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The Death of Cinema
I first got the idea for this essay from a video on Cinemassacre.com, itself a website that celebrates the entertainment of movies, not just the box office and celebrities. This particular video was a montage of scenes from the Indiana Jones series of films, particularly the scenes that were either far-fetched or just didn’t fit. At the end, the host, James Rolfe, ended the clips with an analysis of modern cinema.
“…audiences [today] are far more critical, have less imagination, and are far less willing to suspend disbelief. And that is the death of cinema."
Mainly, he was reflecting on the deeply divided reception of the latest Indiana Jones adventure, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. If you haven’t seen it, be sure to watch it with fresh eyes and draw your own conclusion. Then just glance at any film website and you’ll find eternally bitter fans that believe the movie ruined the entire franchise. And if you’re feeling courageous, find an Indiana Jones fan website and look around. I’ve encountered fans that refuse to believe the movie happened. Why? I’ve heard complaints about every scene in it, but they all revolve around believability.
“There’s no way he could’ve survived a nuclear blast in a fridge!” “Aliens don’t fit in the Indiana Jones series!” The argument rolls on. But the fact of the matter is that the movie fits just fine with the first trilogy. The intrepid archaeologist has walked across an invisible bridge, fallen out of a plane in a rubber raft for a few hundred feet, and survived avenging angels that literally melted anyone that dared look into the Ark of the Covenant. And because they changed from life-saving, or world-altering religious relics to aliens, now it’s far-fetched?
If you watch the entire series back to back, there’s no apparent change in tone or fiction. It’s all outlandish, exciting adventure that’s based on equally outlandish and exciting movie serials. The working title of Crystal Skull was “Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.” That’s obviously based on the martian serials from the 1950’s, when the film was set. It’s a natural progression. The movies haven’t changed that much, only evolved enough to keep the series fresh. So what has changed?
The movie-goers. How many trailers or ads have you seen for high-flying adventure movies lately? How about overblown action flicks? You can count those both on one hand. Now how many commercials for the latest “emotionally-engaging” drama(s)? I’m sick and tired of seeing so many of them. Life has enough drama and emotion in it already, so why would this trend ramp up these days?
You could make the case for Oscar-bait, intentionally making a tear-jerker or “tense thriller” just to give the film-maker or actors awards. But pretty much across the board, in every genre, drama has been seeping into the theaters and kicking out fantasy.
Look at the Batman series. The first came out in 1989 (not counting the Adam West film some twenty-three years before). Michael Keaton portrayed Batman as a dark, intimidating hero, misunderstood by his fellow citizens. His Bruce Wayne was the outgoing, yet haunted, millionaire that the comics always showed him as. Jack Nicholson’s Joker had a semi-realistic backstory; on a double-crossed heist in a chemical plant, he falls into a vat of ooze and becomes the legendary villain. He’s an insane, brilliant, and frightening character. But most importantly, he’s actually funny, darkly so, but he cracks jokes (and a dead body results soon after) as he tries to take over Gotham. This dark, yet fantastical view of the Batman continued in the 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. Keaton played Wayne again, and Gotham was still an architectural mash-up of crime and decay. It looked like a big city, yet was far larger than anything in existence. Batman Forever balanced the darkness with the campiness, to a surprisingly entertaining result. Val Kilmer’s Batman/Wayne was still close, although he played down the “rich playboy” image that Keaton exuded in front of others. The film-makers even admitted that they took inspiration from the 1960’s Adam West series. Then came Batman and Robin. It replaces all the darkness with campiness to one of the harshest receptions of any comic book movie ever made. But if you watch it, knowing that it’s purely for entertainment, it’s still a fun movie. Critics and fans were outraged, and remain to this day hateful of the movie. Obviously, times had begun to change.
Batman Begins, 2005. Christian Bale steps into the suit. As an origin story, it works beautifully. It’s a visually and emotionally haunting beginning for young Bruce Wayne. But there’s that word again: “emotion.” Keaton kept it there in force, but he was still the hero. In this new Batman, he’s constantly fighting over whether he’s a hero or a vigilante. The Dark Knight was released and then it replaced all the light moments (of the few that were there) with darkness (literally), hence the name. I was one of the few of my friends and movie-goers that wasn’t happy with it. It was a strong movie, to be sure, and Bale is fantastic, along with Eckhart, but the movie is unrelenting in its shocking moments. It just keeps getting more depressing. Sure, the viewer is on the edge of the seat, but the realization set into at least me that no one has a happy ending in this movie. Not at all. Not even a scrap of hope for a lighter sequel is left behind. This is primarily thanks to (the script, obviously) but Heath Ledger’s Joker. I’m going to take flak for this, obviously, but to me he just wasn’t the Joker. He was insane; that part he had down. But he never seemed to know quite what he was doing and he wasn’t funny. The pencil trick was disturbingly clever, but you’d never laugh at any line in this movie. And that’s completely against the Joker. The Joker in the comics is just as crazy, but he makes some sort of wise-crack before the mayhem. The Batman series went from a hero-driven action movie to a two-and-a-half hour dramatic analysis of the humanity in all of us.
