Remember When Movies Used to Accidentally Suck?

Posted on May 27, 2011 by

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By Tristan A. Smith

About every few months or so, I have a conversation with a friend about the modern state of movies. American movies.  My knowledge of foreign movies consists of the first two films of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series and that one time I went to France and saw a poster of Dude, Where’s My Car? I don’t know where your voiture is, Ashton Kutcher. I simply don’t know. What I do know, what everyone my age and older seems to know, is that movies nowadays suck. It seems to be a fairly recent revelation for those in my age group, but I would say this trend of bad movies has been happening for a while now. (In case you’re wondering if things get better, the slate of upcoming movies this year includes Scream 4, The Smurfs, and a movie called Shark Knight 3D.)

To be clear, bad movies probably came into existence moments after the first Kinetoscope was invented. But bad movies were mostly the results of people who intended to make good movies. It went on like this for a time. Feature films were massively expensive, so you had to put your best foot forward in hopes that an audience would allow you to recoup the costs. Good films were typically rewarded with money and awards. Bad films were, on average, not. And then 2001 came. Not the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the year. 2001 A.D. marked the last time that movies as a whole strove to be good.

The lack of effort in Hollywood can be traced back to one watershed moment— the July 18, 2001 release of Jurassic Park III. Now, I am the first to admit that it takes a lot to make a good movie. You need the right cast, good writers, and a good director for starters. And even then there are no guarantees. You know how I know there are no guarantees? I saw Jurassic Park III. Let’s start with the cast. Sam Neill, William H. Macy, and Téa Leoni were the stars. Sam Neill had starred in the original Jurassic Park which made nearly a billion dollars worldwide. His presence was seen as a return to form for the franchise. So far so good. William H. Macy was an Academy Award-nominated actor who managed to steal scenes in just about every film he was in up to that point. He had action movie experience in the form of Air Force One and his career was very much on the way up. Téa Leoni was hot once. Okay, maybe that’s a little mean. She had big movie experience from being in Bad Boys and she had turned in a good performance in The Family Man, right before doing Jurassic Park III. So, cast wise, this movie had a lot going for it. Certainly nothing that indicated it would be terrible.

Let’s move on to the writers. Of the three writers, two of them would go onto win Academy Awards for screenwriting. Jurassic Park III was the third writer’s first film. I say that to illustrate that no one knew he would later write Eragon. Screenwriting wise, two out of three ain’t bad. Now we move on to directing. Here’s where it gets tricky. Steven Spielberg had directed the first two films in the Jurassic Park franchise. For the third film, an up and coming director, Joe Johnston, was chosen. While not always directing the best films in a given year, Johnston mostly seemed to create films that were as good, visually, as the times allowed. His previous films included Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, and October Sky. Johnston’s career is hard to peg. He can make a fairly well-regarded film like October Sky and then go on to do The Wolfman. He is next directing the new Captain America film and who knows how that’ll turn out. Still though, Jurassic Park III did try to be good. And it had the Spielberg stamp of approval in the form of him producing it. The future looked bright.

And then it came out. Worldwide, the film made $368 million. Jurassic Park II had made nearly twice that. The first one, almost three times more. Ordinarily, this would seem would like a lesson that teaches Hollywood to go for it in terms of quality filmmaking. Instead, the lesson became trying hard leads to failure. So, why try? What if you gave up effort? Maybe you could still make money. It sounds like the plot to The Producers except the studio execs were expecting success. 2002 was the year that hypothesis was put to the test. And reading the list of the most popular films that year hurts. Signs, Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones, XXX, and Scooby-Doo are all on the list of the 20 highest grossing films that year. Signs, the alien invasion movie. The movie where aliens create crop circles but don’t stick around long enough to find out that the liquid used to make those crops grow kills them. Signs, the seventh highest grossing movie that year. Star Wars II was fourth, XXX was 14th, and Scooby-Doo was 15th.  From then on, the story doesn’t get any better. 2003 brought Terminator 3, the last two Matrix sequels, and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. 2004: Meet The Fockers and Van Helsing.

What does this mean? So, bad movies came out. Movies so bad, it’s conceivably intentional. Films made with barely any effort. It’s gotten to a point where it seems that movies are only made based on premise. Nothing else. There is a rumor that the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby was sold with a four word pitch: Will Ferrell, NASCAR comedy. Seriously, a film that cost $73 million to make took only the flimsiest of premises.  Nowadays, Will Ferrell comma almost anything isn’t enough to get a film made. M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director of Signs needs to avoid showing his name in trailers because audiences literally laugh at his serious film premises. What if the devil rides an elevator with four strangers? What if no one cares?

Well, if no one cares, maybe things change for the better. Every year, complaints are made about how theater attendance goes down. Producers attribute this to the inconvenience of going to the theater and use it to advocate the release of new films on-demand as well as in theaters. Just like with Jurassic Park III, execs aren’t quite getting the message right. The reason Jurassic Park III failed isn’t because the people who made it tried too hard. It failed because sometimes movies fail. William H. Macy isn’t an action star. Sam Neill is a good actor who never really found that career-defining role. And Téa Leoni, who yes, was young and hot in a film like Bad Boys, convincingly played the fully-clothed mom of a 14-year-old. Also, a first time screenwriter may not have been the perfect choice to co-write the third film in a franchise. And finally, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids turned out not to be a barometer of whether someone could succeed Spielberg as a director.

Well, how do we get people to care about movies, again? While it pains me to admit it, the studio executives are half right. An Entertainment Weekly article about Video-on-Demand service aptly states that people don’t want to spend money on babysitters, parking, snacks, and movie tickets when they can stay at home and wait a few months for the film to come to them. But that’s only part of it. The other part is that people don’t want to spend money on babysitters, parking, snacks, and movie tickets if it’s an exercise in futility. So, let’s make movies fruitful again. How about original concepts and exciting premises that become exciting films? And, if not that, let’s at least try to make the best damn Smurfs movie anyone’s ever seen.

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