours? The coolest guy in film. A man with a real edge. This ain’t him. Instead we have Eddie as the vet-who-talks-to-the-animals, at a support group for stray dogs leading them in chanting “I am Somebody” (actually “I am Somebody’s Best Friend”).
The plot: Archie, the showbiz dancing bear, must lose his virginity and mate in the wild, so that the forest will be saved from clear cutting by the evil lumber company.
Best product placement: Eddie, driving a raccoon and a possum in his fancy convertible, proudly tells them it’s a Mustang. “Any cars named after me?” asks the possum. “Not many cars named after rodents,” answers Eddie.
The two little girls closest to me seem to lose interest about halfway through, asking their mom if they can go play out in the hallway. I’d like to leave too.
11:20 a.m.–Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ($129.5 million grossed in 7 weeks)
The audience grows larger, maybe filling a third of the theater. It’s almost all 20-year-old guys. Maybe a few teens. Many sit by themselves. To better appreciate the star, Angelina Jolie, no doubt.
She does not disappoint, depending on what you’re expecting. Throughout the entire film, she looks like a viper about to strike. She’s the kind of gal who wakes up during a nightmare holding a big knife–always ready for action. With amazingly puffed-up lips and breasts strapped almost above her shoulders in skintight superhero wear, Jolie battles forgettable, uncompelling evil guys.
Plot: Makes almost no sense. All the planets are aligned. A solar eclipse is about to happen. This will activate an ancient triangle that gets its mojo working every 5,000 years and can control time. Half the triangle is hidden in Angkor Wat, the other in some place that looks really cold and seems to be inhabited by indigenous Siberian peoples who own Jeeps. Can our gal Lara stop the bad guys from putting the triangle back together and doing evil things?
Best product placement: In the middle of the action, a UPS truck and driver suddenly, inexplicably appear to deliver a note from Lara Croft’s long dead dad.
Second-best product placement: Jolie’s lips and breasts. Take your pick. And consult the plastic surgeon of your choice.
The boys in the crowd might disagree, but Jolie has to be the most unathletic, unhealthy superhero I’ve ever seen. None of the other characters register at all. The dialogue is terrible. The action is basically her running from one fight to another. Like a character in a video game.
Oh wait–this is a video game.
1:10 p.m.–The Mummy Returns ($201.1 million grossed in 13 weeks)
This audience is more families, out for another sequel on a Saturday afternoon.
From the first shot–of The Rock, professional wrestler playing the Scorpion King of Egypt, yelling out in an accent that’s definitely not Egyptian–you notice that the special effects are really, really cheesy.
About now I notice a pattern in the “action” hits. They’re all quoting Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they’re very pale imitations. The effects are lame, obviously computer-generated. As my friend remarked, “just because you have the technology doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
Another pattern is gratuitous cleavage wherever and whenever. When the Mummy himself makes his return from the dead (or wherever he’s been since the original movie ran), the first thing he does is lower his eyes to chest level to check out his evil babe accomplice. He may be nothing but rags, rotting skin, and bulging eyes, but he’s still a guy. Just like the guys making these films.
Plot: convoluted at best, totally incomprehensible often.
On the plus side, for a movie where lots of people (and legions of demon dogs from hell) die horribly, it’s all very good-natured. Sometimes it’s kinda funny. Brendan Fraser looks just great in desert gear. Though it’s a senseless, cheap-looking yarn that packs absolutely no punch, it’s the best movie we’ve seen yet.
3:55 p.m.–Shrek ($257.9 million grossed in 11 weeks)
By now, we’ve been at the multiplex for almost seven hours. My rear end really hurts and I’m getting kind of punchy. I buy my second box of Whoppers for strength. When I find my seat, this theater is full of families with young kids. The kids love the pre-trailer ad for M&M’s.
Shrek is a step up from the kid’s fare up to now. It starts out like a conventional fairy tale and then turns it around. The stars are a lonely ogre and a fresh-mouthed donkey (voiced by our man Eddie Murphy). It’s actually a buddy movie. The big question is whether the ogre and the princess he must save will fall in love.
This film is full of weird moments. Animated figures are rounding up fairy tale characters in order to exile them. A fire-breathing dragon falls in love with the donkey. And Robin Hood (speaking in a French accent?) and his merry annoying men get a welcomed boot, not from our large ogre hero, but from the often ornery princess. Once again, though, the screenwriters, when in doubt (which is often), resort to fart jokes, bad breath jokes, butt and toilet and urination action, and lots of mildly crude, sexual innuendo.
It makes me feel for parents desperate to find something, anything, to take their kids to at the movies.
At one point Eddie Murphy, the donkey, shouts, “I’m a donkey on the edge!” After nearly eight hours of some of the summer’s biggest “hits,” I’m totally uninspired, tired, my eyes hurt, and I am on the edge. And Pearl Harbor is next.
7:05 p.m.–Pearl Harbor ($194.6 million grossed in 10 weeks)
After we make a quick run to IHOP for some non-theater grub, it’s back for the three-hour WWII blockbuster. The theater is nearly full, this time with adults, many of them older couples.
