It occurred to me the other day that we are living in the midst of one of the worst summers of movies, certainly of my lifetime, possibly in recent human history. I was on a family vacation a few weeks ago in Rockport MA when my family was looking to go to the movies, only to find that there was not one decent film out that even the most liberal spender in the group could justify paying 10 bucks for. It was absurd!
I take it that most are familiar with the seasonal nature of films. If not, the “prestige” films that will likely win awards are released in the fall and early winter, the horrible movies that no one would ever want to see are released in January and February, by the spring it gets a little bit better and then the summer is the time to unload the big-budget, action heavy, usually super-hero themed movies. It’s also a favorite time for comedies. Now, I generally prefer awards season to the summer, but it’s just easier to get out in the summer.
This summer I’ve seen three films:
1) 22 Jump Street: A film that literally lives up to one of my favorite Onion articles of all time: Movie Praised for Not Being Bad As It Could Have Been. A terribly lazy, sloppy film that is a carbon copy of 21 Jump Street, itself a remake of an 80’s television show. Now, I know many people were enamored with the film’s self-awareness of how similar the sequel was to its predecessor. But does that really matter?
2) Edge of Tomorrow: Literally takes the plot of Groundhog day, only instead of a light comedy it’s a science fiction film. Decent movie, Tom Cruise is somewhat playing against type, but terrible ending and the repetitiveness of certain scenes got a bit trying towards the end. Stands out for being one of the few “original” films out this summer, even though it’s based on a comic book, at least it’s not a remake!
3) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A bunch of talking apes continue their quest to take over the world. Remake of the old Charlton Heston films, and (I think) a “reboot” of the franchise after the Mark Wahlberg disaster that came out in 1999. It’s an interesting film, no doubt, but the results of everything are so predetermined it’s hard to care. I mean, the movies not called “Rise of the Planet of the Humans” so I think we can rest assured the monkeys win.
Of the other summer movies, the new X-Men film looked alright, but this is, what, the 8th X-Men film in the last 15 years? It’s getting hard to care about these characters. Godzilla I almost saw just because of Bryan Cranston, but never got around to it. From what I’ve heard, it was 2 hours of hushed conversations followed by 15 minutes of action. And again, a remake of Godzilla seems a little besides the point 50 years after the original.
Right now, the only movie that looks like it could even remotely approach greatness is Richard Linklater’s decades spanning Boyhood. The film follows a kid for about 12 years, from childhood to young adult, and is currently getting glowing reviews. But it’s an independent film from a director who is way outside the mainstream of the American zeitgeist, so I doubt it will get much attention.
Put it this way; if one of the most anticipated films of the summer stars Andy from Parks and Recreation leading a crew of animals on some kind of intergalatic mission, well, you know it’s been a long summer.
Let me segue to my next point; television is so much more relevant to the average American right now. To me, there’s one reason for this sea-change; Netflix. Ok, well maybe not just Netflix, but video-streaming services have made the small screen a superior force to film.
Take a look at the way people reacted to Orange is the New Black, a Netflix original series that dumped 13 stellar episodes on the public in May. People couldn’t get enough of it! Twitter, Instagram, Facebook (which I know is passe at this point, but still) and probably Myspace too were abuzz about it. People used to talk about “water cooler shows” and while I doubt there are many people really gathering around the water cooler to talk about how cold-hearted Piper has become, it definitely had the virtual water cooler going crazy.
Or how bout the finale of Breaking Bad? I made the bold decision to wait till the series aired on Netflix so I could binge-watch the entire series, but as a result my forays onto Twitter were like walking through a minefield of spoilers.
Just over the last year, from May 2013 to now, there have been at least 5 television shows that have generated a fasinating mix of critical acclaim and fan adoration. Orange is The New Black, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development*, and True Detective. Not far behind are shows like Fargo, Mad Men, Hannibal, The Walking Dead, BoardWalk Empire. When was the last time a movie generated anything near the excitement that these shows drum up on a weekly basis?**
What is my point? Television has never been better, film has never been worse. That logically leads to the question of why is film so bad to begin with, probably beyond the scope of this blog post, but I think Stephen Soderbergh’s critique from about a year ago holds most of the answers: Link. In general, the big budget movies are more and more drawing from foreign markets and as a result they need to make the plots less complex and more universal so people in China can understand what is going on. That results in movies like Transformers 4 or Pacific Rim (which I guess wasn’t even that bad).
I think a lot of the same arguments about why football has trouble attracting fans to the games could be applied to the movie industry as well. 10-15 years ago, the average television looked like shit. Going to the movies guaranteed you that, even if the plot of your movie was asinine, the thing would at least look pretty. That’s disappeared with the advent of HD televisions, Blu-Ray and all the rest. It certainly doesn’t help that theatres have been jacking up the prices, a (somewhat) reasonable reaction to the fact that no one’s showing up, but it still makes going to the movies a risk for people without a ton of money to spend. This further forces filmmaker’s down the rabbit hole of making familiar products with the same actors and visual styles, as it’s easier to convince a 24 year old without a ton of money to go see a sequel, or yet another Michael Bay movie, than it is to convince them to see some film no one’s ever heard of with an unknown cast.
So, can film recover? I think so, but in my opinion it will take a return to the auteur driven days of the 1970’s. Studios appear to have wrested control from the directors, outside of a few guys (Scorcese, Wes Anderson, etc.) which means that the movies are not only bad, but they’re not even good-bad. By that I mean, I’d rather see an ambitious failure (like a Cloud Atlas, for example) than Transformers 7: Return of the Revenge of the Fallen.
Ultimately, it comes down to an analogy that I’ve been making for years, though I’m sure other, smarter people have said the same thing: movies are like short stories, television is like a novel. And who the hell reads short stories anymore?
*Season 4 was not really critically acclaimed.
**Probably last year’s Avengers.