So much for a pop-corn, summer blockbuster. It just didn’t feel like Batman anymore. There was too much darkness. It works in the more recent comics and even the cartoon, but it’s far too oppressive on the big screen. A similar series follows the guidelines.
James Bond was (arguably) first played by Sean Connery. He made the role his own, adding fun and humor to the book character, but keeping the brash, daring skill of a superspy. Roger Moore put in his own brand of goofiness and rode it until it was bordering outrageousness. Timothy Dalton played a darker, but still gadget-driven and action-packed James Bond. Pierce Brosnan seemed to take a happy medium between Connery’s charm and Dalton’s action. But like all movie series of late, it was time for a re-boot.
Daniel Craig is a fantastic actor. Any movie with him in it is instantly more watchable because of it. But his James Bond dispenses almost all of the charm. He’s still suave, but he just shoots and outruns explosions. The entire movie, he’s reserved and armed only with a gun and his wits. There’s not an exploding ball-point pen anywhere to be seen. They included the James Bond sacrificial lamb, but unlike the Bonds before him, instead of witnessing the death and vowing revenge, Craig seems to just get really, really upset. It’s a deep scene in a series that shouldn’t be deep. Even in the novels, James Bond was never sentimental, just cold. Quantum of Solace was even worse. The action was too twitchy to watch without hurting your eyes and the plot is completely incomprehensible. Now Bond was out for revenge, but he’s stuck aiming a gun at people intensely through the whole movie. It’s not fun, it’s all serious, played not even for a chuckle.
Both the Batman and James Bond series saw remarkable improvements in box office and critical acclaim through the dark reinventions. In these movies, you don’t have to suspend disbelief because it all could happen. There’s a chance that everything unfolding onscreen could be occurring somewhere in the world, at least to the movie-goer. And neither the Dark Knight nor either of the new Bond films really leaves the viewer with a good feeling. You won’t see folks whistling Dixie as they leave these theaters. And you won’t see kids saying they want to dress up like the Batman from the Dark Knight, not unless they haven’t seen the movie.
“Although it carries a certain level of slickness to it, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull shows that although the times have changed - both in the film and for the viewing audience - Indiana Jones hasn't. And that's a problem,” writes Ryan Cracknell of Movie-Views.com. It’s arguably a problem with both audience and movie.
In these days of speeding technological advances and no time for nostalgia, light, fun, entertaining films just have no place anymore. It’s sad to a viewer like myself, who watched movies for the escapist adventures. Screen nearly any movie from the 1980’s today in that genre, like Beverly Hills Cop or Commando, and outside of the returning fans, business would be pretty thin. The reviews would no doubt bash the “shallow plot and lack of emotional depth.” I put quotes around those because I’ve read them thousands of times from reviews of the modern equivalents.
Rush Hour comes to mind. One of the more recent buddy cop series (and judging by the progressing reception, maybe the last), it harkens back to Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop. Admittedly, the quality of the movies, as in relation to each other, is questionable, with the best one being the original (by Rotten Tomatoes rating), and descending for the other two. But they maintained the laughs and the fast-paced action throughout. Yet the last in the series was widely reviled by almost all the critics, and didn’t make all that much at the box office, meaning the viewers didn’t exactly love it either.
So what’s going on? We’re forgetting how to let go. We’ve lost our imaginations. Now there has to be realism or it just doesn’t seem to entertain. There needs to be more than just chases and wisecracks. Indiana Jones isn’t fast enough or characterized enough for society, at least not today’s. The Expendables, a movie dedicated exclusively to the return of 80’s action stars in an adrenaline-soaked shoot-em-up, is one of the proud few that still stick to the escapism, the fun, and the good time.
Against Journey’s famous song, we’ve stopped believing. We’ve turned into one genre people; fantasy should be swords and dragons, action should be guns and chases. Mixing them, as the Indiana Jones series has perfectly done through four films, isn’t real enough anymore.
Unfortunately, as more and more remakes replace original concepts, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be getting back into the escapist business anytime soon. It’s gotten too serious, too sad, too depressing an industry.
If the fun doesn’t come back to theaters, neither will I.
Jefferson City, Missouri
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