This is a film that truly lives up to my wildest fears. It’s cynically made, devoid of a single real moment. Right from the start, the characters give speeches in place of dialogue, all in beautifully lit scenes. Every shot reeks of a multi-million dollar budget. Every conversation is a summary of points necessary to advance the narrative. Everything happens fast. And nothing feels like it means anything at all.
The stars, Ben Affleck and Josh Harnett, were recently voted among People Magazine’s Top 50 Bachelors, and they live up to the billing. They look great. In fact, everyone looks great. I never dreamed being in the armed forces could be so glamorous. Plus all those available beautiful, willing nurses to date. In an air corps and nurse squad full of all babes, I was ready to enlist.
The actual attack is done well. It’s great, looks real, and is real exciting. And it happens in the nick of time to get our minds off the real drama, where Kate Beckinsale, as the most comely of nurses, has to decide on which man to love, virtuous Ben or his mildly more fun best friend Josh.
But nothing in this film hasn’t been flagged for us eons beforehand. Nothing takes time to develop. It’s all instantaneous. And director Michael Bay and his “writers” never let reality or history prevent them from presenting another false, potentially tear-jerking moment. Even FDR pulls himself up and stands!
At the end our male models run off into what seems to be another movie (and an even worse one) because Pearl Harbor-the-epic needs a victory. This one features Alec Baldwin, at his absolute worst as Captain Doolittle, he of the famous first raid on Japan. We drop a few bombs on Tokyo. The tragedy we’re expecting happens. And in one of the worst voiceovers I’ve ever heard, Nurse Kate tells us that “the times tried our souls–and through the trials, we overcome.”
I’m ashamed to have paid to see this atrocity. I only hope I can save a single one of you from making the same mistake.
At this point, I’m feeling pretty crazy. There’s a half-hour break before A.I. starts and I take advantage to get a quick look at two more of the hits.
10:10 p.m.–The Fast and the Furious ($137 million grossed in 6 weeks) is about drag racing. All the actors are young, ethnically diverse and totally non-distinctive. All the women have bare midriffs. All the cars are fast. Varoom!
10:25 p.m.–Swordfish ($68.9 million grossed in 8 weeks) was enthusiastically recommended by the teenage attendant cleaning up after Pearl Harbor. The criminals do evil things. John Travolta is insane, at his post-Tarantino parody worst. Halle Berry is bare, though briefly. Now I know why the cleanup boy was smiling.
10:45 p.m.–A.I. ($77.6 million grossed in 5 weeks)
We settle into the back row of a half-full theater of younger couples. I watch a preview for Legally Blonde for the sixth time and wonder why I can’t be seeing that instead. And then, suddenly, something I didn’t suspect happens. A real movie.
The first thing that struck me was that I was watching a skillfully made film with real emotions, good acting, and affecting dialogue. Okay, the first few minutes of narration is silly, but I was watching the narrative unfold with no idea where it was going, the way it’s supposed to work.
The premise actually held my interest. In a world of mounting environmental stress, there are fewer human beings and a growing need for labor–and for love. Robots fulfill the first. The boy robot (played well by Haley Joel Osment, who was so wonderful in The Sixth Sense) is an experiment, grafting emotion–in this case true love–onto a robot boy.
This movie is by no means perfect. It’s a collaboration of sorts, as every human being who reads a newspaper or magazine must know by now, between the deceased Stanley Kubrick, who developed the story, and director Steven Spielberg. Kubrick’s detachment from human warmth is an odd mix with Spielberg’s inherent optimism. Spielberg is always sentimental. Kubrick was not. The various parts of the film don’t really fit. And Spielberg, as always, never stops when he’s ahead, adding a whole concluding sequence that isn’t needed at all.
But without giving things away, the shot of the little boy robot, the Blue Angel, and the Ferris wheel–the scene that should have ended the film–is profoundly beautiful. After an entire day of films that didn’t make me think at all, I’m still thinking about it.Sixteen hours of films and not much to like. But are movies really worse today? My friend kept pointing out that most movies have always been terrible; we just get to see the best of the lot in revival theaters and on cable TV. And if you avoid the blockbusters, there’s plenty of interesting films to see this summer, like Memento, Sexy Beast, Startup.Com, Lumumba, and others. They’re just not at the multiplex in Pflugerville.
As I left the theater, totally exhausted and walking back to my car on wobbly legs, I kept thinking about the last line of A.I. David, the robot boy, is lying next to his mom and the voiceover says that he “closed his eyes and went to the place where dreams are born.” And I thought about the banal end of Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut. And how much more appropriate this line was to end the career of the man who gave us Doctor Strangelove, Lolita, Paths of Glory, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. For that alone, on this lost Saturday, I gave thanks.
Paul Stekler teaches at the University of Texas where he’s working on his own summer blockbuster film about the annual watermelon seed spitting contest in Luling, Texas.