Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Movies as 2-Hour Cartoons?

Have you noticed lately that movies have become more and more like cartoons?

I watched the lamentable "Torque" on cable a few days ago and absolutely laughed at the:

A. Really terrible acting
B. Cookie-cutter storyline
C. The absolutely unbelievable and gratuitous "special effects"

Now, before you start thinking I am some old geezer praising the days of the silent movie, let me assure you I am not. I have enjoyed recent special effects-laden movies like Spiderman (1 and 2) and X-Men (1 and 2). Certainly, the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be remembered as one of the very best ever. But, I do see a trend in the total absurdity of some of the latest movies. It seems to me that special effects have become the reason for the movie - not something to enhance the movie itself.

A movie, at least in my thinking, is story telling. A movie should show us comedy to laugh at, human emotions to empathize with, a historically recreated life or event, etc. A movie should be about something. A movie should give us something to think; amovie should make us feel something. What I see in "Torque" (and the hundreds of other movies like it) is, apparently a shift in what Hollywood seems to think we want: i.e. special effects for the sake of special effects. In other words: the story be damned, let's make a cartoon. Apparently, producers now believe that if the special effects have enough of what I call the "WOW Factor," then audiences won't care if the acting and the script are meaningless.

For those who see a lot of movies, let me contrast a few. "Pitch Black," Vin Diesel's star vehicle from a few years back, was a decent movie. Certainly, it wasn't "War of the Worlds" but it had actors acting and a story that you could actually follow. There was some conflict in the characters and their interactions and some special effects that aided in telling the story. Flash forward now the sequel of Pitch Black, "The Chronicles of Riddick." Here, we have the complete reversal. A cartoon without a story. A big budget (probably close to $100 million) that allows Vin Diesel to growl and flex and kill lots of bad people. The actors, including the "star" (and, Lord Knows, I use that term very loosely here!) are secondary to the special effects department generating a disjointed smorgasbord with a high "WOW Factor" of spaceships, explosions and space scenery.

"Torque" (which is just a poorly scripted knock off of "Fast and Furious," "2 Fast, 2 Furious," "Drumline," "You've Been Served," etc. etc. ad infinitum) is even worse that "Chronicles." It is bad special effects and no story. There are countless other examples. Contrast that with the "Bourne Supremacy," another sequel. Special effects we sprinkled throughout the movie but, wonder-of-wonders, there was also a story. Dare I even say it? There were also actors and acting. The special effects were part of the story and added in the presentation of that story. They were not the soul reason for the movie to exist. The "Bourne Supremacy" was a good, if not great, movie.

"The Chronicles of Riddick," which cost more than twice as much to produce as "Bourne Supremacy," was a bad movie. "Torque" probably also cost more than "Bourne" to produce (and it certainly was not on the acting talent) and was a really, really bad movie. Other recent movies which turned out to be, for the most part, cartoons include "Catwoman," and Walt Disney Company's "Hidalgo" and "The Alamo." At least "The Day After Tommorrow" - which has as much special effects as one could cram into a movie - had something of a story (a father's redemption and importance of family) and something to think about (what global warming might or might not do). If you hear someone describe a movie with "You won't believe the special effects!" as their first sentence, then you can usually forget anything resembling a script or acting.

I watched another movie recently that was a refreshing reminder that movies that actually have actors acting and a story to be told still exist. That movie was "White Oleander" and has Michelle Pfieffer, Robin Wright and Renee Zellwegger and Allison Lohman. There were no special effects, if you exclude make up (tattoos and the like). The budget was probably almost entirely actor's salaries. And the acting was very good. The story was a meaningful one and there was a point made. It was truly a breath of fresh air in an otherwise cartoonish film industry.

Fortunately, the audiences are starting to speak out in the form of empty seats. The "blockbusters" listed above ("Catwoman," "Hidalgo," "The Alamo," "Chronicles of Riddick") all lost money. According to a recent (12/21/2004) AP article, "with nearly two weeks to go before the end of 2004, domestic box-office receipts appeared likely to top last year's total of $9.27 billion, nearing $9.4 billion, according to Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the figures." But the increase in box office receipts are attributed to a rise in ticket prices, up 3.85 percent to an average of $6.25; attendance fell by 2.25 percent this year after dropping 3.8 percent in 2003.
So, the number of "butts in the seats" are declining. Just like all entertainment industries (see baseball, football, basketball, etc.), to make up for falling attendance the Hollywood brain trust decides to increase prices. But how long can rising ticket prices support an industry that continues to produce inferior products? Can a $10.50 movie ticket justify the experience of seeing what is, essentially, a cartoon? No story, no acting, just lots of explosions, body parts and a loud soundtrack. I am not so sure it can.

Perhaps, among the teenage date crowd where a movie is primarily used to fill in an appropriately decent interval of time before the sex starts, the price will be paid and not given a second thought. But, among people who actually expect to be challenged and entertained by a movie, that seems like an awfully high price with little or no return. You can expect to put out an inferior product and sucker consumers in with fancy ads and "start power" but, eventually, you will have to deliver something of quality. And Hollywood hasn't done that with very much consistency for some years.

On second thought, maybe Hollywood should stick to cartoons with a story. "Shrek," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles" didn't do too bad at all, did they? But Hollywood should always remember, they did have a story. A good story will trump exploding buildings and mahem every time.

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