Friday, July 19, 2013
Dear Hollywood: Bring the Joy and Fun Back to Summer Movie Season
I have been an avid movie-goer for pretty much my entire life. Two weeks ago, when my wife had to work and my in-laws had a day with the kids, I chose to go see a documentary about the cult rock band Big Star at the Independent Film Center. There's no where else I would have rather been on a hot summer afternoon with some time to kill. I grew up going to movies all the time, mostly because it was one of the few legal activities for teenagers available in my sleepy rural hometown. Most of the time I just went to theater and saw whatever struck my fancy, which is how I ended up viewing fare such as Karate Kid III, Crocodile Dundee II, Far and Away, Johnny Be Good, and any number of entries in the Police Academy saga.
Of course, I also saw some great summer movies, and I still have fond memories not just of the movies themselves, but of the time I spent in the theater with friends, having a shared experience enjoying a great movie. Films like Ghostbusters, Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future, and Goonies were well-made, funny, and yes, joyous things to behold. Nothing in my movie-going life will probably ever top seeing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on the evening of the last day of school in the seventh grade. I remember leaving the theater with a friend, breathing the warm early summer air and feeling nothing but hope and possibility.
That feeling has become much more elusive at the summer multiplex, and I don't think it's just because I'm older now. Up until very recently, I would take in plenty of summer flicks. My wife and I share this passion, and two summers ago during a canoeing and camping trip on the Niobrara River, we left the campsite for a night to go to the local town to see a movie. During the last two summers taking care of two infants has meant seeing many fewer summer movies, but my wife and I just don't seem to mind now. The summer movies that we are being offered just don't appeal to us; we go out of our way and beg for grandparent day care to see arty stuff like Before Midnight, not World War Z.
A lot of this is a matter of quality, since critics I trust haven't really been excited by much either. However, I think it goes beyond quality. The joy and fun that made movies like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future so enjoyable just aren't there anymore. I blame a lot of this on the current Hollywood adaptations of comic book superheroes, who, by their very nature, are difficult to relate to as human beings. They also tend to be over-serious and not fun, at least in terms of how Hollywood portrays them. I would expect this from Batman, of course, but the new Superman was (according to my sources) mirthless and even a shade vicious. A movie like Back to the Future gets you to root for the characters, or at least to be amused by the wild-eyed zaniness of Doc Brown and the oddball nerdiness of George McFly. The original Sam Raimi Spiderman had some of these qualities, but Peter Parker still acted like an annoying emo teenager.
In the last five summers or so I can only think of a small number of summer movies that gave me a glimpse of that old joy. One was WALL-E, which is less a children's flick than a brilliant social critique. Another Pixar flick, Toy Story 3, absolutely ripped my heart out. Apart from Pixar, I really loved Super 8, much more so than director JJ Abrams' more financially successful reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Super 8 betrayed a great deal of love and heart; Abrams has famously said that he had little love of Star Trek, and it shows. Super 8, however, was a throwback to the summer fare of yore, when the audience could get behind regular people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, rather than brooding crime fighters with super powers/super gadgets. Best of all, it was original. So much these days is warmed over or rehashed, and just too damn familiar. Franchises like Spider Man have had two incarnations since 2000, and Hollywood still shamelessly mines old material like Get Smart and even freaking board games, a la Battleship. Since 1989, there have been seven Batman movies. I like Batman as much as the next person, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The studios think there are audiences in familiarity, but the wells are dangerously close to being sucked dry.
So Hollywood execs, pay heed and listen to me. Bring back humor to your blockbusters, real humor, not Jar Jar Binks forced humor. Take a cue instead from the hilarious interplay of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in The Last Crusade. Cast comedic actors (like Bill Murray and Christopher Lloyd back in the day) in comedic roles, not just hunks of man meat like Channing Tatum. Start greenlighting more original ideas instead of franchises; the love of the film-makers will be on the screen, and if the film is good, the audiences will definitely respond. Go back to having real people in blockbusters. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, for example, works so well because we can empathize with Richard Dreyfus' character. You might choose not to listen to me, but do so at your own peril. Television has finally become a medium for mature, artistic expression. You still have the ability to one-up television by making great spectacles, but if those spectacles keep getting more distant from something real, true, and joyous and become rote CGI-fests, you will find fewer and fewer people willing to trek to the multiplex. You've been warned.